Archive for The Graduate

To Look for America

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by dcairns


The story is told that, when filming the last scene of THE GRADUATE, the late Mike Nichols turned the camera on his actors, having briefly set the scene for them, started rolling, said “Action!” and then waited… and waited… and refused to say “Cut!”

His thinking was this: Ben and Elaine (Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross) have fled the church where Elaine was marrying some other guy, and run off together, alienating their respective families (his will probably come to terms with it, though they’ll be baffled; hers are unlikely to adjust). A romantic comedy happy ending has been achieved, but now what? Their lives are ahead of them, an onrushing highway of uncertainty. Nichols said to an interviewer, “It’s entirely possible that in another mile or so she’ll turn to him and say, @But I’ve got nothing to wear.'”

As screenwriter Buck Henry put it, Nichols kept the camera going, having given the actors NOTHING TO PLAY, in order to capture this feeling of uncertainty that creeps up on them. Film is running through the camera and Dustin and Katherine are wondering what the hell is going on. Let’s break it down.


We did it! The happy ending. The initial rush of excitement running for the bus fades into a happy afterglow, the satisfaction of an immediate problem truly solved.


The happiness fades. Being professionals, our stars don’t break the scene, they continue sitting there, but they have been given no direction as to what happens now so they’re just waiting for “Cut!” which they expect will be said in about a second from now. Yes. Any second… now? Now?


Hmm. Apparently the director isn’t finished with us yet. Katherine smiles again, trying to get back into the mood of the events of a moment earlier. Dustin is beginning to think that something is very, very wrong.


Katherine decides to just wait it out. Dustin tries smiling, either because apparently the scene isn’t over yet and the happy ending is going to take longer than he expected, or because he’s figured out that he’s the butt of a joke of some kind and should take it in good spirit. But WTF?


Total introspection descends upon our leads. They feel like a pair of amoebas under a microscope. They have played the scene. They have smiled. They have not smiled. What else can they do? They’re only human. They withdraw inside their heads, close their eyes and pull up the drawbridges.


A dim hope: Katherine wonders what Dustin is doing. Maybe he has a brilliant method actor type plan to get them out of this thing alive. She looks over to see what solutions are offered by the Hoffman face. But Dustin is staring vacantly into the middle distance (somewhere near the end of his nose). There are no answers here.


The most heart-rending moment. Katherine turns a micro-degree away so she is now staring past Dustin, not at the scenery going by outside the bus, but at NOTHING. This is pretty much like the nightmares actors have where they’re on stage and have forgotten their lines, or their clothes, or both. What is the scene? What am I supposed to DO? I can’t just sit here and be ME.


Utterly defeated, pinned like butterflies under the pitiless gaze of the glass eye, Katherine Ross and Dustin Hoffman face front, staring not into the eye of the Medusa (“Don’t look at the camera!”) but BEYOND, at the future. Their eyeline pierces the upcoming end credits and points to whatever will happen next, which is unknowable (although Buck Henry makes an ironic mock-pitch of THE GRADUATE: PART II in Robert Altman’s THE PLAYER).

I once saw Sir Ben Kingsley talk about his upcoming plans to direct, plans which alas have come to naught, at least so far. In preparation, he was reading Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting In Time, which is hardly a how-to guide, but it’s certainly not a bad thing to be reading. He pronounced his approval of the book, apart from one scene where old Andrei described filming an actress waiting (I think this was in MIRROR). To get the desired effect, Tark didn’t tell his actress whether the person she was waiting for was actually going to turn up in shot. Thus he was able to photograph the actual doubt in her face.

To Sir Ben, this was an outrageous abuse of an actor. While clearly far worse things have been done to actors in the name of authenticity, I think he may have a point. Letting your actors act is a sign of your trust in them.  Still, the funny thing about the above scene, which is certainly effective, is how the uncertainty of the actors works perfectly in character, as the audience projects onto those faces the emotions they assume the characters must be having.

“It’s all about projection,” as Spalding Gray put it.

A Blank Look

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2011 by dcairns

The freeway, shimmering like a dewy cobweb strand…

Ran John Boorman’s POINT BLANK for students this week. Apart from the use of Alcatraz, it also has THIS in common with Richard Lester’s PETULIA —


PETULIA — the disembodied bunch of flowers ascends diagonally, like Sharon Acker’s head in the Boorman film.

It’s conceivable that Lester saw POINT BLANK, which came out in ’67, around the time he was shooting his movie. There’s an amusing story about Lester bumping into Mike Nichols, who was shooting THE GRADUATE. The chatted briefly about their respective projects, and each left in a state of paranoid anxiety — “Oh no, we’re making the exact same movie!

False alarm.

Sharon Acker’s really good in this scene — a masterstroke by Boorman to cut half the dialogue so that she simply recites her side of the “interrogation” — Marvin, all post-coitally spent after firing all his bullets into the mattress (ahem) simply slumps.

Boorman rocks the Antonioni thing, colour-co-ordinating everything to within an inch of its life — see also Mike Hodges’ THE TERMINAL MAN, which repaints LA so that everything except the grass is black and white and gray and silver. The long scene in Sharon Acker’s apartment is starved of Technicolor to the point where a shot of smashed beauty products in a bathtub carries a visceral shock.

Bath gunk colours are picked up later by globular sixties club lighting…

And that’s Boorman’s genius here — every scene has it’s own strong visual and aural ideas, and they’re butted up against one another for max contrast and effect. It’s fun to see how Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson’s costume changes cue the interior design choices. Lee changes into a brown jacket, and suddenly we notice the brown curtains ~

And the bed he’s looking at suddenly has a brown sheet. And when he revisits Alcatraz, it’s brown too — it wasn’t when we first saw it, at the beginning of the film.

Just ridiculously beautiful.

James Sikking, as a pipe-smoking hitman, describes Marvin as “a brutal” — an adjective turned into a noun, and a word that returns in Boorman’s ZARDOZ, where Connery leads a tribe of brutals. That made me smile.

One of Boorman’s strengths/weaknesses is his lack of humour, the way he doesn’t think for a moment we’ll laugh — leading to Linda Blair doing Lullaby of Broadway and Sean Connery in a nappy and Helen Mirren in figure-hugging tit armour… but here, it all works: POINT BLANK is either a cold-blooded existential/Jungian revenge drama or a deadpan jet-black comedy. Or both. No contradiction is apparent.

Boorman, in that glossy Michel Ciment book, is very keen on the Incident at Owl Creek Bridge idea — each of his movies, it seems, could merely be fleeting by in the mind of a dying protagonist. In POINT BLANK that really does work, and is heavily hinted at in the opening scene. “A dream?” ponders Marvin, in VO, a bullet in his belly. The film’s convenient elision of how he escapes certain death and what he’s been doing before his return in a silvery suit adds weight to the fantasy hypothesis. Note also how the dialogue in any scene from which Marvin is absent has a stilted, B-picture quality, as if it’s the best he can come up with for the stuff he has to imagine happening when he’s not there.

Somebody pointed out the delicious, mysterious connection with Curtiz’s THE WALKING DEAD, in which gangster Boris Karloff returns from the grave to seek revenge, and those he’s after all get themselves killed without him laying a finger on them. He seems to be an embodiment of guilt, an abstract Nemesis. And Marvin’s character, “Parker” in the Westlake/Stark novel, is here called Walker.

(Westlake once said that if he’d know he was going to write so many books about Parker, he’d have called him something else, to avoid having to find alternative ways of saying “Parker parked the car.” Boorman’s Walker differs most markedly in that he’s very much a one-shot character. Walker will NOT return in POINT BLANK II.)

Boorman’s writers are an interesting gang — besides the source novel, he’s got the writer’s of WHERE’S JACK? which deals with the celebrated highwayman and escape artist Jack Sheppard (Hitchcock once proposed a biopic of this fascinating folk hero for Ernest Lehman to write) and THE FRENCH CONNECTION II. Alas, none of them seem to have done much else.

The Heavy Symbolism is very much Boorman, though. Walker’s wife has no maiden name (we see her gravestone) so that Angie Dickinson, his sister-in-law, can ask “What’s my last name?” and then Walker can ask “What’s my first name?” Geddit? Either nobody knows anybody, not really, in this alienated modern world — or else these are stock movie characters in search of an author or at least an ending (Boorman’s movie, like his HELL IN THE PACIFIC, deliberately fizzles out, classic bang/whimper stuff). “A dream?” Or a movie? Note the emphasis on sliding curtains, lenses, screens, an LA where nobody’s in the movies but everybody’s playing at being a gangster, and Angie’s jazz club is called The Movie House and the evil conglomerate is called Multiplex…

Lee Marvin’s posture is the film’s secret weapon. Here, he watches as the phony stash floats away into the storm drains where it will doubtless be eaten by giant ants.

Soderbergh interviews Boorman on the DVD commentary track! Buy it — Point Blank

Mommy Nearest

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on March 26, 2009 by dcairns


The Guardian is my newspaper of choice, so it always pains me slightly when their film coverage goes wrong. Their monthly film mag has yet to find a way to fill its pages with interesting stuff of the kind Guardian readers might like (I think there were two very good pieces in the latest issue, the rest, meh, as I believe they say in America) and here’s a piece by Hadley Freeman that ran a couple of days ago. Link.

Freeman is the paper’s witty deputy fashion editor, and a good writer. Not being a film reviewer shouldn’t prevent her from having her say. Her article focuses on what has long been recognised as a dreadful mix of sexism and ageism in Hollywood, using the particular angle of movies that cast actresses as the mothers or older lovers of actors who are nearly as old as the actresses. Leaving aside the fact that the article misses the famous example of Jessie Royce Landis playing Cary Grant’s mum in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and the fact that, running out of examples, Freeman is forced to vamp furiously for several paragraphs, dragging in older-woman narratives like THE GRADUATE (where Anne Bancroft was only five years older than Dustin Hoffman), actors who play opposite much younger women, and actors who date much younger women in real life. Almost as if there wasn’t much to say.

But the real howler comes when Freeman condemns BACK TO THE FUTURE for casting Lea Thompson as Michael J Fox’s mom. I think a basic familiarity with a movie should be required if you’re going to write about it, and one might assume that almost everyone in the UK of walking-and-talking age has seen Robert Zemeckis’s time travel comedy, which is about time travel, and stars Michael J Fox as a time-traveller who travels back in time and meets his mother as a teenager

Wait, Lea Thompson was 24? Maybe time for a piece about how older actors are robbing teenagers of roles. Hold the presses.

Oh, and Freeman evidently hasn’t seen GIANT either. Or has and just doesn’t care.


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