Sunday, May 1, 2016

THE GRADUATE - A Crash Course in Perfect Filmmaking

"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word."

This month’s featured excerpt from The DVD – Laser Disc Newsletter prompts me to re-affirm the wonderful value in owning/viewing a movie on Blu-ray or DVD... especially if the movie is a Criterion Collection release. 

Early on, in one of the most influential movies of all time, there is a character attending a graduation party who whispers to our lead character, Benjamin, just one word — “plastics.” One word, meant to be a secret to success as our lead character embarks on his journey ahead. THE GRADUATE ended up having more than just one word worth listening to. Indeed, there are so many quoteable lines of dialogue that many Professional Screenwriters consider the film to be an example of the perfectly written script. 

The film has become a creative touchstone for directors as well. Mike Nichols exploited the wide-screen capabilities in telling a small, personal. indie story. He would place his characters on the edge of the frame to illustrate how distant they were from each other. He would also use the middle of the frame to show how two characters could be sexually together, but emotionally worlds apart. He used depth of focus in the classic shot of a seductive woman in the foreground while we watched the panic on Benjamin's face as he stood in the background. There were scenes shot with long lens (hallways, stairwells), one, in particular, has Benjamin running, running, and running toward the camera while not seeming to make any progress at all. There were long takes that allow scenes to have a documentary vibe, a feeling that what we were watching was... authentic. 

And there were montage sequences that were not only edited to suggest the passage of time, but also cut to the beat of pop songs that informed the soundtrack. THE GRADUATE not only gave birth to the career of Simon and Garfunkel, the film ended up becoming a road map to the first music videos that would show up on MTV years later.  

This is a film that I’ve returned to often over the years, but I’ve never felt great about how it looked on video. Doug Pratt writes about how the latest release by Criterion finally delivers a Blu-ray/DVD experience that invites anyone to watch the film again and again. The clincher for me was a new audio commentary with director Mike Nichols being interviewed by Stephen Soderbergh. Nichols and Soderbergh happen to be two key directors who ushered independent filmmaking to main-stream audiences -- Nichols in the 60s, and a couple of decades later, Soderburgh in the 90s. Who knows, maybe there’s someone who will listen to their interview and be influenced enough to be the next indie pioneer. Count on me being the one at a party celebrating the recent graduation of a film student by whispering to him, "I just want to say two words to you. Two words — DVD Commentary."   

      Early Hoffman                                                  Doug Pratt

Remastered a long time ago for 5.1 stereo, the DTS tracks for the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of THE GRADUATE (UPC#715515151-68212, $40) and the MGM 20th Century Fox Blu-ray (UPC#027616077066, $15), are glorious.  The music is warm and smooth, and finely detailed, enhancing the film’s dynamic blend of nostalgia and topicality, and preserving the freshness of its humor and insight.  The colors are also preserved with perfection, and the image has just a slight softness at times, to reinforce its now antique setting.  The 1967 feature remains a vibrantly entertaining classic, primarily due to its marvelous performances and its inspired, meticulously constructed narrative—about a cougar before there were cougars, and the aimless young man who pulls out of her grasp when he meets her daughter—but it also endures because of the innovative film style employed by Mike Nichols, which includes its pulled-from-the-popular-culture musical score, its aggressively freeform editing, and its innovative cinematography—the camera goes into a swimming pool and underwater, ‘wearing a diver’s mask.’  No matter how often you see the film, seeing it again is not only a delight, but it unfailingly reveals a greater depth and richness with every screening.

The film is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The colors on the Criterion presentation are more intense than the colors on the MGM version, but do not loose an iota of sharpness.  On both, the image is spotless, but in a direct comparison, the MGM version is just a little bit paler.  The MGM presentation has an alternate French track in mono, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and a trailer.  The Criterion version does have optional English subtitles, if you can figure out how to activate them.

Criterion supplies two commentary tracks.  One is the passable analytical talk that was given by film historian Howard Suber on Criterion’s LD release.  

The other is an absolutely riveting conversation between Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, as they talk about everything from the inspirations of specific lines of dialog to working with the other cast and crew members and the reasoning behind not only the camera angles and choices, but the editing, as well. Nichols, for example, reveals that some of the apprehension expressed by Hoffman’s character came directly from the skits Nichols himself used to perform with Elaine May.  

He shares many stories about working with Bancroft, whom he had dated some time earlier, and how everyone was a bit intimidated by her character on the set.  He also wonders wistfully why he never worked with her again.  

He explains why he turned down Robert Redford.  “I would talk to Redford about it.  We were good friends because we’d done Barefoot in the Park together, which was my first Broadway play and his second.  And we were shooting pool in my rented stone house and I said, ‘I don’t think so.  I don’t think this is your part.’  And he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because I don’t think you can play a loser.’  And he said, ‘What are you talking about?  Of course I can play a loser.’  I said, ‘All right.  How many times have you struck out with a girl?’  And he said, ‘What do you mean?’  And I said, ‘I rest my case.’”  

Soderbergh, for his part, provides a constantly insightful analysis of every scene and often grills Nichols until he gets to the very heart of how the ideas came together and who contributed what, and yet, at the same time, they also branch off to talk about how viewers react to characters, how good actors make you think about the people you know, and about the social impact a film can have.

 “To be an ‘idiot rebel’ is something that was true for a lot of people, but it was completely unfashionable.  [The producer] made me go to college after college running this before it opened, and I don’t think you can guess the thing that I heard the most from college students, was over and over and over and over—‘Why isn’t it about Vietnam?’  Because that was the fashionable topic, that was the topic that showed what a serious person you were, and how deeply involved, and to make a movie that was for young people and was not about Vietnam actually affronted them.  It’s hard to remember that different times have different fashions.”  

Also featured on the Criterion BD is an excellent 38 minute interview with Hoffman, who shares many stories about the shoot and his early days in New York, along with a nice 25-minute conversation between a very elderly Buck Henry, who wrote the screenplay, and an equally geriatric Lawrence Turman, who was the producer, although both men still have vivid memories of creating the film; an excellent 26-minute deconstruction of the film’s editing and profile of editor Sam O’Steen; a fascinating 16-minute interview with Nichols by Barbara Walters before he started shooting the film; a 5-minute interview with Paul Simon by Dick Cavett in which he explains that the song that was turned into Mrs. Robinson was originally titled ‘Mrs. Roosevelt,’ which lets the song’s other lyrics make a lot more sense; 13 minutes of screen tests, some of which appeared on the LD, showing how hopeless the casting had seemed before they brought in Hoffman; and a 26-minute retrospective appreciation of the film.  The 23-minute documentary and the trailer that appeared on the LD have been carried over.