Paul Staiti, Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation
May 22, 2010
I hear persistent rumors that you’re intending to graduate tomorrow.… Can this be true? Well, okay, so what about the day after tomorrow? What about the life after tomorrow? What to think? What to do? It’s so perplexing. Isn’t it? Not to worry. For deep advice I’ve turned to my source of all wisdom, the movies.
The Post-B.A. film is a special genre in American filmmaking. And the films fall into two distinct historical periods, the first being in the 1960s, when lots of baby boomers were filling college classrooms in unprecedented numbers. In previous decades there simply were not enough college students and not enough interesting outcomes to suggest that millions of dollars should be spent to make films about their graduations.
To be sure, some of the college-graduation films of the '60s were forgettable or, not surprisingly, they are now painfully dated. Sidney Lumet’s The Group, from 1966, follows the exploits of a group of women who have just graduated from a Mount Holyoke-like college in the 1930s. It’s undoubtedly meant to be Vassar since the film is based on Mary McCarthy’s 1963 novel about her own crew of friends. Dottie, a socialite, has an affair with a narcissistic artist; Kay marries a philandering alcoholic playwright; Lakey comes to realize she loves women; Helena, the wealthiest, enters the Depression-era workforce to prove a point; Pokey gets pregnant; the viper-tongued Libby becomes part of the New York literati; Priss becomes an open hearted liberal; Polly wants to do good but ends up having an affair with an over-psychoanalyzed communist. As The Group, the women’s lives touch on some controversial topics for the 1930s, and some emergent topics in the mid-60s, such as free love, contraception, mental illness, and lesbianism. Big yawn. It’s so much a period piece now, but historically it’s fascinating.
Love Story, directed in 1970 by Arthur Hiller, is a four-handkerchief movie about the doomed romance between Harvard WASP Oliver Barrett IV and a Radcliffe Italian-American music student named Jennifer Cavilleri. His family hates the idea, and when the two marry after graduation, dad threatens to disown Oliver. Naturally, the fates intervene when Jennifer is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The film’s tagline? "Love means never having to say you’re sorry." Which isn’t true. The film is the perfect definition of a tearjerker, and it was the largest grossing film in Paramount’s history, to that point.
The gem of the '60s, of course, was Mike Nichols’ debut film The Graduate. It’s about Benjamin, played by Dustin Hoffman, who has returned home after graduation to his ferociously shallow family in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb. Constantly asked, "What do you plan on doing, Ben?" he says he just wants to think about it, but the grilling is so relentless that he begins to spend much of his time in scuba gear at the bottom of the family swimming pool just to escape. Everyone has advice for him, the most famous bit being a man who has one word only to say: Plastics. I suppose if the movie were remade today it would be Polymers. Something interesting always happens at the dullest moments in life. And since Ben is adrift, figuratively and literally, it’s his seduction by Mrs. Robinson, the feline friend of his parents who also happens to have a daughter, Elaine, still in college, with whom he is smitten and starts to date despite her mother’s prohibitions. You can imagine the outrageous results that eventually lead Benjamin to lure her away from the alter during her wedding vows to some frat boy. Lure her away to what, you might ask? The film ends with the two of them, she still dressed in her wedding gown, on a city bus. They look at each other with smiles because they did it! The acting and direction is so good that we can catch the nervousness in their final expressions and the implicit question in that moment: "So now what? We’ve never even had a substantive conversation."
The Graduate is the template for the going-home-after-college film. Its descendant is Post Grad, from 2009. Ryden has graduated from college and returned home to her goofy family in California. She tries to get a job in publishing, figuring after all that she really likes to read books. It doesn’t go well. Her well-meaning dad offers her a job selling mail-order belt buckles. Nothing works out and she just hangs with her family. But there is no angst, no anxiety, no frustration. There are no drugs, no bitterness, no generation gap, and no family problems. Okay, so Post Grad clearly is not a useful movie for us today.
In Reality Bites, Ben Stiller’s film from 1994, college buddies Lelaina (Winona Ryder), Troy (Ethan Hawke), and Vickie (Janeane Garofolo) are not coping well with having been cast out into the cold, cruel world after college. Vickie has to fill in by working at a Gap store and soon becomes manager; Lelaina, the class valedictorian, gets an internship at an idiotic morning TV show and is fired for not being more enthused by the job. Her parents reach for the platitudes: Dad: "Use a little of your ingenuity." Mom: "You’re just going to have to swallow your pride" and take some downscale job. Of course there is a love triangle, too. The perpetually stoned Troy, who just plays his guitar, moves in with Vickie and Lelaina. Troy and Lelaina are obviously in love, but they can’t admit it until another suitor comes along. That would be Ben Stiller as Michael, a yuppie who does slick and shallow TV work for a program called In Your Face, and who wants to market Lelaina’s college films. What path will Lelaina choose? Will she sell out and go with Michael, or will she follow her instincts and choose Troy, the bad boy who is really a sweet guy underneath all the attitude? Moral of the story: You just never know how things are going to go after graduation. Previously, the "next step" in your life was clear; it was obvious; it was pre-ordained. But after college, it’s impossible to know the narrative. I’ll come back to that idea.
Even more of a lesson, a tough one, is Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s spellbinding film from 2007, based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book. It tells the story of Christopher, an Emory graduate played so well by Emile Hirsch, who cashes in his law school fund and, actively rejecting the life others had planned for him, lights out for the territory. First to the West, then into the Alaskan wilderness. He is armed with books and ideas and theories. He sees himself as a radical free person, renouncing civilization, and returning to the truth in nature. A Gauguin for our times. Or a Henry David Thoreau. Reading Walden we can all dream of living happily in a cabin by a beautiful lake, planting beans, living off the land in a state of purity, and working on our inner selves. And for Christopher, who renames himself Alexander Supertramp, Alaska represents all that, a secular paradise of self-reliant bliss that is his. Too bad he didn’t know that Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond was only a short walk from his home, that his mother brought him food and did his laundry, and that he had dinner frequently at the nearby home of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Christopher didn’t bother to do a friction test between theory and reality, between ideas and actions, between book learning and life learning. Each item in those parings speaks eloquently to each other, but they should not be construed as equivalents. And though Alaska was his dream, real nature does not brook mistakes. Picking the wrong plant to eat can be fatal, and in the Darwinian doomsday machine that is run by unforgiving natural law, magical thinking is the ultimate fatal mistake.
So what about your movie? The life you script, direct, and star in? Don’t you make this mistake: Don’t write one inviolable script for a movie that you’ve etched in stone in your head. Instead, write up three or four or five plausible scenarios; attach yourself to no single one; keep writing and re-writing as time goes on; editing is good. Let scenarios unfold. Don’t get anxious. Be flexible and inventive. After all, today you can’t possibly know what the finished storyline will be; it will surprise you; and since it’s impossible to predict it, don’t cement yourself to one, unwavering image, for it will surely be wrong.… But continue to dream up ideas while you keep one eye on reality.… And get back to me in five years…. See you at the movies.