“Plastics.” – Movie Review on The Graduate (1967)

Any film synopsis would tell you that The Graduate is about a confused college graduate Ben being seduced by Mrs Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, but is then haunted by this short affair as he falls in love with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine, who in the end elopes with Ben. The film is nevertheless much more than a love drama. It is full of contemporary cultural discussion and iconic lines that are often referenced in other films.  The Graduate opens with Ben, a top student freshly graduated from college, returning home to his upper-middle-class parents and their friends in Los Angeles, worried about his future because he looks to be different from the older generation. In fact the older generation has plans and words of advice laid before him. His parents expect him to study in graduate school with his outstanding academic results. Mr Robinson tells him to relax and have fun. Another family friend Mr McGuire says “plastics” is the only word he should keep in mind all time. The adults seem to have already envisioned a world for Ben to live in, and yet Ben does not want to be what the adults expect him to be. He feels uncomfortable with the homecoming party organised by his parents and hides in a room staring at a fish tank. Against his will he has to showcase his scuba diving gear and once he is in water, he dives to the very bottom to hide away from the crowd. He is helpless but not losing hope. Puzzled as he is, before he figures out how to break free from the older generation, he is seduced by Mrs Robinson engaging in a short sexual affair. While dominating and taking the lead in the affair, Mrs Robinson may be more fragile than she appears to be. During one of their stays in the hotel room, Ben wants to start a conversation with Mrs Robinson on art, but she is much reluctant to discuss about the subject. In the conversation she then reveals that her major in college was indeed art. She met Mr Robinson in college and got pregnant. Her reluctance to discuss art seems to be a parody of her conscious attempt back then to move away from who she was, but shifting focus to objects and values that she now comes to regret.  Among his parents and their suburban friends, including Mrs Robinson, they are all the same – “plastics” – artificial people who cling onto worldly constructions throughout their lives. Mike Nichols once commented that The Graduate is not centred on the conflicts between the older and the younger generations, but on how people cling onto objects to such a huge extent that they themselves become the objects they are clinging onto. Ben wants to be different, because he has noticed how the older generation has become the worldly objects themselves, and he does not want to passively become an object under the life designed by the older generation. He starts to breakthrough. The film ends with Ben crashing Elaine’s wedding and elopes with her. The couple hop onto a bus after Ben has literally fought for his prize Elaine at her wedding with another man. Some say the puzzled young man has finally tried to get what he really wants in life. It is a triumph of the heart. But to the audience’s surprise, there is no excited discussion about their new page in life. The delight quickly subsides as Ben turns calm and stares into the emptiness. Elaine’s loving smile retreats into a cold face upon seeing the expressionless Ben. The scene ends with the couple staring ahead in silence. This silence is a restatement of the opening theme song The Sound of Silence  – while speech is in essence shallow silence between superficial people, real silence speaks a thousand words. It gives voice to the uncertain future lying ahead of Ben and Elaine. It poses a question of “now what?” after a youthful rebellion against the older generation. It makes the audience ponder upon if Ben and Elaine are challenging the older generation simply for the sake of being rebellious. It casts doubt between reality and dream – is fighting for what the heart wants practically rewarding in the long run? The film’s ending has never failed to intrigue its audience since its premiere. Such is the power of silence.

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“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” – Movie Review on Whiplash (2014)

Not my tempo” is perhaps the most frequently repeated line in Whiplash by the ruthless conductor Fletcher of an elite music school. An extreme perfectionist, Fletcher is abusively demanding to members of his ensemble. He shouts insults and foul language to push them to be technically perfect.

Andrew is a new joiner of Fletcher’s band. Greeted by Fletcher’s verbal humiliation and hurled a chair by the conductor, Andrew practises day and night. He does not stop with blood oozing from his palm, but put on layers of plaster and even soaks his hands in ice-water to continue with his gruelling practice sessions. While Fletcher strongly believes that positive comments like “good job” on just mediocre cannot bring musicians in training anywhere, Andrew also firmly accepts Fletcher’s methods and will not stop to make himself one of the greats. Even though he is injured in a car accident right before a competition, he still runs to the concert hall in bloody face, because he has earned the core drummer position after hours of intense competition and selection with two other drummers of the ensemble, and he cannot let the original substitutes play his part. However, as he struggles to play with his injured arm, Fletcher stops the piece halfway and tells Andrew that he is “done”. Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage and is subsequently expelled by the school.

Fletcher’s methods do not only cause discomfort to his current students like Andrew, but have allegedly led to a former student Sean Casey’s death. When the lawyer representing Sean Casey’s parents asks Andrew to testify on Fletcher’s abusive teaching, Andrew agrees. Fletcher is then fired by the school.

And yet Fletcher does not abuse students for personal reasons. In his eyes, he is doing so for the sake of the student who can overcome the challenges, and the music industry to nurture the next legendary musician. When Andrew meets Fletcher again in a pub, Fletcher tells the story of Charlie Parker. Parker once played with drummer Jo Jones. Dissatisfied with Parker’s performance, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at Parker, nearly decapitating him. Having told himself not to be ridiculed again, Parker started practising intensively and made the legendary performance of the 20th century.

So, imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” So Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And they wonder why jazz is dying.

Fletcher laments at the world’s tolerance of mediocrity and excessive compliments. To Fletcher, pushing students to the extreme is his necessary duty to the industry. He is not afraid of going too far, because “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged“.

Fletcher’s mission in life is reached with Andrew’s final performance which parallels with that of Charlie Parker. Fletcher, who already knows it is Andrew who testifies and makes him lose the job, sets Andrew up by inviting him to an important performance without telling him that the concert pieces are those he has not played before. The audience is composed of critics and agents, who never forget about a musician’s performance – if you screw it up this time, you are forever done. As expected by Fletcher, Andrew screws up the first piece – he does not even have a score to follow. Nevertheless, Fletcher is not discouraged. He starts playing another band piece that he has practised hard, that showcases all his efforts and talents. From attempting to stop Andrew, showing disbelief, nodding with satisfaction, to guiding Andrew to perfect his performance, the final scene features the eye contact between Fletcher – smiling and with great enthusiasm – and Andrew – exhausted but blissful. Andrew’s astonishing performance makes the audience wide-eyed in amazement. While for Fletcher, he has finally fulfilled his duty to the music industry.

A legendary performance certainly does not come easy, and the next great artist needs to be pushed. It is also not disputed that the next Charlie Parker will possess the determination to succeed. The question lies in how far should one go in the quest of nurturing the next legendary artist while uncertain if a young musician is really the next Charlie Parker who can withstand the stress and anxiety, or will mentally break down and have his or her future ruined. In the present era where competition is fierce, it is always a doubt as to how far should one go to pursue artistic immortality.

Below is the final scene of the film, in which you can appreciate the unparalleled performance by both JK Simmons and Miles Telller. Damien Chazelle has beautifully transformed the story of an aspiring drummer into a single-directional drumming tension that makes your heart keep racing towards the very end.