PRINT March 1968


The Graduate, Persona, and In Cold Blood

Besides being a brazen movie with a built in sneer, particularly for the older denizens of Coin Flats, Beverly Hills, The Graduate is another in a series of Sandwich Specials. Clyde wins Bonny over hamburgers; Perry and Dick, the “Cold Blood” murderers, relax with hamburgers before and after the Clutter massacre; in Bedazzled, Dudley Moore and Eleanor Bron are a cook waitress team in a Whimpy Bar. All this chopped steak is a give-away on the new tone in films: unless the material is thoroughly banal, it isn’t considered chic.

A life of innocuousness marches over the spectator and greenhorn hero. A little stump of a man, dragging himself around with weighty reluctance (he walks towards something as though going away from it), Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbable menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder, from captain of the track team to debating captain and literary editor. Benjamin, as it turns out, is a strange new version of Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.

The most literate sound Benjy makes is a short pup’s whimper which is over-played in the same way as his panicky rabbit’s expression, whenever a demanding or threatening adult hovers in sight. The simplest sentences have trouble surfacing through this lipless mini-man, who, despite Hoffman’s intelligence-within-contrivance acting, adds up to a facile, hardly original Put Down of the whole affluent class. If vulgarity is being shown up in The Graduate, it’s on both sides of the camera.

Resembling George Segal’s sculptures of a banal Everyman, generalized and locked in a few trademarks of his job, Benjy the Ordinary is the direct opposite of the eclectically hopped-up movie he inhabits. Goal-less, not possessed of much wit or intelligence, lacking stature or bearing, he is a champion of the Lacklustre, along with the simple-minded, gullible nurse, Sister Alma, in Persona. This chunky tomboy (Bibi Anderson) is morbidly grounded in the commonplace. In a two character movie it is Alma’s not-too-bright, undeveloped gush that holds the screen, does all the talking.

Anderson’s Jean Seberg face has always been a slightly awful fixture in Swedish cinema for button-featured beauty. In this film it becomes a curtain to compose the Acropolis-like screen, while the zealous miss gets buttonhooked to the pedestrian task; she props up pillows, turns on radio, gets into bed, carries a tray. And undercutting the role further is an X-ray image (perfected through a string of late Bergman films) that denatures her face of its health, lustre, and, at the same time, gives it a formal elegance.

The irony of these movies, which cherish ordinariness, not allowing a speck of glory to their earthbound characters, is that the activities dull while the syntactic invention shoots skyward. In a vast expanse of ultramarine, the parents—Mr. and Mrs. Gruesome—present their prize graduate to the adult world (“who is soon to continue his studies as a John H. Alpington scholar”). The father is a goggle eyed irritant, the mother is a shrill veteran of beauty parlors, and both are acted with shattering glibness. Yet the factor that dominates these son parent collisions is the Image: a whole scene of clean, glistening, expensive materials.

It would be hard to over-estimate the ultra-fluorescent image and its involving power. The hero is usually grounded, Antonioni fashion, silhouetted against a canvas float, some shutters in a darkened hotel room, the wall of a swimming pool. The movie takes on a near science-fiction excitement and presence, half today, half a year from tomorrow, an uncluttered cube of overpowering color and glowing cosmeticized skin.

There has been little or no attempt to keep up with the syntactic development in such imagery. While critics analyze the Sturges-like satire in The Graduate, the cheap fictional moves in In Cold Blood, the puzzling psychology in Persona (are the two characters halves of one schizoid personality?), the screen is being designed into one that has more grip per inch than ever before. One to one haunts the screen today, a condensing of persons, places, those one-prop compositions in The Graduate, everything boiling down into a single symbol of itself. Given these symbolic units (all four Clutters flattened into one stretch of psuedo-Kansas cloth), the screen gets manipulated into a dynamite laden rectangle of super-reality.

With its strong performance by Bibi Anderson, Persona is an obvious example of a one to one syntactic conception. The opening, like a quick run through of the old Ingmar Bergman, is a penny arcade of one shots: a man’s hand being spiked to the table, shots of people’s heads in the manner of Mantegna’s dead Christ, a spiked fence, the countdown of numbers that precedes an amateurish movie, the ripping sound of film flying around the sprockets. Everything that follows this surreal Ensor-ish gallop is its clean, cool white, unpopulated reversal. And within this section, which is the movie proper (two seemingly opposite women in a forced, highly charged confrontation with each other), the screen is a march of bare, stringent compositions.

Perhaps this composition should be detailed, because it appears in film after film: Red Desert, Le Depart, Knife in the Water. Antonioni must have invented it: the human figure as an island silhouetted against a sharp drop of unsympathetic scenery. There are two or three delineated elements, none of which act as support for the other. Antonioni uses a wall or building as menace; in Persona the background is a disinterested one; in The Graduate the subordinate detail is manipulated into placards of American vulgarity.

In these oned-up scenes, the design play becomes as important as the story theme. As seldom happened in pre-1960s naturalism, the movie is constantly drumming a pattern in which dominant and subordinate are contested. The most fascinating pornography springs out of a low-keyed, lacklustre setting: a nurse and her ward lounging in a darkened summer place. The camera, desultory in its moves, shuttles between the two women, each in a sort of Whistler’s Mother pose. The nurse’s verbal description of a four-way sex act between two young women and two boys on a sunny, vacant beach springs into flagrant physicality. On screen, there is nothing but a dry interior.

In Mike Nichols’ film, there is a studied effort to make everyone exotic and nutty, like walking fish tanks. A coarse deadening and simplification goes on, so that a whole string of aged, over-dressed people march through a hotel as one ginger-breaded gaggle. A cookie cutter is used on Benjy, cutting away all ambiguous edges, fixing him in place. Grown-ups, wherever they appear—at Benjy’s welcome home party, around a hotel lobby, in a campus boardinghouse—seem eight feet tall, misshapen, bolted to prefab versions of themselves. Hoffman and his plaguing environment of adults are indented into the screen with a diamond drill, glistening and hollow at the same time.

A total agnosticism permeates all the above films: a disbelief in the romantic life, institutions, children; a jaded view of sex; a tired feeling that nothing will come up on the horizon to save a lost character. The synthesized technique which gets so little critical attention is burdensomely keyed into portraying angst at its most enervated. It seems significant that both Anne Bancroft and Bibi Anderson, in roles that are worlds apart—a stale John O’Hara captain of the fleet and a hard-working blonde dumbshell—are exposed with similar morbidness by a Pat and Mike team: Bergman and Nichols. (Another weird case of two directors inflicting the same treatment: Godard and Antonioni with their perennial mugvamps, Anna Karina and Monica Vitti.)

Nevertheless, the critics go on with their old ploys on a movie in which editing, camera moves, acting have been pre-concentrated, mostly done “in the mind.” It seems irrelevant to compare In Cold Blood with the bestseller and finds 80% or more of it to be an exact duplicate in terms of cheapness. Or, in the case of Anne Bancroft’s female shark, middle-aged and middle stream (you’re never told what she’d be puttering at, if not Benjy’s manhood) to make out a case for her acting far above the movie.

“Go to the bar and order yourself a drink.” Giving directions on clandestine love to a boy who suggests Mary’s lamb, embarrassed by her every move, Bancroft acts like a traffic cop. Except for a two minute stretch in the Taft lounge where she glows with a chilled humor, education, that the role demands, her whole performance—steely and disengaged—is done by camera set-ups.

It is a funny love affair, strange rather than ha ha. All the piquancy has to do with (1) the difficult sketch class poses, age-revealing and impossible to act, that pin down Bancroft, (2) the curious split and distance between the two supposed bedmates, with the woman always being turned away, as though she were a disgrace.

With all its over-trained acting and nonsense (Perry’s daydream before a mirror, fantasying himself as a Vegas star), In Cold Blood is a sombre, slab-like, all-of-a-piece inclemency that bears little resemblance to the open, cheap-knit style of Capote’s writing. All the puzzle is created by the Conrad Hall image, incredibly dense, a concrete-like block of Kansas scenery, damp climate, that is almost impossible to enter. With the semi-virtues of a John Vachon photograph, the real curiosity is how so much pictorial movement and variety could be rerouted so that it is contained within a scene that is always fronted and classically static.

Manny Farber