The revered film theorist Andre Bazin once stated, “cinema shows us a world that fits our desires.” That was the reason I appreciated Mike Nichols’ classic comedy “The Graduate.” The eponymous character, named Benjamin Braddock, finishes school on the East Coast and returns to picturesque southern California. When his parents throw him a welcome home party early in the film, a family friend takes him aside. He says that Benjamin will be met with instant success if he goes into “plastics.” Benjamin, however, does not enter industry, but instead spends dozens of days lounging around by the pool.
Critics have commented on how this film from 1967 reflects the generation gap, or more generally, the ambivalence of young adulthood. Yet, when I viewed the film the summer before I came to Stanford, I was not particularly concerned with the struggles Benjamin faced or the society in which he lived. I was fascinated with the film’s portrayal of California. Benjamin always appeared beneath a clear sky, drifting on a float in his pool, attired in sunglasses and scuba gear. “The Graduate” showed me a world that fit my desires and made me eager to enroll at Stanford.
When I arrived on campus, however, I was disappointed to find that my life was not as unencumbered as Benjamin’s. While Stanford is in California, I discovered that the campus was a hub of activity. I met a plethora of people faster than I had expected, and soon myriad commitments vied for my attention. I had to make decisions — which classes to take, which clubs to join. These choices could not be encapsulated in a simple word like “plastics.” While I assumed there would be time for some aimless drifting, assignments and extracurricular activities soon encroached on my weekends. I would have given anything for a few moments to step back from all the clamor and take in what I was experiencing.
Although I sometimes felt overwhelmed, I was simultaneously exhilarated. When I was accepted to ITALIC, Stanford’s residential arts program, I did not anticipate how much I would enjoy the performances, screenings and exhibitions we attended. When I met my mentors, Jody Maxmin and Shelley Fishkin, I did not imagine how long and fruitful our conversations would be. When I went to a welcome back barbeque at Hillel, I did not appreciate how the kind and generous staff would affect my experience on campus.
Likewise, when I joined the Stanford Daily, I did not fathom how formative my time at the paper would be. I signed up for the paper because of what I had seen in another film — Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.” I admired the glibness and glamour of Hildy Johnson, an ace reporter in the movie. In the 90-minute film, she pens sensational stories, deposing a corrupt mayor and delivering a man from the death penalty. Of course, my work at the Daily was nowhere near as consequential. I thought I would become a reincarnated Hildy. Instead, I found myself learning how to write a review, edit my work and prepare it for publication. Compared to Hildy’s exploits, this may seem mundane. Yet, just as I was thrilled by events outside the purview of “The Graduate,” I found that “His Girl Friday” did not encompass all the joys of working at a newspaper. Russell did not have the opportunity to manage the Arts & Life section of her paper. She did not have Duran Alvarez, our production manager, to ensure her article looked wonderful in print. Nor did she have the chance to work with and learn from gifted writers.
Of course, both Benjamin and Hildy have one recourse unavailable to me. Despite their anxieties, they are ultimately characters in movies. Their actions are guided by a screenplay, and they have directors to lead them over every obstacle. I did not have auteurs like Mike Nichols or Howard Hawks watching over my Stanford experience. Now that it is almost over, I wonder whether I made the most of it. Perhaps I missed my cues on several occasions. Perhaps I wasn’t always in the right place at the right time. Perhaps there were friendships I should have forged, classes I should have taken, clubs I should have joined. Although these thoughts are somewhat self-absorbed and definitely futile, I cannot help but ponder questions of “what if.”
“What if” can be a disquieting phrase, but it can also be extraordinarily generative. After all, almost every film begins with a “what if.” Before making “The Graduate,” Nichols and screenwriter Buck Henry likely asked, “what if a young man finished college and was worried about his future?” Before starting “His Girl Friday,” Hawks probably inquired, “what if a female journalist in the 1940s encountered all kinds of complications before publishing an expose?” Moviemakers not only pose “what if” questions to start a story, but also to engage their audience in the finished film. “What if” is an invitation for us to suspend our disbelief, to escape from the everyday, and to empathize with others. “What if” allows auteurs to create that quality that Bazin described, to fashion “a world that fits our desires.”
Of course, our desires change. After four years at Stanford, I no longer see “The Graduate” as a dispatch from colorful California. Instead, I sympathize much more with Benjamin’s indecision as he tries to navigate a complicated world. While watching “His Girl Friday,” I no longer accept its insights into a reporter’s life, but instead enjoy its screwball antics. Films, especially those from decades ago (and those I spent my time at Stanford reviewing), can seem like insects trapped in amber, inapplicable to our current lives. Still, Roger Ebert once made a brief observation that is as beguiling as Bazin’s. He wrote, “movies do not change, but their viewers do.” Through movies like “The Graduate” and “His Girl Friday,” I realize that I have grown as a person at Stanford. I look forward to seeing my favorite films become richer and deeper after graduation.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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