For most of my high school career, I was not much of a reader. I was, however, a self-taught scholar of the online literary summary — SparkNotes, CliffsNotes, even some of the heavier stuff, such as WikiSummaries. I could summarize “Ulysses” in 200 words, “Crime and Punishment” in 100, “Pride and Prejudice” in one: boring.
But one day, this all changed — believe it or not — because of a movie.
Toward the end of my sophomore year, my English teacher, Mr. Sweeney, assigned us a huge research project. We were asked to analyze the historical significance of a work of our choosing. But this project was unlike anything I had ever been assigned in an English course — the work we analyzed could be a piece of literature or film.
Of course, I considered making use of my scholarly skills and bravely plowing through a 10-page summary of “Great Expectations.” But no, I was already an expert on heavily abridged literature. I needed to leave my comfort zone. I decided to choose a film.
For the first time I came home from school with a smile on my face. Confused by my unanticipated merriment and suspicious of the source of my glee, my parents began to interrogate me:
“Is school canceled tomorrow?”
“Did you get expelled?”
“Please don’t tell me you started another food fight.”
Eventually, I was able to explain that I was actually excited by an assignment. Thrilled by my sudden academic interest, my parents started shouting out ideas for films to do my project on. After spewing out the official list of old-people movies, they suggested a film that would end up changing my life: “The Graduate.”
Holy shit, did I love this movie.
I watched it. Then I watched it again. Then I borrowed books — real books, not the short ones on the Internet — about it from the library. I wanted to know everything about it. Who directed it? Who wrote it? Why did they write it? Where was it filmed? This movie sparked my curiosity like nothing ever had in my life.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, “The Graduate” is a satire directed by Mike Nichols and starring Dustin Hoffman. It tells the story of a recent college graduate, disenchanted by his materialistic family and friends, who gets seduced by his father’s business partner’s wife, Mrs. Robinson, then falls in love with her daughter. Because I was a self-righteous, self-loathing, ungrateful teenager who thought nobody understood me, “The Graduate” really hit home. That, and I, too, fell in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter.
From my research, I also learned how important and influential “The Graduate” was to film. It was unlike anything ever made. It was written by a comedian, Buck Henry. It starred a Jewish 30-year-old as a 20-year-old WASP. It had the first popular music soundtrack, which was composed of songs by Simon & Garfunkel — they wrote “Mrs. Robinson” for the film. It made use of unprecedented cinematic techniques. It inspired protests across college campuses. It changed film forever.
A large portion of “The Graduate” takes places on the UC Berkeley campus. That’s what made me want to go to school here. That’s what put an out-of-state, California-sized dent in my parents’ wallets. If you watch the film, you can spot some Berkeley landmarks, including Sproul Plaza and Moe’s Bookstore.
Mike Nichols, the director of “The Graduate,” died of a heart attack this past month. But he lives on through his movies. After “The Graduate,” Nichols went on to direct 18 more films, including “Catch-22” and “Primary Colors.”
He is the reason I’m at UC Berkeley and is the source of my intellectual curiosity. After reading about “The Graduate,” I was inspired to continue borrowing books from the library. I realized how beautiful real literature can be. I’ve retired from the field of online summary, though I may be inducted into the SparkNotes Hall of Fame sometime soon.
Without Mike Nichols, I would not be who I am today.
So here’s to you, Mr. Nichols. You’ve touched my heart more than you’ll ever know.
Jeremy Siegel writes Thursday’s arts and entertainment column.
Contact Jeremy Siegel at [email protected].