JUNK FOOD: Reality Bites

March 2023

I moved back to my hometown after college. I was proud of my diploma-certified language and film know-how, but in 2008 the economy was such that a brand-new grad securing a job – any job – was more important than aspiring to a ‘career.’ Once upon a time I’d had it all mapped out, from the entry level up to my name on a masthead, but my route hadn’t accounted for a recession, so I felt a little lost. 

The working model for post-college aimlessness and ennui was, of course, The Graduate. Mike Nichols’ 1967 send-up of prescribed proto adulthood had seemed absurd to me until, well, I graduated. And not just the scuba gear, or the Alfa Romeo, or the plastics. Dustin Hoffman’s aimlessness had felt over-the-top, aggressive, and Katherine Ross’s lack of agency, disturbing. Of course, the final shot that lingers on their faces as they are drained of all enthusiasm and verve, is what tips the whole narrative on its ear by showing the despair and disappointment that can accompany having to answer the question, What now?

The screenplay, however, does not end with this moment. Sure, they’re on the bus having busted-up the Southern California cookie-cutter wedding, but there is no mention, no hint that their escape is anything other than happy. The story goes that on set that day, Mike Nichols was berating Hoffman and Ross at the top of his lungs because they were only going to get one take of the shot, which left the actors feeling emotionally drained. The cameraman was equally unnerved by Nichols as he didn’t dare stop rolling and caught the expression from two actors just as they stopped acting. When Nichols saw the moment later in the editing room he realized this was what the movie was about.

I was frustrated, and embarrassed by my situation post-graduation; it felt like I was losing before I even understood the game. But to make ends meet I’d gotten a job as a shopgirl in a charismatic antique store that I loved. Still, I had a nagging suspicion that my enthusiasm for a low responsibility job surrounded by cast-off stuff, was just a band-aid for feeling like a disappointment.

But imagine The Graduate without the final shot. Imagine these two young people flailing for the whole movie and then being rewarded with a saccharine send-off that Love Conquers All. Barf. It would have made the movie stylish, but forgettable. Lucky for us, Nichols saw the potential and made a last minute course correction.

Lucky for me, I learned to move confidently in my redrawn trajectory. My ambivalence over my stint as shopgirl was put to rest the day my boss leaned in close and, with an impish smile, said, “I’ve got one word for you… Just one little word: Bakelite.” If he could riff, then so could I.