New: On the Berkeley elections: "hello darkness, my old friend"

Thomas Lord
Wednesday November 16, 2016 - 01:52:00 PM

At the end of the movie "The Graduate", Benjamin stands in the vestibule of the church pounding a single demand on its grand glass entryway: "Elaine!"

As Elaine abandons the altar, her eyes fixed on Ben, she takes her hypnotic walk back down the aisle. We see arrayed around her an older generation's bondage: middle class conformity, consumerism, patriarchy, sex (furtive and transgressive) as a social weapon, a business world distilled to a single word - "plastics".

For a moment, the soundtrack mutes the angry voices of those who came to see her wed. There are only red faces, teeth bared in awful grimaces. We see them shouting but their words are gone. The sound returns only as anger turns to violence when the soldiers of the social order try to snatch back the youths from the brink of terrible freedom.

In one of the most overwrought visual metaphors in cinema -- striking in an otherwise low-key film -- Ben drives back the angry mob by swinging wildly at them with a cross from their own church. As Ben and Elaine flee, they bar the door with that very cross, trapping inside the society they reject.

The pair make their getaway in the back of a public bus -- the closest the 1967 film comes to acknowledging the existence of Black people. As the wistful music swells before the final credits roll we see in their young faces a progression of emotions. The moment settles in and weighs upon them: giddy excitement, laughter, and romance give way first to uncertainty and then -- is that fear? "What next?", we see them think in unison.


Two eras ended in Berkeley last week:

On the political scene, 25 years of rule over City Council by a so-called moderate faction came to a decisive end as moderates lost all but one race they entered. Local wonks are calling it the first progressive sweep of an election in as long as anyone cares to remember. 

And on the mytho-poeic side, Cafe Mediterraneum ("Cafe Med") announced that its 60th year of business will be its last. It is among the least, yet most widely mentioned, significances of the Cafe that it is featured briefly in the "The Graduate"; Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) sits at a table and stares out the front window. ("The Dustin Hoffman table," the regulars call it.) 

The local election was widely portrayed as an epic clash between two forces. On one side, an old guard who was (depending on who you ask) either pragmatic and hard-nosed or else corrupted by big development money and cruel towards poor people. On the other side (depending on who you ask), either bold new leadership for a greener, more humane Berkeley for Everyone or else a clumsy gang of bleeding-heart idealists who are now poised to bankrupt the city and fill parks and sidewalks with homeless encampments. 

Whatever else may be said about the election, the voters ran away from the altar of the past in no uncertain terms. As Berkeleyans, we now sit on the back of the only bus that happened to be passing, headed to points unknown, wondering to ourselves: "What next?" 


With the hindsight of 50 years we have some idea what came next for Benjamin and Elaine, or at least the society for whom they were avatars. 

In '68, a year after they fled the church, cities burned in youthful rebellion around the world. The war and body count in Asia escalated. The Democratic National Convention ended in bloodshed after police and city powers rose to the bait, taking up arms against hippies. After the famous trial, the one Black defendant who alone was put in chains and prevented from speaking by the judge would be all but erased from popular white history, reducing the Chicago 8 to just 7. 

Nixon was the One that year. Two years later, when the country came within days of defaulting on its national debt, Nixon would briefly accomplish for Berkeley (and the nation) something Berkeley radicals had struggled for without success: a freeze on rent increases. 

For a decade, young people who were Ben and Elaine's age hit a brick wall as they tried to enter the economy: Massive unemployment (underplayed in the official numbers) combined with relentless inflation. Middle class life began its long, slow slide into history. 

I tend to imagine that after Ben and Elaine inevitably went their separate and disillusioned ways, Ben wound up somehow as Herman Blume in the film "Rushmore" (1998). Ben/Blume middle aged, looking like his mustachioed father in more ways than one: unhappy marriage, unenjoyable pool in the back yard which serves as a nihilist refuge from unlikable friends and incomprehensible children. Ben/Blume himself a worn out industrialist overseeing a tedious factory that, no doubt, cranks out something made of plastic. 


In hindsight the future is always clearer than the past, but in the present: "What next?" 

We live in dark times. An avowed white nationalist will take his seat at the right hand of an operatically charismatic con artist in the nation's highest office. We are promised an increase in the scope and capacity of the police state, a rush to develop environmentally ruinous production, a polarization of the working class into silos of mutual hatred and suspicion. We already have an economy in ruins for the working class, with falling wages, inflation, and high unemployment that official figures lie about. 

Perhaps the damnedest kick in the teeth -- speaking only on the political front -- is that what the losing candidate promised, in her fine print, may have been different from what we're getting -- but it wasn't wildly different. Larger forces are at work than any one politician. 

The new regime in Berkeley, meanwhile, is a loose coalition at best; collectively they have no more of a plan or vision of the future than Ben and Elaine did when they boarded that bus. We know what we've rejected perfectly well. It's where we're headed that leaves us in the dark.