Written by Anthony Gagnon
A major goal that filmmakers strive for is purity of execution, and a defining aspect of the “artistry” of film is the ability to bring disparate elements, such as the cinematography, editing, and sound, together to form a cohesive whole. This is just on a base level, however, and the best films not only exhibit this cohesiveness, but also utilize it to send a message or a reveal a truth to the world at large. The Graduate operates on this level of excellence, but it also transcends it due to the film’s metaphorical representation of the attitude of an entire generation.
The story itself is legend at this point. Dustin Hoffman’s character Ben Braddock, rebellious to his imposing parents and other elders, decides to accept an offer from a much older Mrs. Robinson for a casual encounter. Ben drifts along for an entire summer, lounging around and sleeping with Mrs. Robinson until his parents and their friends pressure him to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine. The story described in a few sentences does not sound very high concept or sensational, but that’s the beauty of it.
The film relies on individual moments of creativity and tension on a scene to scene, beat to beat basis. For example, the brilliant lead up to the first casual encounter is rife with funny and awkward moments, but the underlying rising emotional tension leaves us wondering what comes next. Ben shows up to the hotel initially not only reluctant, but also paranoid someone will catch him. Then he proceeds to go forward with renting out a room and meets Mrs. Robinson. When it comes to going forward with the encounter, Ben initially gets cold feet. Mrs. Robinson, being the sassy older woman she is, calls out Ben’s sexual prowess, subtextually knowing that she is appealing to his young ego. Not wanting to hurt his own pride, Ben gives into temptation, and essentially takes Mrs. Robinson’s bait.
The proceeding montage of Ben’s entire summer wasted lounging around and sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, set to Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, is not only iconic, but is indicative of the many elements that make the film as excellent and metaphoric as it is. The film is about youth ambivalence. It’s about having the attitude “I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know I don’t want you telling me what it is I’m supposed to be doing.” Ben lounges around, despite his parents’ previous pressure to get a job, in between sleeping with an older family friend, certainly defiant of his elders’, and her husband’s, expectations. All other elements of filmmaking in this montage serve to further this point. The cinematography is bright and blinding to represent the wasting of a bright future to the point of pain. The match cuts in the editing give it a surreal quality to represent listlessness and the rejection of reality. Dustin Hoffman’s face is blank and disaffected, not even passionate toward his sexual partner. The contemporary music for the time is perhaps the most important aspect, as the song evokes that time period and serves to reveal this ambivalence about youth culture in the 1960’s specifically.
The midpoint of the film, in which Ben is set up with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, is perfectly executed to illuminate Ben’s eventual growth into feeling to the need to care about something. Ben takes Elaine to a strip club so she will be humiliated and thus never talk to him again to throw the Mrs. Robinson situation under the rug, only to have it backfire because her humiliation leads to his pity for her. This in turn sparks romantic feelings in him, and signals the beginning of the end. Throughout the rest of the second act and into the third act, Ben pursues this passion thinking he is in love with Elaine, but if one stops to think about the foundational feelings of their relationship, how many of them have been successfully born out of pity? This suggests that Ben’s disaffection is still intact, even though he says to himself it isn’t. He puts an emotional facade over his true feelings.
This facade, and subsequent breaking of it, is brilliantly depicted in the also iconic resolution. Ben races in his car, which breaks down and he determinedly sprints, to break up the marriage between Elaine and her new lover, who is obviously seen in a much better light by the elders than Ben is. Just as they’re about to say “I do,” Ben pounds on the glass in a passionate last ditch effort, to which Elaine reciprocates, and she races out of the chapel to reunite with Ben, warding off Mrs. Robinson and the other elders in the process. A triumphant, joyous ending would presumably occur, until Ben’s disaffection is remembered, and the subsequent realization that his passion is misguided. The same disaffection is true for Elaine as well. She was pressured to go on a date with Ben, and only began to like him when he exhibited his own genuine charm, which arose out of pity in the first place. Her other suitor was also imposed on her by her elders, leaving her without a sense of free will. One can then assume that when Ben “saves” her from her wedding, she is only doing it in an act of pure defiance, and not for genuine affection to Ben.
Perhaps one of the most iconic shots in all of cinema is the final two shot in the back of the city bus as Ben and Elaine escape the wedding. They initially revel in their passion, only to quickly descend back into ambivalence, as Ben reverts to his patented blank stare front and center, with Elaine soon following suit with a blank stare of her own. They don’t really care for each other, nor do they know what they care about at all. They operate on a level of pure guttural passion, the kind that commonly proves fleeting. Given the rise of counterculture at the time of its release, the film could be seen as a metaphor for the large-scale defiance of the more rigid social structures that permeated the previous generation. It was undoubtedly unorganized and unarticulated when this defiance initially occurred, perhaps not unlike Ben’s behavior and lack of self-awareness. Given the notion that history tends to repeat itself, The Graduate will undoubtedly remain timeless, and serve as a cautionary tale for disaffected youth to at least know what they’re rebelling against and why, for generations to come.