I saw 'The Graduate' awhile ago for the first time at the Barbican and it was preceded with a Skype chat with the journalist, Jon Ronson. I found his assertion that the film and its comedy had not dated fascinating. I would possibly suggest that this is because the film does not feel like a conventional comedy. In fact, generically it feels more like a 'coming of age' story with some comedic moments.
The opening sequence of Dustin Hoffman's character Benjamin Braddock arriving at the airport, having graduated from university, sets the mood of the film. There is an extended shot of Benjamin's head as he is carried along the walkway leading either to the baggage collection point or to the exit (I forget), whilst 'The Sound of Silence' dominates the soundtrack. From the vantage point of this close-up, the viewer can see that he is preoccupied. The fact that he is framed by the white tiled wall of the airport, starkly focuses our attention on him.
The film is as much about the insecurities of being a twenty one year old man than it is about love and sex. It is one of the few films which successfully convey the existential turmoil that many graduates experience upon leaving university. The awful question of 'Now what?' I remember when I left university feeling quite overwhelmed. Benjamin's parents, although well meaning, are really out of touch with their son's state of mind. They throw an elaborate party for him to celebrate his homecoming. A plethora of faces from his past mix and are anxious to see how he has changed. Everyone has bright ideas as to in which direction, his future career path should lead. 'Plastics' being one suggestion.
In many respects, Mrs. Robinson represents escape from Benjamin's internal turmoils, a way of fast forwarding into the future. Although, it is apparent quite early that she has had her own battles. A history of alcoholism and a sadly distant relationship with her husband, who seems more interested in everything else than in her. Benjamin's relationship with Mrs Robinson is depicted as awkward then passionate. It becomes as ritualistic as any other aspect of Benjamin's life, stolen hours in motels and hotels and interestingly, almost zero conversation between them. Their relationship is not born of love but of necessity, a way of breaking the monotony of their lives.
Tragically, Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine end up having quite a fraught relationship. The climax of the film involves Benjamin running off with Elaine, subsequently destroying her relationship with a man who she nearly marries and the viewer is left feeling that he will lose interest in her too. Elaine as a character is a far more centred character than Benjamin, although her marriage to the other guy could be a 'shotgun wedding' as it is suggested that she is pregnant. On their first date, which is positively forced on Benjamin and Elaine, he attempts to humiliate her by taking her to a strip club, possibly hoping that this will also be their last date. There is a tragic scene in which the performer spins her nipple tassells behind Elaine's head and she is on the verge of tears. After leading her to this state, Benjamin suddenly relents and steps in to help, by getting her out of there.
Now, in retrospect, the film continues to resonate with me for a number of reasons. Visually, it is striking and there is a repeated water motif that becomes associated with Benjamin. At an early point in the film, Benjamin's dad rewards him with a scuba diving suit and he is invited to wear it. There is a beautifully memorable shot of Benjamin in the family's swimming pool, framed against the side of the swimming pool. He hates it. Also Benjamin spends a lot of time in the swimming pool, 'drifting' as he defines it (if I recall correctly). Water is a powerful symbolic element suggesting many things ranging from rebirth, purification but in the case of this film, it simply seems to bring to mind, the transience of existence and indeed, protection. The pool is a place where Benjamin can hide from reality and forget. I have also been wondering whether 'The Graduate,' like 'Easy Rider' which succeeded it, can be seen as a cultural treatise about America and the breakdown of the positivism largely associated with the 60s, as a result of such events as the Vietnam war, the death of Kennedy and indeed, the growth of post war capitalism and the 'must have' culture it helped to engender. It certainly focuses on generational antagonisms but astutely, highlights how alienated the young generation are and how they mirror the frustrations of their parents' generation. There are no winners in the America portrayed in this film.
The moral of 'The Graduate' could be that single life is less damaging than coupling up for the sake of social progression or the temporary relief of sexual frustrations. Love is certainly not widely evident in this film. A salute to single people everywhere!
Barry Watt - 23rd May 2015.
Skype is copyright to Skype and is a communication application or something like that.
'The Graduate' was released in 1967 and is available on DVD from Studiocanal. It was based on a novel by Charles Webb, which I haven't read but somehow, I feel that the experience may alter my interpretation of the film. I will probably do so. It is available from Penguin Modern Classics. My use of quotations from the film may not be exact but such is the nature of memory.
'The Sound of Silence' is a song that is regularly used in the soundtrack of this film. It was written by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. It's a classic song and can be found on a number of albums including the soundtrack album to 'The Graduate' which is available on CD from Sony Music.
'Easy Rider' was released in 1969 and is one of my favourite films. It holds up a mirror to the American dream and the reflection is not always pretty. It's available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Jon Ronson is a journalist and writer that I greatly admire. He explores the subjects that most people skirt away from, in an honest and humane way. He has written a number of books including 'The Psychopath Test' which is published by Picador.