The Graduate is my favorite movie and responsible for all my interest in studying film. I don’t think I’m alone in my appreciation of this movie. At Cornell Cinema’s Friday showing in the Willard Straight Hall theater, the film drew a considerable crowd away from the Homecoming Rally and other nightlife distractions and attracted an amount of audience feedback I have seldom seen in many modern showings. Not only does the landmark 1967 film still grip every type of cinema attendee — from the lustful in search of the film’s romance and laughs to the Brechtian in search of its political acumen and lacerating satire — it also speaks to multiple ages in its depiction of generational antipathy.
In Thursday’s issue of The Sun, Hannah Deixler ’13 wrote an opinion piece entitled “Answering the Dreaded Question,” expressing anxiety over the question, “So, do you know what you want to do after graduation?” — an anxiety shared by our protagonist Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). 45 years ago this question was equally depressing, particularly to the confused Benjamin. Both Benjamin and Deixler hint at the older generations’ aim to understand their offspring while harboring ambivalence towards youngsters: They want them to follow a path much like their own in order to confirm the choices they made at a young age.
Returning from college, Benjamin gets a baptism into this culture at a soiree his parents host to display his achievements in college. After continually dodging the aforementioned dreadful question, Benjamin returns upstairs to stare at fish in his room, admiring a specimen with five-second short memories and no sense of forward stride. Ben is then interrupted by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a character who will live in infamy. At this point she is Benjamin’s father’s business partner’s wife. By the film’s end, she is the mother of his love interest and an obstacle to his fulfillment of that love.
Mrs. Robinson drags Ben to her house, forces alcohol upon him and, after playing tennis with Benjamin’s ethics, takes off her clothes and offers sex at Benjamin’s request. After spending days soaking in his pool, Benjamin accepts this request and engages in a cross-generational affair marred by a serious disparity in cynicism. Mrs. Robinson, elegantly played by a vulpine Bancroft, is the obvious beholder of this cynicism. She tells Ben that she is an alcoholic, lost interest in all intellectual faculties (Art), married out of force and is obviously “very neurotic.”
It is from this discourse that The Graduate achieves its timeless cultural imprint: the stilted seduction, the under-the-leg shot, the famed lines — “Mrs. Robinson you’re trying to seduce me” and the post-sex serenades from Simon & Garfunkel. Beneath this, the film also achieved monumental cinematic influence. Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) told Charlie Rose in 2004 that he felt all his movies are enormously indebted to The Graduate. Director Mike Nichols pioneered the possibilities of a steep aspect ratio, toyed with European photographic style, challenged visual fidelity (Ben walks from his room at the Taft Hotel to his family’s home study in one seamless shot) and made the first film to feature a pop music soundtrack.
The film was also daring in its ability to create humor in virtue of a dark plotline involving a Freudian Mexican standoff between a mother, a daughter and a Salinger-esque underdog with few social capabilities. The daughter, of course, is Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), the ingénue Ben turns his affections towards after his parents arrange a date between the two. When Elaine discovers Ben’s history with her mom, she returns to Berkeley and makes arrangement to marry an approvable, square WASP whose demeanor and dress directly resembles that of her conservative Pasadena parents. A panicked Ben rushes to Santa Barbara in his Alfa Romeo to stop the wedding.
The second to last shot finds Ben and Elaine sitting on a bus escaped from the wedding post-annulment. We find the two characters turning their backs on materialism (Ben ditches his Alfa Romeo for the public bus), societal contracts (Elaine breaks the oath of marriage seconds after taking it) and the unhappy choices of their parents. Mrs. Robinson tells Elaine, “It’s too late!” to which Elaine replies, “Not for me,” rejoicing in her generation’s vow to not enter the club of bourgeois comfort and claustrophobic misery of their parents.
The Graduate is a film about generational gaps that asks the question: “Do we want to be like our parents?” I use ‘gaps’ instead of ‘gap’ because the film is not only about the rebellion of the boomer generation. Nichols takes careful measures to establish a universality of this question. Only one shot panning Sunset Boulevard explicitly shows members adorning Age of Aquarius attire, and the terms “hippie” and those referring to “non-conformity” are absent from the script. Clever cues allude to the gap: All adults go only by their last names, wear more gaudy outfits, enunciate like Bob Hope and drink decidedly more alcohol.
There is a curious motif that runs throughout this film: Characters blankly looking forward. This appears from the opening shot of Ben doltishly facing the airplane seat before him, surrounded by others passengers with parallel gazes, to the deep range shot of Ben rushing to the wedding that makes it look like he’s running in place. Nichols warns us of the perils of looking right ahead, into entering a culture we may not want to fall into. As I look around at my generation, fearful of an economy less conducive to stability and all too ready embrace the lifestyle and careers of generations past, I’m glad Cornell Cinema had a showing of The Graduate as the film asks the questions no one seems to be asking. In 2012, there is a definite lack of skepticism towards the industrial life narrative the majority of Americans will undergo. As Ben and Elaine sit on the bus, they are faced with the fearful “What do we do instead?” Our generation seems to use the failure of a definite answer to that question to rationalize entering a society that may bring us few rewards other than material ones.
Whether you look at the ’60s counter-culture as an immature regression from realities of the modern world (Nichols makes frequent Freudian visual analogies to the womb) or champions of self-reliance and liberation, we can all relate to an ambivalence towards aging. Ben says of his newly achieved adulthood, “It’s like we’re playing some kind of game but the rules don’t make sense and they’re made by all the wrong people.” I wonder if our generation will be one to try and reevaluate this ‘game’ or one to further fade out into the sound of silence.
The Graduate plays at Cornell Cinema's Willard Straight Theater this weekend.