Monday, March 30, 2009


The last time I watched The Graduate I was around the same age that Dustin Hoffman was during filming (29, for those of you interested in trivia). I watched it again last night at around the same age as Mrs. Robinson (mid-40s, although Anne Bancroft was only 35 during filming, and that's it for trivia). All those years ago I experienced the film as the comedy/satire it's marketed to be, but age tempered my reaction. Yes, it is, in places, a very funny film, but it's ultimately an extremely sad, if not bitter, statement about post-war American bourgeois culture.

The film was released, and set, in 1967. Benjamin Braddock has just graduated from college and returned to his ancestral Pasadena home. From the establishing shots through the first half of the film he is portrayed as isolated, alone, and adrift. He walks zombie-like through LAX, attempts to disengage from the graduation party filled with his parents' friends, in fact appears to have no friends or social circle of his own. He is cut off from his parents' generation, the scuba suit in the suburban swimming pool just a literalization of his ennui. With the exception of Elaine, no one in his life even has a first name; not even a summer of sex with Mrs. Robinson personalizes her to the point where she can be named.

The affair itself does nothing to ground Benjamin, offering as it does only sex without real human contact. When he and Mrs. Robinson finally, at Ben's insistence, spend a few minutes talking, it only serves to show how cut off all human beings are from one another in this particular plastic-worshiping culture, rather than how they might engage. Benjamin's elders have nothing to offer him, and he can't imagine finding a home in their world.

On the other hand, although critics have interpreted the film as a statement on the "generation gap," Benjamin is equally estranged from his peer group. This is evidenced not only by the fact that he appears to have no peer group, but also in his character itself. He is clean-cut, polite, obedient. His disaffections are never turned outward. Unlike his contemporaries, he does not protest, demonstrate, grow out his hair, experiment with drugs. Before Mrs. Robinson he's even a virgin. His generation's preoccuations - free speech, free love, civil rights, Vietnam - are neither mentioned nor alluded to. His generation provides him no more succor than that of his parents.

His one act of rebellion, one moment of engagement, is his single-minded pursuit of Elaine, a pursuit that borders on the monomaniacal. He and Elaine in fact hardly know each other, and the fact that he feels so connected to her speaks more about the lack of connections in his life than it does about their relationship. The film appears to end in truimph, as Elaine flees the church with Benjamin to get on that bus and escape the marriage her parents have forced her into.

Look again at that final shot, though, and you see that this is as much a moment of confusion as it is of triumph. We see them looking out the back window, laughing as they are driven away. We then cut to the other passengers, turning in their seats to stare at the couple. They are isolated, cut off from the family at the church behind them and from the adults on the bus in front of them. This echoes the opening shot of the film, where a close-up of Benjamin's face pulls away to reveal the other passengers on the plane taking him home to LA, each in separate seats, each in separate worlds. The film dissolves to black with a shot of the couple sitting, staring ahead, blank looks on their faces. They don't know what to say, they don't know what to do, they don't know where the bus is heading. They may be "free," but they are also lost.

We end exactly where we began. Benjamin has achieved his quest only to find not the holy grail but instead a long road to nowhere on a bus filled with strangers. The greatness of this film lies not in the moments of pure comedy for which it is remembered but instead in the fact that pure comedy can be found even in this vast, desolate, uniquely American wasteland.

1 comment:

JA said...

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