Monday, 30 September 2013

The Graduate (1967)

The Graduate (1967)
Directed by Mike Nichols; Starring Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, Katharine Ross

Rating: 4/5

In following up those cinematic classics that I’m somehow still catching up on, I recently saw The Graduate for the first time. I inevitably went into it with some idea of what was going to happen, but little more than an expectation for Dustin Hoffman to pursue a relationship with an older woman, to the sound of Simon & Garfunkel.

Hoffman is Benjamin Braddock, the disaffected young university graduate who returns from his studies to a summer without direction. He is swiftly seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, and embarks on a lengthy affair, but his affection soon turns to her daughter, Elaine. Yet this is merely the bare bones of the plot: it’s more complex than a simple romantic comedy, and the ending, notably, is ambiguous.

It’s impossible to complain about spoilers for a film that came out over forty years ago; it has seeped into popular culture, and been subjected to merciless parody. The iconic ending sequence is especially strange to watch for someone who grew up repeatedly watching Wayne’s World 2 (1993), where it is replicated shot for shot.

The critical eye has been on the film for so long, and it has passed through so many generations that its contemporary relevance can be questioned. Though a product of the late 1960s, it lacks even the counterculture elements we associate with the period, such as free love, psychedelia, or hard rock. Benjamin’s sexual experiences are not part of a revolution, and he remains trapped firmly within the rigid framework of upper middle class suburbia.

While there’s a certain fascination to looking back on a snapshot of the past, many of us no longer have the same relationship with our parents and the older generation. Do we look back at a history of steady liberalisation, but no massive social upheaval, and see further subversion as unnecessary? Do our parents, the children of the past, simply provide us with a system we no longer need to escape? Maybe modern youth have it worse than Benjamin; our coming of age is not so straightforward. We are no longer afforded the opportunity of clear rebellion, and are left to wallow in the established structure.

What does hold true is the portrayal of a graduate with no clear future, returning to inhabit the fading skeleton of a life that’s somehow no longer his own, and the dull resignation that there’s little incentive to do anything about it. As a graduate myself (Though my current social circle suffers an absence of attractive lonely women) I can largely sympathise with Benjamin’s predicament.

After all, what does the immediate future hold? The prospects of the graduate are numerous and varied. Will it be more of the same on a postgraduate course? Are we heading for the city for a mysterious role as an analyst or consultant (when we’re really just brewing tea for executives)? Perhaps it’s just going to be a couple more months playing video games in pyjamas before we make a final decision.

We still need something. A last hurrah before we’re thrown to the world of work and responsibility for good. Could the modern rebellion be merely the fabled gap year abroad? At any rate, it seems coming of age requires something extreme, ditching the world and obligations, the way that Benjamin does at the end of The Graduate. The whole film is an exploration of these questions, symbolically relayed through the central relationships. The choices the characters make in their attachments are reflective of the choices that can be made in all facets of life.

This is emphasised stylistically through a number of visually captivating shots and transitions that underline the sense of emptiness and alienation. Water (swimming pools, aquariums, and rain) appears frequently as a tool of separation. The soundtrack contains little youthful euphoria, but is melancholic, featuring repeated motifs that again, accentuate loneliness.

These are played during moments that could otherwise be seen as positive steps in Benjamin’s life, at the height of his relationship with Mrs. Robinson, and during his final elopement, elevating the drama above mere comedy.

His obsession with Elaine is far from romantic destiny, and exists primarily as an escape from his relationship with her mother, and a chance to give his life some purpose outside an unhealthy liaison that makes him feel increasingly trapped. Compared with Mrs. Robinson, Elaine’s character is chronically underdeveloped, though she responds positively to Benjamin’s pseudo-philosophical ramblings.

While she is disgusted to learn of Benjamin’s affair with her mother, we learn little else of her thoughts on home, and where she fits into the loveless dynamic of the Robinson household. We do not know if she as desperate to break free as Benjamin is. She ultimately follows him on impulse, having initially been happy to marry another at her parents’ request.

The separation from the character of Elaine forces us to experience the relationship purely from the perspective of Benjamin, who has put her on a pedestal and made her the object of his salvation.

Despite the vein of sympathy I have as a fellow graduate, Benjamin is at times an insufferable and frustrating character to watch, and ultimately, Mrs. Robinson comes off as more sympathetic. She is the one who is truly lost and trapped. Benjamin still has his whole life ahead of him, once he finally decides what he’s going to do with it.

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