"Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Los Angeles."
So says the pilot at the start of The Graduate (1967). I have studied this film multiple times with students, and the more I watch it, the more I've learned to appreciate the subtleties of a movie that has been much debated amongst critics. For instance, Pauline Kael announced that "The Graduate is not a bad movie, it's entertaining, though in a fairly slick way," but she mocks anyone who might want to take the film seriously. As Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures at a Revolution, The Graduate initially earned quite a few bad reviews, with Time pronouncing the movie "alarmingly derivative and . . . secondhand." Others were offended by the movie's satirical treatment of the older "plastics" generation. Ironically, one of the few positive reviewers was Bosley Crowther of The New York Times just before Kael used his pan of Bonnie and Clyde as a way to launch her career at The New Yorker.
At any rate, I've gotten in the habit of analyzing The Graduate, looking for the influence of the French New Wave on its camera technique, as Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses. In class, we talk about Mike Nichol's heavy use of glass and water imagery to create a sense of Benjamin's entrapment inside the aquarium and/or the swimming pool of his upper middle-class life in Los Angeles. The film opens with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) looking alienated in a close-up on his head as the pilot says the aforementioned words that calls to mind the jaded perspective of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero ("People are afraid to merge on freeways of Los Angeles."). Then, as the camera zooms back to show a bunch of passengers in a jet, we see that Ben's head is one of many in the jet compartment. He's another pea in a pod, a victim of his passivity. The scene cuts to Ben stepping onto a conveyor belt in the airport as Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sound of Silence" plays during the credits. Like the image of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, Ben is up against a wall, with the belt moving him blankly to the left (the wrong direction). Interspersed with the music, one hears repeatedly "Please hold the hand rail and stand to the right. If you wish to pass, please do so to the left." Dressed in his 1950s conformist coat and tie, Ben obeys the announced orders, standing to the far right of the screen (thus emphasizing his lack of importance). Then Nichols cuts to Ben's suitcase in the exact same position on another conveyor belt, implying that Ben in his desire to please his parents is little more than a package. As the suitcase works its way down to the concourse, a sign says "Do they match?" which suggests how difficult it is to distinguish Ben from anyone else. Then he walks out of the airport, but we first see him through two glass doors that read "Do Not Enter." He's smiling at someone (presumably his parents), but he looks slightly absurd since we don't know the context. He looks timid, obedient, and eager to please. Yet another announcer says "Do not leave your car unattended." Ben will do exactly that in the last scene of the film. Also, his violent exit from the glass church doors with Elaine in her wedding gown will contrast heavily with this shot.
As the film goes on, Nichols will often use a tightly framed shot on Ben's head to convey his imprisonment. When he starts to break free from his parents, the shots become correspondingly more loosely framed. When we see the world through glass, most famously when Ben views his parents' friends laughing and gesturing with no sound but his breathing in the wetsuit, often the view is absurd until late in the film when Ben bangs on the glass and yells to Elaine inside the church. I've wondered why Nichols has one later scene in the San Francisco zoo, but it makes sense if you think of how often one sees Ben stuck anxiously in front of the lens, or stuck inside of a phone booth or viewed underneath Mrs. Robinson's leg, clearly looking uncomfortable with his environment.
Even though the film has a comedic happy ending, I like to dwell in class on the grim implications of its vision. How can Ben break free? By becoming an action hero by the end and eloping with Elaine? When asked what happens to Ben and Elaine after the end of the film, Nichols is rumored to have replied, "They become their parents."
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