The year 1967 was one of those magical years (like 1972 or 1996) that produced so many groundbreaking movies that I rarely pass up a chance to see one with that copyright date. That year saw the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, and Bedazzled, and closed out with my own my debut in November and thenThe Graduate came along just before Christmas. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards with Mike Nichols the sole winner for Directing.
I was twenty, just like Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) when I first saw the film. Having just graduated from college in Michigan, I found myself watching it through Ben’s eyes. The film was still fresh and felt comfortable from the very beginning. I found solace in Ben’s restless spirit. Much like Ben rebelling against his future in “plastics,” I was hearing the message without really listening. I watched the movie three or four times that summer, loved it, echoed the dialogue, but I’m not sure I really “got it.”
The movie starts with Ben landing back in Los Angeles after graduating from college “back East.” The opening credits roll to the left as Ben rides the moving sidewalk in the airport, the innocence of youth pulled along into adulthood. Everything’s moving forward; there’s no going back, even if you wanted to.
Ben’s parents throw a party for his graduation. But it isn’t full of his friends, it’s their friends. Adults. Ben hides in the security of his room like a kid. A couple beautiful shots through his fish tank are evocative of the pet of his youth and also his drowning in the world of adults that will be pursued later in the film.
Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft – only 36 when playing the role but acting at least 10 years older with success) corners Ben in his “fortress,” and he gets shamed into giving her a ride home in his Graduation present, an Alfa Romeo. Ben is put into an adult situation without the proper tools to judge Mrs. Robinson’s actions. He misreads the signals of Mrs. Robinson’s seduction. Or rather, he can’t read the subtext of her mixed signals. Mrs. Robinson enjoys this part of the game – “You’ll never be young again,” she tells him when she finally has to spell out her offer to be his lover. It’s hard to say if that’s a warning or advice.
Ben’s 21st birthday party is another party thrown by his parents for other adults. His father emphasizes the transition when introducing him as “boy—I’m sorry, the young man.” Ben’s gift of a scuba outfit and the ensuing POV shots show us how removed he is from the world of adults. Ben views the world through a small circle, looking only forward, with only the sound of his own breath in his ears. Moving only forward, without considering the next step is what causes Ben to call Mrs. Robinson and arrange their first meeting at the hotel.
At 38 minutes, we enter Act 2 to the same tune that played over the opening credits, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds Of Silence.” “Hello darkness, my old friend” plays in full over the progression of their relationship. The darkness of the room an important thematic issue. The silence of their relationship removes Ben, and us, from the experience. It’s like he’s watching it happen but not really living it. He’s still living his life at home, and this affair in a dark, silent hotel room almost isn’t real. We get the brilliant Simon & Garfunkel tune “April Come She Will” to show the restless passing of time. The start of the death of the relationship: “a love once new has now grown old.”
When Ben’s dad asks him what he’s doing when he’s in the pool in the middle of a summer day, Ben replies, “Just drifting.” The pressure of Ben’s parents for him to do something he treats as doing something personally instead of in regards to a job. This leads him to his first date with the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (the beautiful Katharine Ross a couple years before she’ll blow me away in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid). Finally opening up to someone his own age who understands his “compulsion to be rude since Graduation,” Ben finds the partner he could never have with Mrs. Robinson. The revelation that his affair was with her mother is one of the best silent moments of cinema in the past forty years.
At 70 minutes, we neatly enter Act 3 with another Simon & Garfunkel tune, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.” Directly after the revelation, this song emphasizes the fact that the journey to adulthood is not a job. It’s an emotional journey. The song plays twice consecutively and then directly again an instrumental version and that is followed up directly with another repetition. By the fourth time, the song is like any great break-up song: needling your soul, reminding you of the loss, but it also serves as Ben’s final call to action. He views this as his chance to grab happiness and pursue Elaine.
On the way, his Alfa Romeo runs out of gas and is ditched on the side of the road. This is a journey that we all have to make ourselves. It isn’t taught in college and it isn’t even learned at home. It is experienced by failing and succeeding. Ben and Elaine’s journey doesn’t end at the back of the “school” bus. They’ve retreated there at the end of the movie, exhilarated, both uncertain that they’ve made the best decision but confident that they’ll experience it together. The silence of the last scene echoes the drowning feeling of youth. Neither needs words to express that. And we end with “Sounds Of Silence” over end credits as the bus pulls away into the future.
Is The Graduate still meaningful? Maybe more than ever. Today’s cinema doesn’t make movies about 21-year-old college graduates. Movies like Reality Bites, Singles, and St. Elmo’s Fire are often too TV-comedy influenced. They don’t speak to the journey.
I might say that I work in “plastics.” My job isn’t what the 20-year-old version of me thought it might be. However, the journey has been more exciting and more continually life-changing than anyone ever said it would be. I work with mainly college-age kids like Ben. There’s a creeping population growth of youth that, like Ben, are “just drifting.” These restless youth are removed from the experiences of life, just watching them happen on videos, camera phones, and the Internet. They are “people hearing without listening.” This is the perfect movie to disturb their sounds of silence.