Why ‘The Graduate’ Still Resonates Today
Mike Nichols’ 1967 adaptation of Charles Webb’s captivating novel, The Graduate, involves a story that can still easily be applied to young adults in today’s generation. The story is centered on a recent college graduate, Ben Braddock, who, after jut earning a Bachelor’s Degree from an unnamed Northeastern college, returns home to live with his parents in Pasadena, California for the summer. We meet Ben in the airport on his journey home, seemingly in a daze. Throughout majority of the opening sequences, Ben is just as much a viewer to the happenings as the audience. All he can do is simply witness the crazed attention focused on him during his parents’ numerous cocktail parties and get togethers celebrating his achievements in school. Clearly uncomfortable by the incessant questioning about his future plans, he finally escapes to the solace of his room to stare hypnotically into his large aquarium, his eyes fixated on a small plastic scuba diver. This motif of the scuba diver is repeated throughout the film in a repetitive symbolic notion of drowning. Ben himself is drowning. He perceives himself as this small plastic toy, placed under water and seen as nothing but a show piece for his parents to admire and brag about to their neighbors and colleagues.
This symbolism is shown in a much more literal sense when Ben’s father boasts about the present he has gotten him for his graduation: a $200 scuba suit. Pressuring Ben to show it off to his house guests, he emerges from the house in the cumbersome suit, acting quite embarrassed and almost like a dancing monkey. There is a significant moment during this scene where Ben attempts to rise from the water after jumping in, but his attempts are futile as his parents quite literally push him under. Obliviously trying to show the use of the suit, this act can be taken figuratively to the pressure they are putting on the recent graduate. Ben eventually gives up trying to fight against his parents and simply sinks to the bottom, in a very noteworthy camera shot. This is a very literal representation of how Ben feels as though he is drowning. He wishes that he could simply disappear at the bottom, never to reemerge at the surface. Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting “Sound of Silence” plays as the perfect backdrop for this scene. Repeated throughout the movie, the song is both musically and lyrically a masterpiece choice to represent the melancholic emotions Ben’s character goes through in the film. The line “People talking without speaking; People hearing without listening” is representative of the feelings Ben has towards those around him. Do these people honestly feel satisfaction from their lives? What is the point of it all? The incredible phoniness and superficial lifestyle Ben’s parents and their neighbors live repulses him. He is searching for any type of simulation in his life to make him feel something – anything.
Along comes Mrs. Robinson. With her seductive and tempting proposal, we begin to see how this film is considered a counterculture film. The scandalous idea of a married woman engaging in an affair with a much younger man would have shocked audience in the 1950s. The idea of the “bored housewife” is seen here in Mrs. Robinson’s portrayal of another type of person during this time period. She, like Ben, is searching for meaning and stimulation as well. Thinking that the affair might fill a void that is left in her life by her neglecting husband, she propositions Ben, who at first is completely repelled and shocked. Later, once deciding he too needs to find meaning in his days, eventually agrees to begin their affair.
Once Ben’s parents begin questioning him on what he is doing with his days and what his plans are for the future, they pressure him, once again, into calling up Elaine Robinson. As the plot thickens, Mrs. Robinson makes Ben promise he will never take her daughter out on a date. However, once he is threatened by his parents to have the two families meet over dinner, he eventually agrees to call up Elaine. At first, he attempts to repulse her by showing her a horrible night out. Once he finds himself at ease with opening up to her, he cannot deny the chemistry they seemingly have. They are both young and naïve to the world. Both growing up in privileged neighborhoods, neither young adult know much of the world outside their college campuses.
The symbolism of the monkeys is another strongly used theme in the film. Nichols’s utilizes this sight particularly in the scene where Ben attempts to woo Elaine once more after following her to Berkeley where she attends school. During a trip to the zoo, Ben takes a moment to look at the creatures. Two monkeys are shown, holding each other and rocking back and forth. Caged animals – used for nothing but display purposes. This is how Ben feels. He feels that, beyond the cage his parents have placed him in, what is his purpose?
After a whirlwind of Ben revealing his secret affair with her mother to Elaine, her running away back to school, and Mrs. Robinson doing all she can to keep them apart; the story concludes with Ben crashing Elaine’s forced wedding to a short fling of hers to someone her parents found more appropriate. As they dash from the church and onto a public transit bus, they situate themselves on the back seat of the bus. In one of the most iconic shots in film history, Ben’s easy going smile slowly disappears and a much more uncertain looks emerges instead. Elaine, who first turns to smile at her future with Ben, sees this change and her expressions warps to match his. They are traveling into a future where there is no certainty. This compelling dawn of realization hits them in an incredible cinematic moment.
The connection of this film to today’s youth is seen throughout all of the major themes. So groomed to be the “perfect” student, much like Ben, students today feel the pressure to behave, engage, and function a certain way in society. Colleges all over the nation repeatedly stress the importance of being involved, holding a perfect GPA, and staying straight on a chosen path. Warned never to stray, students mindlessly follow the instruction of their parents and teachers, but for what purpose? More kids go to college today than ever before. Why is there such a stigma against venturing off this now seemingly required path post-high school graduation? At the ripe age of eighteen, students are pushed by not only their parents, but society as a whole to enter college, and declare a major. Following graduation, they are then expected to either join the workforce or continue to Graduate school. At what point during those four years does the student really have a say in where they are going? That is why so many students emerging from college are generally more lost than when they first entered.
It can be said that The Graduate is a timeless film in that it’s most obvious and major themes can be applied to audiences still today. Post-graduation, Ben feels more lost than ever. He finds himself wondering, what was the point of college? Is he just going to go into “plastics”, a job which likely has nothing to do with whatever he studied at school? Millions of students today can attest to the notion that, once graduated, very few young adults find themselves in the jobs they saw themselves having freshman year. In the rapidly evolving and struggling job market, adults of all ages are simply trying to stay afloat, let alone hold out for their dream job. So when does one settle for safety or push for their dreams? It is at this crossroad that Ben finds himself placed during the film. Elaine is a similar position, does she finish at Berkeley and attempt being an independent woman during the radical counterculture of the 1960s, or run off with Ben to pursue their strange love connection? These both cultural and personal crossroads are what shapes the overall nature of the film.
The Graduate, although released in 1967, continues to ring true and speaks to the generations of lost, stimulation-seeking millenials of today. What makes this film so brilliant is it applicability to graduates of the current age. Searching for any reason to feel satisfied, this film is a poignant commentary on the idea of being young, confused, naive, and “mixed up”.
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