The Graduate (Nichols, 1967) is an Oscar winning film about Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate trapped in an affair with a much older woman, Mrs. Robinson; the wife of his Fathers business partner and mother of Elaine, the daughter who Benjamin falls in love with. In this essay, I discuss Benjamin’s sense of confusion regarding his future; I will focus on two key sequences in particular to demonstrate this confusion cinematically, namely the conveyer belt sequence and the pool sequence. I will also explore how Benjamin changes over the course of the film, and how this change is connected to his relationship with Elaine.
As mentioned earlier, there are key sequences in The Graduate that dramatise the story of Benjamin Braddock. This is shown with one of the first scenes of the film, the conveyer belt sequence; there is a close up of Benjamin (or what appears to be a close up), which then zooms out to establish his environment (sitting on a plane), this is the audiences introduction to Benjamin. Furthermore a straight cut occurs and Benjamin walks onto a conveyer belt, with an off centered mid-shot of Benjamin just staring for a lengthy period whilst other commuters pass by. This signifies that Benjamin does not know what he is going to do with his life, seeing as he has gone through the education system of High School and College, with his only other educational option he has available left is applying to a post-graduate school, this shows he is not sure what to pursue and refers to Benjamin’s sense of confusion. The commuters passing by signify what Benjamin does not have, but what he wants. These commuters have a destination in their life; they have a purpose and know what to do next, whereas Benjamin is in an opposite situation. Using a long take, Nichols created an opposite meaning of what he wanted to express compared to the opinions of Bordwell and Thompson; “The long take can present, in a single chuck of time, a complex pattern of events moving toward a goal” (Bordwell, Thompson 2012: p216). As this sequence has little editing, the audience can only focus on Benjamin, allowing them to draw their own conclusions before he has even said a word.
Comparing The Graduate to another film that has a very similar sequence, Jackie Brown (Tarantino, 1997)has a similar yet an opposite meaning scene in terms of the conveyer belt sequence. Jackie Brown (the character) knows what she is doing/ going, something that Benjamin does not know. This can be expressed via her facial expressions which signifies she has determination to reach her destination; whereas The Graduate is different, as any still image shown in the sequence, Benjamin Braddock looks clueless and lost. Another film that can be associated with The Graduate is Fight Club (Fincher, 1999). As shown in Fight Club, the Freudian theory is exercised between Marla and Jack, this is sometime I believe is also exercised in The Graduate. It is arguable that in the case of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin; Mrs. Robinson is seen as a mother figure in Benjamin life, something that he may have craved for in his life. He wishes to seek his parents’ approval, which could be the reason why he is intimate with Mrs. Robinson, something his Mother and possibly Father never gave him. This is referring back to the Fight Club characters of Marla and Jack (Tyler). Benjamin is quite rebellious because of this, which could refer back to his sense of confusion and dramatises the story for himself.
Furthermore, discussing Benjamin’s situation and the involvement his parents contributed to his sense of confusion, personally I believe Benjamin’s parents are part of the reason as to why he has this sense of confusion about his future; for example during the scene where Benjamin’s parents make him dress up in scuba gear and demonstrate it by diving to the bottom of the family pool as an act of entertainment for his parents and their family friends. They force him to do this despite the obvious objection from Benjamin, yet he doesn’t want to disappoint them. Benjamin is tired of being humiliated by his parents as a form of entertainment, which shows the gradual change in his attitude and this contributes to the change of future he wants, to do something in his life that has not been influenced by his parents. This is an example of why Benjamin has a sense of confusion of what to do with his life after college.
When Benjamin is attempting to resurface from the family pool, an extreme close-up is shown of his father putting his hand over Benjamin’s scuba mask in order to keep him at bay. This image exemplifies how Benjamin is obligated to fulfill the expectations of his parents, whether he likes it or not. The black barrier of the diving mask symbolises how Benjamin is living a lifestyle controlled by his parents and also shows he is not allowed freedom until Elaine is introduced to the story, which changes everything for Benjamin.
However on the contrary to what I am discussing, the introduction of Elaine changes the whole feel of the story and Benjamin’s sense of confusion towards his future. Elaine gives Benjamin a purpose to have a future; she gives him hope for a different life compared to the one he has led so far which aids Benjamin in being less confused. To a certain extent it makes Benjamin realise him he cannot live without her, as can be shown in later scenes; for example when he is stalking her around her post-graduate College and he rents a room to live nearby. Personally, the film felt slower at the start, when Elaine is introduced the scenes are shorter and in some sequences the editing is quicker and more ‘action’ occurs which makes the film more interesting, for example; Benjamin rushing around to find where Elaine is getting married.
An important shot to take note of during Benjamin’s and Elaine’s date is when Elaine asks if Benjamin is having an affair with anybody, the camera stays stationary throughout the duration of the shot with very little editing present; also Benjamin’s face is shaded and Elaine’s face lit up by an outside light, which allows the audience to see she is the prefect partner for Benjamin by having an angelic tone towards her. The camera having stayed stationary straight cuts to the mid-shot on the opposite side of the vehicle where the camera focuses on Benjamin whilst he is telling Elaine that the affair is over. Benjamin has finally realised he has been wasting his life away, now he is determined to change for the better which reinforces the point about how Elaine changes Benjamin’s sense of confusion. Refer to Thomson; “The daughter becomes Ben’s one true love, despite her being embodied in the famously pretty but empty Katharine Ross.” (Thomson 2008: p340).
In addition to how Elaine changes Benjamin’s sense of confusion, during the scene at the zoo Nichols uses another long take which again the camera frames a mid-shot (towards the end of the shot it changes into a long shot). This is the scene when Benjamin meets Elaine (future) husband Carl Smith which leads me to believe Nichols was using long takes in order tell the audience that these are key points in Benjamin’s life during the film. I believe this scene symbolises a key point in The Graduate because Benjamin realises he could lose Elaine.
It can also be argued that the very last shot at the end of The Graduate, a tracking mid-shot of Benjamin and Elaine is shown with the camera staying on them for a long take. By allowing this long take we can see the reaction of Benjamin and Elaine as to what has happened and we are left with not knowing what happens. With this being the last shot of The Graduate, Benjamin believes he has broken free from his parents but little does he know he is in the same complex situation of not knowing what to do next. To a degree I believe this quote from Thomson best puts Benjamin’s situation with Elaine; “Ben has no judge, no soul, nut he has a romantic horniness that falls for every women he meets.” (Thomson 2008: 340).
In conclusion, my aim for this essay was to argue Benjamin Braddock’s sense of confusion and discover how Mike Nichols has illustrated this through the use of framing, editing and other filmic styles shown in key areas of The Graduate, such as the conveyer belt sequence and Benjamin’s parents. The specific shots and framing of The Graduate convey Benjamin’s sense of confusion, with other types of shots to illustrate how Benjamin’s parents use him as a form of entertainment for their friends. My aim was also to argue how Elaine changes Benjamin’s sense of confusion for the better by giving him a purpose and a destination, or what is believed, this is shown from the change in filmic styles that presented during the introduction to Elaine and how she has an affect on his life.
“The Graduate seems to me a mess, a film that cries out for thorough reconstruction and critical debate.” (Thomson 2008: p340).
- Bordwell, David, Thompson, Kristin, Film Art: An Introduction (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2012)
- Thomson, David, Have You Seen? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (London: Allen Lane, 2008)