Fresh Eyes: The Graduate
"Have you thought about graduate school?" As someone staring down their final semester of college, I am constantly bombarded with questions like this on a daily basis, especially during the holiday season. My future is uncertain, and the road stretches out before me, leading to who knows what. It's a scary and oppressive feeling, staring down that road, and it's one that The Graduate manages to capture perfectly, and what makes it absolutely worthy of its status as a classic.
The film focuses on Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in the months after graduating college. In that time, he enters into an affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), an old family friend, breaks that off to pursue her daughter (Katharine Ross), and then proceeds to crash her wedding when the Robinsons forbid him from seeing her.
The plot is a fairly simple one, and it's not difficult follow. What makes this film exceptional is Hoffman's performance and the way the camerawork, soundtrack, and sound design all mesh together. Starting with Hoffman, his performance is a strange one to talk about. A lot of his lines and actions are done with a stiffness, which in the current acting landscape would be considered a bad thing. However, the stiffness and absentmindedness with which Hoffman performs reminds me of how I behave whenever I find myself being interrogated about my future beyond college. On top of this, Hoffman manages to embody the same adolescent awkwardness I felt around women in his first few encounters with Mrs. Robinson.
Hoffman's performance is elevated by exceptional camerawork throughout the film, as the cinematography serves to help the viewer occupy a similar headspace as Benjamin throughout the film. Take Benjamin's graduation party near the start of the film, for example. The whole scene is framed through a tight shot focused on Benjamin's face, while the crowd of people presses in around him and bombards him with attention, praise, and questions about his future. The camera staying so close to his face creates a sense of claustrophobia in the viewer, mirroring how Benjamin is feeling as he desperately tries to get some time to himself, away from the prying eye of the camera, the audience, and his guests.
My other favorite instance of this type of claustrophobia is when the camera is inside of Benjamin's scuba mask. As Benjamin slowly waddles his way to the pool, the camera jumps inside the wetsuit and the range of vision collapses into a small circle in the middle of the screen. The audience can see the Braddocks and their friends talking to Benjamin, but all we can hear is the Darth Vader like noises coming from the oxygen tank as Benjamin's parents shove him into the pool and push him down into the depths below. Here the camera moves back out of the suit and pulls back to show him alone, floating motionless in the water, a metaphor for his current state of aimlessness and confusion. The scene builds on the sense of pressure and claustrophobia from the party scene, but this time with the added pressure of Benjamin literally carrying around the weight of his parent's investment and pride in him, in the scuba gear. It also reads as a metaphor for Benjamin's parents shoving him out into the real world, unprepared for what that actual entails, and Ben's utter terror at the idea of independence, and his crippling paralysis that results from it.
On top of the masterful camerawork, the soundtrack helps to build a haunting sense of isolation. The choice to use so many Simon and Garfunkel tracks was a genius one, as a lot of those songs carry a tired, sad feeling on their own. When coupled with the visuals on display and Hoffman's performance, however, these songs gain an entire other dimension to their sadness, while contributing to Benjamin's disillusionment and fear. As a fairly big fan of Simon and Garfunkel already, I don't think I will ever be able to listen to "Mrs. Robinson" again without thinking about this film, and the meaning of "Scarborough Fair" and "The Sound of Silence" have been forever changed for me.
Everything about The Graduate works for me. Camerawork, performances, soundtrack, sound design, lighting, all of it is wonderful. Within this wonderfully made film, however, is a story that resonated with me on a fundamental level. The pressures on me to figure my life out right out of college is bearing down on me, and a lot of what Benjamin goes through, aside from the sexual relationship aspects, are things that I have felt or dealt with at some point in the recent past. The Graduate left me in a devastated emotional state for hours after I finished it, and I am sure I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.