Blog Directory CineVerse: The curious case of Benjamin Braddock

The curious case of Benjamin Braddock

Thursday, November 30, 2017

There's a reason why "The Graduate" ranks at #17 on the American Film Institute's list of top 100 American films: it's a masterwork. And it's now 50 years old, believe it or not. All the more reason to celebrate a movie that, while firmly entrenched in its time period, continues to resonate five decades later. Why? Because non-conformity, rebellion, alienation and the confusion of young adulthood are themes that never go out of style. There was a lot to unpack during last night's CineVerse discussion of this movie. Here's a roundup of what was on the talk menu:


  • It was the first to employ “preexistent pop music to convey mood and texture,” according to Slant Magazine.
  • It’s compositions were highly influential, using multiple characters creatively spaced together or apart in the same frame as well as clever deep focus photography to draw contrasts between characters and objects in the foreground, middle ground and background.
  • It was uncommon to use a handheld camera at this time; yet The Graduate often did, conveying great subjective POV shots and you-are-there type movements to bring us into Ben’s world.
  • It’s one of the first American films to use sound foreshadowing, where we start to hear dialogue or sound effects from the next scene but played at the end of the previous scene.
  • It adopted innovative editing approaches inspired by the French New Wave, including jump cuts, temporal cross-cutting, and flash frames (of nudity, a year before the “R” and “X” movie ratings were instituted).
  • It tapped into a growing discontent among youth and their feeling of being misunderstood and hedged in; it sympathized with the growing counterculture. It also felt topical, relevant and contemporary, yet refrained from mentioning anything contemporary, like news stories, events or movements going on in 1967.
  • The moving walkway: We see Ben standing still on a travellator at the airport. “What this stationery movement, perhaps, implies is the unwillingness with which Benjamin’s life is projecting him forward…behind him is a stark white wall whose color serves as motif for expressing Benjamin’s—and eventually other characters’—bleak and lifeless state of mind,” wrote blogger Abhineet Kumar.
  • Announcements from the airport loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are descending into Los Angeles,” is an inside joke, suggesting the vapid, plastic culture endemic to the city’s culture. “Please stay to the right” can be interpreted politically, as if the forces in Ben’s world were trying to herd him into a conservative Republican WASP mindset.
  • An off-centered character: Ben is rarely seen centered in the middle of the frame in the first half of the picture; he’s typically on the right side of the frame. We see him centered more in the frame after he falls in love with Elaine, as if to suggest that she has created balance in his life.
  • The scuba diver: We first see a scuba diver figure in Ben’s aquarium, motionless, small and submerged. Soon, Ben mimics the scuba diver in his pool, pushed down and suffocated figuratively by his parents. Next, Mrs. Robinson throws her keys into the aquarium, which lands atop the scuba diver figure. This suggests that the scuba diver is the “key” to understanding the movie.
  • Fish in the aquarium: they appear to be mindlessly moving about with a focused direction or purpose, at least from Ben’s point of view.
  • Claustrophobic shots: Recall images where Ben’s mother, father, and later their guests appear to be dominating the frame and crowding into Ben’s field of view, insinuating a suffocating, imposing and oppressive intrusion from unwanted outsiders.
  • “Plastics”: A word that suggests a synthetic, non-natural, artificial and false state of being.
  • Vacant, blank or empty backgrounds. Slant Magazine reviewer Budd Wilkins wrote: “Benjamin is consistently framed in angsty isolation against blank backgrounds—white voids in the plane and airport, the watery azures of fish tank and swimming pool—using the widescreen Panavision frame to pin him in place like an entomologist’s latest specimen.”
  • Black and white stripes: We first see them in Ben’s bedroom wallpaper, implying jail bars. Later, we see that his family has an awning in this pattern.
  • A predator in the jungle: Think about how Mrs. Robinson is wearing leopard print clothing and is juxtaposed with foliage, as if she were a hungry big cat stalking her prey in the bush.
  • Caged animals: We see Ben watching zoo monkeys embracing in a cage, an unnatural setting to them that provides no meaningful existence. Likewise, Ben feels caged by mom and dad and questions his purpose. 
  • The church crucifix: Ben and Elaine use it to lock the wedding party into the church, implying that these young, free spirits will use the older generation’s religious trappings to box them into the confined lives they’ve created.
  • It’s hard to escape the preset paths that our parents and society try to force us to follow.
  • The transition to adulthood is a slow, pathetic march to mundaneness, conformity, and empty values. 
  • Salvation lies in nonconformity. Director Mike Nichols said in an interview that this film was about “a boy who was drowning in things, in objects, in affluence, fighting, and then finding there’s no way he could fight his way out of it except madness. And madness was what he found to save him.”
  • Yet, we’re probably predestined to turn out like our parents or the previous generation; if you rebel or resist, there’s no guarantee of happiness—consider the expression on Ben and Elaine’s faces in the final shot, as they head into an uncertain future. Even with their escape, Ben and Elaine are likely to repeat the mistakes their parents made, perhaps with Ben or Elaine becoming a philandering Mr. or Mrs. Robinson years down the road.
  • We’re mostly alone in this world; think about how alienated Ben is, despite being surrounded by many people. Consider what the compositions suggest, often showing Ben separated from characters or isolated in the shot; even the final shot on the bus shows Ben sitting relatively far away from Elaine.
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Catch-22
  • Carnal Knowledge
  • Silkwood
  • Postcards from the Edge
  • Working Girl
  • The Birdcage
  • Angels in America
  • Charlie Wilson’s War

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