Trapped in a California zoo: notes on Mike Nichols' The Graduate

[warning: spoilers]

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Los Angeles."

So says the pilot at the start of The Graduate (1967). I have studied this film multiple times with students, and the more I watch it, the more I've learned to appreciate the subtleties of a movie that has been much debated amongst critics. For instance, Pauline Kael announced that "The Graduate is not a bad movie, it's entertaining, though in a fairly slick way," but she mocks anyone who might want to take the film seriously. As Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures at a Revolution, The Graduate initially earned quite a few bad reviews, with Time pronouncing the movie "alarmingly derivative and . . . secondhand." Others were offended by the movie's satirical treatment of the older "plastics" generation. Ironically, one of the few positive reviewers was Bosley Crowther of The New York Times just before Kael used his pan of Bonnie and Clyde as a way to launch her career at The New Yorker.

At any rate, I've gotten in the habit of analyzing The Graduate, looking for the influence of the French New Wave on its camera technique, as Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses. In class, we talk about Mike Nichol's heavy use of glass and water imagery to create a sense of Benjamin's entrapment inside the aquarium and/or the swimming pool of his upper middle-class life in Los Angeles. The film opens with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) looking alienated in a close-up on his head as the pilot says the aforementioned words that calls to mind the jaded perspective of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero ("People are afraid to merge on freeways of Los Angeles."). Then, as the camera zooms back to show a bunch of passengers in a jet, we see that Ben's head is one of many in the jet compartment. He's another pea in a pod, a victim of his passivity. The scene cuts to Ben stepping onto a conveyor belt in the airport as Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sound of Silence" plays during the credits. Like the image of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, Ben is up against a wall, with the belt moving him blankly to the left (the wrong direction). Interspersed with the music, one hears repeatedly "Please hold the hand rail and stand to the right. If you wish to pass, please do so to the left." Dressed in his 1950s conformist coat and tie, Ben obeys the announced orders, standing to the far right of the screen (thus emphasizing his lack of importance). Then Nichols cuts to Ben's suitcase in the exact same position on another conveyor belt, implying that Ben in his desire to please his parents is little more than a package. As the suitcase works its way down to the concourse, a sign says "Do they match?" which suggests how difficult it is to distinguish Ben from anyone else. Then he walks out of the airport, but we first see him through two glass doors that read "Do Not Enter." He's smiling at someone (presumably his parents), but he looks slightly absurd since we don't know the context. He looks timid, obedient, and eager to please. Yet another announcer says "Do not leave your car unattended." Ben will do exactly that in the last scene of the film. Also, his violent exit from the glass church doors with Elaine in her wedding gown will contrast heavily with this shot.

As the film goes on, Nichols will often use a tightly framed shot on Ben's head to convey his imprisonment. When he starts to break free from his parents, the shots become correspondingly more loosely framed. When we see the world through glass, most famously when Ben views his parents' friends laughing and gesturing with no sound but his breathing in the wetsuit, often the view is absurd until late in the film when Ben bangs on the glass and yells to Elaine inside the church. I've wondered why Nichols has one later scene in the San Francisco zoo, but it makes sense if you think of how often one sees Ben stuck anxiously in front of the lens, or stuck inside of a phone booth or viewed underneath Mrs. Robinson's leg, clearly looking uncomfortable with his environment.

Even though the film has a comedic happy ending, I like to dwell in class on the grim implications of its vision. How can Ben break free? By becoming an action hero by the end and eloping with Elaine? When asked what happens to Ben and Elaine after the end of the film, Nichols is rumored to have replied, "They become their parents."


Dead Pan said…
Nice write up.

This is probably my favorite movie of all time. Not the best, but the one I most personally relate to while also realizing it's cinematic technique and wonderful style.
Thanks, Shawn. I could keep writing about the techniques of the film at length. Even though it is manipulative, and it has problems with a tendency to caricature older adults, The Graduate keeps providing me with new insights every time I teach it.
Richard Bellamy said…
FilmDr - I agree that this film reveals more with repeated examination.

When I first saw the film in 1970 (it had been playing in theaters for three years and I was a last holdout), I was touched by its portrait of a tortured, alienated soul, but I was not a big fan of the film.

I only revisited and came to appreciate it when I began showing the opening airport sequence to my American film history class so that we could discuss the elements you have pointed out in your post so well.

Then, over the years, I've shown more and more of the film, because I was seeing that teenagers really liked the movie and were very perceptive about Ben's alienation. They also love the creative cuts from the bedroom to the pool, etc. Once, without my prompting, it was a sharp student who pointed out the ambiguous nature of the final images. It's a great film to discuss.
Thanks, Hokahey. After experimenting unsuccessfully with films like 8 1/2, I've found a few films that almost always go over well with a student audience. Today, I'm showing one of them--Bonnie and Clyde. Also, Psycho, Some Like It Hot, and Donnie Darko all tend to yield more enthusiastic analyses.
Richard Bellamy said…
So far, with my students, they are always very excited about Rear Window - though they have to muster their patience for it in the beginning. They're so used to more recent movies that cut out the development and get right to the suspense and action.
I probably cater to my students' impatience too often, showing things like Run, Lola, Run (it is, however, a delightful movie). Perhaps, I'll defy the trend and show L'Avventurra next week.
Dead Pan said…
To me, the older adults have a caricature likeness to them really adds to Ben's sense of detachment with that way of life, while he is also heading towards that way of life. I think it works simply because we are viewing it through a young persons eyes.
I agree, but Mrs. Robinson's character especially turns fiendish at the end, when we see her snarling without sound in the church (from Elaine's perspective). Then we hear her say "It's too late," and Elaine replies with "Not for me!" just before Mrs. Robinson slaps her. I prefer the cooler Mrs. Robinson calling the police on Ben. Nichols doesn't really play fair with the adults, but one could say the entire film is from Ben's biased perspective, and no one aside from Ben is given much chance to develop as a character. The film's charm and limitation is in its complete solipsism.
Anonymous said…
Actually Film Dr., the one critic who I personally consider the greatest American film critic of them all, 96 year-old Stanley Kauffmann (who is still reviewing for THE NEW REPUBLIC!!!!) gave THE GRADUATE a superlative review. Only Kael is in his class, but I like Rosenbaum (whose New Wave link is much appreciated here)Sarris, and John Simon, even if the latter is one mean and nasty hombre.

"In class, we talk about Mike Nichol's heavy use of glass and water imagery to create a sense of Benjamin's entrapment inside the aquarium and/or the swimming pool of his upper middle-class life in Los Angeles."

Great stuff there Film Dr.! Sign me up for that class immediately!
Joel Bocko said…
It is a great ending. What I love about this movie is the way it mixes its romantic streak with cynicism and sense of alienation - it both appreciates and shares Ben's precious sensibility while also poking fun of it - and manages to pull off both at once. Without either element (though as a kid I only noticed the former, not realizing until I was a few years older how hilarious much of it is), I don't think I'd like it as much as I do. Had it been made in '62 or '72 I don't think it would have worked as well, but coming right as it does in the crosshairs of the boomers' coming-of-age it's perfectly-timed.
Saylee said…
I remember watching 'The Graduate' in a Cultural Studies class in college.. and had a very different perspective on the film then.

Thanks for this write-up.. I need to revisit this film soon.
Nice post thanks for sharing this information........
Thanks, Saylee and Los Angeles Upper GI.

I find that The Graduate holds up well, especially in film analysis class. The movie is very manipulative, but somehow one doesn't mind. The upper middle class parents make such great targets for scorn (and ultimately, Mrs. Robinson is surprisingly sympathetic, in her way).