A friend’s recent social media post about the late Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, a fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of communism and Western consumerism alike, reminded me of my latest viewing of one of my all-time favorite films, The Graduate. Like millions of movie aficionados, I’ve watched that film countless times, and it never loses its luster or its brilliance.
Its brilliance is expressed in many different ways.
Despite the film’s being widely regarded as a comedy, it’s psychological effects leave a searing impression with the viewer – or, at least, should.
Benjamin Braddock returns home with everything a young man could wish for in the late 20th century: not only a bachelor’s degree, which was still considered something of a novelty in the late 1960’s, but also one from an elite Eastern institution. And in the course of distinguishing himself both as a scholar and an athlete he has also earned a full scholarship to pursue a graduate degree, presumably at another elite Eastern institution.
Yet, he returns home miserable and disillusioned, struggling with feelings of normlessness, if not an incipient sense of nihilism.
Adding the first layer of incongruity in the film, Benjamin struggles with all this anomie amid the post-war opulence of sunny California, the bellwether state in the bellwether country of the world in the 1960’s – a materialist Mecca where Western consumerism had attained its pinnacle and where the values of this emerging society were expressed and practiced in its most congealed form.
Indeed, I’m struck by how the makers of The Graduate never lose sight of the sleek, chic techno-culture that was setting down deep roots in the 1960’s. It remains a palpable, almost cloying presence throughout the film, beginning with the sleek airport terminal where Benjamin is carried through the concourse via a conveyor belt.
The Braddock house is remarkable for its timelessness, especially its spacious, posh kitchen, which even after 50 years could pass muster in any 21st century neighborhood.
Benjamin works through much of his psychological angst in a bedroom equipped with a lavish, well-stocked fish aquarium, further underscoring the bleak sense of artificiality. And during a graduation party his parents stage for him, an older man stresses to Benjamin the lucrative fortune to be made through the manufacture and sale one of the materials integral to all of this artificiality: plastics.
This banal sleekness is carried over into other scenes and locations throughout the film: the Robinson bedroom where Mrs. Robinson first attempts to seduce Benjamin, the hotel room in which he finally succumbs to her wiles, and the mainline Protestant church where Elaine is married.
The Graduate is one of a handful of films that serves up a harsh commentary on the sterile, soulless consumer society that was emerging in the 1960’s.
But, of course, the most incongruous element of all is the antagonist, Mrs. Robinson, the burned out, cynical alcoholic wife of Mr. Robinson, the business partner of Benjamin’s father
I’m always struck by what an enormously complicated and compelling character Mrs. Robinson really is as well by as all the factors that account for her pathology. Based on the dialogue we learn that she was an art major whose passions apparently were quashed by an unplanned pregnancy, forcing her into a passionless, unfulfilling marriage with Mr. Robinson.
She is a middle-aged version of Benjamin, afforded every material luxury, though thoroughly cynical and even enraged – a confirmed nihilist.
What drives her desire to seduce Benjamin? The stark sense of her fading beauty and mortality? An obsession with recapturing her forlorn youth? A sadistic desire to drag Benjamin the rest of the way into the nihilistic darkness that envelopes her? Or a combination of all three impulses?
Her inconsolable sadness and her solicitude for her daughter, Elaine, are her only redeeming traits. She initially seems protective of Elaine. She fears her being trapped in hopelessness and cynicism that permeates her own dreary, purposeless existence. But when she discovers a genuine attraction between Elaine and Benjamin, she seems willing to destroy everything, even if this means alienating Elaine and depriving her of any prospect for happiness.
The Robinsons finally resolve to marry off Elaine to a medical student with the hope of repelling any attempt by Benjamin to win her back.
The wedding segment of The Graduate is jarring. As Benjamin disrupts the ceremony, beating on the balcony plate glass and driving the Robinson’s to let loose with streams of profanity, Elaine is finally and fully confronted with the banal existence that awaits her.
She flees with Benjamin, after he miraculously fends off the hostile wedding party, wielding a cross as a weapon that he eventually improvises to seal these hypocrites within the sterile, banal confines of the church and their empty faith. It makes for unusually powerful and riveting symbolism.
“Hoist with his own petard” is the Shakespearean quote that comes to mind.
And of course, one presumes that after all this success, Benjamin and Elaine will start life anew with a wholly new, improvised playbook.
But after they settle into the back seat the bus amid the bewildered stares of travelers, gloating fades into grim visages, and the viewer is served with the stark reminder that for every generation, despite its best efforts to begin anew and to avoid the failures of the previous one, reality invariably sets in.
“Til human voices wake us, and we drown.”
That is the enduring lesson of The Graduate.