By the late 1960s, as a result of television, the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Commitee) and the break up of vertical integration, every studio faced a financial crisis.
The only bright spots were a few low-budget films, usually aimed at the college audience, that achieved remarkable returns like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Midnight Cowboy (1969). But the winner in the low-budget sweepstakes was the independent release The Graduate (1967). It cost $3 million and returned $49 million to its small distributor, Embassy Pictures. This Mike Nichols’ low budget film depicts a university graduate (Dustin Hoffman), who has no definite aim, is seduced by an older woman, Mrs. Robinson, (Anne Bancroft) and falls in love with her daughter Elaine. On a deeper level, Ben Braddock, a smart, disaffected twentysomething sniffs out the meaninglessness and hypocrisy of the preceding generation’s way of being (the baby boomers), and then must make his own way in life and love without any inherited wisdom to guide him. Soon, an entire cycle of youth pics tried to capitalize on campus activism and counterculture lifestyles.
Expressive Formalist Techniques
During this period, Hollywood was forced to reinvent blockbusters and a mass audience industry; so, as auteurs such as Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes and John Ford started to fade, along came a new group of influential young filmmakers who became the new creative leaders of the industry, that broke with Hollywood’s 1960s glossy studio look.
Location filming became more frequent, even within cramped bars and apartments. In The Graduate real Beverly Hills homes doubled as studios. Also, USC campus, EC Berkeley, the Ambassador Hotel and the United Methodist Church LaVerne were Elaine is getting married in the end are real locations, providing added production value to a budget project that would have, otherwise, been too expensive or empty in mise-en-scène context.
Because filming on location (many times the streets) on cheap terms means hiding the camera in order to use the natural atmosphere of the space, long-lenses became very popular. In terms of camera work, long-focal-length lenses allowed the camera man to film from a safe distance on an urban location. The long lens became so fashionable that by the late 1960s, they were used for most medium shots and close views, whether filmed on location or in studio sets. In the final sequence, Benjamin runs to the church. It’s a race against the clock. He is trying to make it there before Elaine marries Carl. The scene could have been captured from the side using wide angle lens, but a much better choice was to use a long lens so that Benjamin is running towards the camera. As long lenses compress space, it appears as if Benjamin is running in place, and therefore it helps increase the tension of the scene.
Quick, large zooms and pans were hype at the moment. What today would be considered some sloppy camera work was raging among the youth pics of late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, probably providing a sense of generational separation that young people needed to distance themselves from the older America. For example, the huge zoom out with not-so-good reframing as Ben is sitting at the Berkeley campus, right of the American flag, is something that today would rarely be seen (only for specifically stylistic approaches) on commercially released films. Also, this zoom work usually ends on a fixed frame holding for a beat. Today, editing is more about cutting in motion and many of these just seem a little too long.
The zoom technique is applied and used for mise-en-scène reveals, shifts in power and to show critical moments in Ben’s personal development. For example, the opening shot is a close-up on Ben’s head; his face, large, takes up the entire screen. He looks worried, pensive. The zoom out then shows that he’s just one of many sitting on a plane making him seem insignificant, powerless. The fact that the zoom magnifies and recedes are a perfect parallel to Ben’s struggle. He doesn’t move and neither does the camera. It is only the mechanics of the lens only that makes him appear larger and closer or smaller and farther away.
During the same period, in contrast with the long take tendency of the immediate postwar years, directors experimented with faster editing, often montage sequences backed by pop songs. The Graduate actually opens on a very long take of Ben walking in place. A very clear metaphor of his life at the moment, still, while moving forward at the same time. As the film advances, long shots are replaced with montages (for instance, as Ben is traveling to Berkeley to see Elaine), significant of changing styles in society and how the protagonist is slowly becoming conscious of his own life and desires, participating more and more of the youth and new wave around him. A very flashy montage with quick inserts happens as Mrs. Robinson is slowly undressing for Ben and he can only think of her body parts.
The Film Score
Usually, when rock music is used in films, prerecorded songs are simply inserted at various points. However, in this film, the music behaves more like a traditional “film score”. Simon & Garfunkel were commissioned the task of creating the music for The Graduate. Although they wrote a few songs for the film (Mrs. Robinson, Overs and Punky’s Dilemma, which didn’t make it in the film), most of them (including The Sound of Silence) had been released prior to the film on the folk duo’s previous two albums (at that point, recycling popular music for the screen was not a common practice), but S&G played the music all throughout the film, conserving a central theme that acted as a film score and repeating songs over and over again. After all, S&G were never the typical hit single oriented pop group so prevalent in the ‘60s. It is specially interesting the fact that, although they are popular songs and not composed with the movie cut in mind, they are used in a film score manner because they carry the mood of the scene and even sometimes accompany the action. An example of this can be heard towards the end as Ben’s car breaks down while the guitar beat slows down simulating a dying engine.
The integration of full-length songs into scenes became a staple of American cinema. Film studios became affiliated with music companies, saw the benefits of cross-plugging movies and recordings, and made the sound-track album a source of profit. In fact, Simon & Garfunkel’s The Bookends album was released just as the single of Mrs. Robinson was hitting number one. It and the soundtrack album dueled at 1 and 2 on the charts, spending a combined 16 weeks at number one. Would Bookends have been as big without The Graduate to boost it? Probably not. It was quiet music about aging in the midst of a very noisy year.
While I find the soundtrack isn’t particularly appropriate tonally in some places (for example, the abuse of Scarborough Fair used in both situations: when Ben is losing everything and when Ben is hopeful and moving to Berkeley), in those days folk music was Pure Art, and anybody who dared to say otherwise was (like the Simon & Garfunkel song says): “So uncultured, you say Dylan, and he thinks you’re talking ‘bout Dylan Thomas, whoever he was”. Without the soundtrack, the movie wouldn’t have been as popular. And with the soundtrack, nobody would dare to criticize it.
A Counterculture Film?
With diminishing profits from blockbusters, the Hollywood industry tried to woo the younger generation with countercultural films. Producers learnt that half of all moviegoers were aged 16 to 24. The Graduate has since been memorialized as one of the signature films of the ‘60s, but in many ways it actually stands well apart from the youth-driven revolt that the decade has come to represent. Whilst student movements arguing for U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam were taking the streets, this film’s post-college dissatisfaction rebellion seems so small in comparison. I fail to see how The Graduate qualifies as the exciting new experience it has been cracked up to be. Basically, it operates as a giant confidence trick, with flash shots of discreet nudity and a handful of irrelevant protest songs to turn it into a symbol of student revolt. But this story of a virginal young man and his initiation into the mysteries of sex by an older woman is as old as the history of Hollywood sex comedy and the days when Cary Grant accepted the invitation to come up and see Mae West sometime.
And for all its air of uninhibited insolence, it ends with the triumph of “true love” (though not a romantic love story at all). An ending that, in my opinion, is unrealistic and forced into the movie for the likeness of a broader audience. Elaine is about as one-dimensional as a Disney princess of that era, but she is an educated, young woman and I find it very difficult to understand that she would run off with a guy that slept with her own mother.
But… is it really a nice Hollywood ending?
That Elaine leaves her wedding to be with him only makes sense if we concede that she is running away from marriage and her family, not to Ben. Only in this case it would serve as a counterculture example of rebellion. And, in fact, they take the first bus they see, not knowing where it will take them because their future is not the point. They will probably separate months after, after all they have nothing to talk about, they just seem absorbed in the moment and the feeling of not becoming their parents.
But what is going on with Ben? Ben falls into bed with Mrs. Robinson because he has nothing better to do and can’t help himself, not because he believes in any kind of libertinism. He goes from committing acts of daring out of pure post-college boredom to improvising a happy ending with little more than his heart to guide him. It’s progress, and yet still remarkably old-fashioned.
Benjamin is finally a loser and not a rebel. He is also self-involved, and has a lack of respect for the women in his life that is borderline misogynistic. He doesn’t embrace transgression, reject society, make his own rules, or find himself as a result of it. But maybe this is exactly how youth felt back in the day. Children of a generation that had it all but love.
To me, what is counterculture about this film is not the plot, or even the theme, it is the ‘how’. How it is treated. Comedy that lies within the character instead of the situation (his apathetic expression and youthful despair). A situation that, although not new, is now portrayed as a possibility, not only as a gag. The story of Ben and Mrs. Robinson and her daughter Elaine is taken seriously, humanely, not treated like the striptease Ben takes Elaine to in an effort to alienate her once and for all. The early ‘60s saw a new frankness about sexual behavior, accelerated by the invention of the birth-control pill and changing views of women’s roles. At the time, The Graduate seemed miles ahead of everything else in attitude and understanding. The characters are based on real life society, not only created for the audience’s amusement, hence they are complex and interesting (except for Elaine, who I already deemed previously as one-dimensional). Mrs. Robinson (who doesn’t even have a first name), for example, is the only adult character in the movie, the only person with whom one could have a conversation. She has no one to talk to, and it is killing her. She retreats into decadence with Benjamin, who is the perfect choice because he, as a representative of youth of the time, has not yet found a voice to be able to say anything – and that’s killing him. In the end, Ben and Elaine get on the bus – and stare in silence because they have nothing to say. And that is what is counterculture about it: that it portrays the reality of the time with no artifice, instead of singing about it in a musical.
“Hollywood now is run by Wall St. and Madison Ave., who demand ‘Sex and Violence’”
once wrote John Ford.
The counterculture also played a role in sustaining the New Left arguing for more domestic social change. In fact, what was radical about the film is the love (and lust) story, not what it has to say about the greater world. It’s a domestic depiction of relationships that are shifting (between parents and their offspring mainly), and it goes to great lengths to distance Ben Braddock from any of the explicit modes of ‘60s. But still, at a time when plenty of 21-year-olds were being sucked into movements and lifestyle choices that would define the era, Ben Braddock just wants to sit around and drink Olympia. In this, he is probably a lot more like his scorned parents.
The Graduate is a critique against a materialistic and hypocrite baby boom generation, but it does not offer a solution to a youth that would ultimately become their parents.