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AFI 100 (#17): The Graduate (1967)

I know you've all been anxiously waiting for me to write about everyone's favorite older-woman/affair-loving/early-Dustin-Hoffman-filled film The Graduate (#17 on AFI's Top 100 list). Well, rest easy for the time has come. You might be saying to yourself (or to the dozens of friends you're reading this post with) "Ryan! AWESOME! GREAT! GRAND! WONDERFUL! But why The Graduate? Why this movie of all movies? Why now? Why here??" Well, dear sir, ma'am, and goat, I'm glad you asked.

"I'm awkward, but girls want to sleep with me! Hooray!"

Simply put, it's a film that has left an indelible footprint on the butter-face of film. It has inspired countless imitations and parodies from all genres and decades, ranging from the ridiculous Wayne's World 2, to Edward Burn's latest Nice Guy Johnny (not to mention the fact that Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock is the archetype for every bumbling, insecure Ben Stiller and/or Jason Biggs role). It's an undisputed classic of American cinema.

A lot of classic films are considered such because they embody a core issue or feeling in the specific time and place in which they were made. The Graduate, my friends, is no different. Released in 1967 during the middle of the "Summer of Love," the film was instantly perceived as emblematic of the 60's generation: A youthful revolt against their parents' stodgy values and culture.  

The film's protagnoist is the recently graduated Benjamin Braddock.

Exhibit A:

"I'm awkward, but women want to sleep with me! Hooray!"Ambitious and accomplished in college, Ben is unsure of himself now that he's faced with the "real world." The rub is that he doesn't want to follow the same path of his affluent parents and their friends. At his welcome home party, one of his father's business partners takes him aside and doles out the following advice:

I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Ben: Yes, sir.
Are you listening?
Ben: Yes, I am.

Ben's no-response to this now famous exhange sums up his, and director Mike Nichols', viewpoint of the time: the artifice of the old world is oblivious to the things that young people care about.

Near the end of this very same party, Ben is taken home by long time family friend Mrs. Robinson (the radiant Anne Bancroft) and he is seduced (SPOILER! OMG!). After a few months of non-passionate affair-ing, Ben starts to date Mrs. Robinson's daughter in spite of her stern "Don't ever date my daughter!" orders. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue.

I don't want to ruin the movie, so I'll stop there. The point of this here blog-post is to go over story points/techniques/tricks/etc that I thought were interesting. So, let's break all this fun stuff into categories, because I can tell this is going to take as long as Britney Spears comeback effort (oh no he din't!).

// Editing

Hollywood has this thing about making the cut between two shots seem "invisible" i.e. the viewer should not be aware that there was a cut and that the camera angle has shifted or that the entire image has changed completely.

This film is chock-full of instances where Nichols said "fuck it" and made deliberate choices to undermine this rule.

A couple of examples that really call attention to themselves are:

1) Ben's double take. When Mrs. Robinson nakedly confronts Ben for the first time, he turns around to face her and does a double-take (technically, it's a triple take, but who's counting?). This single moment in real-time is actually replayed three times from slightly different angles in the film. There's one turn from the front as if to say "hey what's goin on here?", one from the side to say "hey, seriously, what's going on here?", and one last turn from the back to put an exclamation point on this holy moment of moments.

2) The subliminal intercutting of Mrs. Robinson's nude body. When she stands before Ben naked, all we see is her back while she explains to him that she wants him and that at any moment, he can have her:

"I find you very attractive. Let's get down..."We remain on this over-the-shoulder shot of Mrs. Robinson to concentrate on Ben's somewhat horrified reaction. However, intercut with her promiscuous proposal are the quickest of flashframes of naked parts of her oddly-tanned, but extremely fit body:

Peek-a-boo! Blink and you'll miss me...Each time they cut to a nakey-frame like this, it only holds on-screen for 3 frames (at 24 frames per second, that means the image is on-screen for 1/8 of a second. Yay Math!). Each time it gets your attention. It puts the viewer in Ben's perspective as he tries to prevent himself from ferociously consuming her body with his eyes.

3. Summer Montage. This one roughly 10-shot montage covers an entire summer's worth of Ben's life. It cleverly depicts both the blossoming of Ben and Mrs. Robinson's extended affair, as well as Ben's directionless life at home.

The sequence of shots are as follows:

1. Ben infamously drifts in his pool, beer in-hand and shades on-face, as The Sound of Silence plays in the background. A couple of shots later, he gets out of the pool and walks towards the house and through the back door (ok, I condensed like 4 or 5 shots into this first one...)

2. Ben walks through the door, but shaazam, we're in the hotel room with Mrs. Robinson! And that door was the bathroom door. Double whammy! The camera pans to follow Ben as he walks to the bed and lies down. Mrs. Robinson sits down on the bed and starts undressing him...

3. Cut to a close-up of Ben's face in front of a black bg. He gets up and the camera follows him on a tight close-up of his head. We pan to follow him as we see we are now in his room. He walks to his bedroom door, looks at his parents in the next room, and closes the door. Still in the same shot, we pan back with him as he sits down to watch TV.

4. Cut to an almost identical close-up that begins shot #3 (Ben's face in front of a black bg). The Simon & Garfunkel song "April Come She Will" starts playing. We zoom out to see Ben lying in a bed watching TV in the hotel room as Mrs. Robinson passes back and forth, each time more clothed. The last time she crosses, the camera pans with her as she exits the hotel room. Ben doesn't bat an eyelash.

5. Cut to another almost idential close-up as shots #3 and #4. There's an almost identical zoom out to reveal Ben in his house emotionless as per usual. The camera pans with him as he gets his swimming trunks and goes outside.

6. Ben walks past his mom and dives into the pool...

7. Ben = Underwater.

8. He surfaces like a magnificent whale onto a glorious inflatable device...

9. But he lands on the lovely Mrs. Robinson in the hotel room instead. The music stops and the sound of his father's voice saying "Ben, what are you doing?" can be heard off-screen. Ben lifts up his head with disaffected curiosity to look back towards camera.

10. We see Ben's father standing over him as Ben lays in the pool. His father's face is obscured by the sun behind his head.

The blurring of Ben's summer activities from his parent's home to hotel room conveys many things (oh by the way, you can watch the entire clip here):

First, it highlights the meaningless qualities of the affair. Ben sits listless most of the time -- disconnected from both his life at home and his affair with Mrs. Robinson. Caldwell: "I'm ecstatic!"Instead of enjoying what should be a lust-filled trist, he displays as much emotion as Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell winning a football game (see right).

Secondly, the way Nichols seamlessly cuts between the two worlds gives us a more personal sense of how Ben feels as his current life's pursuits (or anti-pursuits) seem to flow together.

Lastly, Ben drifts in the pool and between locations because he is figuratively drifting through his post-graduate life. Oh snap!

// Cinematography

1. Zoom lenses and Zooming. Oh my!

Nichols uses zoom lenses and the actual act of zooming a lot in the film. For instance, the shot that takes place after Ben has confessed to Elaine (Katharine Ross) that he's been having an affair with her mom (yeah, that sucks). Ben walks out of the room and sees Mrs. Robinson visibly distressed having overheard the conversation. We get a close-up of her face, and then bam, we zoom out quickly to an over-the-shoulder shot of Ben staring at her as she says "Goodbye Benjamin."

By using the zoom, Nichols really exaggerates the distance between the two characters while simultaneously compressing space to get them in the same shot. Magic!

2. Intro Shots (post credits)

We start the film off by seeing Ben worrying alone in his room. His parents come up and obscure the camera's vision of Ben, enhancing this feeling of entrapment. At one point, his mother's back literally blocks the entire view of the camera.

Once Ben feels too claustrophobic, he gets up to escape. He walks downstairs where his congratulory party is in full swing. We stay on an uninterrupted close-up shot of him as he futilely attempts to find space and time alone. However, his parents' friends keep clawing and clamoring for his attention.

By using a long lens and staying on a close-up of his face, we feel as claustrophobic as Ben does. We want to see more of what's going on, but we are so locked in on his face, that we really start to feel like we're the ones who need room to breathe.

3. Not Your Average Rack Focus

So, that whole Ben confessing to Elaine that he's having an affair with her mother scene... that has a very interesting shot as well. We start off by seeing Elaine lovingly question what Ben is doing charging in her room like a young Teddy Roosevelt on crack. Ben drops the bomb. Elaine's spidey-sense goes crazy and turns to see her mom standing there. We "rack-focus," changing the focus from the foreground/Elaine's face to the  background/Mrs. Robinson's "shit!" face. Here's where the shot is unique: 9.5 times out of 10, we would rack-focus back to Elaine's face immediately to fully capture her reaction to the news.

Instead, we probably have one of the slowest rack focuses in my young, but terribly porous memory. It takes a full 8 seconds to finally go back in focus on Elaine's face! For me, this is Nichols' way of showing and not telling. By keeping us out of focus, we get the sense of her confusion. We can visually see the idea crystallizing in her head. We see the words that have been said from Ben taking root. When the focus is back on to Elaine, she gets it, and she's pissed. Hissy fit commence.

4. Frame within a Frame

One of my favorite shots is the first time we see Mrs. Robinson naked whilst en route to seducing Ben.

Did they show a shot of Mrs. Robinson fully nude as she enters the room? Nope. Too graphic. Well then, maybe they just shot a close-up of her hand closing the door to avoid seeing her naked? Nope. Too uninspired. Ok, I think I got it. How about shooting Mrs. Robinson sneaking into the room through the reflection of her daughter Elaine's picture? Ding-ding-ding! That is correct!!

Just to think, "Oh hey, as a precursor for this whole Ben and Elaine relationship later in the film, we are going to have Mrs. Robinson's seduction be seen through the reflection on the glass of Elaine's picture" is a bit beyond me. Well played Nichols and crew. Well played.

// Production Design

Glass. Water. Glass. Water. Water. Glass. That's pretty much the theme here. Ben is often framed behind or in front of glass and water to reflect (oh pun!) the entrapment and isolation he feels. Take a look:

Ya dig??

// Wardrobe

Let's start by pointing out the fact that the very seductive Mrs. Robinson is almost always seen in animal-prints.

A couple of examples:

"You're trying to seduce me!"Mrs. Robinson's predatory power over Ben is directly manifested by way of this slightly-exotic-but-more-often-than-not-gaudy fashion choice.

Mrs. Robinson's dominantly dark color pallette, is also directly juxtaposed with Elaine's lighter and vibrantly-colored pink clothes. If there was ever a more literal "light vs. dark" = "good vs. evil" comparison out there, let me know and you get 6 scooby snacks!

Elaine: Pretty in pinkLight colors a-plenty.

Another tangential fact of note is that the film only gives us the first names of the younger generation of characters: Ben, Elaine, and Carl. Even though Mrs. Robinson is such a central figure in the film, she is still only ever known as Mrs. Robinson. This creates a very intentional gap in how well we ever really know the adult characters, and Mrs. Robinson specifically (secret: this was just to fill this blank space!).

Benjamin's wardrobe goes through a relatively big change during the film. He starts with your standard uptight, geek-wad fare, but he quickly transitions into a more casual-cool style once his affair starts with Mrs. Robinson and he gains confidence.

Warning! He often times sports sunglasses and a cigarette in post-affair mode... so you know he's for real:

One last interesting wardrobe choice takes place when Ben has followed Elaine to Berkeley. After an extended period of light-stalking, Ben confronts her at a zoo (as people often do). There, they meet up with her current beau Carl:

Somebody has matching suits!

Notice how Ben and Elaine are wearing almost identical jackets - both in color and in material. Not only that, but the composition of the shot pairs Ben and Elaine together on one side, while Carl's back is facing the camera.

Now if Frank Langella's character from The Box came to you with this ultimate ultimatum: Look at  the previous still-frame and decide which two are the real couple (or die!!), which two would you pick?? I'd bet the 6 potential scooby snacks you might win that you'd say Ben and Elaine.

Oh, the power of wardrobe and composition...


(<-- Frank Langella from The Box)


// Sound

1. This Ain't Disney

In regards to sound, Nichols uses an oft-maligned technique called "mickey-mousing" a few times here and there thoughout the film. Mickey-mousing is where the action on the screen is synchronized exactly with accompanying music/score/sound fx. For example, when Ben's car runs out of gas in his frantic search for Elaine's wedding, we hear the loud, pulsating "search" music start to sputter out in rhythm with his car shutting down.

Right on musical cue, Ben's car breaks down (click the above image to watch the clip)

A lot of critics are abhorrently against mickey-mousing, specifically in this film, as they believe it unnecessarily duplicates what is visually happening on the screen. However, I am a bit agnostic to the whole thing. I find that in some cases such as this, it is more creative than just cutting or fading down the music in a similar fashion.

2. The Sound of Silence

There is some double meaning in this. It is both the seminal Simon & Garfunkel song that is used in the film, as well as a literal absence of sound.

a. The actual song is used countless times: for the intro, drifting in the pool, and at the end. It becomes a motif for the disconnect that Ben feels.

b. Nichols often times cuts out the sound completely. More often than not, it is when we are in Ben's point of view, i.e. when he has stopped paying attention, or when he retreats into the silence of underwater. Another example is during the climax at the church:

Elaine's family all scream silently at Ben, but the only words that matter are Elaine's which we hear loud and clear: "BEN!"

Scream queen...3. Overlapping Sound transitions

One of Nichols favorite way to transition between scenes is to have the audio run from the end of one scene into the beginning of the next, or vice virsa. When Ben first decides to call upon Mrs. Robinson to accept her sexual healing, we begin first by seeing Ben in his pool with a scuba suit on.

Here he finds the only place he can escape the incessant clamoring of his parents. Down here he can be alone. As we stay on an interrupted shot of Ben in the pool, Mrs. Robinson's voice, clearly on a telephone, kicks in. The two begin to have the phone conversation that leads to their first rendez vous at the Taft Hotel. We stay on this underwater shot for 10 seconds before we actually cut to see Ben in the phone booth. Check it out!

The emotional power we previously get from seeing Ben silent at the bottom of the pool resonates even more as the visual image stays on after the scene has actually changed in time and place.

// Ending

I think my favorite part of the film is the end [ACTUAL spoiler alert]:

"Sooo, what now?"A direct opposition to traditional Hollywood endings, it can best be explained as "post-euphoria." 

Ben has rescued Elaine from the clutches of her overbearing parents and "make-out king" fiance Carl. In what should be a triumphant moment of "love conquers evil," we instead see the slow realization that the two have never really had a meaningful conversation. Elaine glances over to Ben, and her smile quickly fades when she notices he's staring forward blankly. Do they have anything to say to each other, even in the moment of their greatest triumph? Cue "The Sound of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel...

The present is won, but there doesn't seem to be a happy future between the two. Much to their dismay, they might be heading down the same path as their parents, i.e. rushed into a marriage of passion, forced to give up on their individual dreams, and left with a bitter aftertaste later in life. It's a very interesting way to end the film, and apparently, it happened on accident. The original ending of the film had the two lovebirds riding away in the bus, presumably, to live happily ever after. However, while filming the scene, Hoffman and Ross thought the specific take they were shooting was over. They both kept staring straight waiting for Nichols to call "Cut!" He never did, leaving the film with a much more poignant ending.


The one thing that sticks in my mind is that Benjamin Braddock is not a sympathetic character -- though I'm sure he was perceived as one back when it was first released. He's whiny, weak, and directionless in the beginning, cold, calloused, and uncaring in the middle, and way in-over his head by the end...

Ben sure hasn't aged too well.

The way the film is told, and the ideas it expresses is first-rate, but I can only sit here and imagine how much more it would have connected with me if I was a young 20-something in 1967.

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Reader Comments (8)

what an epic blog!

very nice dissection of the film ... i love learning about all those little subtleties of film that really make the film what it is but are often not appreciated by most viewers

i also like the embedded pop up links to pics and scenes from the movie so i can actually see what you are referring to

what made you choose to do this? will you be analyzing other AFI top 100's?

a very long post indeed but what better way to distract me from doing doctorly things

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterits me fool

Ryan, this is a great post that demonstrates a lot of insight and thought. Can't wait for you to write a break down of Easy Rider

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMr. N. Johnson

thanks shuo!

jother. you have answered your own questions. g'day.

May 17, 2010 | Registered CommenterRyan Velasquez

Benny was definitely a passive lil sucker, and I initially spent the first half hour wondering......why him Mr. Nichols? But I agree that maybe being a product of the time would've made me more sympathetic. As far as the film overall, Mr. Nichols & Co. definitely utilized their bag of tricks, this movie is ridiculously clever. Love it.

May 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternikkia

love that movie! Man, what an amazing article....add writer to your logo!

May 18, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterbl

@nikkia. I was thinking "why him" the entire film to be honest. well maybe not at the end. but ya feel me...

@bruce. i'm just going to change that header to be "brown, good-looking, well-mannered, highly-ambitious, slightly messy, highly intelligent, charming, athleticly well-endowed guy" ... you know, to encompass everything.

May 18, 2010 | Registered CommenterRyan Velasquez

you forgot gross.

May 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJavi-Bear


May 27, 2010 | Registered CommenterRyan Velasquez

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