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The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967)     Notes    Stasia McGehee 10/5/97

How are Ben, Elaine, Mrs. Robinson, and Ben’s parents defined in the film? Mrs. Robinson frequently appears in serpentine animal skins of various stripes and patched patterns. The entrance of her house functions as a giant wet bar. Dimly lit, the setting could have been that of a nightclub.

Ben’s parents - Their home is bright, shiny, and new. The theme of plastic recurs; the pool furniture is bright plastic; reflections from the pool are dazzling. Eyes are often veiled behind the dark plastic orbs of sunglasses. The father, in his shorts and sunglasses, cuts a ridiculous figure, a stereotype of the modern day tourist.

Ben - The boyishly inept Ben initially appears in ill-fitting clothes that make him seem even smaller. At first he doesn’t smoke, and is hesitant with Mrs. Robinson. By the time he meets Elaine, he is more worldly, smoking as he takes her to a strip joint. His dark sunglasses and his newfound habit of idly lounging in the pool of his parents represents his fall from boyish innocence as he is nearly subsumed by the establishment. Towards the end, after falling in love with Ellen, he loses his shades, and his cool facade, as he maniacally chases her through Berkeley.

Elaine is a wholesome version of her mother, Mrs. Robinson. Yet she is not naive, else she may not have never suspected Ben’s affair when the entire hotel staff addressed him as an alias. Elaine’s room, unlike the rest of the Robinson abode, is white and uncluttered. Whereas her mother is usually depicted indoors and solitary, Elaine is often seen outside and with friends. A turning point in her relation with Ben is emphasized as they heartily consume fast-food, the communion of their generation.

The dramatic structure of this film. Major plot points that establish conflict, spinning the story in new directions: Unlike Medium Cool, the dramatic structure of this film is pronounced, with definite plot points, climaxes, and resolutions. The first plot point that establishes the conflict throughout the rest of the film is Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of Ben. The second plot point is when Ben meets the daughter Elaine and takes her out begrudgingly, in accordance with his parent’s wishes, but against Mrs. Robinson’s wishes. They fall in love, so Mrs. Robinson tries to sabotage the relationship by revealing her illicit affair with the young Ben. In a climactic moment, Ben intercepts Elaine, so as to reveal the truth himself, before Mrs. Robinson does. Horrified, Elaine shuns him. The rest of the story entails Ben’s quest for Elaine. He finds her, and they vow their affection for one another, but a crisis ensues when the affair is revealed to Mr. Robinson, as well as Ben’s parents, resulting in Ben’s banishment from the Robinson estate. The climax occurs at the altar, as Ben rescues her from the sterility of an arranged marriage.

Water Imagery Ben’s encasement in a Black Rubber suit signifies his claustrophobia in the plush surroundings of an older generation. Gasping for air, he is buried alive under his parent’s expectations. The fish tank in his room offers him opportunity to contemplate his circumscribed fate. When Mrs. Robinson forces him to fish his keys out of the tank, she is forcing him deeper into a state of entrapment. The pool represents the futility of his achievements, as well as the escapist tendencies of his upper middle class environment. After building this paradise, the father hypocritically chides Ben for reveling in it. The raft "feels good" but ultimately affords no autonomy within his parent’s bourgeois construction, as the water relentlessly envelopes him.

How does the camerawork entrap Ben? When he takes home Mrs. Robinson he is framed within the triangle of her legs. In the diving scene, we are trapped in a first person perspective behind his mask, affording an overwhelming sense of alienation and anxiety. In the climactic wedding scene, Ben is trapped behind the glass, a scene foreshadowed at the zoo, where he identifies with a chimp couple behind glass. While driving he is framed by the windshield.

Two noteworthy editing sequences: The first most obvious is when Mrs. Robinson undresses before Ben. Images of parts of her quickly flash onto the screen in rapid succession, emphasizing his racing confusion. Another editing sequence concerns his lounging on the pool raft, that is transformed into a bedroom scene. Upon emerging from the pool, he walks directly into the hotel room where she awaits him.

The main themes of alienation and angst of American youth, of lack of communication, are reinforced by Ben’s ennui, his impotence in a world drafted by his parents. Hence his instant bond with Elaine, also circumscribed by parental demands. Although apolitical, their personal upper-middle class dilemma is situated within the backdrop of Berkeley student unrest. Ben’s inability to communicate with his parent’s generation is emphasized by their masque-like appearance, their countenances obscured behind the goggles of their sunglasses. Even his attempt to have a conversation with his lover is thwarted. In both his relationship with his lover and his parents, Ben does not enjoy a relationship of equality. Neither Mrs. Robinson nor his parents are interested in a mutual exchange of ideas, but rather order him around in barking commands.


This page last updated on December 7th, 1997.
Copyright 1997 Stasia McGehee.

Written for History of Cinema, F/TV-042.-0IL, DeAnza College, Cupertino, CA, Fall 1997.