While all films, with or without the intent to do so, disclose at least some indication of the state of society during the time of their production, very seldom do any films reveal material that is relative to both their own era and eternal truths. Through many forms (motifs, themes, dialogue, cinematic techniques), The Graduate (1967) captures the horrifying confusion that many experience immediately after graduating from college; and how that confusion equates when combined with a decade that is well known for it’s revolutionary social breakthroughs. For the few ignoramuses make an effort to unlock the “mysterious meaning” (that is indeed the opposite of how everyone else has perceived it), however, this piece can also be seen to instead promote conformity. Despite these attempted academic claims, The Graduate has withstood the test of time as a film whose content assaults viewers with themes of rebellion to represent its era’s desire to break out and live with the ability to make choices freely.
A product of the sixties, The Graduate revolves around the months immediately following the college graduation of Benjamin Braddock. Amidst the overwhelming pressure of his parents and relatives to decide on what is next for him, Benjamin soon finds himself having an affair with the seductive mother of the girl that his parents want him to date. In an estranged effort to find his own way in life, he eventually grows frustrated with his affair and instead falls in love with the girl that his parents wanted him to date in the first place; the girl he ultimately ends up with. Salon Media Group writer Robin Dougherty was not too pleased about this. In their review of this film, she states, “You don't need Nichols' one moment of supreme, painful insight, that awful, final glimpse of the couple ‘escaping’ at the back of the bus, barely able to look each other in the eye, to see that nothing Ben does is particularly heroic. Rather than striking a blow for self-determination, he ends up with the exact girl his parents have picked out for him . . . [The Graduate is] no longer a blueprint for liberation, it's practically an anthem to conformity” (Dougherty 1997). Dougherty’s view of this film (and perhaps her view of the decade as a whole, since she also agreed that The Graduate is perfectly reflective of the sixties earlier in her article) is a skewed outlook that is based on the general format of many films rather than this film in and of itself. The Graduate is not as much about heroism as it is about individuality. Benjamin Braddock is not looking to resolve some kind of grand injustice; nor is he out to immediately disregard all of his parents’ opinions just because they come from his parents. Dougherty is under the impression that because Benjamin ends up with the girl that his parents wanted him to take out all along, that he is indeed conforming. In reality, there is no evidence of Benjamin ever rejecting ideas thrown at him just for the sake of rejection. He simply wants to find his own way, on his own terms and without force or obligation. Dougherty’s win or lose mentality has not only done injustice to the film, but also to it’s time.
Rather than possessing what Dougherty seems to think is a standoffish nature, the sixties are described here by Lonestar College professors Susan Goodwin and Becky Bradley as, “the age of youth, as 2870 million children from the post-war baby boom became teenagers and young adults. The movement away from the conservative fifties continued and eventually resulted in revolutionary ways of thinking and real change in the cultural fabric of American life” (Goodwin, Bradley 1999). There is no animosity through the form of blatant disrespect for the older generation. But rather, an inspiring view towards the transcendence of identity.
To capture the emotional turmoil that these 70 million teenagers and young adults were going through, The Graduate possesses several key plot points throughout the film that are indicative of rebellion. Writer John Adamczyk discusses, “The events that take place in ‘The Graduate’ clearly demonstrate a strong sense of rebellion – rebellion against the upper class, rebellion against the older generation, and rebellion against the standard conventions of the American culture during the Sixties. The main instance in the plot of ‘The Graduate’ in which rebellion is portrayed is Benjamin’s long-term affair with Mrs. Robinson” (Adamczyk 2005). This is obviously the focal point of the film’s rebellion, as it builds a foundation for other forms of rebellion to take place. Such an act enables itself to be built upon because it is essentially Benjamin’s official release, and according to Adamczyk, “Benjamin’s first real revolt against his parents and the expectations placed upon him” (Adamczyk 2005). Not only does Benjamin object to the expectations of his family and friends, but to society as a whole by becoming an adulterer. In fact, the outward display of such adultery goes even further as to have rebelled against the film industry, as the MPAA could no longer dictate what a film could or could not be about as it did just the previous decade; a decade in which even elongated kisses between spouses were not allowed to be shown. Where then, is there any kind of conformity?
In contrast to Dougherty’s argument that Benjamin conforms by falling for Elaine, Adamczyk provides further argument that is on the opposite side of the spectrum. He declares, “[Another] rebellious concept of the film is Benjamin’s love for Elaine. Benjamin is not only uninterested, but vocally objects to going on a date with Elaine when his parents wish it. In fact, Benjamin only begins showing interest in Elaine after Mrs. Robinson forbids that he see her daughter. As the film continues and more obstacles appear in his way, Benjamin becomes more emotionally involved with Elaine until he is obsessed with her. When he leaves home to pursue Elaine, his motivations seem wild and unrealistic to his parents” (Adamczyk 2005). Again, Benjamin finds his own way. Does Benjamin immediately reject everything that his parents want from him? No. Would Benjamin’s parents have preferred that he take Elaine out after admittedly stalking her and obsessing over her in a potentially dangerous way? Highly unlikely. That was the path that came from his desire to be his own person, and that is what this film and this decade were all about.
In addition to the films content and Benjamin’s journey, which are objects of rebellion that are made extremely clear to the audience, The Graduate is also full of strategically placed metaphors for entrapment; entrapment that aids the necessity for any kind of escape through an act of rebellion. Perhaps the most persistent symbol that Nichols uses is water. Professor of English Tom S. Reck describes the sequence in which water is introduced in this film, “in Ben's room there is a small aquarium. In the opening scene he is seen gazing into it as his parents and his parents' friends wait for him below to welcome him home and congratulate him on his completion of a successful college career. When Mrs. Robinson, an attractive friend of the family, coyishly throws to him the keys to her automobile, so he can drive her home, they land (significantly) in the aquarium, and Ben must plunge his hand in to join the trapped fishlings” (Reck 2001). Depending on how intelligent you are attempting to sound, the use of water can have purposes that exceed even that explanation. These purposes can vary substantially, however. For example, one may argue that Benjamin’s glare into the water is showing his own entrapment and suffocation (especially since the camera is filming from the opposite side of the tank that Benjamin is looking into, making his eyes seem as though they are a part of the water). Another may argue that Benjamin is admiring the spirituality of the fish, which are eternally graceful despite the compact and pressured environment they live in (paralleling Benjamin’s state of mind). Regardless of what perception is made about the excessive use of water, it is obvious that some kind of desire to escape is present at all times.
Another ever-popular and in your face use of water in The Graduate is the infamous portrait of Benjamin fully dressed in his new scuba gear. As Reck again describes, “On Benjamin's birthday his parents try to drown him. Wearing their gift of a deep sea diving suit, Ben descends into the family pool to entertain the family guests with his nautical prowess. At pool's bottom, deformed in appearance by the grotesque mask, Ben simply stands, silently protesting their use of him. Water: suffocation, confinement, and conformity; are you getting it?” (Reck 2001). Although Mr. Reck just stated most of my point for me, once again, The Graduate still offers possibilities beyond this scholar’s statement. Naturally, there is the continually growing pressure that eventually leads to each of Benjamin’s severe actions, and this scene is no exception. When Benjamin makes an attempt to rid himself of this containment (or in simpler terms, “get out of the pool”) his father places his hand on Benjamin’s head and shoves him right back in. While his parents try forcing him to conform through small actions like this, Benjamin eventually breaks loose from every attempt.
If The Graduate were a film about conformity, it would have been unlikely to be ranked as the second most rebellious film of the Rolling Stone era by Rolling Stone. Nor would it have been likely to be named in the top thirty most influential films of the boomer generation by CNBC. When there are beliefs that such a blatantly non-conformist film promotes conformity, it is evident that these supposedly academic claims have been taken a bit too far. The Graduate not only relates to everyone at some point of our lives, but it teaches us all that it is all right to take the time to find our own ways.