“I want to say one word to you. Just one word.”
“Are you listening?”
One of the iconic scenes from the movie that made Dustin Hoffman a star and the name Mrs. Robinson synonymous with the seductive dangers facing the new generation, this one word, “plastics”, defines one of the main motifs of The Graduate. The idea of the plastic, of the superficiality of the “American Dream” – this is what the sixties were about. It was clearer and clearer that the dream life of the fifties was a sham, that offered more dissatisfaction then fulfillment. Yet the older generation was still attempting to convince their children to join in – and the youth of the sixties were having a harder and harder time fooling themselves into thinking that that was what they wanted. One sees this motif of exposed superficiality throughout the film in various scenes and characters. Elaine’s would-be husband, for instance, Carl Smith, is the embodiment of the false perfection propagated by the ‘adult world’ of the film. Blonde, athletic and seemingly in control of his life, Carl is in direct opposition to the warmer, fallible character of Benjamin Braddock that the film’s main female protagonist chooses in the end.
Another motif that runs throughout the film is isolation. The youths of the sixties felt cut off from the world. Their parents held ideals alien to their own, the world was going in directions they couldn’t support and they were uncertain where to go within their own lives. They had no one and nowhere to go for advice. This feeling of extreme alienation is constantly referenced in various ways in the film. In the first scene of the movie when we see Ben, he is alone in his room, doing nothing, staring into nothing; and all he wants to do, needs to do, is be alone. Instead he is forced out. The framing of all these shots are so full of people the audience feels the same claustrophobia that Ben experiences. No matter where the camera tracks, space is barely visible between bodies. Naturally, the scene with Ben submerged in the pool can hardly be ignored when one is talking about feeling isolated – he is literally stuck at the bottom of a deep pit and he’s not sure if that isn’t the way he likes it. The character is constantly being shown alone, and when others do come into shot, he has no control over them: he did not invite them there, they invade on their own.
One of the main, explicit stories that The Graduate tells is that of a young man who graduates from college and is uncertain what to do with his life. After interacting with different kinds of adults, he falls in love but is still unsure where to take his future. A more abstract, implicit story this film imparts would be that of a young man, emerging into adulthood, who can’t see how the world he must live in meets his needs. Uncertain if he should follow the social flow or not, he enters into an illicit relationship that doesn’t fulfill him, but highlights what he does not want to do with his life. In the end, he realizes that whatever he does he doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of previous generations. However, he remains unsure if that’s even possible.
That is the question The Graduate leaves us with: can one generation outrun the history left by another?
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