It is rare that I find myself utterly in agreement with every accolade a film is given. I watched this film two years ago and failed to understand it’s significance. The Graduate represents such a drastic shift in cinematic grammar, that to my less experienced self it seemed to be awkward, lingering and almost foreign in its delivery of a story.
Two years later, and I can see this as the bold masterpiece it has always been described. The opening scenes place Dustin Hoffman as a young man in the world of adults. He is unnatural in his surroundings, the camera thrown in his face and never leaving. We scrutinise him as an audience, just as much as those he is running away from. Hoffman’s short stature is exploited, making him seem younger than the man he is, literally dwarfed by the adult world. The lingering shots never allow him time to falter or pause, he is forever observed and judged. This established pattern is, of course broken up, by the infamous Mrs Robinson. Her presence brings with it jump cuts, split second editing and even less time to think. However the film does not present a merciless onslaught to the viewer. There are moments to pause as there are in life, and the film furnishes these in music. The whole soundtrack, including diegetic music is performed by Simon and Garfunkel, which lends it a cohesive quality rarely found in films where music is used so prominently. It is almost a musical in a way, the songs take centre stage, as all other sound is muted and you simply appreciate the lyrics in conjunction with the unfolding story.
The story seems to straddle the gap between two generations. The parental characters are perpetually nameless and known only in terms of their marital status, despite the inherent problems in these marriages. The young man Benjamin is no longer a child and must enter this adult world. He is forced into certain modes of life, his parents force him into a swimming pool in a diving suit, yet criticise him for enjoying the water on his own terms. The attitudes of the adults he meets throw him into their dysfunctional world of alcoholism, disillusionment and broken marriages. Despite all the circumstances against it, we are suddenly, halfway through the film, presented with a couple who have fallen in love. It is not their own wills which hinder them from living this out, but the manipulations and machinations of their parents. While both parties are desperate to live their own lives, and make a great show of their independence, it takes them until the very last minute to gather the strength to fight against this established regime.
The film also functions as an exploration of late adolescence. A period of time when everyone has an opinion on how “the best days of your life” should be spent. Benjamin is plagued with worry about “his future” a nebulous term that reveals itself less the more you worry. It is difficult to know whether Benjamin (Hoffman) is freed or trapped by his experiences in this time. He is always portrayed crossing the screen from right to left, the wrong direction. Yet can it really be wrong? Modern convention teaches us that he is doing what is right. He is defending himself and fighting for what he loves. Where is the line which makes a person indefensible? Does the power of “true love” really excuse his errors? The final five minutes of the film attack these questions in full force. Even once they have broken fee of their parents, and the expectations that have been thrust upon them, as they escape the failed marriages and unrequited love that they watched their parents experience, they seem to be, above all, confused. They smile at their reunion but soon settle into the fear that they genuinely do not know what will happen next. There is no one to force, guide or coerce them for the first time in their lives. The soundtrack switches into the very same song it played at the start, but it is a different recording. Is this change enough to stop them from slipping into leading the lives they ran away from? We can but hope.