Perched at the intersection of swinging ‘60s tilt-a-whirl and ‘70s out-of-control social carousel tilted on edge, Mike Nichols’ epochal The Graduate is largely able to plumb the depths of the liminal space where liberation over-ignited into askew, free-associative pandemonium before curdling into apocalyptic anxiety and eventually lethargy. Right from the beginning, when recent college graduate Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is traipsed around a welcoming party his parents throw him and the camera absolutely manhandles him, the film torments itself with an unshakeable apprehension about humans who interact more like daydreaming passer-bys than involved participants in life. The sequence, filmed in one-take, centers a wide-screen vista that compresses Ben’s head by lobbing off the burnt ends of his neck and hair while extending the frame laterally across the eons of bourgeois space occupied by the interlopers in his parents’ house. These visitors form a menagerie of false, inebriated camaraderie who Ben is faintly antagonistic to, all of them ensnared in the vise of upper-class moorings. Suggesting his parents as invasive, unknowable spaces by avoiding their faces in the frame when they first push Ben out into the party, the film visualizes the trenches of adulthood as quotidian spaces inscribed with recesses of existential anxiety.
At one point while the camera is broaching Ben’s discomfited demeanor via its very formalism, he turns away and the camera follows, literalizing the American fixation on cameras that perceptually moor themselves to agency-driven main characters. However, Nichols has other ideas. An unseen upper-middle-class viper’s arm itself broaches the frame and pulls Benjamin and, more importantly, the camera itself, back for a second helping of milquetoast networking turned seventh circle of hell. The camera adopts a position not of support, acquiescent to the protagonist, but as a combative participant in this chaos fighting for its own life, or simply to etch out stable space to view Benjamin in a permanently unsettled environment.
Already, the film is so breathlessly churlish about classical Hollywood tradition and so winded in its head-strong rush to disobey the unspoken assumptions of its cinematic forebears that you’d be hard-pressed to stop and note just how radical it is to disrupt Benjamin’s implicit camera control from him. No more does the camera coax out the inner emotions of the protagonist or acquiesce to his agency as the character acts as judge, jury, and executioner for the passive world around him. Here, the camera itself judges Benjamin’s milquetoast interpretations of “social rebellion” which are, throughout the film, similarly approached skeptically rather than empathetically by a film that is more interested in exploring Benjamin than enjoining itself to his failed, lazy-day mischief.
Blithely enshrining the queen of the viper’s nest, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), in a venomous shot of her arched leg ready to constrict Benjamin in the background, The Graduate’s most feral gestures are those most willing to humanize the middle-aged woman who could so easily be written off as a seductress or a femme-fatale for the ages. She woos the uncomfortable Benjamin, but she also provides his only real source of genuine human contact, particularly contextualized against his indifferent, negligible relationship to Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (Katharine Ross). The trite reading of the plot is a quasi-comic romantic triangle with tragic implications, but what is really at stake is the nature of human connection indebted to and imperiled by social moorings in a time period that seemed rebellious for so many but was in reality shackled to many of the bourgeois value structures and social rituals. The vivacious, lively, rambunctious Mrs. Robinson, although hardly a hero, may be the most punished of all, striking out and disputing social convention by bedding a younger, aimless man. She wields her wisened body as a weapon for human interaction, itself necessarily undeveloped and undercut because even she cannot escape her sex-first understanding of genuine connection.
Not that the film truly endears itself to Mrs. Robinson, or to anyone, which is the fault of a mismanaged screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry that often mistakes smugness for a wry sensibility. Certainly, the film is infected with a little too much of its protagonist’s own malarial malaise, curdling a critique of ineffectual detachment into a work that always holds its characters at a distance as the film exhibits its own symptoms of Ben’s syndrome. There’s an arch, somewhat stuffy, even arrogant tone to the picture, almost as though this Nostradamus has already prefigured its own conclusion early into the picture and is simply connecting the dots on the way there, patting its back all the way. Portions of the script reek of a knowing self-importance, shot-through with a “this isn’t your father’s” picture urbane detachment that, for all its feistiness, fails to suggest the live-wire, perpetually reconfigurable Bonnie and Clyde from the same year (to say nothing of comparatively unknown works from the same time like the always-renegotiating-itself Faces from John Cassavetes).
But The Graduate is a formal achievement more than a masterpiece of writing, and it is difficult to fault the brittle menagerie of framing and editing lesions that the film resurrects from the French New Wave. What ultimately separates that movement from The Graduate is that Godard et al nourished a legitimately self-critical awareness of their own irresponsible willingness to endorse their characters’ disaffected, hollowed-out attitudes. They relied on nearly broken formal styles and narrative structures to actually sabotage, and thus elevate, their films with abrasive formal mechanics that mimicked the insoluble attitudes of the characters until the prospect of treating the films as empathetic narratives at all became dubious to say the least. They enlivened their films intellectually by throwing them into a tension of opposites and irreconcilable visual and narrative tensions that drew attention to themselves and thus forced the audience to complement, combat, and cope with them. While Nichols and his underlings cannot hold a candle to Godard or his cronies, the snap, crackle, and strangle of Robert Surtees’ camerawork and, especially, Sam O’Steen’s editing display a hungry desire to bullet cinema into a future that the film, in its harrowing final image, acknowledges is forever uncertain.
So while the structurally unhinged screenplay bifurcates the story between Ben mismanaging relationships with mother and daughter (part one) and attempting to reconnect the pieces of his relationship with Elaine (part two), it is the formal mechanics of the film that truly externalize Benjamin’s moral compromise by refusing to coagulate around continuity logic. In the film’s most famous and stylistically audacious montage (and not simply because it is set to “The Sounds of Silence”), the film dissolves space and compresses time by cutting discontinuously as Benjamin sleeps on a matt in his family pool. The discontinuity of the cuts essentially draw attention to and jeopardize the passage of time, as his disparate positioning in each fade throws his temporal existence into perpetual destabilization and we lose any sense of how long his poolside summer has been dragging on.
From there, he rises and enters his house, but a match-on-action suggests he has not truly been roused form his existential slumber. Walking into his house, the film then unfurls Benjamin across time and space by cutting from him walking into his house to him in the same outfit walking into the hotel room where he meets Mrs. Robinson for their illicit affairs. Abstracting Benjamin’s life into a slurry of temporally distinct moments razed of any sense of linear flow, the editing reorganizes and disturbs this world rather than binding it into a pre-packaged continuum. Time becomes a brush or a tool for the film, rather than something to ignore or abrogate. Benjamin seems locked into a perpetual kinesis – jostling between staggered moments rather than flowing through them – even as his movement in the same clothing and the repetition of scenes invokes endless stasis.
That’s the show-stopper, but the style is in it for the long haul in The Graduate rather than simply to peek its head in and wow you with its youthful indiscretion. As Benjamin’s life unravels out of its WASPY regimentation, the editing slackens to suggest a lack of movement or flow, but it doesn’t soothe us into a lull. Rather, the lack of any distinct temporal configuration to the shots suggests the irrelevancy of moments in Benjamin’s life, corroborated by a robust utilization of negative space (most famously in the very first shot of the film) to paint Benjamin as one lonely, solitary species the film observes unempathetically from afar. Indeed, aquariums and zoos get trotted out as none-too-subtle symbols, but the film’s visual charisma exceeds narrative symbols with the spatial acumen to cast Benjamin as yet another science experiment in a desolate white void of an airport wall or vacantly swallowed in a void of watery blue standing at the bottom of a pool wearing a scuba suit like an intrepid adventurer to nowhere but his own abysmal purgatory. The film has no qualms about viewing Ben as a kind of quiescent driftwood. He’s an inoperable tumor all the more annoying for how thoroughly benign he is.
If the film has a problem, it is that it bathes all of the characters similarly in this woefully ambivalent aura without actually analyzing the catalyst for its depleted view of the human populace or delving as deeply into the social circumstances that construct alienated characters. All the women seem channeled through Ben’s perspective of the world, yet the film also feels like it is imbibing in the blunt allure of Benjamin’s nihilistic displeasure a little too often at the expense of legitimately critiquing it and exploring why, for instance, an elderly woman trapped in the throes of marriage might have reason and need to bed a younger man. (Admittedly, The Graduate is light years away from the insipid, mechanically self-congratulatory Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or the lightly provocative but ultimately craven In the Heat of the Night). The film ends up using alienation as a salve, or a shield to hide behind.
Judged against the other heavy hitter from the year, Bonnie and Clyde is a more salacious and animated film, the real maladjusted agitator compared to Ben who merely thinks of himself as one when he is really a crevice without any mysteries, signs, or wonders worth spelunking for. While The Graduate too often seeks refuge in its own vision of detached, irradiated modernity, Bonnie and Clyde does not hide its neuroses or distance itself from anything. Instead, it underwrites its feelings in garish and greasy blood-red strokes, as though it is both aroused by and frightened of its characters rather than willfully existing at a remove from them and sometimes refusing to deal with them. While The Graduate’s mesmeric editing rhythms evoke cyclical, mechanical, social circularity winding around like a predestined, unquestioning hand on a clock, Dede Allen’s sweating attempts to clip together the uncontainable lifestyle of her titular characters explodes those social rhythms in a wellspring of unruhe and a chaotic flash-fire of social disobedience doomed to enervate itself of oxygen and extinguish itself.
One look at the respective conclusions lays bare the differences in the mentalities of the two films. The ending of The Graduate feels like a curated gut-punch, a feint toward depth designed to cripple your emotional sensibilities for daring to believe Benjamin and Elaine would escape marital bliss unscathed. All of this, of course, is conveyed in a thoughtful but on-the-nose resignation to a long-take that just demands you notice the exacting switch on their facial expressions before the film pats itself on the back for ending on a fundamentally ambivalent gesture devoid of any formal stylistics that might obstruct, problematize, or complicate exactly the message it wants you to walk away with. After that lone introductory long-take where the camera seems to throw itself into the social pandemonium of a cocktail party, the camera absconds from the ruckus, as if content with having proved it can enter the fracas. By the end of the film, the camera stares at the characters as though it is simply waiting for the teleological conclusion that cannot but occur. As such, the film saves itself in the end, as though superior to its characters and essentially able to evade their follies.
In comparison, the editing during the famous conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde does not resign to any preordained conclusion. Instead, it collapses in exhaustion trying to keep up with the characters, ultimately fracturing its continuity after tempting fate by daring to follow its protagonists’ various darting motions and lascivious, piercing glances and thereby pushing the continuity style as far its characters, who revel as the protagonists of their own anti-social theater, will take it. While The Graduate is content to accept the ennui of its characters’ lifestyles, Bonnie and Clyde ignites the characters, fights the characters, and ultimately falters and succumbs to the tragedy of their lives, a much more harrowing and ultimately terrifying view of human existence kindling into something that breaks cinema, threatening the film itself rather than simply the characters.
As sublime as it almost always is, The Graduate does not have the courage to test itself so viciously; every beautiful moment within feels like a beautiful moment that the film is in complete control over. However elegant the film is, that crucial difference marks it as something unable to journey down the rabbit hole of the tempestuous social existence that was America in 1967, or today. The duo of Sidney Poitier films from that year (Poitier’s wonderful performances excepted) peer onto the narrative with opera glasses as if watching some self-congratulatory racial theater. Contrarily, Bonnie and Clyde precariously rushes in. The Graduate adopts a liminal position between the two, which is simultaneously more than enough and not quite all the way there.