By Jane Freeborn, Esq.
In times of joy, duress, or any less extreme emotion, I like to turn to film. It is perhaps the most powerful and certainly most populous art form we have (aside, obviously, from internet memes), and even people who don’t consider themselves film buffs or followers of popular culture have a favorite movie. Since the arrival en force of European film to the post-war U.S., the rise of scripted television in the late 1950s, and the ultimate demise in 1968 of the staunch MPAA Production Code which dictated the moral content of studio-produced movies, American film has consistently pushed the boundaries of taste, sought to shock and/or enlighten, and made some of the most influential cultural touchstones of the 20th century. The 1960s roiled with movies that changed how people thought about the cinema, what it could do, and why the hell anyone would commit such things to celluloid. I was the PLA for a first-year seminar last fall on 1960s America, and the professor, Dr. Michael Birkner, knowing how much I love film, asked me to make a list of possible worthy pieces to be shown. So, in a week where nothing in Gettysburg theaters is more exciting than Titanic 3D, I’ve decided to publish the list I made for him in installments (because I’m sure it’s as fascinating as I think it is, and I’m also sure that people think I’m as insightful as I think I am). Thus, to me, this is the first of the 10 most influential movies of the 1960s.
Top of my list is, without question, The Graduate. Every film that came after about the 20-something experience gives a clear nod to Mike Nichols’ astounding film, but every other film that deals with someone still figuring out their life owes an even more significant debt.
It centers on recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock’s first summer at home, in which he is apparently unable to do anything except have an affair with his parents’ friend, Mrs. Robinson, and then elope with her daughter, Elaine. This pleases no one, not Mrs. Robinson, not Elaine, not Benjamin’s parents, and least of all Benjamin. For being a movie in which all of the characters are going through dark nights of the soul, it is surprisingly without melodrama.
Made in 1967, the argument has been made that it better reflected the feelings of the first half of the 1960s youth, but to me the film transcends its context. The timeliness of this review is not lost on me, but to see the film as purely about life after undergrad is short-sighted. Benjamin is literally a graduate, but he never progresses. He is, at his core, a spoiled little shit (but what kid who grew up middle class isn’t, simply by their very nature?). After graduating, his environment and support system have been basically stripped away. The pressure from his parents’ generation to enter a workforce to which he feels he has no connection functions both as a commentary on the greatest problem of the Baby Boomers (a sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility through the ability to have a self-created identity crisis, as perceived by the Greatest Generation towards their children) but also as a perfect allegory for the relationship between the old and the new for every subsequent generation.
The fact that Vietnam is distinctly lacking is one of the reasons the movie doesn’t date, but also one of its most important aspects. The characters do not define themselves in relation to feelings for or against Vietnam. Because Benjamin doesn’t ever mention the war, it’s a comment on his self-involvement, his romanticization of his pain, and his lack of foresight. When you’re 22, these are universal failings, and what better way to show that without saying it? A jarring disconnect from ‘the real world’ is a trait that has been pointed out about every set of newly-minted adults since the beginning of time, and to a greater or more greater extent, that’s because it’s true.
In a sense, the Baby Boomers can be considered a “lost generation,” because they stemmed on so many different paths, seemingly without direction in their collective fervor to distance themselves from what came before. It was a generation driven primarily by feelings and the need to separate, by whatever means and for whatever reason, from all that had come before. And we today have suffered and prospered because of that, and continue the tradition. That is why the last shot of the film is so brilliant. It is completely, personally-interpretive, yet never breaks the continuity of concept, and concretely draws the film and an entire generation to its Greek-tragedy conclusion.
The 1960s were the perfect decade in which to make The Graduate (though every subsequent one has made some similar approximation), though it is not a 1960s film. Yes, stylistically it is self-consciously mod, the soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel is a folk time-capsule, and certain sensibilities like pacing and composition are clearly from another generation of filmmaking. But these are all part of the whole package, and should be enjoyed as experiential—just as today’s films will seem distinct when compared with those 10 years from now. Because The Graduate is still one of the greatest filmic examples of a character being truly lost, and who among us hasn’t felt lost before.
The first time I saw The Graduate, I was 18 and I stayed up until 3 in the morning trying to process the fact that for the first time, I felt I had seen a movie I could truly relate to and understand. Because, while tangentially and most sensationally the film is about Benjamin’s affair, more importantly is is about the reasons that led him to the affair, and the ramifications in his insular little world. The affair stands in for any bad decision anyone’s ever made in a fit of depression or desperation or even boredom. The portrait of Benjamin’s isolation is so complete and so heartbreaking, but so understated that it is the greatest reason the film endures as a perfect foil for the viewer rather than a tordid piece of mid-century soap opera.