Is it possible to build an entire film around one album, or indeed, around one song? The Graduate certainly aims for the fences on that regard -- I have to think that even Paul Simon himself was a little Sound of Silenced out by the end of this movie.
The Graduate is a movie that I'd like to encourage all of the early baby boomers to rewatch whenever they start feeling like millennials have a monopoly on entitled exceptionalism and certain affably directionless approach to their 20s.
And in many ways, I think that's why The Graduate has maintained its relevance over four decades later. A whole lot of people, regardless of what generation they're from, can relate to being just out of college and having the deflated feeling of, "Now what?"
Dustin Hoffman's Ben regards his future with a sense of vague indifference, knowing only that he rejects the upper middle class lifestyle of his parents as hollow and meaningless. He feels detached from the world around him, hence the multitude of shots where he is either underwater or framed against fish tanks in a way that makes him appear to be.
That's where Mrs. Robinson comes in. In her, Ben finds a kindred spirit, a woman who is as profoundly unhappy and emotionally out of place as Ben feels.
Mrs. Robinson is married (although not happily) with a daughter about Ben's age, but that doesn't stop her from initiating an affair with him. She comes across as a thoroughly damaged individual, an intelligent and creative woman who abandoned her own interests to be a wife and mother, roles she finds both stifling and unfulfilling.
Ben is a person who is sort of listlessly searching for meaning in his life. He tries to find it with Mrs. Robinson, which is why he insists on trying to get to know her as a person, despite her making it clear that she's not meeting up with him in hotel rooms for the conversation.
After that fizzles out, he goes after her daughter and is weirdly insistent on developing a serious relationship with her, even though they don't have great chemistry, he's an asshole to her, and she doesn't particularly seem to like him. And that's completely setting aside the whole matter of his sordid affair with her mother, as though any couple could survive that. His relationship game basically consists of doggedly pursuing her and proposing every single day. Because that usually works.
But the point is, he's looking so hard for someone or something to make that empty feeling inside go away. There are several moments in the film where we see Ben moving, running even, but the way that scenes are framed make him look like he's stuck in place. In the beginning, he's on the moving walkway at the airport but occupies the same space in the frame. Towards the end of the film, he's running to find Elaine before she gets married, but the camera is so far away from him that no matter how fast he runs, he doesn't appear to get any closer to us.
In many ways, the film stands in opposition of the pursuing conventional milestones for their own sake. Ben graduates from college, because that's the done thing in his social circle. Upon graduation, he is immediately accosted by a cadre of family friends demanding to know what sort of career he's going to go into, because that's what comes next, right?
He runs away with Mrs. Robinson's daughter Elaine, presumably to marry her, but as soon as the action is completed and the adrenaline wears off, they're left in a deflated and impenetrable silence.
Graduating from college, getting married -- these are not inherently meaningful actions, and to do them just because it's expected of you, or in the vain hope that they will somehow give you an emotionally fulfilling life, they will ultimately leave you hollow. Is there any more clear denigration of the sanctity of the religious marriage ceremony than Ben stealing the would-be bride and fighting off the irate wedding guests with a giant cross?
Although we all talk about the soundtrack and the famous church scene as what makes this film iconic, we also really need to give credit to the tremendous lead performances. The role of Ben is a star-making one for Dustin Hoffman which, despite being written for a blond, all-American, Robert Redford type, is now impossible to imagine being played by anyone else. And as Mrs. Robinson, Anne Bancroft proves what most of us have known for a while now: that she was one of the most talented actresses of her generation.
And finally, lest we forget, Mr. Feeny.
I see you there, William Daniels, having a righteous old time as Ben's oblivious dad.