News and Commentary – Another Semester of 70s Films: The Graduate
I’m teaching “The Politics of the 70s Film” this semester, and, as we have done previously, Mid Century Cinema will follow along with commentaries related to the movies screened for class—or to movies related to those movies (since we can’t bear to repeat ourselves). This week we watched The Graduate. Regarding the general themes of this one, we don’t have much to add to last year’s comments, so we’re going to focus instead on one specific sequence in the film: when Benjamin reluctantly takes Elaine out on a date—against the specific orders of a seething Mrs. Robinson.
Mrs. Robinson is Not Happy
In Ben’s defense, he had little choice in the matter, and he didn’t want to do it—which is why he attempts to sabotage the evening by taking the innocent Elaine to a strip club. Not very nice—but quite cinematic: the trip in and out of the club is notable for its symmetry. It reminds me – and I may be reaching here – of the sequence in Hitchcock's The Birds where Lydia (Jessica Tandy) drives to, and then flees from, Dan’s farm (you know, that guy who got his eyes pecked out). Stefan Sharff has analyzed the remarkable symmetry of this long sequence in his book, The Elements of Cinema.
In The Graduate, a similar visual story is told. Initially, Ben, in full-on rude mode, walks swiftly ahead of Elaine during the long walk (fifty full seconds of screen time) from the car to the club, as she struggles to keep up with him.
Trying to Keep Up with Ben
But the worm turns in the club, as Elaine, humiliated by Ben and embarrassed by the stripper, sheds a tear – a tear which shatters Ben's boorish façade – and she gets up and rushes for the exit. Now it is his turn to chase her (if only for thirty seconds—he is a track star after all). It is a nice tight sequence.
Chasing After Elaine
Speaking of symmetry, there is another parallel element attendant to this action, on which the movie also hinges. After Ben and Elaine fall in movie-love that night, the next day they make plans to go for a drive. But when Ben arrives, in the pouring rain, it is Mrs. Robinson who hops in the car. And I’m going to suggest that the driving rain is a representation of her rage, and the use of water here more generally is symmetrical (the driving rain echoing Elaine’s softer tears), reflecting the contrasting emotions of the characters. (Before you roll your eyes, note that in this scene in the novel “the sky was bright blue and there was not a single cloud.” So somebody thought the rain was important . . .)
Mrs. Robinson's Rage
Things of course go terribly wrong from there, as suggested by these subsequent shots—though the last one seems more of an homage to Antonioni than anything else.
Benjamin Does Not Get There in Time
Antonioni Has Entered the Building . . .
Bonus footage: The Graduate is a movie filled with small homages to Nichols' cinematic heroes; Truffaut and others join Antonioni in being gestured at with small pieces of business now and then. Personally, we find the shot of Ben desperately racing towards his (in focus) whiskey glass early in the film a little tip of the hat towards the similarly constructed shot of Orson Welles bursting into the bedroom during the attempted suicide scene in Citizen Kane.