A visually stunning portrayal of criminality from the creative mind of Terrence Malick.
…because that whole “twenty-somethings lost in the real world” genre starts here. Mike Nichols’s "The Graduate" revolutionized film comedy with a simple twist on the classic love story: boy meets woman, then meets woman’s daughter. The choice of actor Dustin Hoffman in the title role, the honest depiction of sex and the stinging criticism of middle class values all signaled a bold new type of filmmaking that rejected the Hollywood establishment. Ironically, the use of Simon and Garfunkel for the soundtrack may have further alienated older viewers at the time, but has only contributed to "The Graduate’s" status as a timeless classic.
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While almost every generation rebels against the values of its parents, this conflict was perhaps most pronounced in the radical 1960’s. More than any other film (yeah, we’re looking your way, "Easy Rider"), "The Graduate" captures the essential shift from the middle class conformity of the 1950’s to the more idealistic spirit of the 1960’s. This is perhaps most obvious in the Simon and Garfunkel songs on the soundtrack – a daring choice at the time – or the scenes set at Berkeley, the center of campus radicalism and unofficial capital of the hippie movement. Yet the film doesn’t directly address controversial issues of the day like civil rights or the Vietnam War, and only suggests its affiliation with the sexual revolution and second wave feminism. Instead, "The Graduate" uses humor and subtlety to make more biting statements about the previous generation’s shortcomings. The film satirizes the materialism at the heart of the American dream, using observational details like the line about “plastics” as Benjamin’s best hope for future success and memorable images like Benjamin scuba diving underwater in his family’s pool – a brilliant visual metaphor for Benjamin feeling trapped in the empty comforts of bourgeois life. Mrs. Robinson, played with both viciousness and vulnerability by Anne Bancroft, conveyed the repressed unhappiness of the picture perfect housewives of the 1950’s. The film’s famous final scene also perfectly conveys the film’s assault on traditional values, with Benjamin disrupting a wedding. Of course, by then, the film has done a masterful job of showing the hollowness lurking beneath even the most sacred of institutions.
Despite the idealism of the 1960’s, money and things are still kind of a big deal. Perhaps this is also why future generations have continued to identify with "The Graduate." The existential crisis of a young person confronting the real world for the first time definitely has a universal quality to it (which is perhaps why we’ve seen so many different versions of this story, cough, mumblecore, cough). And while the Simon and Garfunkel songs were considered hippie music at the time, folk music has a kind of eternal quality to it; had Nichols chosen a band like The Doors, the film probably would seem more like a relic of the psychedelic era. Ultimately, the lasting influence of "The Graduate" – and why so many would be contenders for “the next Graduate” fall short – comes down to basic storytelling. As a director, Mike Nichols had a very simple theory that a good story relies on a central metaphor. With "The Graduate," Nichols wanted to convey Benjamin’s conflict about whether to reject his parents’ ideals or embrace a new but possibly uncertain future. Is there a better way to present this than the choice between an empty affair with a mother or a potentially meaningful future with the daughter?
Of course, a film as sharp as "The Graduate" wouldn’t simply suggest that old people suck and the younger generation has it right. In fact, Nichols also poked fun at the college educated rebels who wanted to take the world by storm, but didn’t quite know how. Throughout the film, Nichols used long takes as a way to suggest the aimlessness of young people swept up in revolutionary times. The famous final shot, in which the camera lingers on Benjamin and Elaine at the back of the bus, brilliantly captures the uncertainty facing the characters after they have essentially rejected everything they have ever known. Nichols reportedly did not tell the actors that he would keep the camera running for so long, adding to the sense of confusion he wanted the characters to feel. Sure, this is a bit of a cheap trick for a director who would go on to win the Oscar for this film…but when it works, it works.
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