Reviews: The Graduate

An beautiful tragedy about the lone individual\'s place in society masquerading as a comedy

This is less going to be a review than a short analysis. After having watched this movie and reading more about it online, I'm left with a question: why do people call this a comedy? At the end of the day, when you really get down and dirty with this film, you note something that all the pop culture references in the half-century since it came out gloss over, that pegs it as more of a tragedy:

The Graduate is about two damaged people trying and failing to escape the shackles of a stuffy '60s upper class society through sex.

The main insert song—Simon & Garfunkel's iconic dirge about someone crying out to an uncaring, unfeeling society—is an appropriate scenesetter. Ben just got out of school, and is wondering what to do with his life, all the while his father is bearing down about him about it because of the way it makes his family look to his social circle. Mrs. Robinson is trapped in a loveless marriage to avoid the shame of her unplanned pregnancy. Ben embraces Mrs. Robinson because their affair fulfills a desire for freedom and agency against this backdrop: for Ben, from the demands of his father, and for Mrs. Robinson from her marriage—but their pursuit of that desire is revealed over time to be fleeting, hollow and, ultimately, another set of shackles.

In the end, when Ben finally wins over Elaine and they escape, the entire bus gawks at them in disapproval. In the face of this, their coy glee at having fled their stuffy families gives way to stone-faces of uncertainty and shame as the bus rides off down the road. The scene effectively communicates that even when they've done something to buck what society wants to meet their own needs, society's gaze is disarming, overwhelming and inescapable.

In a way, I think that this movie shines so much because it's a subverted coming-of-age story. It's less about Ben discovering something about himself and "being himself," than discovering just how limited his agency, as one person, actually is. Often when we mention "agency," we fail to note that individuals never truly have complete agency; our agency is bounded, constrained by things such as our responsibilities, our relationships with others, and the influence of the powers-that-be. It's a much less hopeful a message than modern films that have this type of setup but, I believe, realistic. It really reminds me of The Awakening by Kate Chopin in that way. That Ben is an awkward, often selfish, and sometimes thoroughly disgusting individual, rather than a wholesome everyman, aids the sense of subversion. Or, perhaps, these qualities are precisely what make him an everyman and so the film serves as a dark, realistic mirror showcasing the folly of youth.

The Graduate deserves to have been remembered as a classic. The characterization is fitting, it does interesting things with camera and perspective, and it's simple if a little bit slow. Even if you're not a classic movie buff, give it a watch and see what you think.
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