Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Zooming in on The Graduate

The Graduate theatrical poster image, fair use. 

The Graduatei is a film I’ve watched more than a few of times. Directed by Mike Nichols, and released in 1967, the original story was written by Charles Webb. Mike Nichols won the Academy Award for Best Director though there were many major achievements in Hollywood cinema that year.ii   In the Heat of the Night won best picture and one of its stars, Sidney L. Poitier, an African-American actor, also starred in two other major motion pictures, which was a breakthrough in itself. Other major films released that year include Barefoot in the Park, Bonnie and Clyde, Camelot, Casino Royale, Cool Hand LukeDr. Doolittle, The Dirty Dozen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Planet of the Apes, Thoroughly Modern Millie, To Sir with Love (the 2nd film that starred Poitier), and Valley of the Dolls, to name a few.iii   It was a good year for the movies.

The atmosphere in the United States at the time the film was released was unique. It was the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, tens of thousands of Vietnam War protesters marched in Washington, D.C., and interracial marriage was decriminalized by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Loving vs. Virginia caseiv. The setting of this time period is not insignificant to my analysis of this film. It was a time when old molds were being broken. It was an exciting time and for women especially, a “brave new world,” or seemingly so. Women in this film hold a particular importance in relationship to the main character, Benjamin Braddock, The Graduate. Also playing a strong part in the struggles of this young adult is the desire for change from current norms. A new generation was rebelling against continuing standards set by the previous generation. Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman is a 20 year old who has just graduated from college and is flying home to southern California. The narrative in The Graduate is structured around Ben’s three key relationships and his struggle for independence. The first is Ben’s relationship to his home and his parents, the second is his affair with Mrs. Robinson, and the third is his love for Elaine Robinson, Mrs. Robinson's daughter. For those who are unfamiliar with the story, Mrs. Robinson is Ben’s father’s business partner’s wife, and Elaine’s mother. Out of the many editing techniques, Director Nichols employs, how the zoom technique is applied and used in combination with particular elements of the mis en scene reveal shifts in power and show critical moments in Ben’s personal development as he struggles to establish his independence and find his place in the world. Out of the myriad of these elements, I'd like to point to three aspects that are important to the advancement of the narrative and complement the expressive qualities of the zoom editing technique employed. These elements are water, species in captivity, and Ben’s athletic running ability: he was a track star in college.

From the beginning, Nichols uses the zoom out as a perfect lead in to Ben’s return home from college and thereby introducing his struggle. The opening shot is a close-up on Ben’s head, his face, large, takes up the entire screen, he looks worried, pensive. The zoom out then shows that he’s just one of many sitting on a plane, the voice over of a crew member with information about the flight, makes him seem insignificant, powerless. At first, with the close-up he is the center of attention, then with the zoom out he appears small in relation to the world, and the sameness in relation to the other passengers is revealed. He is one of many; a college graduate, who has returned home to live with his parents, and he has no real plan for his future.

The elements of the zoom technique, the fact that the zoom magnifies and recedes are a perfect parallel, to Ben’s struggle. In combination with the close-up the zoom heightens the sense of Ben’s inertia in the beginning scenes. He doesn’t move and neither does the camera. It is only the mechanics of the lens only that makes him appear larger and closer or smaller and farther away.

The function of the zooms shots, showing a microcosm of Ben’s experience in relationship to his parents and their suburban home, are combined with the props of a fish tank, a diving suit, and a swimming pool. These shots compound the sense we have of Ben’s emotional turmoil and his sense of helplessness, both exemplified by the water and enclosures that give a sense of entrapment. A striking close up of Ben’s face straight on with a fish tank clearly visible behind his head, has us face Ben’s alienation head on suggesting that he is “a fish out of water.” He has no idea why he has returned home and wants to hide in his room while his parents have a party welcoming him home as “the college graduate.”

At a birthday barbecue for Ben, his father makes a loud and boisterous announcement to his friends that Ben is going to show off a present for which his father has spent $200 – a diving suit. Ben is behind the glass doors in the house by the side of the pool while his father makes the introductory speech. He is chided by his parents to come out and demonstrate the costly scuba gear in their pool. We see his parent’s and their friends point of view shot (P.O.V.) of Ben standing still at the back of the room and then walking stiffly towards us. Then we cut to Ben’s P.O.V. through his goggles to his feet in the fins. He is hesitant putting his feet down slowly one in front of the other. Then at the edge of the pool holding one fin above the water, not dropping in immediately, a pause. Once in the pool, Ben swims back to the edge of the pool and tries to lift his head up, but his father and mother push him back down in the water. Ben then gives up trying to get out of the water and swims to the end of the pool where he stands submerged and shown in a long shot from which a most significant zoom out occurs. This zoom out in combination with the diving suit, the water, and his parent’s attempts to keep him down under as well as to show him off as if he were some kind of amphibian exhibition, points clearly to Ben’s insignificance in relation to his parents. He is for show only.

Ben needs some release. From his growing frustration with his dependence on his parents and alienation towards their ideas about his future, he is pushed into the arms of Mrs. Robinson. In the earlier scene at his graduation party, she manipulates him into giving her a ride home and then tries unsuccessfully to seduce him. Now he is calling her, and though awkward and tentative, meets with her at a hotel where he forms a sexual entanglement. At first the affair gives Ben some sense of power and control over his destiny. Ironically enough though, it’s his parent’s pressure on him once again (this time to take out the Robinson’s daughter Elaine) that prompt Ben’s motivation to move out of Mrs. Robinson’s arms and into a more self-possessed young man. The move won’t be without difficulty, as Mrs. Robinson has forbid Ben to take her daughter out.

When Ben arrives at the Robinson’s house to pick up Elaine, Ben’s P.O.V. shot is a slow zoom in on Mrs. Robinson, who clearly is very unhappy. The pull of her power over him is unmistakable. When Mr. Robinson goes upstairs to get his daughter, Ben sits down next to her. He tries to explain in a half whispering, part desperate voice that it wasn’t his idea and that he’s just going to take her to dinner and then bring her home. He tries to assure her that it won’t happen again. Ben is very concerned that his lover is so upset and at odds with his parents for forcing him to go on this date with her daughter. Once out on the date, Ben acts out terribly. Acting like a perfect boor, walking in front of his date, ordering her around, and taking her to a strip club. Elaine’s reaction of crying, unleashes a wealth of genuine emotion and feelings from Ben for her, as well as regret at his treating her so poorly. They kiss and we see that they are really attracted to each other. The next half of the date, we see that Ben and Elaine are peers and can relate to each other. Ben has finally found someone who he can talk with and who will understand what he is going through. He can open up to her about his uncertainty about his future, his desire to find his own path and to not necessarily walk in his parent’s footsteps and she can relate to him. When he drops Elaine off finally, there is a sense of a new healthy relationship having been formed with a young woman he desires both in body and mind and who unlike Mrs. Robinson does not hold power over or under Ben. He can be his true self.

The union is disrupted though by Mrs. Robinson’s power over Ben when he comes to take Elaine out on a second date the next day. Water is symbolically used to portray the emotions in the next scene, where it’s pouring rain outside when Ben arrives to pick up Elaine. Mrs. Robinson gets in his car sopping wet and demands that he drive around the block. She threatens to make things difficult and tell everyone about the affair between them. Ben runs to the house to beat her to Elaine. His running is significant in that it prefaces Ben’s taking action on his own behalf. Unfortunately, when he sees Elaine and he tries to tell her about the affair, she spies her mother soaked outside her door, looks at Ben who is soaked too, and puts two and two together. She tells him to leave and as he goes, his P.O.V. is a zoom out of Mrs. Robinson, in a black rain coat drenched standing in the corner of the hallway, against the stark white walls behind her where she grows small and alien like, an adult in a childlike position. She says, “goodbye Benjamin.” The zoom and mis en scene function as a symbolic expression of Mrs. Robinson’s loss of importance and control over him. There is no more seduction. This leads the change in plot towards Ben’s personal development and independence.

Nichol’s takes us briefly back to see the graduate in his room beside the fish tank. This time though, Ben’s desire to be with Elaine and make things moves him to action. He is no longer incapacitated with fear, he knows what he wants. The camera zooms out from him driving his car over the bridge to follow Elaine back to Berkeley where she is in school. He gets smaller until he and his car are indistinguishable, but he is moving. He has a renewed sense of purpose, the element of water (emotion) is there, but he’s not trapped by it, he is crossing over it.

The film’s location now moves to the environment surrounding the Berkeley campus, beginning with a long aerial shot of a fountain [of water] in front of the university, the flagpole standing as a reminder that Ben still has to deal with the establishment. The next shot we see him walk to fountain edge and, by no coincidence, sit down. A zoom out now makes him appear small and insignificant again; he is one of many, the hustle and bustle of the college students in front of the university surrounding him. The P.O.V. shot shows Ben seeing Elaine walking out of the university doors. and then on his face his longing for her and to control the future. In a subsequent P.O.V. shot, the shallow focus on Elaine past the fountain, the blurred statues, suggest there are still obstacles that must be overcome to do that. As if acknowledging this, Ben spurts away. The running star displays a burst of energy showing that he has the ability needed to win this race. His sense of purpose is renewed by the sight of his love, Elaine.

Before another turn in Ben’s development occurs in the story, Nichols takes us to the zoo. Ben has followed Elaine as she goes there to meet Carl Smith, another suitor. After she quickly introduces Ben to Smith, they walk off and Ben is left to figure out his next step. The element of the monkeys behind the fence is a return to the motif of captivity. Mammals are on display, and it is crucial this time that the species shown is a mammal, the closest one to human kind, homo sapiens. The shot goes from the small monkeys behind the fence and then zooms in on Ben’s face. It then surprises us by moving up over Ben's shoulder to focus on a large lone Ape. This moment introduces a what I will call a spiritual theme to the film and evokes for me the question of the predestination for mankind. The idea that human beings out of all the mammals have free will and an awareness of ourselves, but that there is a greater power, god if one so chooses to call it, that puts us in our omni-prescient place. We may not be animals in cages or behind fences, and we can choose actions that we think will help decide our future, but we really have little control outside of our own actions and of our ultimate outcome. Ben, no longer a fish out of water, or a monkey dependent upon the other monkeys, can attempt to control of his destiny through his actions, despite his parent’s, the establishment, or society’s expectations for how he should lead his life. Despite Elaine’s father, and Mrs. Robinson’s attempts to keep Ben away from Elaine and to have her married off to Carl Smith, Ben races against time to find her. The next scene's zoom in is on Mrs. Robinson as Ben sneaks into the house, enters her bedroom, and then demands to know what she has done with Elaine. Mrs. Robinson picks up the phone and calls the police as the camera zooms in on her and recognizes her momentary gain of one one-upmanship over Ben. Ben's violent reaction, throwing the clothes she was packing from the bed to the floor, vowing that Mrs. Robinson can’t keep Elaine away from him, is antithetical to his inertia, and culminates with his flight to avoid the police.

The next scene shows Ben using his intelligence and tenaciousness, dormant characteristics during the first half of the film, to find the church where Elaine is being married. His car is out of gas, but he isn’t, he runs the race of his life. The shot from him running toward to us turns with him and zooms in as he runs up to the large stark, white right-angled church and captures his struggle to get inside. Again, he's facing his struggle against the huge pressure, the obstruction to his true desire, from the establishment.

Once inside he stands behind the glass wall overlooking the rows of pews, opposite the altar. The shot now shows Ben’s P.O.V. of Elaine and Carl Smith. The camera zooms in on the couple as they kiss and as the priest has, we assume, announced them man and wife, the shot goes to Ben who screaming out with all his might like a wild animal Elaine and then as he begins pounding the glass that separates them. Elaine walks forward as if in a trance, then looks back at the mad, hissing looking faces of her father, her mother, and then Carl Smith, though no actual sound comes from their mouths, making her parent's pull not to rock the establishment, silent. The faces of anger wake Elaine up into realizing her mistake and to an eruption of her scream back Ben. It’s a wnatural call that these mates scream out to each other. Ben and Elaine are reaching past what others expect of them and their behavior to the true urges at the core of their beings. There is a chaotic row in the usually stultifying, dogmatic environment of this church, an organized house of religion, involving physical violence by Elaine’s father against Ben and back and then by Elaine’s mother against her. A sardonic play is made when Ben swings a huge religious cross to keep their pursuers at bay and then trap them behind the church doors. He and Elaine run to the street and then climb aboard a local bus, she in her wedding gown, he in his ruffled, dirty street clothes. We see a P.O.V. shot from of the couple from the sedate crowd of passengers they pass by as the move to sit at the very back of the bus.

>Ben and Elaine laugh and smile at first. They are proud of their accomplishments to do their own thing despite the obstacles put before them. But they do not embrace, rather they sit together but separate and then shown in individual medium close ups that detail various their facial expressions as they contemplate what they’ve done. The camera cuts to see them from outside the back window of the bus. As it drives away, the camera seems to zoom out slightly and then stop, allowing the bus to continue its own movement. These last few shots reflecting back upon the theme of free will, and the question of whether destiny can be controlled. Even though Ben and Elaine have taken the future into their own hands, choosing to surmount the odds and be together, the rest is really quite uncertain.

i DVD The Graduate. Metro Goldwyn Mayer ; Joseph E. Levine presents a Mike Nichols/Lawrence Turman production; directed by Mike Nichols; screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry; produced by Lawrence Turman. Beverly Hills, CA: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios : distributed by Embassy Pictures, 1 Letterbox 2.351:1 DVD screen format (1 hour 46 minutes), color. 1967.
ii IMDB, The Internet Movie Database, The Graduate (1967),
iiiWikipedia, the free encyclopedia, 1967 in film,