I re-watched The Graduate over New Years Eve, as a sort of ‘celebration’—not exactly a party (I was alone, sprawled on my bed in my parents house). But there was the requisite alcohol, and, besides, it wasn’t mods revision.
Perhaps because of the circumstances, the opening sequence struck me as a sort of devastating epiphany, in a way it had not in my first, 12-year-old viewing. Benjamin Braddock—arriving in the Los Angeles airport, after graduating from an un-specified college ‘back east’—was, in some sense, me. There was the superficial similarity—I’d also flown back home (in my case, from Oxford to New York). But the mechanical voiceover (‘Ladies and gentleman…’), Benjamin’s blank, vaguely bewildered, face against the greyish-white walls, and, of course, Simon and Garfunkel’s haunting, unforgettable ‘Sounds of Silence’, captured something I’d felt, but couldn’t quite express: a crushing combination of apathy and alienation, a sense of being somehow dislocated in a place I knew all too well.
Then comes the graduation-party, with its culmination, in a piece of advice from one of Benjamin’s parent’s friends: ‘plastics.’ It’s a hilarious, one-word, skewering of the middle class notions of success, dangled before a disaffected, yet directionless, Benjamin. In my stressed-out state, this also rang ridiculously true. Despite the fact that my degree is hardly career-oriented, wasn’t I, after all, studying so hard, so I could be what someone else vapidly calls Benjamin, ‘our award-winning scholar’? Yet again, The Graduate just got it.
At the same time, The Graduate is a very 60s take on the disenchantment of privileged post-adolescents. While, unlike Easy Rider—the other iconic film of the period—there are no hippie communes or acid trips, The Graduate is deeply embedded in youth counterculture, with its critique of the status quo. Whether in the form of plastics, or (even more famously) Mrs. Robinson, the innocent, awkward Benjamin faces seduction by the older generation, portrayed as hollow and corrupt. But the affair grows stale and dissatisfying—as another apt Simon and Garfunkel track puts it, ‘a love once new has now grown old’—and Benjamin turns his attentions to her fresh-faced daughter, Elaine Robinson. The result will be more-or-less predictable to anyone familiar with movie romances, but perfectly evokes the thrill—and profound uncertainty—of the young characters’ brave new world.