11 November 2008
One of the key questions I have about The Graduate is whether or not Benjamin's form of rebellion is being celebrated and endorsed by Nichols. Benjamin certainly embodies the discontent and angst of the '60s youth generation - the ticket sales primarily supported by a young audience seem to confirm that - but there are several points which seem to highlight Benjamin's inability to rebel completely. The main comparison I am interested in is with Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause whose protagonist, Jim, is often seen as the rebel but who in many ways is a conformist seeking to reestablish gender roles of the past. I believe The Graduate has a similar sense of amiguity in terms of the idea of rebellion.
From the very beginning it is apparent that Benjamin feels trapped by the expectations of his parents and their WASP, bourgeois class. Nichols consistently places Benjamin in the margins of the frame to highlight his being off-center with the world he lives in. Benjamin's alienation and inability to understand what it is he wants is further reinforced through the mise-en-scene: Benjamin is shot in longshot to appear small - such as in the Robinson entranceway or UC Berkeley - or is in shadows or water, with his vision and our vision of him obscured. In every way it seems that Benjamin is unable to directly face the world he is living in clearly. He is also unable to articulate what it is he wants as he is constantly muttering, especially with Mrs. Robinson.
Benjamin's exploration of ways to rebel begins with Mrs. Robinson. After sleeping with her he lounges around, largely unconcerned with the future and the insistence from his parents to go to graduate school. This apathy for his future and the expectations of his parents/society seems to go directly against what everyone wants from him. While his affair with Mrs. Robinson could be seen as rebellion in its disregard for moral taboos, it also seems to further confine him in his suburban world. At the same time, it seems that sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, who he has known his whole life, is not unlike sleeping with his own mother, which suggests that Benjamin is propagating and inbreeding with his parents' generation. This mother/Mrs. Robinson double is suggested when Benjamin is shaving and we are not sure which bathroom he is in - his home or the hotel - and the figure of his mother in the mist can be confused with Mrs. Robinson's.
The need to break away from his parents and everything they stand for comes with Elaine, who forces Benjamin to leave his home (to go to Berkeley) and escape the claustraphobic, lost world of his L.A. home. It is curious, however, that Benjamin ends up pursuing the girl his parents originally wanted him to court. This suggests that Benjamin's rebellion actually helps to fulfill his parents' desires. The fact that he attends classes at Berkeley can also suggest he is fulfilling his parents' desire for him to continue his education. In fact, Benjamin uses the car his parents have bought for him - an expensive convertible that highly symbolizes his class - in order to flee to Berkeley, suggesting they are "driving" him along. Furthermore, Benjamin wants to confirm his love for Elaine in the most conventional way, through marriage, which seems to only support the ideals of his parents' generation. Romantic idealism and rebellion is overshadowed by his concern to get papers signed and blood work done in order to have things done properly.
The idea that Benjamin is not really effectively going against his parents or running away is suggested in a shot in which he is running (after his parents' car broke down) and the lense makes it seem he is running in place. When Benjamin gets to Elaine's wedding, however, more clear images of rebellion are seen: Benjamin disrupts the wedding ceremony (undermining everything it stands for, especially since he steals Elaine away after she has said "I do"), takes swings and hits at Elaine's parents and his own, and finally locks them in the church in order to run away. The potent symbolism of the cross, and the attached connotations of purity, tradition, and history, which Benjamin uses to lock the older generation inside the church suggests that all the baggage of that generation and their religion/politics/morals are things that trap them, but not Benjamin and Elaine who are able to flee.
The most curious scene for me is the last one in which Benjamin and Elaine get on a bus to escape and sit in the back. The shot duration lasts a little longer than expected and instead of embracing or showing some sign of affection, Benjamin and Elaine sit and do not look at each other, but rather smile slightly. It's an ambiguous image which does not fulfill the romantic notions of their escape nor entirely discredit them. In one sense, it could seem that their riding a public bus reinforces the idea that they are actually not in control after all, but rather are being moved forward by society, which the public city bus could certainly embody, in the same way Benjamin is being moved by the conveyor belt in the airport at the beginning of the film. In another sense, Benjamin's abandonment of his parents' car for the city bus can be seen as his final cutting off (along with the church scene) which finally establishes his removal from his parents' world.
In the end, I tend to think that either interpretation could work. I suppose I am influenced by Nichols statement that Ben and Elaine "end up like their parents" (though it could be a joke), which undermines their rebellion. At the same time, I think that however ineffectual their long-term plan may be (we don't know what happens after the end credits and can't really take it into consideration), the fact that Benjamin and Elaine did something to get away is the real rebellion and it is their spirit of defiance, not their plans, that resonated with the audience at the time. I am reminded again of Rebel Without a Cause because even though Jim wants to rebel against his parents and do something to respond to his angst, the manner of his rebellion ultimately does not really do much to change what he is angsty about. Even so, his spirit of defiance and want of change is ultimately what is conveyed and remembered. After all, neither Jim or Benjamin really knew what they wanted exactly except that they wanted it.
As far as the director's endorsement of their characters, I would say that Ray does not really see Jim's rebellion as effectual (as he takes off his red jacket to take his father's brown coat) while Nichols leaves a much more ambiguous feeling. I believe ultimately he is suggesting that it is necessary and commendable to address the angst and act, though maybe it is not always be effective.