Not every kid with a YouTube channel and a Sony Alpha a7S is immediately Quentin Tarantino or Orson Welles.
Starting your film midterm with “Since the beginning of film…” especially when your film teacher explicitly said not to is unwise to say the least because you wouldn’t be acknowledging the countless improvements and new techniques in both the technology used in film and the new insight from the countless new film makers being encouraged by the rather affordable ability to get into making short films now a day. Not every kid with a YouTube channel and a Sony Alpha a7S is immediately Quentin Tarantino or Orson Welles. Film requires meaning, expression, feeling and you must represent more with your shots than just what is present on your viewfinder. One such example of great use of the elements of cinema is in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) a film with no lighthearted subject and no lack of mise-en-scéne throughout. Ben Braddock’s inappropriate and awkward affair with Mrs. Robinson instead becomes a compelling story that viewers want to see play out because of Nichols’ use of color, sound, symbolism and such.
Sound itself is always argued to be an integral part of film both through powerful sounds tracks or simple sound effects. Before we dive into the use of sound in The Graduate let us first think about sound in our everyday life. Headphones on playing aggressive music as you hit the rec, that energetic playlist Spotify keeps recommending to you blaring in your earbuds as you write a paper for Anthropology, the fight song playing at the homecoming game. All highly emotional and game changing moments but truly it’s just a physiological, just cause you listened to the Rocky theme on repeat doesn’t mean you lifted more but maybe you felt tougher. It’s these kinds of feelings that need to somehow be accurately depicted in film where obviously you cannot be inside of the characters head but the director wants you to feel how that moment feels. This may seem overcomplicated but the process for using sound in The Graduate was very clearly done by Nichols. Take a few scenes for example: first the intro scene as Ben is leaving the airport. As the camera zooms out from Ben’s face (a scene we will talk about later with its use of limbo) you hear “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel fade in. If you heard this song ever or take the three minutes to hear it you will most likely get the feeling Nichols wanted you to think Ben was feeling — lost, confused, alone, silent. The choice for soundtrack in this movie was no mistake and you can take the lyrics quite literally to describe Ben as experiencing the “sound of silence”; as on article on shmoop.com describes “he’s living in a mental cocoon, drifting on his pool, sleeping with Mrs. Robinson, but not really connecting with anybody. Even though he outwardly seems like a bright, privileged kid who should be thriving in the world, he’s internally unsure and conflicted — and inert.” All this is interpreted from the music alone and while not every viewer will take this into consideration with a little bit of deeper analysis on the scene allows you to understand Nichols choice of music as it adds to the films sense. Besides mood and character’s feelings sound is also used in the form of sound bridges to create this connection between scenes that conveys a powerful transition. Take the scene of Benjamin leaving the Robinson’s household for the first time, in the article “Listening Beyond the “Sound of Silence” in The Graduate” the author Rachael Coates describes this moment as we see Ben walking to his car when we begin to hear Mr. Braddock in a voiceover saying, “Ladies and gentlemen — your attention, please — for this afternoon’s feature attraction.” the scene cutting to the shot of Mr. Braddock introducing Benjamin in his scuba gear. This lack of escape, connection between scenes represents as Coates says Ben’s inability to escape the external pressures of familial and social expectation he faces since his return from University.
With the audio element of the film playing a significant role already you can begin to look at other ways meaning is added to this film. Before even touching any of the recorded media and editing away you must look at the actual capture of these scenes, the cinematography. The cameras in the film have little to no limit as to where they end up, ultimately showing the viewer angles as awkward as the situations Ben ends up in. To break down one of these examples we will use one of the most iconic shots (among a few) that lie within this film. Recall the scene of Ben at the Robinsons bar, Mrs. Robinson beginning her attempt at seducing Ben. Ben begins to express that he feels as if she is trying to seduce him and the ultimate realization\confirmation happens at this moment when the camera angle used is a shot right through her intentionally posed legs, a shot that has become iconic amongst the film industry. Yet again understanding these scenes and saying what they add to overall story is two different things. In this case then how does it add meaning to the story? Breaking it down scene but scene Mrs. Robinson putting on the music, offering or almost forcing Ben a drink all added to the fact she asked him to drive her home and made clear her husband wasn’t going to be home for a while. The elements of the story begin to come together and slowly but surely Ben (presumably a virgin) has this epiphany, perfectly aligned and confirmed with Mrs. Robinson pose. Picturing what’s in Ben’s head is of course impossible without these significant cues, that create a gut feeling in the viewers mind that feels as trapped and confused- flustered as Ben ends up. In that instance Nichols wants you to feel how Ben feels, uncomfortable and on the edge of your seat until the abrupt moment when Ben finds his window of escape and bolts out of the house. The scene changes and allows for a moment of reflection of that “holy — “Elaine’s Mom tried to seduce me. Other scenes, less iconic but still powerful mix the two topics we’ve discussed so far: sound and cinematography. By no means an uncommon occurrence as it’s something you can identify from the very first shot of the film. Ben lying against a pillow, all white besides his face- a setting of limbo meant to bring no attention to itself, all focus on Ben. The camera pans out a reveals Ben is on a plane amongst a crowd of other passengers, as “The Sound of Silence” fades in. Again, breaking this down, you see that first limbo scene and again think of its meaning, as the limbo implies “all focus on Ben” this was true for that shot and true for the rest of the film.
Imagine now Nichols and his crew have all the footage for this film and begin to open Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro or some equivalent, they can’t possibly make a perfect film if they just drag all the footage on to the timeline in chronological order. Editing is an entire thought process on its own. To grow on the analogy suggested before just because anyone can get a copy of iMovie and edit their “travel vlog” together with flashy swirling transitions and copyright free music doesn’t make them good at the industry. Nichols methods include powerful match cuts and cross montages throughout the picture. To describe this let’s break down a five-minute sequence that jumps back and forth between the affair and Ben’s life at his parents. First, we see the reflection of a pool, a fade-in on Ben sun-bathing on his raft, a bit of a montage of him floating in various poses, then he jumps out of the pool puts on a white button down and goes into a side door on his parents’ house, an immediate jump to the Taft Hotel, Mrs. Robinson unbuttoning the same white shirt, then a close up on Ben’s face- his eyes wandering off screen, leading him to get up close the door up the room he is in which now appears to be his parents study, as we see them at the dinner table, he sits down we see the same close up and back to the Taft, a cycle that happens all over under five minutes. We come to the end of this sequence as we see Ben move from his bedroom, into the pool dive onto his raft, onto Mrs. Robinson, and once again are greeted with this awkward sound bridge of Ben’s Dad calling out to him as he turns his head and looks up from the hotel bed, changing into the raft. Various scenes are put together that were all recorded out of order but create this sense of the length of time that passed since Ben graduated, creating and enforcing the tension between him and his parents. The way the film is compiled makes for a much more recognizable and iconic piece. One could go about the way and reason Nichols di this but it is always easier to describe the Scuba suit and the use of black and white stripes throughout. An article on thefilmspectrum.com describes these scenes in a concise way as the scuba scene shows just how “his parents are shoving him underwater”, underwater as in incapable of handling all the pressure. The bars mentioned found on Ben’s wallpaper in his room and the Robinsons and his parents have a black and white striped awning
All these elements of the film may seem extra, unnecessary but this is far from true. You can’t just pick up the camera and expect a masterpiece by hitting record. You need storyboarding, planning, cinematography, then you get to post and need editing, sound design and so forth. In our daily life, we depend on the symbolic meaning of countless things from the color of the seasons, to the logos of our favorite brands- without it our purpose becomes even harder to find, our feelings harder to describe. Ben found himself in a place every college student fears, they hurdle of finding out what you want to do in life, what you want to major in his hard enough. Ben, degree in hand finds himself a man now by society’s terms and a man that needs to get out and get a job. This essay didn’t argue the plot of the film, but as a closing thought the mention of rather this masterpiece ended in tragedy or happy ending is a topic that deserves a paper of its own to properly address what mise-en-scéne suggested what was in the lover’s heads as the road off into the sunset almost on the bus- perhaps terrified of what they’ve just committed to.
Coates, Rachael. “Listening Beyond The.” Cinematic Discovery, 20 Feb. 2013, rachaelcoates.wordpress.com/2013/02/20/listening-beyond-the-sound-of-silence-in-the-graduate-d-mike-nichols-1967/#comments.
Fraley, Jason. “The Graduate (1967).” The Film Spectrum, 3 Dec. 2012, thefilmspectrum.com/?p=4713.
Philips, William H. Film: An Introduction. Vol. 4. N.p.: Bedford-St
Martin’s, 2009. Print.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Graduate: Music (Score).” Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11 Nov. 2008, www.shmoop.com/the-graduate/music.html.