Life in a Fishbowl
Mike Nichols’ film, The Graduate, is a coming-of-age story that won the hearts of young college graduates throughout America. Despite being made in the 1960’s, this soon-to-be popular work of cinema did not focus upon the typical ideas portrayed in this decade, such as hippies, drugs, and rock and roll music. Instead, it focused on the raw and realistic confusion that young adults feel, even today, when they are expected to suddenly enter into the impending world of adulthood. Becoming an adult proves to be difficult for some, especially The Graduate’s protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate, played by Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin does not seem to be a part of the generation gap, but rather, completely excluded from all parts of society, unable to find a niche in his life where he truly belongs, even with those his own age. The stark realism portrayed in this film helped the youth of this era to relate to Benjamin in a way that they had not been able to before. He is a symbolic figure for the adolescents of this time and beyond, who did not and do not know what they are going to do with their lives, and who also do not feel that they belong. Nichols illuminates the idea that Benjamin is trapped within a metaphorical fishbowl built by unfulfilled expectations and life’s unexpected turns, through his carefully and thoughtfully chosen uses of form, as well as his visual style, encompassing mise-en-scene and sound within The Graduate.
Brian Ott, author of Introducing Critical Media Studies, describes form as such: “…form describes the cognitive component of a message. Form can be thought of as the way a message is packaged and delivered. The packaging of a message is a consequence, first, of the medium, and, second, the genre or class. Every medium or communication technology packages messages differently” (Ott, 13). In the case of The Graduate, Mike Nichols created a narrative film, told from young Benjamin Braddock’s point of view. His film has a linear structure, but is still able to make the audience feel uncomfortable through his use of themes and genre, and how they interact with one another. One of the largest themes within Nichols’ film is this “fishbowl” reference, which stems early on in the film, while in Benjamin’s bedroom. He has a tank with his pet fish in it, with a plastic scuba diver planted in the bottom of the tank. An echo of this is repeatedly created throughout the film, such as when Benjamin himself gets into a scuba suit, or the recurring bodies of water and rain he continues to encounter. Ben feels trapped within his life, and feels that others peer in on him through the glass between himself and adulthood. Even so, he seems to find comfort in wishing he could just live alone in the water, rather than joining adult life elsewhere. Genre plays a part in Benjamin’s inner turmoils as well, for, even though The Graduate is meant to be a comedy, it is quite dark. Classifying this film as a comedy is almost an insult to Benjamin’s life, as he struggles to find a place in the world. The viewers are made to feel as though they are peering in on something they should not be, and perhaps they are part of the problem, and they are part of those causing Benjamin to feel as though he does not belong.
Mise-en-scene is typically described as parts within a frame, carefully chosen by a director, to help set a mood and depict a particular feeling to the audience. Mike Nichols was especially adamant about the use of mise-en-scene while shooting The Graduate. Color and costume, both components of mise-en-scene, play important parts in each scene within this film. Nichols’ use of color guides the audience to feel certain emotions, quite deliberately. A good example of this is the scene in which Benjamin’s parents give him the birthday gift of a scuba suit. He is repeatedly prompted to test it out in their 6-foot-deep, in-ground pool in the backyard, by his unrelenting father until he finally agrees. This reminds the audience of an earlier scene, where Ben is told that his future is in “plastics”. Benjamin never seems to have a choice in what he is doing, and this pool scene is no exception. Not wishing to disappoint his parents and their eager group of friends, Benjamin walks out, and the camera cuts to a famous point-of-view shot from inside of his scuba mask. Though the colors of the backyard are warm, and his parents’ friends are dressed in white, making them seem quite innocent, the mask he is wearing creates a black border around them. This allows for the interpretation that Benjamin, in fact, separates himself from these older, more established counterparts, as well as implies that he feels like an animal being looked at from behind “glass” — or, rather, his plastic mask. The black border created around his parents and their friends is meant to symbolize that, though they are people of good intentions, the repercussions of their actions are not quite so good. When Benjamin makes it to the pool, he is coerced into jumping in. As he does so, his world, and that of the screen, turns blue and cool. It almost seems sad, if not for the refreshing realization that there are no longer faces pressing in on him, and the scene no longer feels hectic and overwhelming. He is alone at the bottom of the pool, and, at first, he resists, attempting to get out of the water. As he gets closer to reaching the surface, the figures of his parents are black, grey, and fuzzy, and, as he attempts to escape, his father’s hand reaches in and pushes Benjamin back down into the pool using his face mask, covering Benjamin’s view. At this point, in the cool, blue bottom of the pool, he is alone, but seems to accept it. As Benjamin floats there, in the cloudy water, holding onto his harpoon, he looks almost like Neil Armstrong, claiming his rightful place on this lonely and isolated plane, which is the one place he feels like he truly belongs. Benjamin is stuck in this metaphorical fishbowl that is his life, with faces peering in, but no one can hear him as he figuratively cries for help. The cool colors in this scene, as well as the direct act of immersing Benjamin in water, amplify the underlying metaphor that Nichols wants to show to the audience. These color schemes continue to occur throughout the film, helping the viewer distinguish what they should be feeling toward this dark comedy. “The arts offer us intensely involving experiences,” Bordwell and Thompson state in Film Art: An Introduction. “We say that movies draw us in or immerse us… artworks involve us by engaging our senses, feelings, and mind in a process… the artist has created a pattern” (Bordwell & Thompson, 51). Nichols embodies this idea throughout The Graduate, creating patterns with his visual and stylistic choices, finding himself able to fit comfortably into a specific form for this film.
Costume design within The Graduate is prevalent as well. In the opening scene, Benjamin is shown wearing a suit, giving him a professional, businessman-type look. This leads the viewer to believe that he has his life put together, as most businessmen do, though this is hardly the case for Ben.. He continues with this style throughout the first half of the film. He, at first, seems to inherit this style from his father, who is initially introduced while lecturing Ben about his life choices. This observation is to later be contradicted by the almost tourist-like outfits his father continues to don throughout the rest of the film. This juxtaposition would indicate that he and his father come to understand one another less, as his father becomes more of a bystander in his life and less of an authority figure. Mrs. Robinson’s costume design is notable as well. Played by Anne Bancroft, Mrs. Robinson is the older woman with which Ben has an affair, and who, incidentally, happens to be one of his parents’ oldest friends. She is first seen in a dark, partially sheer dress and heels, making her seem sexy as well as intimidating. When Benjamin calls her from a payphone a few scenes later and asks her to meet him at a hotel, she is wearing fur with animal print. Following this costume decision, the viewer may associate her with a tigress, or, more fittingly, a cougar. “Cougar” is a term to describe an older woman who sleeps with or preys upon younger men. Incidentally, Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, who Benjamin eventually falls in love with, is exactly the opposite. On their first date, she is dressed in a white jacket with a light pink undershirt. Though Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson have gotten close, her daughter, Elaine, is a refreshing contrast for Benjamin. She dresses more casually, and makes him feel even more comfortable than her mother ever could. The more comfortable with himself he becomes, the more casually Benjamin begins to dress. Though this does not necessarily make him a part of society, he seems to feel a bit less isolated, and less like a fish stuck inside of a bowl. He begins to break out of the glass and challenge his parents’ ideals, expressing himself through his ever-changing clothing choices in the second half of the film.
Jan Roberts-Breslin, author of Making Media: Foundations of Sound and Image Production, believes that, “… we should realize that artful sound design is equal in importance to visual composition in creating effective audio-visual media. Sound design is the combination of sound elements, how they work together as part of a soundtrack, and how they work with the visual to tell the story” (Roberts-Breslin, 162). Sound is an extremely important aspect of The Graduate, for it helped Nichols to create a realistic portrayal of society in the 1960’s, rather than the “flower-power” idea that only related to a certain portion of the American population. The soundtrack for The Graduate was performed by Simon and Garfunkel, weaving in and out of the film, setting the pace and echoing the somber tones of the film itself. Though the songs are not necessarily slow, the lyrics make a great segway into certain scenes, such as the lyric, “the sound of silence,” which leads to a scene in which there is no music. This assists the audience in relating more easily to his situation, for something is quite obviously amiss. The soundtrack for this film is repetitive, utilizing music from the same band throughout the entire film, as well as repeating certain songs when necessary. This, once again, may lead the viewer to the metaphor of this fishbowl that Benjamin lives in. It seems that life goes on repetitively, with no sign of escape, and is shown by Nichols through the use of non-diegetic, repetitive sounds. The ending of the film itself leaves the viewer feeling disconcerted. Though Benjamin and Elaine decide to run away together from Elaine’s wedding to another man, they look just as confused and naive as they had in the beginning. The elderly people aboard the bus turn around to stare at them in silence as if they are animals at a zoo, and the song “The Sound of Silence” plays, just as it had at the beginning of the film, when Benjamin was utterly alone in life. Though Benjamin had gotten everything he wanted, the use of sound in this scene insinuates that, in fact, he was still not grown up, and was still headed into the unknown and unavoidable.
This serious, yet humorous-natured film takes a critical look on American society in the 60’s. Director Mike Nichols crafted this work of art quite carefully, utilizing form, sound, mise-en-scene, along with many other elements to get his message across to the youth of America: “The only safe thing to do is to take a chance.” This film was so radically different from other films during the 1960’s, and not focused upon the Vietnam War, that Nichols was not quite sure how viewers would respond. Later, he would be named the hero of American youth for that decade, having found a way to relate to them without resorting to drugs, war, and other popular subjects of the era. Instead, he put his audiences inside of a metaphorical fishbowl, along with Benjamin Braddock, and took them on a journey of realization that growing up is something no one is comfortable with, and some of us never truly will.