“Plastics.” – Movie Review on The Graduate (1967)

Any film synopsis would tell you that The Graduate is about a confused college graduate Ben being seduced by Mrs Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, but is then haunted by this short affair as he falls in love with the Robinsons’ daughter Elaine, who in the end elopes with Ben. The film is nevertheless much more than a love drama. It is full of contemporary cultural discussion and iconic lines that are often referenced in other films.  The Graduate opens with Ben, a top student freshly graduated from college, returning home to his upper-middle-class parents and their friends in Los Angeles, worried about his future because he looks to be different from the older generation. In fact the older generation has plans and words of advice laid before him. His parents expect him to study in graduate school with his outstanding academic results. Mr Robinson tells him to relax and have fun. Another family friend Mr McGuire says “plastics” is the only word he should keep in mind all time. The adults seem to have already envisioned a world for Ben to live in, and yet Ben does not want to be what the adults expect him to be. He feels uncomfortable with the homecoming party organised by his parents and hides in a room staring at a fish tank. Against his will he has to showcase his scuba diving gear and once he is in water, he dives to the very bottom to hide away from the crowd. He is helpless but not losing hope. Puzzled as he is, before he figures out how to break free from the older generation, he is seduced by Mrs Robinson engaging in a short sexual affair. While dominating and taking the lead in the affair, Mrs Robinson may be more fragile than she appears to be. During one of their stays in the hotel room, Ben wants to start a conversation with Mrs Robinson on art, but she is much reluctant to discuss about the subject. In the conversation she then reveals that her major in college was indeed art. She met Mr Robinson in college and got pregnant. Her reluctance to discuss art seems to be a parody of her conscious attempt back then to move away from who she was, but shifting focus to objects and values that she now comes to regret.  Among his parents and their suburban friends, including Mrs Robinson, they are all the same – “plastics” – artificial people who cling onto worldly constructions throughout their lives. Mike Nichols once commented that The Graduate is not centred on the conflicts between the older and the younger generations, but on how people cling onto objects to such a huge extent that they themselves become the objects they are clinging onto. Ben wants to be different, because he has noticed how the older generation has become the worldly objects themselves, and he does not want to passively become an object under the life designed by the older generation. He starts to breakthrough. The film ends with Ben crashing Elaine’s wedding and elopes with her. The couple hop onto a bus after Ben has literally fought for his prize Elaine at her wedding with another man. Some say the puzzled young man has finally tried to get what he really wants in life. It is a triumph of the heart. But to the audience’s surprise, there is no excited discussion about their new page in life. The delight quickly subsides as Ben turns calm and stares into the emptiness. Elaine’s loving smile retreats into a cold face upon seeing the expressionless Ben. The scene ends with the couple staring ahead in silence. This silence is a restatement of the opening theme song The Sound of Silence  – while speech is in essence shallow silence between superficial people, real silence speaks a thousand words. It gives voice to the uncertain future lying ahead of Ben and Elaine. It poses a question of “now what?” after a youthful rebellion against the older generation. It makes the audience ponder upon if Ben and Elaine are challenging the older generation simply for the sake of being rebellious. It casts doubt between reality and dream – is fighting for what the heart wants practically rewarding in the long run? The film’s ending has never failed to intrigue its audience since its premiere. Such is the power of silence.

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3 thoughts on ““Plastics.” – Movie Review on The Graduate (1967)

  1. One of my favorite films. I looked it up and Graduate was the top box office film of 1967. It truly expressed a mood of the times. Benjamin was a likeable hero. He could easily have taken a self-righteous attitude toward his parents (as many young people of that time did). He didn’t, as evidenced in his scene with Mr. Robinson. And through it all, he maintained a good sense of humor instead of lapsing into cynicism.

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