Directed by Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols was one of the Hollywood auteurs that brought forth the industry’s renaissance in the 1960s. The Hollywood Renaissance did away with ‘your parent’s movies’ and introduced a new wave of films that spoke to the radical social and psychological changes in America (Mast and Kawin, 2006). Nichols’ film The Graduate (1967) captured the emotional sentiment felt by the younger generation through self-conscious stylistic filmmaking (Mast and Kawin, 2006). During Benjamin’s birthday, one of the most iconic scenes in the film, Nichols uses a point-of-view camera, sound, and metaphors to portray to the audience Benjamin’s inner feelings and conflicts.
Firstly, the camera work Nichols deploys helps the audience understand Benjamin’s psychological troubles. Nichols cleverly uses a point-of-view shot to portray to the audience the inner conflicts and feelings Benjamin is experiencing. Through this point-of-view shot, the audience is able to physically live the overbearing claustrophobia and isolation felt by Benjamin (Beuka, 2000). The point-of-view camera portrays these feelings in two ways: with the camera's movement and positioning.
The use of a handheld camera in this scene creates the effect of instability. The audience automatically becomes uneasy because the camera isn’t steady or clean. Rather it’s shaky, fluid, and disjointed - it reflects the way real humans see the world. This helps to put the audience into Benjamin’s mindset because they are able to see the world through his eyes. Additionally, Nichols use of framing the scene with scuba goggles helps to isolate the space and focus in on the things that are causing Benjamin’s anxiety: his overbearing parents, the friends they are trying to impress, the water that is drowning him. It also creates a feeling of claustrophobia, making the audience feel the space around them narrowing and isolating them to a specific view. By using these different camera techniques, Nichols was able to allow the audience to experience first-hand the claustrophobia and isolation felt by Benjamin and narrow in on the triggers that are causing his unhappiness.
When the scene switches to Benjamin’s point-of-view, the sound also makes a dramatic change. Nichols goes from the sound of Benjamin’s father praising and grandstanding his son to just the overbearing and overwhelming sound of Benjamin’s breath. The stark contrast from the sound of showboating and applause to deep and consistent breathing cues the audience into Benjamin’s emotional state. The overwhelming sound of breathing creates a feeling of numbness. Because of its harsh sound and consistent rhythm, the sound of Benjamin’s breathing projects Benjamin’s inner numbness - he can’t feel anything because he is trapped in this routine way of life. He isn’t able to break free from the mundanity of suburban life. It also reflects a feeling of contained anxiety; a feeling of never being able to escape. Through the exclusive use of Benjamin’s heavy breathing, Nichols is able to project Benjamin’s feeling of being numb and his bubbling anxiety onto the audience.
Additionally, Nichols’ choice to have the parents continue to talk to Benjamin even though he, or audience, can’t hear them is a way of perpetuating the film’s theme of lack of communication. There is no meaning in the words Benjamin’s parents are spouting. They are just speaking to speak and, most importantly, they aren’t listening. The communication between Benjamin and the adults in the film is nonexistent. Nichols shows the audience this by muting the parents entirely, rending their words useless.
Nichols uses sound and camera work to transport the audience into Benjamin’s state of mind. Both of these elements create a feeling of claustrophobia and unease, which reflects Benjamin’s feelings towards his future. Nichols traps the audience in Benjamin’s mind, making them see, hear, and experience what he is. Nichols doesn’t just tell the audience about Benjamin’s sense of claustrophobia, but rather he uses cinematic techniques to allow the audience to physically experience it.
Nichols also uses the allusion of water to help cue the audience into Benjamin’s inner conflicts. Throughout the beginning of the film, Nichols creates an allusion between Benjamin’s parents constant need to show off their son and a fish tank. Benjamin feels like he is being put on display by his parents, which makes him feel trapped like he’s stuck in a glass tank. (Beuka, 2000). In this scene, Nichols physically puts Benjamin in a fish tank (in this case the swimming pool) for his parents and their friends to gawk at and praise. The adults in this scene are all standing around staring down at the amazing spectacle that is Benjamin Braddock. He is on display for all of his parent's friends to see and admire. At one point, when Benjamin tries to come up from under the water (and out of the claustrophobic and suffocating world of his parents), his dad simply grabs his mask and pushes him back into the water, drowning him in their suburban chokehold forever. As Benjamin sinks to the bottom of the pool in his scuba outfit (resembling the figurine shown in his fish tank earlier), Nichols portrays Benjamin’s mundane existence, comparing him to a toy destined to remain the same forever (Beuka, 2000).
During his 21st birthday, a day that is meant for celebrating his transition into manhood, Benjamin is fraught with feelings of claustrophobia, anxiety, and isolation. The lack of progression in his life has left Benjamin seeking a dramatic change, which leads him to his affair with Mrs. Robinson. Mike Nichols portrays these feels to the audience through a unique point-of-view camera, sound, and metaphor, allowing the audience to relate to, and even project their own emotions onto, Benjamin.
Mast, Gerald and Bruce F. Kawin. Hollywood Renaissance. Short History of the Movies. New York. Longman. 2006. 0321262328. Ch. 15. pp. 344-349.
Beuka, Robert. Just one Word...."Plastics." Journal of Popular Film & Television. 28(1). Spring 2000. pp. 12-21.