Questioning Mike Nichols’ Film style through means of analysing The Graduate (1967)
Edward Buscombe details the auteur theory outlined in the Cahiers du Cinéma that stated “cinema was an art of personal expression” (1971, p.75). Although originally belonging to the French new wave filmmakers, American filmmakers of the 1960s appropriated auteurism creating films that resonated with the upcoming young culture. The word was no longer defined as a mode of aesthetic discourse but a title given to new directors that would reign in large profits for studios. The title of an auteur is often rejected by great directors as a marketing tool, which originally related solely to the unique vision of an experimental director.
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Mike Nichols, now deceased, was an American film director of German descent. Many actors who have worked alongside the acclaimed EGOT winner, claim that it was his astute observations of the flawed, paradoxical nature of humans that made his films so successful. The director was a pioneer in breaking through Hollywood constrictions by dealing with adult themes across his body of work. Thus through Nichols’ use of mise en scene the director’s style is constructed; continuity editing, naturalistic acting style, low-key lighting and philosophical themes of existentialism. As John Gibbs writes’ “It is through the balance of these elements that a director creates their expressive film style” (2002, p.45).
Across Mike Nichols’ films; Carnal Knowledge (1971), Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? (1966) and The Graduate (1967) the director chose to create character studies that were a criticism of American ideals and the façade of those who lived by these standards. Carnal Knowledge (1971) focuses on the friendship between two men who meet at college with a recurring theme of sex and relationships. The film stars Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in their pursuit of their illusion of the perfect women, only to de disappointed when this mirage is broken. With the two protagonists struggling with the semblance of adulthood, a theme across my choice of film for analysis, The Graduate (1967).
Similarly in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Mike Nichols explores a perfect American couple on the surface, who in actuality lead a hollow destructive existence. The film stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a perfect Hollywood couple in real life, and deals with themes of sex and power. The film is a criticism of the American dream as it explores the false façade of the characters in its exploitation of the disparity between illusion and reality. Parallels can be drawn between the theme of sexual dominance and power, in the relationship between Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) and Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) in The Graduate (1967).
The Graduate (1967) offered “a great comic opportunity to criticise vulgar new West Coast money, as Benjamin is a product of WASPy overprivileged in a society that is devoted to it” (Harris, 2009 p.122). Mark Harris went on further to say The Graduate (1967) “is a film about the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in synch with” (Harris, p.314). Mike Nichols depicts this by isolating the character in the film and using water symbolism, to externalise the character’s shallow existence. Moreover the theme of sex is conveyed through the constant use of jungle imagery to highlight the predatory nature of Mrs. Robinson’s pursuit of Benjamin.
The film was released in America in the 1960s at the height of Vietnam war controversy, hippies and experimentation with drugs. However, whilst the film fails to acknowledge these issues and instead postulate the timeless questions of sex, love and direction in life; the film is still grounded in a distinct cultural, historical context. Ben’s character is clouded by disillusionment after graduating from college, mirroring many American citizens feelings toward America’s intervention in Vietnam. Ben’s rejection of his parents conservative ideals grounded in the American Dream reflects the social, political atmosphere in America in the 1960s. Mark Harris writes, “The Graduate’s depiction of alienation and dissatisfaction is a legitimate response to the false values of the society he exits in” (2009, p.392).
In regard to the context of the whole film, Mark Harris describes the “impressionistic sequence in which Benjamin’s character is in his pool as a suggestion of both Benjamin’s moral drift and his liberation from the constriction of being a good student and son” (2009, p.360). The character is figuratively and literally floating through life, until he meets Elaine, Mrs Robinson’s daughter (Katherine Ross), who ignites a vitality in Ben to take control of his life. The whole film is shot from Ben’s perspective, thus aligning the audience with his character and hailing him as a flawed hero despite his wavering moral compass. Despite Ben’s affluent family, the character is still preoccupied with his future and his legacy, a common theme across university graduates. The scene is intercut between images of Ben and Mrs. Robinson conducting their affair in a hotel room, with images of Ben reclining in the pool underneath the hot California sun. This scene depicts the aimlessness of Ben’s character after finishing college and his sexual liberation and loss of innocence, with this scene depicting him as a stud. Moreover, the scene is perfectly accompanied by the film’s anthem ‘Sound of Silence,’ epitomising Ben’s character through what Michael Chion describes as “empathetic music” (1994, p.8). The paradoxical nature of the song’s lyrics, and title, summarise Ben’s inability to communicate his feelings of isolation and alienation with those in a position of authority. To quote Mark Harris the song outwardly voices what’s Ben feels internally; “his deep depression at being at home and emotional suicide due to his relationship with Mrs. Robinson” (2009, p.360). The scene is broken down into three sections; Ben lolling in the pool, the hotel room with Mrs. Robinson, and his depressive state around his house.
The clip begins with a black screen and fades into a high angle close up of the glistening pool, and ends with a close up of Ben’s face laying against the headrest of a black chair. The marriage between the audio-visual elements of the film are best epitomised in this scene. With the beautiful resonance of ‘Sound of Silence’ playing against shots of Ben’s increasingly hollow attitude towards his affair with Mrs. Robinson. This montage sequence of overlaid images begins with the dark screen and the accompanying song lyric “hello darkness my old friend,” as the song continues to play the image fades into a crystal blue pool reflecting the sunlight. The accompanying song lyric “because a vision softly creeping,” helps to reinforce the dreamlike state of this sequence. Which according to Michael Chion “enriches the image as musical value is added” (1994, p8). Moreover the image of water is a recurring motif across the film, used to highlight the rebirth of Ben’s character post college as he transitions to adulthood. The early reference to water includes Ben staring at a fish tank with parallels between the fish and his own feeling of entrapment due to the pressures put on him by his parents. Within this scene, Ben idly floats in his pool drifting through the summer months failing to show any signs of ambition, he too is stuck within the confines of his own fish tank. Moreover, a series of close ups of Ben floating on the raft are overlaid with the glistening water to highlight the idyllic American, suburban life he leads. His parent’s existence is shallow, only surface level, just like the water resulting in Ben feeling alienated and isolated as a result of rejecting this world. This is accentuated by the accompanying lyrics of the song: “in restless dreams I walked alone”. Moreover this dreamlike sequence also emphasises time passing as he wastes his summer away during the day and spends his night by continuing his unfulfilling affair with Mrs. Robinson. As Ben lies sunbathing, donned with dark black sunglasses his status as a newfound young Adonis is cemented. His status of the stud is as a direct result of his rebellion against parental authority. Additionally, the costume choice of dark black sunglass could be a nod to the moral decline of his character as he becomes deeper entangled in an affair. This is supported by the soulless expression on his face in the later shots with Mrs. Robinson as he’s blind to the destructive nature of his actions. The partnership of the song continues to be effective with the lyrics accompanying the inner turmoil of Ben’s character despite his outward carelessness. The final shot of the dream-like pool sequence shows a wide angle shot of Ben floating on a pool raft with his parents barbecuing in the background. Here we see the two worlds at conflict with Ben rebelling against the ideals of the American dream upheld by his parents. Within American suburbia there are huge similarities between the families who all own the white house with a blue pool, the wives all dress in animal prints and the fathers work in the same line of business. Ben’s mother, Mrs. Braddock (Elizabeth Wilson), wears a zebra print top feeding into the jungle theme prevalent throughout the film. With Mrs. Robinson typically dressed in a leopard print costume to reinforce her status as a cougar, predatory, seductress figure. Moreover, due to the similarities between the two mothers, the Oedipal relationship between Ben and Mrs. Robinson is further presented, drawing on Sigmund Freud’s analysis surrounding “anxiety originating in psychosexual excitements” (2015, p.180). This justifies Ben’s usual behaviour; his new smoking tendency, mean spirit, slovenliness and abnormal relationship with a mother figure rendering him with feelings of both vanity and inadequacy. The camera pans left and tracks Ben, zooming into him as he exits the pool from a wide angle shot to a medium body shot, a haze of light surrounding his figure. The sun’s heat appears oppressive mirroring the intoxicating control of his parents in deciding Ben’s future. With lyrics from the song highlighting the character’s internal misery due to his inability to communicate his fears at finding his path and dealing with real life issues; “People talking without speaking//People hearing without listening”. Ben then puts on a white shirt, with connotations of purity and innocence which contrast the immoral act he’s about to commit on the other side of the door. Smooth transitions are used here, with the doors acting as portals to transport Ben’s character from his family home to the hotel room where he commits adultery with Mrs. Robinson. The close ups of Ben reclining on the pool float contrast the hollow expression on Ben’s face as he meets with Mrs. Robinson. This feeling of emptiness is supported by the song with the lyric “the sound of silence” accompanying the portal transition from Ben’s house to the hotel room.
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The camera tracks Ben’s left side of his face as he enters the room moving from a wide angle to a medium shot, with a disorientating effect due to the unexpected change of location. This confusion mirrors the unravelling of Ben’s life. Yet the fluidity of Ben’s movements is used to show the repetitive and monotonous nature of the affair with Mrs. Robinson. We see Ben going through the motion without any feeling of emotion, his rebellion against his parents and the oppressive suburban class has left him more isolated then before. Ben walks past Mrs. Robinson her back turned to the camera and presented in a leopard print skirt to reinforce the predatory-prey status of their relationship. Ben passes her without acknowledging her presence, desensitised to the novelty and excitement of their initial engagement. Ben adopts a child-like role in his relationship with Mrs. Robinson reinforcing her role as the seductress predator and Ben as the spineless prey. The use of the high angle shot here reinforces the submissive nature of Ben’s character. Ben lies down in the hotel bed, surrounded by white images from the bedspread, his costume and the white walls of the hotel room. This white symbolism contradicting the character’s loss of innocence as Mrs. Robinson sparks his sexual liberation. Moreover, the excessive use of white appears clinical and adds to the methodical way in which Ben repeats his actions each night in the hotel room. This white is contrasted by a black headboard which Ben rests his head against. This black headboard could be symbolic of the immorality that is consuming Ben as his body becomes lost in the white bed, with the black accentuating his head. Mrs. Robinson sits to the side of Ben, leaning over him to unbutton his shirt in a maternal way. This oedipal relationship is further emphasised by Mrs. Robinson’s costume of a black bra and a leopard print to establish her dominance over Ben in their relationship. Mrs. Robinson’s face is hidden to the viewer, however the cut to the close up of Ben’s face accentuates his pitiful and hollow expression. Ben looks down in shame reinforcing the predator-prey dynamic of their relationship as he appears trapped in an inescapable cycle of moral decay. This is reinforced by the song lyric “silence like a cancer grow,” to emphasise the venomous nature of their relationship.
The camera cuts to a close up of Ben’s head rested against his black headboard at home, a great example of seamless continuity editing. The low-key lighting projects shadows onto the left side of Ben’s face symbolic of the character getting lost in the darkness. Moreover, the shadows obscuring half his face are a visual representation of the character’s moral ambiguity as he continues to engage in a sexual relationship with Mrs. Robinson. This is in keeping with the director’s exploration into the paradoxical and flawed nature of humans, marking the misguided journey of Ben from boyhood to adulthood. As Ben sits up and walks off, the camera pans up and to the right tracking him side on, and zooming out to a medium-wide shot to reveal the interior of his room at his family home. This smooth transition is disorientating to the audience as he has transported from the hotel to his home. This continuous use of portals helps to show Benjamin drifting between locations, propelled by Mrs. Robinson, and his inability to take control of his life. As the camera zooms out to reveal Ben’s room at his family house, we see Ben walk over to shut the door on his parents having dinner in the adjacent room. There’s a significant contrast between the dark and shadowy interior of Ben’s room and the high-key lighting of the dining room where his parents sit. This shows the disparity between the life Ben’s leading and the typical suburban American life his parents are leading. Moreover, the action of Ben shutting the door on his parents feeds into his rebellion against the societal conventions that predetermine the outcome of his life. This sequence explores the increasingly solitary and reclusive nature of Ben as he’s consumed with the enormity of real world responsibilities. Ben walks back through his room, with the camera tracking him sideways as he walks to the left, and sits down in a plush, black velvet chair. As he walks through the room, the set design helps to reinforce his class and social ranking due to the WASPy iconography. Above Ben’s head to the right there’s an antique gun, a phallic symbol to express his heightened masculinity as a result of his sexual liberation. To the left of Ben is an old chess set to remind the audience of the character’s intellect, turning his back on all prospects and presenting the character as a shadow of his former self. Thus leading into the film’s theme of identity, and Ben’s preoccupation with discovering his true self. The interior of Ben’s room is a clash between his new and former life. The embers of a fire are just seen to the far right of the frame, with connotations of burning and death in reference to his former prosperous life. Finally, Ben is surrounded by household plants, in keeping with the recurring jungle theme in the film. The camera once again cuts to a close up of Ben, his head rested against a vast black backdrop. The accompanying final lyric “the sound of silence” summarises Ben’s feelings of isolation and alienation, as an outsider in the world which everyone else fits into perfectly. This musical synch point “provides the harmonic framework of the audiovisual system” (Chion 1994, p.37).
The Graduate (1967) was critically acclaimed and received by young moviegoers as a case study that mirrored the counterculture.The success of the film immediately sparked studios to invest in creating films for younger film audiences. The film launched the career of newcomer Dustin Hoffman (Benjamin), and sparked a change in Hollywood’s type cast of the romantic leading men who no longer had to be a conventionally tall, confident, good-looking movie star. The film was nominated for multiple awards, with Mike Nichols winning for best director. However, in spite of its positive audience response, some still criticised the film for failing to acknowledge the political climate.
Stylistic conventions of Mike Nichols work include naturalistic acting style, continuity editing and themes that dissected the affluent middle class American families. The editing in this sequence highlights Ben’s inability to distinguish between his escapades with Mrs. Robinson in the hotel and his home life and the redundancy of his meetings with her. The lack of dialogue draws the audience’s attention to Dustin Hoffman’s (Ben) subtle acting style highlighting the character’s feeling of isolation in a consuming, privileged world. This is indicative of the director’s style, praised for drawing an honest and truthful performance from his actors. Through his “implementation of mise en scene the director is coherently able to deliver meaning” (Perkins, 1993 p.116) throughout his body of work and thus has a clear and distinct film style.
- BUSCOMBE, E. (1973). Ideas of Authorship. Screen, 14(3), p.75.
- GIBBS, J (2002). Mise en scène: Film Style and Interpretation New York: Columbia University Press p.45
- HARRIS, M. (2008). Pictures at a revolution: Five movies and the birth of new Hollywood. New York: Penguin Books, p.27,122, 314, 392, 360
- CHION, M. (1994). Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, p.5, 8, 37.
- PERKINS, F. V. Film as Film: understanding and judging movies Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, p.116
- FREUD, S. (2015). The interpretation of dreams. 3rd ed. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, p.180.
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