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Classical Film vs. The Art Film: A Deconstruction and Analysis of ‘The Graduate’

Released at the end of the brilliant Hollywood Golden Age, The Graduate by Mike Nichols, is a film that manages to successfully combine both classical film style and European art cinema (art film). By doing so, Nichols created a film that can be considered a formal hybrid of the two. In this article, I will explore the filmic relationship and conventions used within this movie in regards to how Nichols combines these two distinctively different approaches to cinema.

The classical film is a type of filmic style that is derived from a set period in cinematic history: Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 1920s to the 1960s. This era was known as the studio era, with film production being dominated by eight studios (five major and three minor). These studios controlled most of the market – producing, distributing, and exhibiting the films they created (controlling 60% of theatres between each other). Due to this monopoly of the mainstream cinematic landscape, a new style began to emerge from these studios. This new mode of serial production has come to be known as the Producer Unit System, in which the producer oversees the production of the movie from start to finish. The producer and the other parties involved approached creating films during this period as an assembly line to maximise profits a movie can generate. This lead to the standardization of film form. Bound by rules and limitations on individual innovation, the classical film mode was born.

As François Truffaut said: “we love the American cinema because the films all resemble each other”. This quote perfectly describes the assembly line resemblance of film in the classical era. A reason as to why there is such resemblance from film to film is due to the norms that are set as “the basic principles of artistic construction that form the work”, during the classical period. These norms create a system that if followed “isolates preferred practices and sets limits upon invention”. Since the studios dictated the majority of films being produced, they were followed by all those involved. These norms had an emphasis on formal unity at a macrocosmic and microcosmic level.

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The formal elements of a classic film are rooted in the narrative rather than the stylistic. The narrative itself is the focus of a film created in this era, as “the story must be told by a skillful and systematic arraignment or adaptation of the means at hand subject to the author’s use”. These ‘means at hand’ refers to the stylistic system used by the producer and director to better convey the narrative and propel the simple plot forwards. The mise-en-scène, lighting, cinematography, editing, and sound are all used in a way that showcase the narrative above all else. This is achieved through orienting the viewer in the diegetic world both spatially and temporally through costumes, props and lighting. By foregrounding characters and revealing their psychology (in hopes of highlighting the linear causality/motivation) through dialogue, motifs of action and props, clear motives, and music and sound effects. And by ensuring comprehension of the narrative through camera movement, centering characters in the shot, and editing that allows the viewers to follow the action and show them what is significant in the shot. All of this is done to make the narrative comprehensive and unambiguous. Thus, the classical film “rest upon particular assumptions about narrative structure, cinematic style, and spectatorial activity… Narrative form motivates cinematic representation… [and] causal-effect logic and narrative parallelism generate a narrative which projects its actions through psychologically-defined, goal oriented characters”. But, in the 1950s a new cinematic mode was emerging in Europe that was different from the status quo of the classical area – the art film.

The art film is a type of filmic mode that is also derived from a period in history. In this case, that period is Post-War Europe of the 1950s. This mode came as a direct response to Europeans living in the aftermath of World War II, spotlighting their struggle to answer existentialistic questions such as ‘what does it mean to be an individual living at this time’. Due to this cultural shift and a vacuum beginning to open with the decline of the Classical Era, the art film was born. Although the art film is (mostly) narrative based and uses similar stylistic elements as the classical film, their approach to narrative and the use of the similar stylistic system is what separate them.

The art film “defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode, and especially against the causal effect linkage of events”. As seen in the movie L’Avventura, the narrative is not as linear nor dependent on the linkage of events to be able to convey the needed information to the audience. This loosening approach can be explained by examining a narrative motivation of art cinema: realism. This mode approaches reality by using real locations rather than sets, an emphasis on sexual nature of it characters, and the use of realistic characters that are more psychologically developed compared to their classical counterparts. The character of an art film does not have such “clear-cut traits and objectives” as that of a classical character, nor “defined desires and goals”. Instead, they simply “ passively” in and out of the shot. Most narratives in art films do not get fully resolved and many are left open ended. Instead of a narrative propelled story, the art film choses to focus on the stylistic system and presents a distinct set of formal conventions.

The formal conventions found in art films are distinct with many key elements throughout. One of these elements is that of alienation. Alienation from those around you, the community, country – essentially creating isolation and a disconnect felt by the audience as it promotes discomfort, unhappiness, and ambiguity while watching. This isolation is a motif in many art films. This inherent alienation forces the audience to be active participators while watching the film as they must piece together all the information presented in order to fully grasp the movie. Along with this key motif, the usage of style in this mode is drastically different – as it is not used to propel the narrative but rather there is style present for the sake of style. This goes against the strict regime of the classical film making process as now more and more individualisation of cinema can occur. Now, with an understanding of classical and art film, we can begin the deconstruction of a sequence in The Graduate.

In this following section, the sequence that will be examined is situated at the beginning of the film and sets the parameters for the remainder of the film. The sequence in questions is the “you’re trying to seduce me” sequence lasting from 10:22 till 16:54. I will approach the deconstruction of the sequence through a shot-by-shot breakdown at the beginning and then an analysis of the text to highlight the authors use of both classical and art filmic conventions.

The “you’re trying to seduce me” sequence begins with Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson walking into the house as the camera tracks the two at a medium long shot until the reach the bar. At the bar the camera remains stationary as the two individuals are talking. This opening shot serves under the classical continuity editing system, performing the function of becoming the establishing shot, setting the 180-degree line and an eye line match. This all reflects the classical narrative based filmic style. The next scene follows the norm set into place by the prior, panning to follow Mrs. Robinson as she hands Benjamin his drink and seats him down. Again, this is still very similar to the classical film norms. As she turns on the music and the sound of spiralling string and piano notes engulf the diegetic, a shift start to occur from the classical film norms to the slow but steady progression into the art film which is at full display by the end of the sequence.

When both Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are seated by the bar, she begins questioning him. After three sets of shot reverse shots for the dialogue between the two and the creation of the axis of action, the mood of the scene changes drastically. Thus creating the opportunity to insert art filmic conventions. The final reaction shot of Benjamin when asked if he knew she was an alcoholic come off as him being distressed and in panic, wanting to leave the house as soon as possible and return to his isolation/alienation from society. This single shot builds the character of Benjamin psychologically. There is a match on action as he stands to face Mrs. Robinson, with his back to the audience (which is rare in the classical film). Back still to the audience, he realises the intentions of Mrs. Robinson and the camera moves with him towards the exist (as set in the establishing shot). He faces the audience again but only for a short time as he turns around to face Mrs. Robinson (although this time his back is not only to the audience it is in the shadow).

The conversation has taken a turn, and the sexual tension emitting from Mrs. Robinson has spread across the room, forcing Benjamin to pace around nervously. Benjamin is now in a medium close up while Mrs. Robinson is framed with a medium long shot (with a three-point lighting system). This is the beginning of Nichols using art film elements in the sequence. As the scene continues, Benjamin walks to the right and the camera follows – breaking the 180-degree rule, creating confusion and disorienting the viewer (which as mentioned in the introductory section goes against everything that the classical film was supposed to follow). Seconds later, he moves again, causing another break in continuity of the axis of action (pay in mind this is still only one shot). The sexual tension from Mrs. Robinson and the want for alienation by Benjamin culminate in the next shot – the camera shooting between the arched leg of Mrs. Robinson. This is an example of how Nichols uses non-traditional stylistic elements and techniques to develop the characters’ psychology and expand upon the artistic presence in the film.

After the shot between the leg, the classical continuity is restored with the re-emergence of shot reverse shot. This is then followed by the two characters sitting back down in a close-up shot. Benjamin says something very interesting in regards to his character development and his psychology – “what is wrong with me”. This is a key element present in art film – as the existence of the mode was based in part by European filmmakers asking themselves the same type of existential question. The sequence continues as the two enter her daughters room to see her portrait. The camera moves to create depth in the shot and put Mrs. Robinson in the foreground (as she currently holds all the power due to her sexuality) and Benjamin in the background looking at the portrait innocently. Suddenly, Mrs. Robinson begins to take off her jewelry and ask him to help her undress (again he is visibly uncomfortable, initially refusing but nevertheless obeying her command).

Although the content is too risqué, the stylistic system used by Nichols mirrors that of the classical film with the characteristics of the art film starting to seep through in certain areas. In the next scene as she is undressing, she asks him numerous questions such as “what are you so scared off” all while having her back to the camera, shifting the focus form her to Benjamin’s reaction (this shot mirrors a previous shot mentioned above). As the next scene is edited in, she asks the question “would you like me to seduce you”. This very visibly shakes Benjamin, only being able to speak the words “what”. The lighting, foreground focus, and shot scale are used by Nichols to further heighten the sexual tension between the two and continuously develop both characters psychologically.

The following shot has Benjamin descending the stairs as the camera tracks the movement of Mrs. Robinson. The camera comes to a stop at the entrance of the room, creating a space in the shot (Benjamin in the background and Mrs. Robinson in the foreground). This shot aligns itself with other classical stylistic methods – as do the previous ones. Although, this shot continues for a very long time (relative to the others in this sequence). The camera remains stationary (except for a few movements) until Benjamin enters the room. The camera tracks him holding her purse as he enters the room to leave it. As he is leaving it, the camera is at a close up on his hand and the picture of her daughter. In the reflection of the picture, we can see a naked Mrs. Robinson enter the room and close the door.

From the next scene till the end of the sequence, Nichols takes the classical film norms and throws them out. Opting for numerous jump cuts (3 of the same when Benjamin looks at her body for the first time), POV, and not following the eye-line match, in hopes of disorient the viewer, along with developing both characters and foregrounding the sexuality of Mrs. Robinson. In this sequence the audience sees Mrs. Robinson the way Benjamin sees (his eyes darting at her naked body will be followed by a jump cut and editing of that section of the body for a moment and then back to Benjamin or the face of Mrs. Robinson). Benjamin’s continuous saying of “let me out” serves as the pinnacle of his desire to be alienated but his eyes darting show his subconscious want for Mrs. Robinson. At the end of the sequence, Benjamin hears Mr. Robinson’s car pull into the driveway and pushes the naked body of Mrs. Robinson aside. This last section of the sequence is the result of the sequence slowly manifesting itself from a purely classical mode to a hybrid and finally to an all out art film (as the plot was not really progressed in any way). The sequence itself demonstrates how Nichols uses key elements from both modes to create a single film that successfully incorporated both.

As seen above, Nichols uses elements from both filmic styles in order to offer a more complete film that has the charm and character of a classical film but sharpens its edges with the more avant guard style of the art film.

Bibliography:

Bordwell, David. Staiger, Janet. Thompson, Kristin. “The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960” An Excessively Obvious Cinema. Columbia University Press. 1985

Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” Film Theory and Criticism. 6th ed. Oxford U Press, 2004.

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