The Graduate/American Beauty Sequence Analysis

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Sequence Analysis: The Graduate

The Graduate is a subversive, wistful coming-of-age tale epitomizing the ambiguity of reaching adulthood, and the struggle of this experience. Robert Surtees, the cinematographer, successfully uses mise-en-scene to illustrate these particular themes. A variety of props are scattered throughout the opening sequence that allude to Ben’s melancholy and detachment. Additionally, the same sequence uses social and graphic blocking to depict the impedance Ben feels from his parents and their friends.

The sequence begins with a scene of Benjamin sitting in front of his fish tank, submerged in thoughts of his future, and later confronted by his father. Fill lighting isolates Ben’s face from the dim background, and enhances the overall sense of glum and dispassion. Moreover, Ben’s impassive expression and wish for a ‘different’ future is also in strong contrast to the enthusiasm and conformity seen later at the party. The subtle placement of the sea-diver beside Ben only adds to this sense of alienation, while, at the same time, foreshadows the comical events at the second cocktail party later in the movie. In fact, the use of water is frequent throughout the film as tool to illustrate Ben’s self-reflection and wavering identity.

Perhaps the prop most indicative of Ben, or at least humorous, is the black and white portrait of a clown frowning behind a painted smile, which is briefly shown before Ben’s parents lead him into the party. Clearly, the painting acts as a metaphor for Ben’s character within the sequence, yet, it is so outlandish that the mise-en-scene momentarily teeters from naturalistic to theatrical. However, this is characteristic of The Graduate as a whole. While the movie seems to maintain a certain level of absurdity throughout, it is always hidden behind a certain amount of reality, which is what makes the film’s message so poignant. The quintessential example of this is when Mr. McGuire...
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