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Songs That Made Movies Classics is a feature in which we analyze how the use of a single song helped make a film a modern classic.
Benjamin Braddock is staring down the barrel of his future — and he’s terrified. In that sense, The Graduate (1967) protagonist is one of the most relatable characters in film. After all, what twentysomething hasn’t worried about their future as major life changes encroach? But this is a very specific kind of dread that Ben faces. He’s not worried about job interviews or loan repayments or making ends meet as most must. All of that has been taken care of by well-off parents who have spent his entire life ensuring that he only need stick to the path they paved for him in order to taste the good life. No, Ben’s fears dwell in the troubling reality that he’s had zero say in the life he’s about to begin — at least nothing more arbitrary than going out for, say, track rather than the tennis team.
Mike Nichols’ film is a quiet, still one full of closeups and zooms that signal contemplation and mimic the mind turning inward. As good a stage actor as a young Dustin Hoffman already was, audiences would need more than a deep, pensive gaze to make these scenes truly sink in. Enter folk duo Simon & Garfunkel, who contribute multiple or alternative versions of some of their most beloved songs, including “The Sound of Silence”, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, and lone single “Mrs. Robinson”. However, their contributions do more than just break the silence. These songs act as musical cues that take us inside Ben’s headspace and allow us to better understand his anxieties. In some ways, one could even argue that Simon & Garfunkel’s voices act out a dialogue going on in Ben’s thoughts. Either way, it’s the marriage of image and music that make The Graduate work so well and the use of “The Sound of Silence”, in particular, that leads to some of the most compelling scenes in film history.
“The Sound of Silence” surfaces three times in The Graduate. The first as Ben steps onto a people mover at the Los Angeles airport. The conveyor belt is a brilliant metaphor for how Ben views himself steadily and inevitably approaching his post-college future; he’s no different than an empty bottle at a Coke facility on its way to be filled, capped, and packaged. (Also note the movie’s first scene, in which the camera zooms out from Ben to reveal an airplane cabin of drowsy and blank faces as the captain announces their arrival on schedule and hopes to see them in the future. Of course, the entire trip had been planned out before takeoff, with details like arrival time and location predetermined. All Ben and his co-passengers had to do was sit and wait.) But what separates Ben from that Coke bottle or his fellow airline passengers is that he does have agency. He can hop off the people mover, as it were, and head in a different direction if he likes — not that there wouldn’t be consequences. When we hear Simon & Garfunkel pipe in with those opening notes and familiar salutations (“Hello, Darkness, my old friend”), we know that Ben is pondering his path and considering, perhaps for the first time, an alternative.
The song itself, according to Paul Simon, deals with the “inability to communicate.” That reading makes a lot of sense when we apply it to Ben’s dilemma. As the first occurrence of the song dissipates, we find Ben in deep thought beside his fish tank. Below his upstairs bedroom, there’s an entire house filled with his parents’ acquaintances — people he barely knows — and none who seem to recognize that the young man is clearly troubled. The home is a suffocating clamor of people, to borrow Simon’s words, “talking without speaking” and “hearing without listening.” Worse yet, Ben’s father can communicate no better with his son. When Ben confides in him that he wishes for his future to be “different,” he shows little sympathy or patience and allows Ben’s mother to interrupt and usher him downstairs to a party full of cheek pinches, bad jokes, and advice that might as well be “the flash of a neon light” that spells out P-L-A-S-T-I-C-S. In many ways, it’s the seductress, Mrs. Robinson, whom Ben communicates most frankly with — later through sex but in the beginning simply by not seeming phony and actually asking about Ben’s concerns. If nothing else, it’s a far cry more tolerable than the recitation of his yearbook profile going on downstairs.
We hardly recognize Ben’s life the next time we hear “The Sound of Silence” drift in. Again, we find Nichols using a significant visual: a tanned Ben drifting in his parents’ swimming pool on an inflatable lounge just as he’s been drifting through life since the affair with Mrs. Robinson began weeks ago. The director also shows the blur between the two lives the 21-year-old is living, Ben entering his house in one shot only to find himself emerging from a hotel bathroom during one of his trysts with Mrs. Robinson or, later, diving onto his inflatable chair in the pool and finding himself exhaling atop Mrs. Robinson in bed. Again, there’s zero communication. Ben may as well be an uncharted island while floating in that pool with his parents barbecuing in the background, and we later see him symbolically and silently shut the door on them as they eat dinner. As for his time with Mrs. Robinson, the intimacy has changed from human — even if awkward, fumbling, and manipulative (the last on her part) — to a cold, rote, and mechanical routine of undressing, sex, and dressing.
“It’s very comfortable just to drift here,” Ben tells his father from his pool lounge. It seems a far cry from when we met Ben, a young man unsure about graduate school and the direction his life is taking. Now, instead of facing that question, he embraces the paralysis (or at least procrastination) of lounging by the pool drinking beer and driving late at night to rendezvous with Mrs. Robinson. Still, “The Sound of Silence” plays on, and Nichols frames several closeups of Ben clearly less content and more concerned than he lets on when speaking to his father. Sighing and smoking a cigarette, we see more of the man who “in restless dreams walks alone” than a shiftless, snotty young graduate who doesn’t give two fucks. He even tries to turn to Mrs. Robinson for simple human connection — prodding her into general conversation before sex — but finds that his “words, like silent raindrops, fall.” It’s very much a lonely film, and we get the sense that Ben never has anyone he can really relate to. That is, until he meets Elaine Robinson.
Though Ben, recoiled by the future planned for him, initially tries to rebel by treating Elaine — the daughter of his father’s business partner and symbolic of that repellent future — poorly, he soon recognizes that she is the first person who truly listens to him and seems to understand his dilemma. She understands when he vaguely explains, “It’s like I’m playing some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me.” We can gather that Elaine, coming from Ben’s same background, likely has felt similar pressures and uncertainties. After Mrs. Robinson outs herself to thwart Ben from seeing Elaine, the rest of the film follows his pursuit, gradual winning back of Elaine, and a final act of desperation. Though Ben’s don’t-take-no-for-an-answer pining is usually accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel’s reworked traditional “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, it’s the themes of “The Sound of Silence” that drive Ben towards Elaine: a need for communication, a longing to be understood, and a desire to not feel all alone in an utterly lonely time in his life.
The final appearance of the song finds Ben and Elaine sitting at the back of a bus together after he rescues her from the altar and, we suspect, a comfortable, but passionless marriage — the type she was likely raised her whole life to attain. The couple look through the bus’ rear window, laugh, and clap hands as they make their getaway with Elaine still in her wedding dress. It feels like the movie should end right there. We’ve seen Ben finally seize what he wants rather than what others want for him, and Elaine has done the same, pledging that she won’t turn into the broken, bitter woman her mother has become. Hell, we even get to see Ben ward off an entire wedding party with a large ceremonial crucifix. But then our old friends Simon & Garfunkel return, and Ben and Elaine’s jubilation slides into faces of quiet consideration and concern. She even looks to him for solace, but Ben can’t seem to return the gaze or offer any gesture of comfort. The bus drives off, its passengers staring at the sight of the bride and man in the backseat, both incommunicado.
It’s not how Hollywood movies are supposed to end. Sure, boy gets girl and vice versa, but Ben and Elaine have come to learn that life becomes no simpler once you’ve taken the risk of living it on your own terms. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that their getaway bus will leave them at a stop where a whole new slew of problems won’t be waiting for them. As “The Sound of Silence” plays out in that famous closing scene, we already know, in some way, it’ll remain a key song on the soundtrack to the rest of Ben and Elaine’s life together.