Thursday, July 2, 2009

Benjamin Braddock, The Birth of the Boom, Part 2

The Graduate is a funny, fascinating flick that compares and contrasts the values of two warring generations and ideologies. Even in 1967, it put an exclamation point on the growing dissatisfaction that budding Baby Boomers had with the status quo. That discontent grew exponentially, as the Boomers turned away from the alienation bred by “things as they should be,” and looked inward for new and unique ways to create meaningful lives.

Individualism became the normative value for Boomers as the horrors of the Vietnam War, assassinations, and burning cities gave way to the hardcore cynicism born of the post-Watergate Era. For the Boomers, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” ultimately morphed into what might be individualism’s anthem: “Don’t trust anyone but yourself.”

Impulsive individualism was reflected in The Graduate’s final, and most telling scene, when Benjamin rescues Elaine from the all-too predictable life promised by her groom, Carl Smith. The symbolism of individuality versus conventionality is joyously portrayed as the once mousy Benjamin barges in on one of society’s most solemn ceremonies and steals the bride right off the altar just as she’s about to kiss the groom, sealing her fate. Benjamin’s passionate appeal is so convincing that she readily rejects a world that has inflicted so many unwelcome expectations on her delicate psyche.

As a last resort, Mrs. Robinson insists, “It’s too late!” Elaine answers, “Not for me!” Mom counters with a couple of slaps to the chops just before her rebellious daughter dashes off with her savior. In a final gesture of contempt, Benjamin uses a large gold cross to fend off their pursuers. He then uses it like a dead bolt on the church’s big glass doors, locking the enemy within their own little world and out of his and Elaine’s.

The newly liberated couple streaks to the nearest bus stop, two mavericks on a heady journey toward God knows where. With everyone and everything left behind, they ride off in the back of a bus, secure in the knowledge that their declaration of independence has prevailed over the forces of orthodoxy that threatened to rob them of their souls. The other passengers silently stare at them incredulously (a wedding grown will draw those kinds of looks in the back of a bus), as Benjamin and Elaine settle into their private reveries to The Sounds of Silence.

Like all good art, The Graduate was slightly ahead of its time in the way it so vividly showcased the individualism that would become the primary value that continues to drive the Baby Boomers in their decision making.

After a torrid weekend, Benjamin and Elaine probably went their separate ways, eventually marrying other people. But although they may have settled into a more conventional lifestyle than the finale might suggest, it’s highly unlikely that they ever abandoned the belief that they’re each the center of their own little universe. And, in the final analysis, living that belief is what being a Baby Boomer is about.

No comments: