The Graduate (1967)

Despite the fact that The Graduate holds everything audiences could want in a movie—beautiful actors and actresses, comedy, plot twists, romance, and sex galore—it’s not your typical coming-of-age story. Upon graduating from university and returning home, the Holden-esque main character, Benjamin, is forced to deal with much more than the stress that most recently graduated college students have to deal with. The movie follows Benjamin as he’s tormented by pressure from his parents and anxiety for the future, seduced by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner, forced to date Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine (whom he ultimately falls in love with), then accused of rape and left by Elaine for another man. Watching the tale unfold onscreen is enough to make your head spin.

The film captures perfectly the tumultuous, anxiety-filled and hormone-driven stage of human development that occurs in our society, typically right after schooling ends and before “the rest of your life” ensues. Benjamin’s attitude and actions are typical for most young adults going through this strange, not-a-kid-but-not-quite-an-adult phase. As Ben struggles throughout the movie to learn what “growing up” really means, he fights a desperate impulse to return to the comfort of his childhood.

An interesting cinematic and thematic element that helps to represent this struggle is the repetition and prevalence of water imagery throughout the film and Benjamin’s various interactions with these motifs. While watching the movie, it quickly became clear to me that water was symbolic of Ben’s childhood, or a place of calm, peace and isolation that he finds himself struggling to leave behind as he journeys into adulthood.

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In one of the first scene of the movie, Benjamin is pictured hiding in his childhood room with his fish tank behind him as his graduation party ensues downstairs. The bubbling of the fish tank is the only sound we hear for the first several moments of the scene, and it’s loud enough to indicate that Ben is stuck in a trance-like state, focused only on the sound. Sickly green-tinted lighting is cast over this shot, conveying a feeling of dread and discomfort. Later in the scene, after he’s forced by his parents to go downstairs to socialize, Benjamin’s questionable mental state becomes more obvious. As soon as he steps downstairs, he’s interrogated by hoards of his parents’ acquaintances; of course, they all ask the same question (to which he has no answer): what are you planning to do with your life now that you’ve finished school?

Benjamin spends the rest of the evening trying desperately to escape to the comfort and isolation of his room, where he can drown anxious thoughts of the future in the calming, familiar sound of his fish tank bubbling away. But of course, Mrs. Robinson comes along and makes it impossible for him to escape.

Another important scene arises when Ben is given a full set of scuba gear for his birthday and is forced to demonstrate its use in front of his parents and several of their friends. At first, the noise of the celebration is apparent and almost obnoxious, filled with cheering, loud conversation, and clinking glasses. Then, the camera suddenly switches to show us Ben’s viewpoint of the situation.

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All of the diegetic party noises immediately cease and are replaced by total silence except for the rhythmic sound of Benjamin’s breathing. Though we can still see the excitement and energy going on in the scene, all we hear is inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Because this is shot from Ben’s point of view, the audience begins to understand (and even experience) the sense of total isolation he feels. However, it’s not a negative feeling. Rather, it’s a peaceful relief from the obnoxious sounds of his parents’ festivities. It’s a break from the harsh reality that Benjamin endures day-to-day.


Interestingly enough, this water motif evolves throughout the movie alongside Benjamin’s character.

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After he establishes his sexual relationship with Mrs. Robinson, he’s depicted floating on a blow-up pool toy in his pool, sunglasses on and beer in hand. Rather than submerging himself and seeking the comfort of isolation he knows so well, he floats above the water. This implies that he’s reached some level of adulthood or maturity where he feels masculine, independent, and comfortable. He no longer tries to hide from the outside world; rather, he embraces it.

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…That is, until he faces stress again. When Ben’s parents try to persuade him to take Elaine out on a date, he reverts back into an immature, scared mindset. Although he’s still floating above water, he uses goggles to submerge his face as his parents incessantly nag on either side. Again, we hear what Ben hears and experience what Ben experiences: total silence except for the sound of him breathing, and a sense of profound relief and escape from the world.



Works Cited


“#17: The Graduate.” Blogspot, 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

“Distant Relatives: The Graduate and Fish Tank.” The Film Experience, 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

“The Diving Suit Scene.” Fangirl, 28 July 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.


Haines, Ryan. “Character Analysis of Holden Caulfield.” HubPages, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

Prince, Stephen R. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. 6th Edition ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2013. Print.





One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Although One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is filled with humor and holds high entertainment value for audiences everywhere, it is much more than just a film about a rowdy patient at a mental hospital. Based on the world-famous novel by Ken Kesey, the story explores deeply rooted themes of corrupt power, American bureaucracy, and the silencing of individualism induced by structure.

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In the time before R.P. McMurphy is introduced, the mental ward is a representation of perfect order held under control by the firm grasp of Nurse Ratched. Everything is structured and scheduled, leaving the patients with little to no influence over their daily routine. Nurse Ratched is a manipulative, all-powerful dictator and it quickly becomes clear that she’s managed to dominate and almost entirely absolve each patient’s personal will and mental strength. The lighting throughout the entire film is dull, dreary and artificial, conveying feelings of lost hope and lifelessness—exactly what Nurse Ratched needs to make sure the men of the ward remain submissive and weak. The ward is her kingdom, and everything is at peace as long as she maintains this power.

But then… (Cue the intro to Beethoven’s 5th)… McMurphy is admitted to the hospital. one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest2

From the first moments we see this new character onscreen, it’s obvious that he’s the protagonist.  And what’s more, the composition of the scene above implies that he’s a force to be reckoned with. McMurphy is placed right in the middle of the shot, drawing as much attention as possible, and even though he’s technically being led into the facility under the control of two guards, he walks freely and remains a few steps ahead of them. Even his clothing starkly contrasts with the uniformity and blandness of the rest of the ward. This shot immediately establishes McMurphy as a symbol of individualism, power, freedom, and dominance that we know isn’t going to be warmly welcomed by the ever-rigid Nurse Ratched.

And so the battle begins. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched become opposing forces, entirely polar yet evenly matched sources of power that each fight to dominate the other.

A few scenes later, when McMurphy attends his first daily meeting on the ward, the parallel composition of the shots featuring him and Nurse Ratched further emphasize their struggle for power.

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 4.50.57 PMUnlike the rest of the men sitting in the circle, McMurphy is placed directly across from Nurse Ratched. As the characters engage in conversation, the camera switches between the two nearly identical shots above. Both characters are perfectly centered, facing each other as though they’re about to begin a duel. This reiterates the idea that the two are evenly matched, as though McMurphy is a visiting opponent presenting a huge challenge to Nurse Ratched’s kingdom.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the shot composition used when Billy Bibbit attempts to speak with Nurse Ratched.Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 2.05.46 PM

The silhouette of Nurse Ratched’s head in the shot casts a powerful feeling of dominance over Billy’s cowering, nervous figure. He’s shown in a near-crouching position, with his shoulders slumped and his hands anxiously fidgeting. Compared to the straight-on shot of McMurphy, this shot makes it very clear that Billy is entirely submissive to the terrifying authority of Nurse Ratched.

The everlasting struggle of individuals vs. society remains prevalent throughout the movie, made obvious by the conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. Each move McMurphy makes to cause chaos and challenge authority is an attack on societal structure and American bureaucracy, and each of Nurse Ratched’s rebuttals is an attempt to silence the power of the individual and force conformity. These ideas allow the movie to combine entertainment value with worldly significance and literary impact, resulting in masterpiece.




Works Cited

“Expressive Film Techniques in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Yahoo, 20 Apr. 2007. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dir. Milos Forman. 1975. DVD.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” VideoBash, n.d. Web. 2 Nov. 2013.

Prince, Stephen R. Movies and Meaning: An Introduction to Film. 6th Edition ed. N.p.: Pearson Education, 2013. Print.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Subliminal messaging in cinema is an incredibly powerful tool. The more movies I watch, the more I’m realizing that almost nothing we see onscreen is coincidental; every lighting technique, every camera angle, every prop, and every compositional detail is pre-planned and intentional. Everything being shown to the audience is there for a reason. Some are there purely for aesthetic reasons, but some (many, in fact) are included for the purpose of holding deeper meanings or creating subliminal hints for the audience that contribute to character or plot development and enhance the film as a whole.

Watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), I quickly became aware of some of the cinematic elements that were meant to convey meaning to the audience. The basic premise of the film follows Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, as they struggle to continue their increasingly outdated train-robbing lifestyles while being chased by a group of faceless bounty hunters that represent the threat of industrialization and technological advancement to traditional Western culture. Butch and the Kid represent old values; the bounty hunters represent new. (Think Coke vs. Pepsi). This duality is acclaimed by critics and fans all over the world. But, notice: the presence of this underlying theme is never directly stated or addressed in the film. The audience is never told what’s what—rather, they become aware via plot development and the integration of subtle cinematic hints.

One of the most obvious yet effective of these cinematic tricks, it seemed to me, was the use of camera angles and powerful lighting to turn Cassidy and the Sundance Kid into glory-filled visual representations of traditional Western culture and values.

butch-cassidy-slideshow-picRight off the bat, we can see that the two actors who play Cassidy and the Kid (Paul Newman and Robert Redford) are both members of an exclusive gene pool endowed with obvious, traditional good looks. They’re both tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blonde-haired American poster boys, and every shot we see them in is enhanced with powerful lighting techniques just to make absolutely sure we can’t miss out on the beauty of those faces. They’re idealized, glorified, mega-masculine cowboys. How much more stereotypically American could they get?

In the scene pictured above, for example, the lighting is used to illuminate only one side of Butch and the Kid’s faces while the other half is cast in shadow. Not only does this technique enhance the masculinity of their features, it also creates a near-halo effect which implies that the characters are looking towards the light, seeking truth and their own interpretation of justice.

As well, the majority of scenes featuring both Cassidy and Sundance are shot from a slight low angle, looking up at the pair and giving them a subtle air of power and authority that audiences quickly associate with American cowboy culture and long-standing tradition.

Screen Shot 2013-10-15 at 12.40.59 PMEven in this scene, when the duo is trapped on the edge of a cliff being cornered like animals and awaiting their likely deaths, the low camera angle still puts the characters in a position of power and strength. Though the plot tells us that they’re trapped, the cinematic qualities emphasize the idea that they can’t be stopped.


Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) directed by George Roy Hill

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