Sunday, 20 January 2019
Each time I visit my parents' house I try to watch one of the many movies that they collected over the years. On my most recent visit I watched The Graduate, a 1967 film featuring a young Dustin Hoffman and several tunes by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.
I had trouble sympathizing with the main character at first. Ben is a young man who has returned home after graduating from university (with an unspecified degree). Despite having won a prestigious award, leading several school clubs, and being on the track team, he has no plan for the future. Plus he is unable to muster the courage to stand up to his boisterous family or to resist seduction by Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner. Most of the time he speaks in monosyllables. In modern terms he might be called a wimp.
However when he reconnects with his high school sweetheart Elaine (who happens to be Mrs. Robinson's daughter) he discovers that she's the one person whom he can truly open up to. Smitten with Elaine, he ends the affair with Mrs. Robinson. Furious, Mrs. Robinson does everything she can imagine to keep Ben and Elaine apart, including lying to her own family and arranging a shotgun wedding for Elaine and another young man. Luckily, Ben tracks them down and arrives at the church just in time to interrupt the wedding and escape with Elaine.
A theme throughout the film, punctuated by the song "The Sound of Silence", appears to be communication, or the lack thereof. Ben can't express his fears or his difficulties to his family, and perhaps not even to himself at first. His parents can't or won't acknowledge Ben's feelings either; instead they continue to laud him for his accomplishments, unaware of how distressed he is.
Mrs. Robinson takes advantage of Ben's awkwardness to effectively bully him into being her lover, and most of their meetings take place in silence. When he does try to hold a conversation with her, she shuts him out. She can't properly communicate with her own husband either; she reveals to Ben at one point that she never really loved her husband: they only were married because she had become pregnant. Even Elaine, who seems to be able to express herself most easily, confuses Ben with "might" and "maybe" when he asks her to marry him.
Then at the end, when Ben and Elaine are sitting in the back of a bus together, neither speaks. From their facial expressions it's clear that they are happy to have each other, but they're both uncertain as to what the future holds and they can't voice it.
Any relationship requires communication. Humans haven't the ability to read minds, so we're constrained by our words and actions to form the necessary connection with a person or a group of people. Also, we have to be careful with both as they can hurt just as easily as they can help. All the characters in the movie have this problem to some degree.
The protagonist of the song "The Sound of Silence" describes seeing a crowd of people who were "talking without speaking", "hearing without listening", and who wouldn't stop to acknowledge the wisdom right in front of them. More and more we are seeing this sort of thing in families, communities, and politics. So many voices are yelling to be heard that nobody can hear (or perhaps are unwilling to hear) the ones who need to be heard most. Words are misheard, misinterpreted, or lost, and consequences are inevitable.