What is The Graduate but a celebration of the first truly self-aware generation? “I’m just a little worried about my future,” says Ben. Moody fish tanks and parsley and sage. We don’t want your system, Dad. Mom. We are lost in our ennui, bobbing in a pool of post-bourgeois existential angst. We have stuff, but we don’t want it. We are thinkers, or rather feelers, lovers who will break out of your cycles of domestic enslavement, your separate bedrooms and your forced marriages, and we will break out and shut you in with your religious icons, then catch a municipal bus and laugh, then become grave. No one understands us, but we are many, and we will make something new.
It’s been many decades since 1967. Benjamin Braddock would now be in his 60s. So how did it go? Let’s say The Graduate was a national allegory for a new generation, a portrait of a moment in history when everything seemed new and swollen like ripe fruit ready to be picked and shared among the young. What happens after the bus fades out at the end of the last shot is that Ben and Elaine ride for a while, maybe even a long while, years let’s say. But eventually they get off and Ben shakes himself off and he calls up his dad’s old friend and says, “OK. Plastics. I’m in.”
And he and Elaine get married, and they buy bigger houses than their parents ever had, and they buy bigger cars than their parents ever had, and they buy bigger lawnmowers and bigger boats and bigger pools and bigger televisions than their parents ever had. And in the 1980s, they vote for Reagan, because if there’s one thing that’s too big, it’s the government. And they cut their own taxes and put that on the national credit card, and they buy an unbelievable number of new bombs and tanks and put those on the national credit card, while they cheer roll-backs of onerous government regulation. And all of it clears the way for when little Ben, Jr. gets out of college in the early 90s, and has his own graduate pool party with all the turtle-necked friends of his parents, and that’s when his dad’s friend pulls him aside and says, “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Finance.”
And meanwhile, Ben Sr. and Elaine vote for more globalization because it gets them even more stuff for even less money. In the 2000s, they put two more wars on the national credit card, even as they watch the cost of higher education double, triple, quadruple. They watch the US military take the place of the welfare state, watch as people die because they can’t afford basic healthcare, and they cook out on the kind of 50,000 BTU gas grills that their parents could have never imagined. Maybe sometimes, late at night, in bed in their 1,000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, reading the New York Times or the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker or watching TEDTalks or reading the latest book by Thomas Friedman or Malcolm Gladwell on their iPads or Nooks or Kindles they look at each other and say, did we go wrong? Maybe we weren’t the solution but just a gigantic, new, selfish, arrogant, weeping sore of a fucking problem? But don’t worry because a new box set of Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits just came out and it’s $19.95 and remember the time when we were awesome?
If The Graduate can be read as a kind of national allegory of American generations that has been impregnated with new layers of meaning by decades of history and the subsequent life of Mr. Benjamin Braddock, we gain a new respect for Mrs. Robinson. She sought out Ben, not because she wanted to corrupt him, but because she knew he was always corrupt. She has seen the future. She has seen that this generation is capable of all manner of moral negotiations and compromises and shifting of blame and burden and pain onto future generations. “I can’t do this,” he says.
Oh yes you fucking can.