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Here’s To You, Mrs. Robinson

posted: 1.8.08 by Jack Solomon

All right, you’re teaching a section on interpreting the movies and you want to provide a quick illustration of how the semiotic method works to your class without having to show the whole movie. It isn’t difficult to do this: all you need to do is choose a strikingly significant element in a film and, while providing sufficient background by way of a summary description, focus in on it. Something of the sort really leaped out at me while I was taking a transcontinental air flight recently, and the movie Rumor Has It came on. It was probably a good thing I was strapped down in my seat or I never would have watched the movie through (one’s personal tastes are not relevant to a semiotic analysis), because I found that a single scene in the film pretty much said it all when it came to assessing its cultural significance.

So first some background and summary. The key to the plot of Rumor Has It is that it is based on an unusual concept that establishes it as a kind of romantic-comic sequel to the 1967 cinematic icon The Graduate. That movie presented a devastating critique of the sterile lives of upper-middle-class suburbanites, centering on the experiences of one Benjamin Braddock who returns from college to his parents’ home and is seduced by a family friend, Mrs. Robinson. Benjamin ends up falling in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, and eventually runs off with her, literally carrying her out of the opulent church wedding where she is about to marry a respectable young medical student. The crucial final image shows Ben and Elaine (who is still in her wedding dress) ecstatically riding in the back of the bus that is carrying them from the sterile world of the Robinsons and the Braddocks into a presumably more meaningful future.

Now, keep your eye on that image, because the difference between that final scene and the final scene of Rumor Has It is sufficient to cue us in to the profound cultural difference marked by this peculiar “sequel.”

The premise of Rumor Has It is that there is a real family living in Pasadena that served as the model for the characters in The Graduate. The model for Mrs. Robinson, Catherine, is now the grandmother of Sarah Huttinger (played by Jennifer Aniston). Catherine’s daughter is now dead, but she really did run off with the model for Benjamin Braddock, whose “real name” is Beau Burroughs, but left him after a few days to return home and marry the respectable Earl Huttinger, who is Sarah’s father. Or is he? For in the course of the movie, Sarah learns that she may have been conceived during that brief elopement between Beau and Elaine and that, therefore, Beau Burroughs is her real father. Upon investigating, Sarah finds Beau—now an extremely glamorous dot.com millionaire—and, in a twist that could be the subject of an entirely different analysis, is seduced by him. Obvious complications ensue.

Just in case you’re wondering, we finally learn that Beau is not Sarah’s father, but that’s not what concerns us here. What we want to study is the final scenic image of Rumor Has It. In this final scene, we see the huge, opulent celebration of Sarah’s marriage to Jeff, a respectable young lawyer, for Sarah decides to leave the ultra-rich Beau to return to her upper-middle-class family and fiance´. A nice, sentimental, romantic-comic ending. Cut to the credits.

But let’s look at the difference between those two endings. The Graduate concluded with a triumphant image of escape from the “plastic” world of upper-middle-class security and affluence (indeed, The Graduate made “plastic” the operative term among the 1960s youth counter-culture to describe the sterile values of suburban life). Rumor Has It, by contrast, concludes with a triumphant image of an embrace of upper-middle-class suburban life (it is also significant that Jeff is a lawyer—a solid upper-middle-class profession—just as Elaine’s fiance´ in The Graduate was a doctor, which is another solid upper-middle-class profession). The significance of this difference is profound. That is, the almost forty years between 1967 and 2005 witnessed a shift from the counter-cultural rejection of middle-class, materialistic values to an enthusiastic adoption of them. The baby boomers who made sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll the keynotes of 1960s popular culture, are now grown up, are now the “plastic” Establishment themselves, and their children (who are of Jennifer Aniston’s generation), rather than rebelling against their parents’ values, have embraced them. We can see this in the movie’s happy ending, which is a fantasy playing to the desires of its target audience. Baby boomers gone respectable can take satisfaction in Earl Huttinger’s final triumph over Beau Burroughs, while their Gen-X children (Jennifer Aniston’s fan base) can feel all warm and fuzzy over Sarah’s sentimental return to her fiancé Jeff. That the triumph of middle-class respectability is what is entertaining about the film—just as the defiance of middle-class respectability was what was entertaining about The Graduate—is the crucial sign here of a profound cultural shift. In effect, The Graduate has been ideologically remade in Rumor Has It to suit a very different era. Goodbye Mother Jones; hello Wall Street Journal.

So, there’s an example of what I mean. After guiding your students through such an analysis, you can then ask them for striking scenes or images that they themselves have noticed and interpret them with your class.

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