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Video Essay. Performing Adulthood: Mike Nichols' "Carnal Knowledge" and "The Graduate"

Examining the generation gap between two classic films directed by Mike Nichols.
Luís Azevedo
MUBI is showing Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge (1971) from May 5 - June 4 and The Graduate (1967) from May 6 - June 5, 2017 in the United States.
In the first scene of Carnal Knowledge (1972), Sandy (Art Garfunkel) summarizes his opinion of Amherst college with a question: “Why shouldn’t I like it? My parents worked very hard to send me here.” A yielding smile punctuates the first and last interaction about the generation that raised Sandy, his friend Jonathan (Jack Nicholson), and the two men’s love interest, Susan (Candice Bergen), until they grow into adulthood and parenthood.
Unlike that group, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is rarely by himself—or even is just himself. When he is alone, more often than not, he stares vacantly ahead, paralyzed. When he isn’t, his elders always surround him, crowding his every move.
The starkest difference between The Graduate (1967) and Carnal Knowledge doesn’t lay in the two films’ vastly different tones, but in the gap between two generations: in the absence of parents in Carnal Knowledge and the surplus in The Graduate.
Chronologically, the twenty-year-olds of Carnal Knowledge grow to be the age of Benjamin’s parents by the 1960s. Just old enough to see Second World War play out, but young enough to escape its challenges, their trials are in the discovery of their true selves with no guidance but society’s predicaments. The lack of direction morphed into the need for control, one that resonates in The Graduate, via the Braddocks and the Robinsons.
For Benjamin, the presence of his parents defines him as much as the previous generation was defined by their absence, control being the currency of the older generations and rebellion the response available to Benjamin’s generation. In this video essay, I focused on that generational gap, reading the two Mike Nichols’ movies as a single study on two generations.
When faced with the efforts of his parents, Sandy asks why shouldn’t he like them. At about the same age, Benjamin faces a similar predicament. He asks instead why should he like it. The responses are different, but in this video essay I argue that the results might not be.


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