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Cinematic Perspective on California’s Communities Through ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’

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Throughout California’s cinematic history, the construction of California communities in cinema has appeared as a central focus in many films. Whether inadvertently or advertently, films like ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’ have documented California’s historically- and culturally-specific spaces and introduced a larger narrative to their respective audiences about these spaces. In Nichols’ ‘The Graduate’, the film centers around the quintessential white suburban lifestyle, a background complete with shining Alfa Romeos and a shimmering swimming pool, an important suburban symbol that recurs throughout the movie. Benjamin Braddock, the lead, has just graduated from a prestigious university ‘back east’ and has returned home for the summer to celebrate his recent accomplishment. Visual affirmations of affluence and leisure characteristic of white suburban life permeate the film. However, throughout the film, it is also clear the film means to emphasize the turbulent undercurrent lying just underneath the surface of this idyllic suburban life as well as construct and contrast white suburbia with other communities. One such community is the African American community in California, a minority population whose cultural and historic significance is documented in Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’. In this film, another conventional suburban family is centerstage. However, it is soon apparent the differences between the communities shown in the two films, communities that are separated by racial and cultural divides. Stan, the main character in ‘Killer of Sheep’, grapples with his and his family’s circumstances daily. Leisure and comfort are almost completely absent from the film as compared to ‘The Graduate’. Instead, survival and an escape from cyclical poverty are the most important themes of the film, conveying to the audience the norm for California’s African American community as compared to Benjamin Braddock’s quintessential circumstances. Through each film’s cinematography, mise-en-scène, editing, and sound, the two films work to construct and highlight the differences between the suburban realities that the two different families separated by race lead within the context of the Californian landscape.

In the opening scene of ‘The Graduate’, the recurring theme of suburban monotony is quickly conveyed to the audience. The observer first sees a lone Benjamin Braddock positioned against a stark white background, face blank and without emotion as the plane’s pilot announces their descent. Unbeknownst to the audience, Benjamin is returning home from graduating college. Yet even though many would believe this return home would be highly anticipated by Benjamin, the close shot of his expressionless face says otherwise, already cluing the audience in to the possibility that home may represent something else to Benjamin other than the quintessential safe haven. However, as Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ continues to play, the audience also sees evidence of Benjamin’s background: Benjamin exits from the plane filled with others like him dressed in a well-cut suit and lily-white dress shirt, with not even his tie is askew. As he continues along the conveyor belt, a journey reminiscent of an assembly line, the scene seamlessly cuts to a shot of Benjamin’s equally well-made luggage in place of where he formerly was, suggesting that just like that piece of luggage, Benjamin, too, is seemingly a manufactured product now ready to fulfill his dull function post-graduation. Already, the audience can see evidence of not only Benjamin’s affluent background but his suburban malaise as he is continually placed among a sea of people dressed in the same muted colors and moving in the same direction and journeys as Benjamin.

Throughout the course of the rest of the film, symbols of suburbia also reappear regularly in an effort to comment upon the dull superficiality of the seemingly ideal suburban dream. Early in the film, Benjamin is the star of a dinner party his parents throw to celebrate his recent graduation. Surrounded again by a sea of muted colors and the same monotonous celebratory dialogue over and over again, the cameras center continuously on Benjamin’s expression of bewilderment and discomfort. The camera tracks Benjamin’s movements as he is later accosted by a Mr. McGuire, whose advice is “just one word…plastics”. This “’one word’ is spoken against the background of a lit-up house pool which comprises the center of the shot, while Benjamin and Mr. McGuire are interestingly positioned off to the right side of the frame. However, the scene’s focus on the pool is no accident: the shimmering backyard pool acts as an important symbol for the superficiality and narcissism so ingrained into the idea of a suburban utopia. Mr. McGuire’s advice for ‘plastics’ is then the perfect dialogue to accompany this shot as it acts as a metaphor for the dull, vapid existences that Benjamin believes his parents and people like his parents lead. Similarly, just like plastic is the idea of California suburbia. The symbolic pool of water that these ‘words of wisdom’ are spoken in front of reappears again in another significant scene. Having been gifted a set of scuba diving gear for his birthday, the next significant scene displays a completely submerged Benjamin dressed in his scuba gear, surrounded completely by the pool representative of a suffocating suburban environment that is now literally trapping him. The audience is occasionally brought into Benjamin’s mask through a series of cuts that switch between Ben’s environment and Ben’s perspective. Inside the gear, Ben’s environment is muted and filled with the sound of Ben’s heavy breathing as Ben views his parents and suburbia through the isolated perspective of his mask. His parents and their friends can be seen waving and moving almost comedically without sound, suggest that there lies almost a comedic quality in the sheer narcissism and ridiculousness they exude. The symbol of the pool itself is seen multiple times throughout the film, making appearances as aerial shots of pools act as the seamless transitions between shots. These aerial shots of shimmering pools blend into one another, marking the passage of time and also reaffirming the superficiality and aimless nature of suburban living as Ben quite literally drifts through time, just as he does in the pool at home and at the Taft Hotel.

In ‘The Graduate’, the qualities of recklessness and nonchalance are embedded in the film, opening up a dialogue on the subjects of the suburbia’s promise of security, moral lapses, and wasted time that suburban affluence allows. Throughout the entirety of the film, the suburban characteristic of financial security is made quite clear throughout the film. Even in the extravagant dinner party scene, the cinematography of the film allows the audience glimpses of the luxury and comfort that California’s suburban lifestyle can afford. Clinking glasses, sophisticated laughter, and the murmurs of speech fill the audience’s ears. However, as the camera makes its way around the house following Ben’s movements, the camera’s focus on several things throughout the scene suggest that amongst the luxury and comfort lies an unsettling quality. As the camera first follows Ben and Ben’s parents as they descend down the stairs, the audience follows behind as Ben’s father speaks of how fortunate their family is to have such ‘devoted friends’. Yet just as Ben’s father says this, the camera gradually stills instead of following the Braddock family’s movements. Instead, the camera centers on a painting of a black and white clown on the wall, suggesting that what Ben’s father is stating is not the reality of the situation and instead what he chooses to believe in the scope of his suburban vision. This unsettling quality is further seen as the camera follows Ben downstairs as he maneuvers through hordes of fawning well-wishers. As he is stopped in a hallway by another one of his parent’s friends, the camera refocuses over Ben’s shoulder on a subject in the shot’s background: a sitting Mrs. Robinson. Almost immediately, Mrs. Robinson stands out from the rest of the crowd. The camera’s capture of her bored and unhappy expression and her sitting position as every other person in the Braddock home is standing and seemingly engrossed in conversation immediately focuses the audience’s attention on her, foreshadowing her importance later on in the film. However, in the context of the film so far, Mrs. Robinson is the representation of the idea that suburbia’s security does not guarantee happiness. Far from it, it means the potential collapse of individuality and eventual conformity. The audience sees evidence of these changes in the way the Ben’s parents and their friends similarly costumed in the finery in scenes and in the subject matter the characters’ dialogues contain. Moral lapses also recur throughout the movie: most notably in Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father’s business partner. In one particular scene, Ben and Mrs. Robinson are in the midst of their tryst when Ben suddenly stops. The most important dialogue begins after Mrs. Robinson turns the room lights off, the darkness allowing the audience to focus on the characters’ exchange instead of the scene’s mise-en-scène. Their meandering conversation, that Ben leads and Mrs. Robinson reluctantly returns, comes to head when Ben eventually becomes upset and says: “And if you think I come here for any reason besides pure boredom, then you’re all wrong. Because – Mrs. Robinson, this is the sickest, most perverted thing that has ever happened to me. And you do what you want but I’m getting the hell out”. Both Mrs. Robinson and Ben began this morally incorrect relationship out of pure boredom, but the underlying motivation for continuing this Oedipal relationship is to defy the suburban society they live in. This is why they both still choose to continue the relationship even when they understand the potential moral and social consequences. These acts of rebellion in response to California’s suburban society underline the corruption of the idea of a ‘utopia’ and highlight the overall vapidity and borderline lack of gratitude that many who live in California’s suburbia have toward their circumstances.

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In Burnett’s ‘Killer of Sheep’, however, the black suburban reality within California’s landscape is far different from Benjamin Braddock’s white one. Within the first few minutes, the dynamic of the black family unit is apparent and draws a contrast between the two realities of the different communities in California. The opening scene of the film is not stark white like ‘The Graduate’, but is comprised of a pitch-black frame accompanied by a mother and child singing a lullaby. It later transitions to a close shot of a young boy’s face as he’s getting disciplined by his father for not protecting his brother. The shot gradually widens to include the angry father in the frame as the young boy’s expression of reluctant acceptance is still the focus of the shot. From this opening scene, the closer and more discipline-driven of the suburban minority family is apparent. As compared to ‘The Graduate’, the dynamic between parent and child is immediately more intimate and rawer in ‘Killer of Sheep’, a conclusion we can extrapolate from the child and mother singing together as well as the father disciplining his son. The audience is also able to see this in Stan’s dedication to improving his family’s circumstances, even at the expense of his relationships with others. Stan’s deep-rooted dislike for his occupation at a slaughterhouse where he is perpetually surrounded by death is obvious. In one particular scene, the audience witnesses Stan at his work. The ritual-like preparation of the slaughter of sheep is put on display, including the sharpening of knives and meat hooks. This entire scene is almost entirely accompanied by silence, the absence of music acting as a message of solemnity compared to the rest of the film, that is often accompanied by at least some music. The only music heard is at the end of the scene when opera music is played over shots of sheep about to be slaughtered, reaffirming the ominous and solemn feel of the scene. However, Stan’s decision to stay at this occupation despite his deep-rooted hatred of it is for his family. As the sole provider, Stan is forced to stay in circumstances at the expense of his own happiness. As compared to ‘The Graduate’, Ben has the luxury of a plethora of future opportunities, having graduated from a prestigious university ‘back east’ and being the member of white suburban society that he is. Stan’s devotion to his family is seen again in another scene. Finally, at home after a long shift, Stan is joined with his family at the dinner table. Eventually, the Stan’s young daughter leaves the frame, and Stan and his wife become the center of the shot. The scene is largely silent as Stan’s exhaustion and withdrawn state is clear in his body language. The camera then shows Stan’s wife imploring Stan to sleep while reaching for Stan’s hand in a moment of intimacy, a moment abruptly ended as Stan retrieves his hand from her grasp. Stan then chooses to stand up and, instead, begins laying down new linoleum in an effort to better his home at the expense of his sleep and comfort. This devotion reaffirms the minority family dynamic of sacrifice and love despite not necessarily making obvious the intimacy minority families share, a contrast to the depiction of ‘The Graduate’ of Californian suburbia.

The stark difference between the two films’ construction of California’s communities also lies in the stark economic differences displayed in the films. In ‘Killer of Sheep’, the poverty of Stan’s family is quite clear in a significant number of scenes. In every scene shown with kids playing, the children are seen not playing at a playground but in fields of barren dirt and rocks. In one particular scene, the children in the neighborhood alternate between throwing rocks at objects and at each other as well as playing at railroad tracks. In this part of California, there are no shimmering swimming pools or beautiful houses to entertain these children. Instead, these children are forced to accept the materials they have and make the most of them. In another scene, Stan is having a conversation with friends that is particularly interesting. In the scene, the two friends are front and center as the camera’s angle is placed over one friend’s shoulder and directly facing another. The dialogue is comprised of one friend asking another friend the reasoning for his purchase of a motor. The friend admonishing the other for his purchase states, “Now you think you’re middle class”. Immediately, the shot then cuts to a close shot of Stan’s reaction and verbal response. Stan states, “Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give nothing away to the Salvation Army if you poor”. Stan then goes on to support his friend’s decision to purchase the motor. However, despite Stan’s reassurances that the community portrayed in the film is not poor, their circumstances are far from ideal. Compared to Ben’s graduation gift of a shining, red Alfa Romeo, the purchase of a used motor to ‘improve’ a vehicle is a stark cry from the California white suburbia ‘The Graduate’ portrays.

Most importantly, however, are the moral differences portrayed in the two films. In ‘Killer of Sheep’, Stan’s wife is clearly unhappy with her circumstances. Stan’s wife is relatively alone for most of the time with the exception of her daughter’s company. She also lacks intimacy or a real relationship with her husband, much like Mrs. Robinson. In one particular scene, the audience views Stan and his wife holding and dancing together intimately. With the two figures placed against a barred window from which the only light in the scene comes from, the frame is reminiscent of a prison. Dinah Washington’s ‘Bitter Earth’ accompanies the dancing as Stan’s wife stares directly at Stan the entire time while Stan’s vision is pointed away from her at almost above her shoulder throughout the entire scene. As the scene progresses, Stan’s wife attempts to draw closer and closer to Stan, culminating in her clutching of his form while Stan stays still and doesn’t reciprocate her advances. All the while, the camera stays still, even as Stan’s wife eventually breaks down and hits the barred window with her fists, almost as if she is attempting to escape the monotonous and cold prison that is her marriage and family life. However, throughout the course of the film, Stan’s wife constantly tries to improve her situation. She repeatedly attempts to grow closer to her husband, never giving up on her efforts to do so. It is clear that this mother is driven by survival. She understands the hand of cards she has been dealt, and only strives to improve her hand. However, in Mrs. Robinson’s case, she chooses to defy the society she believes has wronged her and left her unhappy by having an affair with the very young Ben whom she previously saw as a son-like figure. Stan’s wife doesn’t have the luxury to act out this way, reaffirming the circumstances of her community. This moral disparity is also seen in a scene where Stan refuses a job offer from a white woman at a store. In the scene, the camera blatantly centers on Stan’s expression of hesitation and then resolute firmness when offered the job. Stan understands the moral implications of what the woman is offering as she propositions him and chooses, instead, to uphold his marriage vows and personal morals at the expense of an escape from his hated occupation. In ‘The Graduate’, however, Ben and Mrs. Robinson have almost no qualms about entering their affair, choosing not to realize the immorality and potential ruin this affair could cause. Through these scenes, the final differences between the two communities set in California are cemented.

These two films have a lot to reveal about the communities in California and the realities that the minority community and white suburbia face. One community is characterized by life lived with morals but not opportunities, while the other is characterized by life lived with opportunities but not morals. Through the construction of these two communities in ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’, this much is clear.

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Cinematic Perspective on California’s Communities Through ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’. (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 8, 2023, from
“Cinematic Perspective on California’s Communities Through ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’.” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
Cinematic Perspective on California’s Communities Through ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 8 Jun. 2023].
Cinematic Perspective on California’s Communities Through ‘The Graduate’ and ‘Killer of Sheep’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Mar 01 [cited 2023 Jun 8]. Available from:
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