Sunday, April 16, 2006

Great Moments In Toast History, Part I

Film: The Graduate
Scene: The Braddocks' kitchen. Ben has just told his parents that he and Elaine Robinson are getting married, but that she doesn't know it yet.

Mr. Braddock: “Ben. This whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.”
Ben: “Oh it’s not. It’s completely baked. It’s a decision I’ve made.”
Mrs. Braddock: “Well what makes you think she wants to marry you?”
Ben: “She doesn’t. To be perfectly honest she doesn’t like me.”

Ben exits. Then four slices of golden toast pop up in the toaster.

Discussion: This brief scene in a classic film encompasses a wide range of human emotions and behaviors. Ben's parents aren't sure if he's a promising young man or a total degenerate. Ben himself is unsure. Here, he briefly delights his parents by leading them to believe he is heading down a path they laid out for him-- then suddenly disappoints them by revealing that he is, probably, nuts.

Toast plays a prominent role here. Throughout the dialogue, the gleaming chrome toaster is visible in the foreground. It is, in fact, larger than the human players-- establishing that the director believes toast is the sine qua non of this scene. The toaster, in its reposing perfection, represents all that is "establishment" and "normal" in the lifestyle of the senior Braddocks. Despite its size on the screen, most viewers fail even to notice it during the discussion between Ben and his parents.

Yet in the tense human stillness that follows Ben's strange words and departure, the toaster comes to life, commanding full attention and suddenly reclaiming its rightful place in the order of things. The bread springs forth from the appliance somewhat willy-nilly, at odd and careening angles. This reminds us that the Braddocks' lives, much as they wish them to be predictable and even, are actually anything but. Also, the toasts themselves are not evenly browned. This recalls to us Mrs. Robinson's body, which in a previous scene was revealed to be a distasteful patchwork of tanned public areas and pale private areas.

The clamor of the toaster's ejection should serve, of course, as a clarion call to the Braddocks, alerting them to their son's distress and the horror of his simultaneous entaglement with both Robinson women. As film is a visual and auditory media, this must be considered to be the principle message of toast here. Yet, seeing the toast, the viewer's mind cannot help but imagine its well-known calming aroma, and here we find a subtler, more assuring message, as if the director wishes to add "It's okay, everyone. Toast is here. Everything will be alright."

We would be remiss, too, in overlooking the double- (or perhaps even triple-) entendre of the phrases introduced by Ben and his father in dialogue. Mr. Braddock's use of of the cliche "half-baked" conforms with his "establishment" persona, while Ben's retort of "fully baked" brilliantly reflects his more more creative nascent rebelliousness. In the historical and geographical context of the film, of course, "baked" also refers clearly to the overuse of marijuana products-- a clear reference to the generation gap which divides Ben from his parents, and from the elder Mrs. Robinson. Ben and Elaine, we suppose, are fully baked, but their parents have little hope ever of achieving this status. Finally, of course, the use of "baked" ties directly to the image of the toast, bringing together the loose ends of the scene. Some critics have pointed out that baking and toasting are rather disctinct culinary processes, but it is exactly this sort of oblique artistic reference that hoists "The Graduate" to such a high level of acclaim. Had the Braddocks discussed an idea that was "fully toasted", and then the toast popped up, we would have slapstick, but not Art.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Your dad said...

Yes, this is one of my favorite scenes in my favorite movie. Your analysis is great. I hadn't noticed the toaster thing conciously. Everything happens so quickly and everyone is right on character. Ben's mom I think wants to call the Robinsons right away when she hears about the marriage and Ben tells her, no, Elaine doesn't know about it yet! I love that line.

4/16/06, 10:35 AM  
Blogger Katinka said...

I haven't seen the movie but I think I should now...with it's symbolism of the half-baked toast, I fear that my family may be even more dysfunctional.(last night they had a, uh, half baked rodent pop out of their toaster. *nervous twitch*)

4/16/06, 2:19 PM  
Anonymous Michael J. said...

That was really fun to read! Thanks for posting it.

4/16/06, 3:27 PM  

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