Simon and Garfunkel's Sounds and Silences
In 1967 a vision softly crept across U.S. movie screens and created a small
phenomenon, earning an Oscar for its director and three Grammy Awards for its
soundtrack. Mike Nichols' The Graduate, the most popular film of the late
1960s, remained among the top ten grossing movies of all time at the end of the
1970s (Cohen 28). An adaptation of a moderately successful novel by Charles
Webb, the film linked the familial and institutional limitations placed upon
college-age men, the ominous specter of the war in Vietnam, and the controversial
power of popular music; it did so by juxtaposing a largely apolitical screenplay
with a number of insistently political songs, thus predicting and contributing to
the role rock would play in the social upheavals of 1968 and '69. Nichols'
choice of the folk-rock duo Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to provide the music for
the movie played a major part in the film's success. The soundtrack--comprised
mainly of songs already available on other Simon and Garfunkel albums, along with
some instrumental tracks by jazz stylist Dave Grusin--served simultaneously as a
Simon and Garfunkel "greatest hits" compilation of sorts and as an audio souvenir
of the highlights of the movie. The album and film climbed Billboard's and
Variety's charts together to become two of the year's biggest moneymakers for
the entertainment industry.
"The Sounds of Silence"--the sung soliloquy of The Graduate's protagonist,
Benjamin Braddock--formed the explicit link between music, alienation, and
revolution in the film. It had an impact on young people beyond their wallets,
serving as a theme song for many of Ben's educated, disenchanted, middle-class
peers in suburban America. "The Sounds of Silence" was one of many popular
musical hits which were associated with 1960s counterculture and antiwar
protests. Although it will probably never escape its association with The
Graduate, the song predates the film by three years: Described by Art Garfunkel
as a "major work" in the liner notes of Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., it was a
radio hit in 1965 after producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric guitar, bass, and
drums to produce a sound which could rival that of Bob Dylan and other folk rock
stars. Simon and Garfunkel's 1966 Sounds of Silence took its title from the
duo's first big hit, and the album already had four top-five hits when it came to
the attention of Mike Nichols--who was, in Simon's words, "[looking for] music
[to] be the inner voice of Benjamin BraddockÉto emphasize his conflicts" (Cohen
27). Simon's lyrical interest in alienation, miscommunication, artificiality,
liberality, and urban middle-class angst fit in well with Nichols' stated
ambition to create a film which would "stop the Los Angelesization of America"
(Wiley and Bona 405). Nichols used "The Sounds of Silence," "Scarborough
Fair/Canticle," and "April Come She Will" in their entirety, excerpted the chorus
from "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine," and played three variations on
"Mrs. Robinson," which was written for the film but cut to include only the
chorus. Each of these songs expresses anxiety, loss, and frustration with
contemporary society. The use of the word "darkness" and images of decay
permeate sunny Southern California as Simon's melancholy music and poetic phrases
point to the down side of the Braddocks' palms-and-plastics lifestyle.
The lyrics to "The Sounds of Silence" along with those of the other songs
represent the thoughts Ben cannot express to anyone in the film. The music,
which reflects Ben's moods, contrasts with Grusin's more conventional style that
indicates the aggressively upbeat behavior of Ben's parents' generation. Ben's
arrival into their world from the comparative safety of college is heralded as a
fall from grace; the film's first words are, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are about
to begin our descent into Los Angeles," followed by the opening strains of "The
Sounds of Silence." The song continues as Ben makes his way through the bright,
impersonal airport and deepens the sense of isolation and alienation established
by the tight close-ups of Ben's unhappy face. "The Sounds of Silence" follows
the pattern of many Simon and Garfunkel hits: it starts off quietly, a solo
voice accompanied by acoustic guitar, then builds to a harsher, multivocal middle
section before concluding on a gentle note by removing the drums and repeating
the opening guitar notes. As the lyrics speak of resignation, the music loses
its biting rhythm.1 The pace of the song follows the speed of Ben's progress
through the airport, peaking as he rides an escalator to meet his family and then
dropping off as the sight of the airport dissolves into a closeup shot of Ben at
home, sitting unhappily in front of his fish tank.
"The Sounds of Silence" foregrounds the anxieties which will press Ben throughout
the film. A frustrated sense that his elders have bungled their values and
botched the lines of communication--
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more,
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening--
leads to a nagging worry that his own generation is contributing through inaction
to the rise of the superficial, spiritless culture around him--
And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they'd made,
And the sign said,
The words of the prophets are written on subway walls
And tenement halls--
and the dawning idea that he may be the only person who perceives the problem and
can break free from it--
Fools, said I, you do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you,
Take my arms that I might reach you.
The song contains a structural silence as the narrator discovers he cannot gain
the attention of the mindless consumers: the line "But my words like silent
raindrops fell" is followed by a stretch without lyrics, a variation from the
previous verses which had lyrics during the same two bars of music.
Rock historian Mitchell S. Cohen characterizes the 1965 recording of "The Sounds
of Silence" as a problematic song: "It casts Simon in the role of the detached
commentator and critic, a role that mars someÉvery affecting workÉthe tone is too
didactic, most gnawingly when the singer becomes the ignored sage after his offer
to lead. Simon's assumed position of wisdom is also patronizing." (Cohen
These flaws disappear, however, in The Graduate, for the narrator is neither
Simon nor Benjamin Braddock, but some combination of the two of them and of the
more general, social voice of the generation to which both Simon and Ben belong.
Ben's detachment is not by choice, but due to his inability to comment or
criticize directly; his parents "hear without listening," and his fantasy of
becoming a sage who offers to lead and teach is almost comical given Ben's
overwhelming desire to follow and learn. The screenplay (by Calder Willingham
and Buck Henry) establishes in several early scenes with Ben's parents and their
friends that no one will listen to his concerns. Instead he is told (in the
movie's most famous line) that plastics--a product associated with conformity,
commodification, and artificiality--are the wave of the future; in other words,
that he should adapt to society's expectations. Ben can no more express his
apprehensions with his parents than he can have a real conversation with Mrs.
Robinson, the wife of his father's business associate, who wishes to become Ben's
lover but refuses to become emotionally intimate with him. As Ben's voice is
silenced, the music which reflects his personality falls silent; Simon and
Garfunkel are not heard following the film's opening for quite some time, for
during Ben's graduation party and Mrs. Robinson's attempted seduction of him, the
music of his elders--Dave Grusin's music--predominates. Only when Ben begins to
assert himself does "The Sounds of Silence" return.
The reprise comes after Ben stands at the bottom of his family's swimming pool,
wearing scuba gear which he has been given as a birthday present. Although Ben
agrees to model the outfit for his parents' friends, he refuses to perform tricks
for them; it is the first time he directly disobeys his parents' wishes, or the
wishes of any person from their generation. Ben remains under the water, staking
out his own territory for the first time, listening to "the sounds of silence"
instead of the demands of others.2 As the camera lens remains in the pool with
Ben, the audio skips ahead to a phone conversation between Ben and Mrs. Robinson:
Would she like to meet him somewhere? In his desire to rebel, he has concluded
that since she is "the most attractive of all his parents' friends," he may as
well take her up on her proposition. Whether his relationship with the
paradoxical Mrs. Robinson constitutes real rebellion, however, is resolved
neither in Ben's mind nor in the film. He feels alternately guilty and proud of
his plan to commit an act which he knows would arouse the indescribable wrath of
his father and her husband--"Can you imagine what they'd say?" Ben appears to be
in the midst of a classic Oedipal crisis--wanting to get rid of his father and
become intimate with his mother, who resembles Mrs. Robinson, and who is
associated by proximity with the womblike safety of the family pool. But his
Oedipal crisis has a social dimension as well. Not just his own father, but all
the men his father's age--Mr. Robinson, his uncle, and the man who wants him to
go into plastics, for instance--pose a threat to Ben's desire to establish
autonomy and take power himself; he wants to rid himself of all the fathers. And
Ben comes to understand that Mrs. Robinson is a tool of the patriarchy as well as
a victim; his willingness to sleep with her arises from his compulsion to satisfy
her wishes as well as his own curiosity. The affair with Mrs. Robinson
represents the pleasure of simultaneously rebelling against his father's values
and retreating into the childish pleasure of pleasing a mother-substitute.
"The Sounds of Silence" returns when Ben, having made the decision to sleep with
Mrs. Robinson, slams a door in the hotel room and shuts the lights, leaving the
screen dark. It is a point of no return, as Ben loses not only his virginity but
his pretense at innocence; he knows that he has transgressed, and at the same
time he knows his transgression is not the kind of rebellion which can lead to
real change. When the light returns, Ben is back in his parents' pool. During
the remainder of the song, Nichols cuts between shots of Ben with Mrs. Robinson,
Ben with his parents, and Ben lounging aimlessly, mixing up the situations so
that the viewer is uncertain how much time is passing. When Ben lunges onto the
raft in the pool, he collapses on top of Mrs. Robinson. When he shuts the door
on his mother eating, he turns to face Mrs. Robinson. When he turns away from
Mrs. Robinson, he looks into his father's angry stare. The song ends as the
camera zooms in for a closeup shot of Ben's face, just as it did the first time
it was played. The repetition of the music and the closeup reinforce the
perception that Ben is perpetually in exactly the same place; rather than
offering a sense of closure, it creates the anxiety of knowing that Ben has
The film sequence continues as "The Sounds of Silence" segues into the redundant
"April Come She Will," concluding when Ben's father interrupts Ben's seamless
movements from pool to house to hotel to galvanize Ben into taking some sort of
"productive" action. The action he forces Ben to take is a date with Elaine
Robinson, Mrs. Robinson's daughter. As "The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine"
(a song about, among other conformist pleasures, the numbing influence of too
much rock music) blasts in the background, Ben and Elaine find that they share a
common dislike of their era. The film shifts dramatically following this event
as the smitten Ben pursues Elaine to Berkeley, where she is a student, to attempt
to convince her to marry him. Ben's love for Elaine is paradoxical, for in many
ways Elaine is very much her mother's daughter--desirous of pleasure yet fearful
of intimacy--but in some ways she is like Ben too, angry without being certain of
the causes, repressed specifically by her parents and more generally by their
generation. As a student at Berkeley in the late 1960s, Elaine would certainly
have been aware of the student revolt of 1963 and the increasing radicalism on
the campus; Nichols films Elaine and Ben in and around Sproul Hall, site of the
mass arrests in 1963 when the Oakland police stormed the campus. The use of the
Berkeley campus draws attention to a larger sociopolitical dimension to Ben's and
Elaine's rebellion; the music, too, becomes more overtly rebellious, as Dave
Grusin drops out of the soundtrack and Paul Simon's lyrics directly criticize the
world of Ben's elders. The songs which represent Ben's mental state during the
second half of the film--"Scarborough Fair/Canticle" and three fragments of "Mrs.
Robinson"--are more overtly angry, frustrated, and challenging to the older
generation than are the songs from the first half.3
"The Sounds of Silence" returns, however, at the end of the film. Ben, who
discovers Mrs. Robinson's plot to marry Elaine off to someone else to "protect"
her from Ben, breaks into the wedding and begs Elaine to run off with him.
Elaine, who abruptly recognizes the resemblances between her fianc and her
father as they try to get at Ben, flees the church with him. They gleefully
board a bus, having escaped from the demands of convention and circumstance and
from the Oedipal ties which kept Ben obedient to Mrs. Robinson and Elaine to her
father and fianc. But as the bus pulls away, their smiles fade. Having broken
their ties to the past and without any plans for the future, they regard each
other as the near-strangers they are. The isolation and alienation which has
plagued Ben throughout the film reasserts itself as "The Sounds of Silence" comes
up over the rising sound of the bus driving off to an unknown destination.
Each time "The Sounds of Silence" is played, it is preceded and followed by a
moment of eerie quiet. The opening moments of the film contain no music but the
sound of the jet engine, followed by the slow beginning of the song; at its
conclusion, Ben sits listening to the bubbling of his aquarium,a sound which will
be echoed later by his own breathing in the scuba mask in the pool. When Ben
slams the door of the hotel room just before the first reprise, a long moment of
hushed darkness precedes the guitar introduction and a long moment of silent
brightness follows it before the next song begins. The film's ending is
awkwardly, artificially quiet as the panting Ben and Elaine jump onto a soundless
bus full of speechless passengers. When Ben finally has a moment to catch his
breath and consider the consequences of his recent actions, realizing that once
again he is alone with his worries, "The Sounds of Silence" begins again; it ends
after only two verses, leaving the closing credits on the screen. These moments
of nondiegetic silence reinforce the perception that silence, not "Sounds,"
brackets the film. Several other pivotal transitional moments--Ben's race to the
Robinsons' to get Elaine away from her mother, and his later attempt to break
into the church where she is being married, for example--serve as overpowering
indications of his complete dissociation, alienation, and isolation from the
social world of his elders. The silences demand audience attention in a way that
sound does not. They require imagination and connection to the events on the
screen, resisting the simple consumption of the passive viewer. The silent
passage following the "words like silent raindrops" in "The Sounds of Silence"
works in a similar fashion; by leaving out what the listener expects to be there,
the song demands attention, asking its audience to fill in the gaps.
As director Nichols acknowledges, watching The Graduate now is a different
experience from watching it in 1967 (Wiley and Bona 405). The issues which are
now considered the most important of the late 1960s--the student revolt at
Berkeley, the distant war in Vietnam, "the Los Angelesization of America," and
the rise of rock music as a political force--would remain in the background of
the film were it not for the music's insistent recalling of them. The theme song
serves as more than an omniscient narration of the protagonist's thoughts; it
actually draws out the social subtext of the film, which might otherwise have
remained the story of one middle-class young man indulging his personal angst,
and has kept the film from becoming dated for later generations of graduates.
"The Sounds of Silence" fills the silences, quietly refusing to allow the
audience to simply consume the film's story and insisting that it make
1. Alterman, Lorraine. "Paul Simon." Rolling Stone 28 May 1970.
2. Cohen, Mitchell S. Simon and Garfunkel: A Biography in Words and Pictures.
New York: Chappell and Co., 1977.
3. Cowan, Paul. "Paul Simon: The Odysseus of Urban Melancholy." Rolling Stone
1 July 1976.
4. Davis, Clive. Clive: Inside the Record Business. New York: William Morrow
and Co., 1974.
5. Fong-Torres, Ben. "The Rolling Stone Interview: Art Garfunkel." Rolling Stone
11 Oct. 1973.
6. Greenfield, Josh. "For Simon and Garfunkel, All Is Groovy." New York Times
Magazine 13 Oct. 1968.
7. Landau, Jon. "The Rolling Stone Interview: Paul Simon." Rolling Stone 20
8. Simon, Paul. Paul Simon Complete. Secaucus, NJ: Warner Bros. Pub., 1984.
9. Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards.
New York: Random House, 1986.
1 This pattern is repeated throughout Simon and Garfunkel's early songs,
including "Scarborough Fair/Canticle," "I Am A Rock," "A Poem on the Underground
Wall," and "The Boxer." Simon tends to associate youthful anger, rebellion, and
triumph with a strong rock beat, while resignation and failure are linked to
slower acoustic passages. This contrast between rock and folk styles often
represents the conflicting concerns of the over- and under-thirty generations.
In the film, "April Come She Will"--sung during Ben's dead-end afternoons of
lounging in the pool and cavorting with Mrs. Robinson--never breaks out of its
soft melodic repetition, but the angrier "Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine" and
"Mrs. Robinson" both employ electric guitar and a jarring rhythm.
2 The shot of Ben standing at the bottom of the pool has taken on an additional
resonance in the years since The Graduate's release. The shot of Ben dressed in
his spacesuit-like scuba equipment and holding a large pole closely resembles the
famous photograph of Neil Armstrong planting the American flag on the surface of
the moon--an event which took place two years after the film was made. If, as
Mitchell S. Cohen argues, one of the reasons for the film's success lies in an
ongoing sense that The Graduate is really about the late 1960s--not about the
characters--surely this additional connection between the film and the events of
the world contribute to that notion.
3 Although "The Sounds of Silence" is given a more prominent role in the film,
"Scarborough Fair/Canticle" plays an important role as well in explaining the
underlying causes of Ben's antisocial behavior. The song, which is linked with
Berkeley in the film because Nichols only plays it during Ben's drives to and
around Northern California, links the campus to the distant specter of the
Vietnam War. The war underlies as well Ben's father's demands that Ben return to
school and Ben's landlord's worry that he may be "one of those outside
agitators." Just as the film keeps Vietnam nearly hidden under its domestic
worries, "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" keeps its antiwar message disguised under
and old folk song about impossible romantic demands. Only snatches of lyric
emerge to reveal its suppressed theme: "War bellows blazing in scarlet
battalions,/Generals order their soldiers to kill/And to fight for a cause
they've long ago forgotten." By recreating the historical link between Berkeley
and antiwar protests through the music, The Graduate offers an implicit reminder
that Ben, who often seems overindulged and self-important in his quest to find
himself, could have found himself in the midst of the horrors of Vietnam or an
ally of their perpetrators had he made different decisions.