In Movie Churches, I don't usually write about films that use a church just as a setting for a wedding. "The Princess Bride" has a hysterical wedding scene in a chapel performed by a character named in the credits as "The Impressive Clergyman." What people remember from the scene is Peter Cook's speech impediment ("Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam.") But the scene wouldn't change much at all if it took place in a throne room and was performed by a medieval justice of the peace. "Sixteen Candles" has a funny wedding scene with a bride who took too many muscle relaxants. But the scene would work as well in a country club as a church.
But I'm writing about "The Graduate" (even though the only church scene is a wedding) for a couple of reasons. One is that the church scene is iconic, replicated and referenced in other films (see the conclusion of Wayne's World II). The other reason I decided to write about it is because the scene has no spiritual or religious resonance. The film has no overt religious or spiritual themes even though it's about a young man's search for meaning.
The 1967 comedy won Mike Nichols an Oscar for Best Director and has rated high on the American Film Institute's list of 100 best films. It tells the story of Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), a college graduate who comes home and has no idea of what he wants to do next. At a party hosted by his parents, attended by his parents' friends, Ben is approached by a man who tells Ben he has one word to tell him. Just one word. "Plastics." That one word is a famous piece of dialogue. It captures the option of pursuing material wealth as something that is not real and not enough.
Ben, true to his era, isn't satisfied with the wealth, house, and goods that seem to satisfy his parents. In school he was an achiever in academics and sports, but those things fail to provide Ben with meaning. Though Ben drinks some, for whatever reason he doesn't follow the sixties path of drugs in pursuit of truth.
Ben uses another ancient path for meaning, one that goes back to Solomon and before. Sex. He is seduced by Mrs. Robinson ("Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson. I think, I think you're the most attractive of all my parents' friends.") Weeks, then months go by with Ben spending the day sleeping in late and hanging out by his parents pool, and nights in a hotel with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft).
But Ben falls in love with Mrs. Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross). Ben hopes, like many movie heroes before him, that romantic love will provide meaning for his life. But Elaine's parents forbid a relationship. And when Elaine hears that Mrs. Robinson slept with her mother, she tells Ben to leave her alone.
Ben can't leave it at that. He pursues Elaine when she returns to college at Berkeley, so her parents rush her into marriage with Carl, a jerk of a fraternity boy. Needless to say, Ben is not invited to the wedding.
He finds out where the wedding will take place, in Santa Barbara (the actual church is in La Verne). On his drive to the church he runs out of gas. He enters the church and sees the ceremony from the balcony. He's too late -- the minister has just declared Elaine and Carl man and wife. Ben screams to Elaine. She runs to him. People rush at Ben. He punches Elaine's dad. Elaine punches her own mom. Ben picks up a large golden cross and swings it to keep people away. He uses the cross to bar the door, locking the wedding party inside as Elaine and Ben rush out to a bus.
They laugh together on the bus. And then stare off in the distance. Perhaps meaning won't be found in romantic love either.
The guests in the pews of the wedding seem like the same shallow, materialistic crowd that the film has mocked for the two previous hours. No one in the film mentions God or Jesus except as a curse. Ben uses the cross as a weapon. Perhaps Jesus could have given Ben the meaning he was looking for, but he's never considered.
"And here's to you, Mrs. Robinson,
Jesus loves you more than you will know.
God bless you, please Mrs. Robinson.
Heaven holds a place for those who pray.
Hey, hey, hey.
C. S. Lewis said, "Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy."
"The Graduate" is that story told as a very skilled farce. Oh, and if the Robinson family are any example of the members of the church in this film, it earns a sorry One Steeple.