Sunday, August 29, 2010

Random Thoughts About American Beauty

I recently watched "American Beauty" again.  I first saw the movie a little over ten years ago and it is one of the few films of the last decade that I have continued to think about from time to time.  When it came out in 1999, I had just turned 30 and I remember feeling decidedly under the gun, that the writing was on the wall, it was do or die, now or never, sink or swim, if you're going to get married and be incredibly happy like absolutely everyone else in America, you'd better get to work on getting a life that looks exactly like everyone else's.

In retrospect, I think it was pretty clear that I would never follow the suburban path because, when I saw the film, I remember thinking, "YES.  This is what happens.  If I get married, I'll end up a cross between Lester Burnham and his wife Carolyn" (all the while secretly hoping I'd be more like Lester, of course).

I don't know whether that's true or not, obviously, but I know that what I like about the film is the way that its depiction of suburban sedation is not the sum total of the story.  Although the characters have become "joyless" and lost, they continue to search for meaning.  Whether they find it or not, they do begin to realize that the things that consume their very American lives--their jobs, cars, houses, and neighbors--merely serve to mask a very real beauty that lies underneath all of the daily distractions. 

In a way, the film echoes Thoreau's assertion of his reason for choosing to live in solitude at Walden--he wanted to "live deliberately" and not "live what was not life, living is so dear" or "practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary."  Lester Burnham's growing realization that resignation is unnecessary strikes a comic and particularly American chord--so many people live what Thoreau described as "lives of quiet desperation," not recognizing until it is seemingly too late that even suburban American life offers more than mere mediocrity for those who are willing to, as the film exhorts, "look closer."  

In the end, both the 20th century American film and the 19th century American philosopher ultimately agree--it is never to late to get it back.  As Lester observes, "It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about." 

What I continue to wonder is, why do we forget?  Why do we let others persuade us that we want what they (presumably) want (or wanted)?  Why is what is different so difficult for us to understand, much less to achieve?  In a sense, some degree of conformity is always necessary to a sense of community: in his 17th-century account Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford describes the antics of the free-spirited Thomas Morton with anger and outrage.  When the survival of the group is at stake, there is little room for the (admittedly self-serving) behavior of the renegades and individualists who want to get drunk and reap enormous profits by trading illicit items or substances.

But in the world of the Burnhams, survival is clearly not at stake--the only thing threatened by Lester's behavior or Ricky Fitts' rebellion is consumerism and group-conformity.  I think that some of the more haunting moments in the film involve Ricky's mother: unable to break out of the world in which she finds herself, she simply sits and stares at the emptiness around her or vaguely and distractedly responds to her son or her husband.  In a sense, her character counterpoints the self-obsessed materialism of Carolyn--like Herman Melville's protagonist in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," she seems to "prefer not to" engage with the world in which she has somehow found herself.

For me, this is the question I continue to consider: how does one end up in such a world?  How is it that we so often end up losing sight of all of the beauty and spirit that surrounds us on a daily basis?  Can we somehow avoid the kind of "sedation" or death-in-life that the film describes, so that we don't have to try to wake up and break out of it after the fact?

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