Since I decided to take an English class this semester in lieu of an extra Computer Science elective or Psychology class, I have been reading a whole lot more and watching more films. It’s been a fun process of rediscovering a hobby I enjoy immensely, and I am finding that the worlds with which the movies and books deal (real or otherwise) have unlocked a whole new set of thoughts, questions, and experiences. If you want to follow what I’m reading, you can check out my Shelfari bookshelf — I’ll update that pretty regularly with some impressions of books that I read.
Anyway, this is a post about a film I watched last night, American Beauty. Without going too much into the plot, the basic premise is that Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) faces a mid-life crisis in which he attempts to break out of what he calls ‘a 20-year coma,’ of depression, dissatisfaction, and general lack of life. He has a failing marriage, a failing family, and a daughter who simultaneously struggles to find her own identity in the typical world of high-school and pubescent insecurities. I’ll leave you to watch the movie to get the rest of the details, which I would suggest you do before reading on (spoiler alert).
The characters themselves are sufficiently unique and differentiated that each serves as a symbol of some collection of mental, physical, and emotional afflictions — ranging from depression to drug addiction to curiosity — yet not enough that I was able to identify with any of them as an individual. Instead, I think the generic-ness allowed me and my friends as the audience to project our own thoughts and identities on each character in turn, creating sets of characters that are as unique as we are ourselves. The most unbelievable thing about the movie for me, then, was that the movie is poignant to all of us despite the differences in how we perceived the characters.
As an example, when my friends and I were trying to figure out why Colonel Fitts shoots Lester at the end of the movie, we each had different responses. The consensus was that Fitts was a severely repressed homosexual, and therefore he shot Lester out of anger and embarrassment at Lester’s rebuke of his advances. I actually took the minority view — that Fitts’s advances were fake and intended to test Lester’s reaction to homosexuality, and that Fitts was not upset out of rejection. Instead, Fitts left horrified because Lester’s rebuke undermined his reasons for being mad at his son and he would never get the opportunity to repair the damage. Given that the film leaves Fitts’s reasons intentionally ambiguous, I think our responses were interesting because they very much reflect that fact that we go to school in such a liberal social environment as Yale, where homosexuality is embraced as a norm.
American Beauty also left me chewing on another question – who do we think of as being the voice of the film, and more importantly, how can we trust any of the characters’ conclusions given the moral transgressions that each commit? For example, Ricky Fitts (Colonel Fitts’s son) speaks movingly about beauty in the world and makes Jane (Lester’s daughter) feel loved and wanted, but he is a drug dealer as well as a creep who films others without their knowledge. Similarly, Lester espouses the need to live in the moment and stops himself before taking Angela’s (Jane’s attractive friend) virginity, all the while abdicating any obligations he has to his job and family. It is a film of paradoxes, but those paradoxes provide us choices in how we wish to view the world, with equally interesting implications in either case. Whether we view the world of the film as a dystopic reality or realistic dystopia, it is a beautiful and insightful look into our everyday world.