Firstly: this entry is disjointed and probably not incredibly clear, but I’m posting it anyway. Sorry if it is shitty beyond comprehension, guys.
Can we not recognize in this paradox the very nature of the psychoanalytical notion of drive, or more properly the Lacanian distinction between its aim and its goal? The goal is the final destination, while the aim is what we intend to do, i.e., the way itself. Lacan’s point is that the real purpose of the drive is not its goal (full satisfaction) but its aim: the drive’s ultimate aim is simply to reproduce itself as drive, to return to its circular path, to continue its path to and from the goal. The real source of enjoyment is the repetitive movement of the closed circuit.
- Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jaques Lacan through Popular Culture. 1991.
1999 was evidently a good year for movies. Fight Club and American Beauty both hit theaters – the latter taking 5 Oscars. There is a lot in common with the two films – Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club bears striking resemblance to Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of Lester Burnham in American Beauty. Both are men around middle-age attempting to break out of a stagnant life that capitalism and the “American Dream” has trapped them in. Both characters end up with a bullet to their head. Both characters end up destroyed by an idealized version of masculinity that ultimately consumes itself. Both men endure the trauma of a dissolved fantasy that leaves the only true reality we have minimal access to intact: death.
American Beauty manages to portray and subvert every major North American archetype in one film. And subtly, too. A Lolita, a hyper-masculine, ex-military father figure, a sensitive, artistic male, a domineering, career-driven woman, the insecure teenage girl saving up for a boob job, the nostalgic middle-aged man bound to crisis, and the insane, submissive housewife. Among several others. It is worth mentioning now that each of these characters is extremely dysfunctional, and ends up in dissatisfying romantic relationships that are all wrong for them.
Except the gay couple who live on the street – although they are only minor characters, their relationship seems happy, comfortable and healthy. Which, I think, is a pretty hilarious and subversive undercurrent to the rest of the fucked up shit taking place on screen. They are like background noise – present, and even play a role in bringing out Ricky’s father’s homophobia and closeted homosexuality. Perhaps their healthy relationship is due to their being “outside” the confines of the crushing expectations of the American dream, at least in terms of their sexuality.
If there is one singular theme present throughout the film, it is the disillusion of fantasy. Ricky Fitts remarks early in the film that the power of denial is amazing (in regards to his father accepting that Ricky is no longer dealing drugs, despite his owning expensive film equipment), and throughout the film it is true. Every character is steeped in denial of some kind, and struggling to break free into some kind of happiness.
Lester is the main protagonist and narrator of the film, and we meet him at a point where his life has become meaningless, monotonous, and he is ripe for a midlife crisis. The trigger is, almost too obviously, seeing a young cheerleader when he goes to see his daughter cheer at a basketball game. Steeped in American paraphernalia (the high school experience, sports, cheerleading, bleachers), Lester ‘wakes up’ when he sees Mena Suvari’s Angela Hayes. Angela is the perfect Lolita – blonde, petite, pretty, ignorant in a bitchy way that high school girls are supposed to be. She wants to be a model. Immediately, Lester projects onto her all his fantasies – we see the gymnasium go dark, and suddenly Angela is putting on a kinky show just for him. These fantasies persist throughout the film, and Lester ends up working out so he can look attractive to a teen girl. A teen girl who acts sexually mature, and sexually promiscuous. She embodies the virgin/whore dichotomy in every way, so Lester imagines he will ultimately get the best of both worlds.
After having a conscious wet-dream about Angela, Lester becomes nostalgic for his teen years, when all he did was “party and get laid.” He quits his job, uses corporate blackmail to ensure a year of salary, and gets a job flipping burgers to bring himself closer to the past; closer to youth. He stands up to his domineering wife, buys the car he has always wanted (another symbol of the American Dream), and goes after the one thing he thinks he wants most: Angela Hayes.
Ricky Fitts is the pot-dealing son of Colonel Fitts, a hyper-masculine ex-military man. Ricky is also, for me, the most interesting and delightful character in the film. He is compelling in that he acts as a proxy for an audience: he compulsively films nearly everything, creating a voyeuristic feel to the movie. Ricky is our window into the Burnhams. He provides commentary, intimacy (he deals pot to Lester, he sleeps with Jane) and insight into the realm of the film. It is through his lens we see the rough edges of the Burnham family (“welcome to America’s weirdest home videos”), and he even speaks about other films (Reanimator). Ricky is also the character who acts as a Virgil through the world of American Beauty. He explains existential themes to us and expresses them, but he is also a very benevolent voice in the film. Although Jane harshly condemns her parents, and says if she were in Ricky’s position, she’d hate his dad, Ricky maintains that his dad is “not a bad person.” Ricky also sees beauty in the most morbid and mundane things. This makes his character appear odd to other characters within the movie, and possibly ridiculous to the audience (the famous ‘plastic bag’ scene is forever etched into pop culture, and often parodied – which I think is a transparent manifestation of a cultural discomfort with the profound appearing in the mundane). Although Ricky does not embody the hyper-masculine ideals that his father does (violence, aggressiveness), he is somewhat of a Tyler Durden to Lester Burnham. When Ricky and Lester first smoke pot together outside of the real estate event that Carolyn is attending and Ricky is catering, Ricky quits his job on the spot and Lester declares that Ricky is his “personal hero”. This inspires Lester to threaten a sexual harassment suit against his boss if he is not given a year of salary with benefits. Almost exactly what Norton did in Fight Club, although a little less extreme.
Ricky is also our window into the ultimate reality of the characters in the film. He sees their most intimate moments, but because coming too close to reality means trauma, he distances himself by using a camera. This is also commentary on cinema itself: we distance ourselves from reality yet wish to experience it via fiction. Us viewing the movie, and Ricky within the movie viewing the characters creates a complex frame narrative that unites the film, yet creates dissonance within it. Ricky manages to disrupt all the character’s lives in some way when he moves next store, and teases out and exposes their flaws and accomplishments.
Ricky’s benevolence and understanding towards others in the film is perhaps a bit odd, but given his almost omnipotent view of the other characters, it is in line with a new testament “benevolent” God – although Ricky himself is not a god, he is, at least psychologically, inhabiting a completely different world than the other characters. With characters like Jane and Angela, there seems to be a rift and disdain for the older generation – a common theme that has become especially potent and venomous recently, with blame falling heavily on the baby boomers for essentially destroying everything our generation could have had, not to mention the generations following. So what we have now is a zeitgeist of cynicism that is incredibly overpowering, and a feeling of hopelessness under great financial, environmental and a myriad of other burdens heaved upon our shoulders by our parents and grandparents. This is reflected often in film and with Jane and Angela, it is no exception. Ricky, however, is almost too forgiving. Despite his character’s intelligence and should-be jadedness, Ricky is merciful in his judgments of everyone – even his father who put him in military school and then rehab, and presumably has a history of being physically violent towards Ricky. Via Ricky, we get a very kind and understanding view towards a generation generally condemned as the source of global troubles. Even in the end, Ricky escapes his father by playing on his father’s own fears and remaining passive despite his father’s violence. He overcomes by not fighting back, which is an intriguing alternative to cynicism and anger towards parents.
That being said, Colonel Fitts is, as Ricky says, a “sad, old man.” He clings desperately to his masculinity – his glory days in the army, his gun collection, his abrupt and aggressive homophobia. All his signs of strength are weaknesses. The only reason for a person to collect the adornments of a hyper-masculine culture and keep them under glass it to reassure themselves that they do, in fact, embody this notion of an ideal. However, the accouterments of that ideology are not the ideology itself, but “fillers” and masks. His collection of military paraphernalia, including his Nazi plate (official state china of the Third Reich), are mere objects. Although they all constitute phalluses, he keeps them in a case. Arguments have been made that Colonel Fitts is a closeted homosexual, and although there is no hard evidence for this (aside from the fact that he kisses Lester after believing Lester paid Ricky for a blowjob). Colonel Fitts’s fantasy begins to dissolve at this point – when he kisses Lester and Lester immediately tells Fitts he “has the wrong idea.” It is unclear what the Colonel realizes (perhaps that he himself is gay), but something pushes him to get one of his many guns and shoot Lester in the head. The gunshot is the point in the film that is not only the climax, but the sudden tear in the delicate fabric of fantasy that produces the great trauma of the movie, and the greatest beauty of the film.
Before Lester is shot, his fantasy unravels swiftly. He begins to seduce Angela, and is close to achieving connecting with the nostalgia for his teen years when Angela confesses to him that she is a virgin. Suddenly, Lester realizes his expectations were false, and with Angela reduced to a teen girl rather than sexually charged Lolita, Lester retreats. He re-inhabits the father role, and makes Angela a sandwich, talking to her as if she were his own daughter. Although they did not have sex, the scene after is probably filled with more intimacy than a sex scene could ever have carried. Angela becomes a completely different character – with the revelation of her sexual inexperience, she becomes a three-dimensional being. She is suddenly vulnerable; a child. Before this scene we never really get to see Lester in a successful father role. His attempts at connecting with Jane are rebuked. But Angela tells him Jane thinks she is in love, and with the thought of his daughter having some happiness, Lester is reminded of the happiness he once shared with his wife and daughter. He looks at a photo of them from long ago, and Colonel Fitts shoots him in the back of the head.
Colonel Fitts’ fantasy is violently torn apart, and as a man who is emotionally unable to cope with the trauma of the potential of his son being gay, and his own visceral reaction to it – not to mention the potential that Colonel Fitts himself may be gay, he resorts to shooting Lester. He places all his trauma onto Lester – he believes Lester is the focal point of this rupture, to blame of the unraveling of a carefully constructed illusion. He uses the age-old phallic symbol to blow another man’s head off. For supposedly not being gay, that’s some pretty gay imagery. Violent, but with strong homoerotic overtones, considering he first put his mouth to Lester’s mouth, and then a gun to the back of his head.
In the panning scene where we see everyone’s reactions to the gunshot interspersed with Lester’s nostalgia and memories as he is dying, we literally see everyone shocked into reality. Ricky and Jane, about to sneak out and run to New York after Ricky’s dad beats him and kicks him out of the house are stalled by it. Carolyn, angry and presumably ready to shoot Lester herself, is walking through the rain in an emotional haze after her affair with the “Real Estate King” has been discovered by Lester. Angela is looking in the bathroom mirror applying makeup, we see the back of her head and her face reflected – this distances her character from us, but also embodies the sudden self-reflective moment she experienced. She looks up and away from her reflection (coming away from her selfish core and back to reality) when she hears the shot. With the Colonel, all we see is him entering his home with a blood-spattered shirt, and a shot of his gun collection – a single one missing.
Because the trauma of losing one’s coordinates of reality is so great, and reality itself is too terrifying to handle, the only possible release from this existential crisis is death. Lester, being our protagonist and narrator, is the one to bear the burden. Everyone’s unraveling fantasies cannot be sustained without sacrifice – and Lester’s death will determine the new coordinates of reality.
Ricky, of course, is the first to see Lester’s body. Lester’s eyes are open, and he is smiling slightly. Ricky meets the dead man’s gaze with a gentle, fascinated, benevolent look. He shows no great swell of emotion, but a resigned interest. It is curious, and strange to see Ricky viewing an event of such magnitude without his camera. Even Ricky is forced to look reality straight in the face without distance – but he seems to greet it with a kind of pleasure.
American Beauty gives a stunning and potent narrative about the trauma of reality, and the necessity of the fantasies and fictions we create for ourselves in order to avoid trauma. Suburbia and the American Dream are just such things – however, they are fragile and unravel at the slightest disturbance. Once fantasy can no longer be sustained, the trauma of facing reality – the great nothingness, the truth that we are all simply made up of fantasy and taught how and what to desire – the only way out is death. Lester Burnham fulfills the cathartic role of sacrificial lamb so that the “symbolic order” can re-integrate itself into the lives of the other characters. It is a strange tale, and sticks with us because it brings us so close to the trauma of the real, yet maintains the perfect distance so as to not disturb us too thoroughly – so that we can commence, after the film, coming back to the single moments of our stupid little lives.