If you have not seen American Beauty or Fight Club and do not wish to have the endings spoiled, then it would be advisable to watch them before reading this.
Midlife crisis: an easily applied term to any middle aged male of thinning hair who spontaneously buys a bright red sports car. That is probably what made Kevin Spacey the perfect (or unperfect person) to play Lester Burnham, a man seemingly going through the motions above. His droll, drab voice-over introduces you to his droll, drab existence as an advertising executive in middle class suburban America. Crisis itself is though seems to be the key word of our times.
Everything seems to be in crisis. In this material world everything about Burnham’s existence is grey, beige, lifeless – material; his house that he shares with his wife Carolyn (Annette Benning) is a dull mixture of creams and greys, and indeed she remarks in her job as a realtor trying to shift a house that is anything but what she says it palatially isn’t “a simple cream could lighten things up”, stood in a cream suit that does not lighten anything up.
The film’s narrative and Lester’s crisis is driven by the arrival of his daughter, Jane’s (Thora Birch) friend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), as he watches a cheerleading sequence (in Chaplin-esque hats), that begins several fantasies of Lester’s involving Angela, and the film’s key motif – vibrant, red petals. Many allusions have been made to Nabokov’s Lolita and Dolores Haze, and whilst she represents the prohibited, repressed fantasy of a middle aged man, she is also perhaps a hark back to the age this film’s characters are trying to live. The age when advertising was an exciting, and believable venture; when white middle class American’s were the government’s people to lead the country forward, and not the varied, and diverse ethnicities and orientations that Carolyn shows round her house; when Coca Cola was becoming the worlds most prevalent and ubiqitous company, but a benevolent, representative one; the age when America and American’s, and even Britain had a true belief in their country and their principles.
Angela Hayes is not the only object of desire as Lester’s daughter Jane is continually filmed by her new neighbour, Ricky (Wes Bently) on his cam recorder. Ricky lives with his passive mother Barbara (Allison Jarney) and Bigoted ex-marine Col.Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), who displays his attitude to all when he meets a gay couple who live on the street (“we’re partners” they say to Frank on the door who replys with “so what’s your business?”).
And so the Burnham’s comfortable suburban life they’ve forged for themselves begins to implode as Carolyn catches Lester masturbating in bed, off one of his many fantasies about Angela. American Beauty echoes the films of its time in this respect, particularly Fight Club (1999, David Fincher), as middle aged, middle class men questioning their existence bluntly tell their bosses they no longer want their jobs, using blackmailing powers to secure a good pay-off. Lester takes a job at a fast-food restaurant.
Rather than it being life changing decisions that affect the Burnham’s that some have noted (if anything they just become more immersed in the world they live in; Lester joining Mr Smiley’s, a stand in for McDonald’s if anything, but he is just lower in the chain) they submit to their prohibited fantasies. It is difficult to determine how cynical Mendes is being of fantasies on Freudianism, like Nabokov in Lolita was. Jane, who now seems so far removed from the nuclear family that American Beauty seems so intensely investigative of, finally begins a romantic affair with Ricky, about the time his relationship with Lester is developing. Ricky, who is obssessed with home footage (as if a precedent for the imminent, internet, youtube age) and filming Jane, shows Jane one of his videos, what he believes is the most beautiful piece of camcorder footage he has filmed – a paper bag floating in the wind. It is here that Jane submits to Ricky, and realises him for what he is. Not the weirdo, or asshole voyeur, but a man obssesed with finding beauty in his own way, tired of the grand movie projects he has undoubtedly seen in the media saturated age (Ricky’s room is like a black and white negative, filled with video tapes, and it’s the film with the plastic bag, that is one of the few pieces of colour that the characters watch, the utter banality of it rendered in colour. Television features a lot in American Beauty, but most of them are black and white images).Jane’s fantasy, like most other teenagers is to be beautiful, and the television and films, are the modes that are seen as beautifying, but here she has found a man and a medium that makes her beautiful for what she is, as the film is concerned with the typical archetype of beauty in Angela – a young, submissive blond nymph.
It is not just the Burnham’s who are submitting to their fantasies and projections. Col. Fitts is becoming concerned with his son, Ricky’s, behaviour. Going through his possessions (an inversion of what Ricky does to his possessions when finds the Nazi plate), he finds footage of Lester working out in his garage, a chance happening after he had been filming Jane. From this Col. Fitts deduces that his son is gay. As he waits for him in his bedroom, after Ricky has returned from Lester’s, and again, where Fitts mistakenly assumed that his son was performing an act of fellatio on Lester. Fitt’s hits his son, when Ricky baits him with a fake confession, and can embark on his on voyage of freedom with Jane to New York. Angela denounces this and in doing so Ricky uncovers her own primordial fear – the she is ‘ordinary’. She is no beauty, she uses friends like Jane to boost her image. The next shot is of Angela, sat on the stairs viewed through the banister, evoking the recurrent image of imprisonment in the film. She is now trapped and condemned to this idea of beauty that she thinks she has forged, but rather what has been cultivated by those around her. She really is Low on the dotted line.
It is the revelatory, and maybe slightly cheap, fantasy of Fitts that brings the biggest shock. As Lester is doing pull-ups in his garage (mimicking the self-satisfying, and gratifying masturbatory action we see of Lester at the beginning of the film, Lester has found just another way to gratify himself rather than enliven himself), unaware of what is going on in the house around him, Fitts is seen approaching his garage. He opens the door to the torrential, biblical rain outside, perhaps reminiscent of another film of it’s time – Magnolia (1999, P.T.Anderson) – that also features flowers as its central motif, symbolic deaths and approaching deaths, to Fitts in a white t-shirt. Contrary to the violence we expect of Fitts, he kisses Lester, whom calmly turns him away. Fitts turns around, and walks away.
When we return to Lester’s death at the end with the denouement in mind, he is looking back on the rest of his life, philosophising on simple yet poignant metaphysics, that a reasonably educated, middle-class man might try to get at in wistful later life. But Lester’s mid-life crisis wasn’t in mid-life, Lester was at the end of his life; in fact going from his narration, orbiting the suburbs (god-like, ethereal, no?) he is already dead. Like the films of that era it focuses on these symbolic deaths, but unlike Fight Club, the gun is a very real embodiment that kills the character, and not his alter ego. Lester actually lives his alter ego, in an inversion of The Usual Suspects (also starring Spacey) where the narrator or creator of the illusion (also Spacey) has to create the creation of his other characters for his survival. Tyler Durden has to realise his creation, is subconscious (a film also heavy with homoerotic references) to finally exist as a person. Lester however must die for his creation, because he is the one who ultimately lives it.
So, unlike those films about men who don’t really exist, and about men who really don’t want to exist, who cannot exist in their manifestation, we are left wanting, and striving for Lester to exist, which brings the sadness in the denouement of the film. We’re not left wondering about the mystery of his existence because of his death, just what he could have finally made of it, and what we can make of our own mysterious plenitude, not in some grand, pseudo-revolutionary escapist style like Fight Club, just how and what makes our lives matter to others, in the small immaterial, and ultimately beautiful aspects of life.
Now as we move forward 15 years later, the subject, rather than the setting of the middle-class American home is a prominent one. In this post-financial-crisis globalised society, the problems seem to have become internalised in the home, using Gone Girl and the game-playing, killing instinct is within. I’m using Fincher’s, 2014, film version as an example; it’s as if the set from American Beauty is being used, dull, grey, life-less, but all the problems lie within the marriage. This has also transcended literature, as in front of me I have a review copy of a book by Christopher Bollen called Orient (released in April 2015, review coming up in the next few weeks). It Is distinctly set in the real-world middle class lives of Americans on the outskirts of New York. It is a sprawling work, touching 600 pages, that calls into the old cliché of the great American novel (or the great global novel it should now be called). To borrow a Thomas Kuhn term, the American novel seems to undergo paradigms, and right now we seem to be in the Jonathan Franzen paradigm, who seems to either be the most marketable, or the most suitable chronicler of the times.
American Beauty, as I suggest above, goes against the trend, because it is about a man who ultimately wants to exist but cannot, as if this is not the way the world works anymore (the black and white photos, the homoeroticism). It is preceding the idea that this comfortable world is coming under threat? The fantasies of the other maybe; terrorism, gays, immigrants, feminists, artists, orphans, absolute anything (Orient overtly touches on this), anything that threatens to destroy the sanctity of it. But it is as if the family is the last domesticity of the real. As we come out of postmodernity, artists now return to the family as a way of returning to the real. Franzen’s Freedom (2010) certainly did this after The Corrections (2000). What is being done is, is rather than the mechanics being broken down, the illusion is being created again, only to be dismantled in the way the realists an early moderns constructed and revealed the secrets lying beneath. But it’s as if now the family can not just go on as it is; it not just about the father’s who can just go out to work because there are all these other presences and antagonisms, and the fact that there are also no jobs to go to.
One of the key precedent’s set for this was Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997); Roth’s superb work about a successful man Swede Levov, inheritor of his father’s glove company who sees his daughter, Merry become political fanatic. As the blurb states ‘overnight Swede is wrenched out of the longed-for American pastoral and into the indigenous American berserk’, and that is what seems to have happened – the west’s safe capitalist pastoral has now been interrupted, maybe even shattered and what we’re witnessing is the wake of this. I think to quote at length the ending of American Pastoral would be sufficient (not necessarily a spoiler as such, but if you don’t want the ending spoiled don’t read this next bit)
“Marcia sank into Jessie’s empty chair, in front of the brimming glass of milk, and with her face in her hands, she began to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was rapidly going under – to laugh and to relish as some people, historically, always seem to do, how far the rampant disorder had spread, enjoying enormously the assailability, the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things.
Yes the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened, it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everything and everyone that does not like their life.”
There is obviously a great irony in all this. All these writers and directors are male, it’s as if their sanctity is under threat at the same time, and underscores the hypocrisy of the world they’re dismantling, but are still limited in their effect of. That passage precedes it all, and although Roth’s setting was 1968, it speaks a truth of now, written in 1997. Those final few paragraphs for me, set up what has followed in the past 15 years, and poses the questions that now novelists and artists try to answer. Will they recover? Is this why the world seems to have been Marvellised, why there are so many superheroes on our screen now, as we look for new heroes, new fantasies to save us, or at least save our minds, because like the picture above, maybe people are tired of the responsibility of being role models. Our fathers are not our heroes any more (look at the existential paternal anxiety of Don Draper in Mad Men). To paraphrase Franzen in The Corrections, who does this leave to be ordinary, in the grey, beige world of crisis.
A review of Christopher Bollen’s Orient is coming up in the next few weeks.