Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fight Club

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I know that this 1999 film directed by David Fincher, based on the Chuck Palahniuk novel, can alienate the female population with its emphasis on the male role in modern American society, and the depiction of brutality associated with boxing. But, although gory, there are actually not that many fight sequences in the movie. The editing and cinematography provide a sense of motion to a film that is actually quite wordy. The story deals with existential issues, and the theme explored in recent posts on this blog (A Face in the Crowd, Bigger Than Life) about how the plight of the individual can clash with the needs of society.
The story begins at the end and then plays catch-up. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) has secured the Narrator (Edward Norton), who I will call Jack (he uses the Reader’s Digest health title series to describe himself, such as “I am Jack’s Colon”), to a chair at the top of a city building, and threatens Jack with a gun, as an earth-shattering event is about to take place. The opening titles display over a depiction of the neurological impulses traveling between Jack’s brain and his mouth, where Tyler has placed the gun. Jack’s mental processes are thus emphasized from the start. He says that he has had insomnia for six months, which makes him feel like he has become “a copy of a copy” of himself, and, like subsequent paper reproductions, his self-image has become faded, his identity not as distinguishable. Added to the lack of sleep is the fact that he travels for his job, and wakes up in strange places, in various time zones. All of these factors contribute to mental disorientation, and the need to psychologically compensate to function. Jack poses the question that if you wake up at different times in different places, can you wake up as a different person? The movie is laying down the foundation for psychological fracturing, and the emergence of a dissociative personality disorder. Jack starts to address himself in the second person, and this substitution of “you” for “I” shows how he is beginning to construct another part of himself as a separate entity. The style of the film reflects the free association of the mind, as Jack then provides the audience, not exactly sequentially, with the back story.
Jack works for a prominent automobile company to determine if recalls are worth initiating following catastrophic accidents. If a recall will cost the company too much money, it will not be initiated. Palahniuk said that one of the themes he wanted to explore was how people have reduced their degree of connecting with others on a personal level. In the movie, the insensitive comments by accident investigators talking about how a victim’s body fat melted onto the polyester of the car seat, producing “modern art,” mirrors the lack of emotional involvement in a consumer-driven world. In a commercialized society, the things one owns are more important than other people, or even personal safety. So, Jack’s condo becomes his “life,” and Fincher provides us with a view of Jack’s home as if displayed in an IKEA catalog. He wonders “What kind of dining set defines me as a person.” In existential terms, this is the state where an individual denies freedom by identifying with external definitions. That is, I am not a multi-faceted person, but I’m an accountant, or, even worse, in this case, a grouping of furniture. Jack echoes the loneliness of modern existence by describing the “single-serving” meals and condiments on plane rides. The film often provides lists to detail its point. Jack talks of: single serving sugar; single serving cream; single pat of butter; “the microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit.” The people he meets on the flights are “single-serving” friends, who one meets for a short time and then disposes of them, like the food portions. 
Because of his disconnected, sleep-deprived state, Jack asks his doctor for sleeping pills. When the physician doesn’t want to encourage an addiction, Jack says he is in pain. The doctor says if Jack wants to see real pain, he should go to a testicular cancer support group. It is here that the movie offers up a complexity of symbolism. Jack goes to the group and meets Robert “Bob” Paulsen (the rock star Meat Loaf). Bob was a body builder, and took steroids. Because of his subsequent testicular cancer, he has gone from an image of extreme masculinity to one of an emasculated male. His transformation is even more pronounced, because he has developed huge breasts due to treatment. So, he has in a sense been feminized. On one level, Bob can represent how modern American society has castrated, and transgendered males into women. Later Tyler echoes this argument when he says, “We’re a generation of men raised by women,” and he wonders if the seeking of another woman as a partner is “really the answer we need.” Tyler sees his generation’s boys as being without male role models, with fathers who have either physically or spiritually abandoned them. But, in this group, men, by getting in touch with their feminine side, are able to show genuine emotion, hugging other men, and crying. As Jack says, in this group, pretending to be inflicted with testicular cancer, there is no pressure for him to pursue the “pleasure principle.” Here, Jack “loses all hope,” and he doesn’t have to live up to any expectations for the future, which gives him a sense of freedom. In a way, by hugging Bob, his face mashed up against the man’s large breasts, he is able to draw emotional nourishment, and that night, he says that babies don’t sleep as well as he did.
But, instead of using the one experience to change his life, Jack, instead, goes to numerous groups, pretending to have each one’s afflictions, and admits that he is an addict, unable to be emotionally independent without his fixes. In these groups, Jack feels that during the day, when he is actually disease free, his inauthentic life is a sort of death, but when in the groups, identifying with the dying, he feels resurrected, in touch with real emotions and other people, stripped of any need to put on social façades. In one group, the leader teaches meditation techniques, where one envisions entering a cave, escaping from the reality of the pain and suffering of the illness. Jack sees his “power animal” in the cave as being a penguin who tells him to “slide.” This utterance does not make sense at this point, but later, we see that it is the Tyler part of Jack saying to let all things that truly don’t matter slide away, including expectations and superficial material needs. For Tyler, this meditation is harmful, because escape from disease and dying is being in denial of the human condition.

Jack starts to see a woman at, of all things, the testicular support group, so he knows she, like himself, is a fake. Her name is Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter). She is brash and trashy, and her presence undermines him because she reminds him of his fakery, which doesn’t allow him to immerse himself in the genuine suffering going on. Jack is unable to sleep again. She is a fitting woman for Jack and Tyler because she is trying to reach, as Tyler says, “rock bottom.” Jack says “Marla’s philosophy of life is that she might die at any moment. The tragedy, she said, was that she didn’t.” She doesn’t own much, taking other people’s clothes out of laundromat dryers. She stays at a dump of a hotel. She walks out into streets as if she doesn’t care if she is hit by a car. But, they share a bond by going to these groups. As Jack says, “When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just …” and Marla finishes his thought by saying, “instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.” Even though Jack doesn’t want to share time with Marla, and considers her an intrusion, they find a connection, actual communication with these dying people. It is quite comic the way they decide to divide up the groups, the different kinds of cancers and blood parasites, as if they are setting up a car pool. 
With his sleep cycle again interrupted, Jack isn’t even sure when he is awake or sleeping as he travels from one city to another for his job. He has fantasies that his meaningless non-group existence will end in a mid-air plane crash. At this low point, significantly, Tyler pops up in the seat next to Jack on an airplane. Tyler sees through pretense, not allowing for the denial of the harshness of life. He points out that the placards showing what to do in case of a plane emergency show illustrations of placated, anesthetized people who are high on the oxygen from the masks. He doesn’t even allow Jack the complacency of his cleverness about “single-serving” friends, and questions his superficial conversation when asking Tyler’s occupation.  
When Jack loses his luggage at the airport, it’s as if he is ridding himself of life’s psychological baggage. It is significant that he returns to find that his condo has had a gas leak explosion, and now he has shed himself of all his material ties to his object-dependent existence. It is interesting that Jack describes his condo building as a huge filing cabinet. This Kafka metaphor shows how people are reduced to identical pieces of paper, filed away in the drawer-like rooms. Tyler gave him his phone number and Jack calls him. Tyler says he can live at his place, which serves as a good example for the purging of commercial living. It is a dilapidated dump, in an almost abandoned area of the city, reflecting Jack’s alienation. Jack has to go through object withdrawal, but realizes after a month there, he no longer misses watching television.
As they have some beers, Jack is going through the pangs of transition from being a consumer to shedding materialism, Tyler tells him there is no need to be perfect, or complete. One should evolve by letting “the chips fall where they may.” It is then, outside, that Tyler tells Jack to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler says that he’s never been in a fight, just like Jack, and that they shouldn’t die without having sustained some scars. This is how their fight clubs are born. It doesn’t matter who wins a fight, it is the experience of feeling pain that makes you feel real. It’s sort of like that line from the Goo Goo Dolls’ song, “Yeah you bleed just to know you’re alive.” Jack says that the volume of everyday meaningless existence is turned down – he can’t even hear the words of his boss – because the intensity of fighting drowns out the hum-drum existence elsewhere. Tyler sets up rules as more and more people show up for the fights, which seems to contradict the first and second rules, which say you do not talk about fight club. Tyler annunciates their manifesto. This young male generation has “no purpose or place. No Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War is a spiritual one. Our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television that we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” This disillusionment with the fake advertisement for their lives is what fuels their revolt. Tyler preaches that the things one owns begin to own the purchaser. This worshiping of things is just another form of enslavement. 
Tyler makes soap, which uses fat. He gets his fat from liposuction clinics. He and Jack break into these places to steal the disgusting, gooey substance. By making soap from “fat” women’s lard, he is making an anti-commercialism statement by selling women consumers their own affluent waste. It’s sort of his version of divine justice. (But, like other elements of the film, there is a bit of a misogynist feel here.) Conversely, the men who show up at fight club are like “cookie dough,” but eventually appear “carved out of wood.” They go from living off the fat of the land to being almost like a work of primitive art. Tyler shows his subversion of the American escapism into self-amusement by taking jobs at a local movie theater and inserting pornographic images into children’s films. As a waiter, he deposits bodily fluids into food at an upscale restaurant. He’s sort of a modern-day Jonathan Swift, reminding others of their baser natures so they can’t deny the lowliness of their true nature.

Tyler emphasizes that “It’s only after we lose everything that we’re free to do anything.” That liberation can only occur once we realize that we are dying moment by moment. Tyler won’t even let people take solace in the lives of their pets, because we see that one of his follower’s cars has a sticker which reads “Recycle Your Pets,” reminding us in a dark way that everything dies. The feeling that death is imminent frees one of any worry about consequences. Tyler has a gun and pulls a convenience store clerk named Raymond (Joon Kim) outside, forcing him to kneel down, and points the gun at him. He tells the man that he is going to die. He sees in his wallet that he went to school, and gets Raymond to admit he wanted to be a veterinarian. Tyler takes his driver’s license and says unless he starts working toward that goal, he knows where Raymond lives, and he will kill him. The gun is not actually loaded. After Raymond goes running off, Tyler says that tomorrow, Raymond’s breakfast will taste better than anything they have ever eaten, and he will be on his way to a heightened life, alert to the fact that death can strike him down at any time. Tyler does not see any purpose to turning to the promises of a future reward from a God who has abandoned them. He says we should not seek spiritual redemption or worry about damnation. Tyler at one point inflicts a chemical burn on Jack’s hand to make him realize life’s immediate painful presence. Tyler says that self-improvement is “masturbation.” He advocates “self-destruction,” by which he means breaking ourselves down to basic building blocks, stripping everything down to our essential selves. You don’t do “self-improvement” on a bad foundation. Another time, Tyler is driving a car and persuades Jack to let the wheel go, letting everything truly “slide.” Tyler asks the other men in the car what do they wish they could have done if they weren’t about to die. They know immediately: one wishes he could build a house; the other would have painted a self-portrait. If you don’t look for future fulfillment that may never come, then you must concentrate on the here and now. For Tyler, carpe diem is not enough – it should be carpe each moment.
This attitude, of course, can be destructive not only to the self and others who agree with it, but what happens when it is forced on others? That enforcement of the individual’s will onto the population at large occurs when Tyler turns the fight clubs into his personal war, which he calls “Project Mayhem.” He recruits an army of combatants that freely relinquish their freedom and individuality for what Tyler calls “the greater good.” But, as Jack says, their new motto is “In Tyler we trust,” the leader now becoming the replacement for God. They all submit to the chemical burn on the hand, and chant Bob’s name together in robotic unison after the police kill him following a mission. The real problem occurs when Tyler commands his men to set a building fire, destroy gentrified coffee shop, wreck cars, befoul public fountains, contaminate restaurant food, etc. After Bob’s death, Tyler’s attitude is that you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. In order for revolutions to succeed, however, the majority of the population has to be behind you; otherwise, it is just terrorism.

There are many clues along the way that indicate that Tyler is not a real person, but instead is a projection of that part of Jack’s personality that wants to revolt against the status quo. When he first sees Tyler on the plane, Jack notes they have the same type of briefcase. When he tells off his boss, Jack says, “Tyler’s words coming out of my mouth.” Another time he says, “Sometimes Tyler spoke for me.” When he extorts his boss out of money, office equipment, and most importantly, travel vouchers, he beats himself up, putting the blame on his superior. But, as he is hitting himself, he says that it reminded him of the first time he and Tyler fought. Tyler’s residence is on “Paper Street,” implying that his existence is akin to a phony business entity, established only “on paper.” There are many other hints. But, in a way, all of the men joining the fight clubs are living out different versions of themselves, being domesticated during the day, and battling as wild beasts in combat at night. Jack’s alter ego tries to prevent him from finding out about his imaginary friend. But, Marla is a problem, because she tries to make that human connection, reaching out to Jack during a “cry for help” suicide attempt. Jack thinks she becomes involved with Tyler, so he keeps dismissing her after sexual bouts that he thinks involve Tyler. His dissociative behavior is obvious to her, as she calls him “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass,” (a nice play on the fake name “Jack”). She, therefore, is a threat to “Project Mayhem” in Tyler’s eyes, and tells Jack not to ever mention him to Marla.
Jack wakes up one day to find Tyler missing. His men are building bombs. He finds Tyler’s air ticket stubs, and travels to the places listed on them. He says it is like déjà vu, because, as Tyler, he has already been to the destinations. He says that going after Tyler was like “following an invisible man,” which is an accurate description because Tyler doesn’t really exist separately. Jack seems to be on the verge of self-understanding when he says, “Is Tyler my bad dream? Or am I Tyler’s?”  He finally gets someone to break the rule that one does not talk about Project Mayhem. The man calls Jack Mr. Durden. Jack calls Marla who also calls him Tyler. (Why no one said anything to him about how he was talking to himself before, or why he didn’t hear anybody call him Tyler, seems impossible. But, maybe Jack just shifted between personalities before, and now he was ready for the truth). Tyler appears in Jack’s hotel room, and admits to all of it being a self-delusion, and that Jack blew up his own condo to free himself from his enslavement to things. He tells Jack that he wanted to change his life, and Tyler allowed him to be free in all the ways that Jack was not.
Jack comes to realize that bombs have been placed in buildings at night, when they are empty, all over the world, concentrating on places that house debt records. The idea is to destroy all evidence of indebtedness, lifting the crushing burden of consumerism (does this story sound familiar, Mr. Robot fans?) After Tyler beats Jack in a fight (on security cameras we see Jack just hitting himself), we return to the first scene, where Tyler has Jack bound. But, Jack knows he can be in control now, mentally transfers the gun into his own hand, and shoots himself in the mouth. This trauma translates to Tyler’s head being blown apart. Men from Tyler’s army bring Marla to Jack, who dismisses them. The two hold hands, as buildings are leveled.
Are Jack and Tyler now integrated into one personality? Will the socially conscious Jack be able to temper the self-obsessed drives of that part of his self that is Tyler? Even more importantly, when is the freedom of the individual a threat to society, and vice versa?

The next film is To Have and Have Not.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bigger Than Life

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

On the surface, this 1956 film is a story about the dangerous side effects of a medication that almost destroys a man’s family. But, just as he did in Rebel Without a Cause, director Nicholas Ray explores several themes about the nature of the individual and her/his interaction with society in America.

The title of the film is projected in large letters, appropriate for the title of the movie. The music sounds dire in the beginning, suggesting a serious story is about to be told, as the camera focuses in on large doors to a building. But, that dread-inducing score is mitigated as scores of suburban children exit through the doors. The children are leaving an elementary school where Ed Avery (James Mason) is a teacher. We immediately know there is something wrong with him because his hand is shaking. We find that he is working another part-time job as a taxi cab dispatcher after school because of financial strains. His boss notes that he is a good teacher and is not getting paid enough. He has not told his wife about the second job because he believes that she will think he is too good to take such a lowly position.
The movie introduces major themes quickly. One of them deals with socio-economic class distinctions. Ed, despite being well-educated, and performing the vital job of teacher, can’t support his family with the one position. He even has to borrow the bus fare to get to the cab company. He says that his wife might think the second job is beneath him, but as we will see he is probably projecting his own feelings onto the situation. Even though he is friendly with the other employees, his statement about status places the cab company’s workers below Ed’s rung in society. One of the cab drivers asks Ed not to assign him too close to the race track. There is again a reference to the need for more money through gambling, but it also indicates the need to escape one’s financial predicament in an activity that can be addictive.
 Ed’s home appears to mostly meet middle-class standards. But, in the kitchen, sticking out like a festering sore thumb, is the water heater. It looks rusty and old, and is not performing well. Its overt presence tells us that its straining to operate properly mirrors the financial stress Ed is undergoing. His family isn’t helping. As soon as he comes home his son, Richie (Christopher Olsen) wants to know if his father brought him something. He also wants Ed to take him fishing, which is a leisurely activity Ed can’t afford to indulge in. His wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) also asks if he has purchased something for their bridge game that evening. There are signs that Ed inwardly feels superior to his place in the world. He tells his son that he watches TV shows that are boring, with repetitive stories. He has a football on the mantle which reminds him of when he played the game in school. The deflated ball is symbolic of his fall from athletic heroic grace, and may be why, later, he resents the gym teacher, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau). There are numerous posters on the walls of the house that refer to European locales: London; France; Rome; Bologna. These could, partly, represent exotic locales that Ed believes he has been unjustly denied the opportunity to visit. But, there are also replicas of maps used by centuries-old European explorers who visited America, and secured its land for Old World royalty. Mason himself, with his sophisticated speech and manner, adds to the feeling that Ed longs for kingly treatment.

Ed is caught between his self-centered desire for importance, and his willingness to sacrifice for the family he loves. He also has feelings of resignation about their place in society. Lou echoes Ed’s earlier complaint about dullness, this time concerning one of the bridge players. Ed says that they, too, are dull. He says that nobody present said anything startling or imaginative. But, this observation in itself shows that Ed is judging the inferiority of his plight. At one point, Lou attempts to do some cleaning up, but Ed keeps turning lights off in the house. It is sort of creepy, creating a feeling of a sinister side to this supposedly proper suburban world.

Ed doubled over in discomfort at the cab company, and again experiences pain during the bridge game. He then collapses near the outside doorway, and his hand grabs onto the frame, pressing the buzzer button. The sound serves as a kind of warning signal to what is happening to Ed. He goes to the hospital. The doctors, figures of authority, seem almost cold, and inefficient, in their continued probing of Ed’s body, which includes biopsies, to determine his problem. They finally diagnose him with a rare disease involving inflammation of the arteries, which can prove fatal within a year. They offer hope in the form of what was then a new, experimental drug, cortisone. They do warn that it must be taken in proper doses because it can cause mental changes. While in the hospital, one of the cab workers visits Ed, and he must tell Lou the truth about his second job.
Before exploring more what happens to Ed, it may be revealing to discuss a couple of supporting characters and their relationship to America’s contradictory stances regarding individuality, especially in the 1950’s. Another teacher is Pat Wade (Kipp Hamilton). She is young and attractive, but not involved with a man. Although the U. S. extols the importance of individual sovereignty, it also finds those who do not conform to societal expectations to be suspect. Pat stands out because she is not involved romantically, and should be on her way to having a family. She has car problems, which underscores a shared economic problem of not being able to afford new things, but it also underscores that, being single, she needs help from others which she would not have to request if she had a husband to aid her. Ed tries to set her up with Wally, who is also single, to rectify both of their societal deficiencies. There is an implication that Wally’s lack of a marital partner may be because he is gay. At the school’s open house, he has a brief, mutually supportive exchange with a male teacher outside the entrance. Wally grips the other man’s arm, and they enter the building side-by-side with their arms wrapped around each other’s shoulders. So, despite the prevailing U. S. anti-communist sentiment at the time involving the subjugation of the individual in favor of the glorification of the state, the individual preferences of these two people make them, in a sense, societal outlaws.
What happens to Ed, however, illustrates that when self-importance becomes predominant, it poses a danger to the other members of a society. The cortisone not only eases his pain, it initially produces an energized high. Ed can’t wait to get back to work. After being dropped off at the school, he tells Lou that seeing his family in the hospital lobby made him feel “ten feet high.” We then have an upward shot of Ed, looking like a giant, his head appearing as if it rises above the roof of the building. He is on his way to feeling bigger than the lives around him. It is significant that we hear him teaching his class about a “bigger than life” person, Julius Caesar, and how the character of Cassius in Shakespeare’s play refers to Caesar as a “colossus.” Perhaps Ed is seeking a role model.
After taking over Pat Wade’s class (disrupting the normal work flow by being late because of those car troubles), he admires her dress when she arrives. He decides that Lou deserves some upscale clothes. He wants to take her out shopping, because he wants to celebrate his getting better, which is a “big” occasion, the word stressing the supersized attitude he is adopting. The emphasis on class identification is emphasized here. Lou seems frightened to even enter the pricey store, embarrassed about being in a place above her social station. Her fears seem to be justified, as a female salesperson ignores their requests for service. Ed, however, begins to threaten the employees with a scene unless they get first class service. He then conducts himself like a monarch ordering those around him to do as he wishes. He practically forces Lou to try on one dress after another until he approves of the ones he wants her to wear. But, at the same time, he adopts a superior stance by minimizing the talents of clothes designers. He is on the road to building up his opinion of himself by knocking down accomplishments of others.

Ed, now overcompensating for not being able to financially bestow gifts upon his family, follows up the clothes-buying binge by wanting to purchase a new bike for Richie. Even the boy says to his mother his father may be acting somewhat foolish. When they arrive home, Ed wants to throw his prize football around, in a way trying to recapture the glory of his youth. He and his son toss the ball around the house. Ed breaks some glass at one point with a toss, but he doesn’t even seem to care, showing how his needs are beginning to surmount any other concerns. He ate a roast for dinner, and orders Lou to make sandwiches, too, symbolically suggesting his ego needs feeding. When the cab company wants to know if he is coming back to work, the mere intrusion into his current state of mind that he worked at what he now openly scorns as a menial job infuriates him. With condescension, he says he won’t be back as a dispatcher, and will be getting something more in line with his profession. When Lou asks what that is, he yells at her for picking on him, while really angry because he has no fitting job lined up, and is stern with Richie for playing the TV loudly, reminding him of the “boring” nature of the programs. 

Lou tells him that she will get him some warm milk to calm him down. The movie serves up several instances involving milk. The drink works as a device to offset female and male sensibilities, and subvert accepted positive outcomes into negative ones. In the above instance, the milk is associated with the traditional link to female nurturing. It plays a similar role later in the film when Lou secretly gives it to Richie after Ed inflicts a marathon teaching lesson upon his son. In anticipation of Ed’s return home from the hospital, Wally tells Richie he has bought ingredients, including yogurt, to whip up what he calls “tiger’s milk,” to build Ed up so he can fight his illness. This seems to be some macho version of milk, an indication that previously submissive Ed needs to revive his manhood, a sort of harkening back to rugged individualism. However, milk’s nourishing image is tarnished at the bridge party, as Ed, at the refrigerator, gets a glass of milk and then doubles over in pain. At the hospital, while undergoing tests, Ed must swallow barium, which is used for gastrointestinal x-rays. It is white, simulating the appearance of milk. So, the nourishing drink has turned into a false version of itself, used to analyze problems with the digestive system, the very tract through which it is supposed to provide nourishment. Ed discovers by mathematical logic (sounding something like Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny) that there is a glass missing from the pitcher of milk, and accuses Lou, in his paranoia, of undermining his instruction of Richie. When the milkman makes a delivery, Ed berates him by saying that the rattling of the bottles has disturbed his concentration. He makes a snobbish accusation that the milkman, being an inferior worker, was envious of Ed’s intellect, and deliberately tried to distract the teacher. Ed is making himself “bigger” by running another person down. Through the use of the milk image, the story metaphorically shows how Ed’s mental imbalance has upended the stability of his world.
After quitting the cab dispatcher position, Ed wants to take a soothing bath. But that pesky hot water heater, reminding him of the financial limitations of his place in society, thwarts his desire to pamper himself. He says he will buy a heater that is “bigger” (that word again), but Lou painfully deflates his proposal by reminding him they can’t afford it. Lou says she will boil up some water in a tea kettle for the tub. While she is in the kitchen, Ed plays at making himself look like an upper-class gentleman, wrapping a towel around his neck, and covering it with his robe, as he views himself in the bathroom mirror. He takes another cortisone pill, as he has been upping the intake of the medicine. When Lou brings the hot water, he treats her like an employee, saying that another full kettle will do. She now revolts, like a rebellious put-upon worker, reminding him he is not in the hospital now, and it is not her role to wait on him. In the middle of storming out, she slams the medicine cabinet mirrored door. Ed looks at himself amid the glass shards. A distorted, monstrous visage of himself reflects back at him. The broken mirror seems to symbolize how his once integrated personality which comprised both individual and social elements, has been shattered. Ed looks scared as he wraps his arms around himself, as if feebly trying to hold his splintering self together. He tries to smooth things over with Lou by saying they were away from each other too long while he was in the hospital. He the gives her a prolonged kiss.
We witness Ed’s growing addiction to the drug (echoing the cab driver’s preoccupation with gambling as an attempt to escape his predicament). His son finds him downstairs at night, crying. He tells Lou that he is depressed for not achieving what he deserves, which shows his feeling deprived of his proper station in life. He says he is just experiencing a drug “letdown.” He is being accurate, medically, because he is in withdrawal from his increased dosage. But, he also feels “let down” by not reaching the personal heights to which his ego aspires. He lies to his doctor, saying he spilled his pills down the sink, so he can acquire an additional supply of the cortisone. At one point, he walks into a pharmacy where he is not known, pretends to be a doctor, uses a fake name, and writes a prescription for himself.

At the school open house, we find Ed headed toward full-blown grandiosity. He stands on an elevated platform in the classroom, looking down on others from his “bigger” stance, pontificating to the parents in attendance. He being a teacher is an appropriate position for someone spouting off what he considers is his superior knowledge. He now has no patience with the slow maturation process of children, who enjoy childhood before growing into their roles as adults. He sees youths as inferior human beings, saying that the children’s drawings are a waste of paper. He says, “Childhood is a congenital disease and the purpose of education is to cure it.” He says that fostering self-expression and emotional security is “hogwash,’ and will only create arrested development, letting the children stay as “morons,” and “moral midgets.” That last size phrase again emphasizes how Ed sees himself as rising above all others. Some of the parents are outraged by his denunciations, but he has supporters, one in particular, who likes Ed’s call for “self-discipline,” and “a sense of duty,” for children to excel. In Ed, we have an exaggerated example of that contradictory nature mentioned earlier of glorifying the individual while also wishing to subjugate her/him. Ed is in extreme self-righteousness mode now, uncensored by any external social restraints. But, from that self-importance flows intolerance for any other position, which, by definition, has to be wrong, and thus inferior to that of the superior viewpoint. Also, by forcing agreement to the megalomaniac perspective, the superior beliefs gain confirming validity through numbers. Thus, the exalted individual knows what is right for everyone else, and for their own good wants all others to conform to the correct belief system.
 Wally tells Lou that Ed is acting like a “big shot,” and even looks taller in the way he carries himself, demonstrating an outward manifestation of his personality metamorphosis. Economics again interferes, even if it means helping Ed, as Lou tells Wally not to say anything to Ed’s boss about her husband’s behavior, for fear that Ed might lose his job. Ed comes across the two talking. Because he believes his superiority is threatened by envious inferiors, Ed becomes paranoid, thinking there are conspiracies against him. He calls Wally “Mr. Muscle Beach,” probably subconsciously fearing he falls short in the physical department, and believes Wally may be trying to have Lou for himself. Later, when Lou tells Ed about how the cortisone is warping him, Ed accuses she and Wally wanting him to stop taking the medication so he will die, so they can be together.

Ed announces he wants to fulfill his mission in life, which is to write up and promulgate his revolutionary solutions to educational problems in a series of articles. He again treats Lou as an employee, expecting her to type up his tome. But, then says that she is just an impediment to his work, and he must be free of “petty domesticity.” He says he can now jettison Lou, dismissing her by bemoaning the fact that he did not meet someone who was his intellectual equal. He eventually tells her that in his mind, he is divorced from her. He begins to pack his things. He tells her that she is unable to differentiate between the important and the trivial. But, in his enhanced view of himself, everything else from that towering perspective is trivial, including people. He even says that the human need for sleep is a waste of time, and dismisses doctors for doling out sleeping pills. He says that the word for “doctor” and “teacher” used to be the same, his ego not allowing him to be limited to one profession. He will not concede any high ground to the medical profession, as he now says that physicians only extend life, but don’t know how to make the best of it. Lou, realizing he is mentally disturbed, plays along. 

Ray again uses camera angles and lighting to reflect Ed’s view of himself. We see him at the top of the steps leading to the second floor of the house, looking down at Lou and Richie, who has returned home. But, Ed lessens his superior stance, walking down the steps, and changes his mind about leaving. He says that his first obligation is to guide his son so Richie will reach his full potential. What follows are the long personal teaching instructions mentioned earlier. Ed projects a looming, monstrous shadow on the wall of his study as he literally and figuratively towers over Richie. The shadow changes to a profile of a man with a pompadour hair style, reminiscent of Elvis Presley. The effect shows that Ed considers himself to deserve the same praise as a rock star. He also continues football practice with Richie, but this time it turns into a rigorous drill. Richie can’t match his father’s perfectionistic requirements, and begins to cry while stretched out on the ground, seeing his failure in his father’s judgmental eyes as Ed looks down on him, again standing in the elevated position. There is also a satirical thrust here, as there was about the need to be macho by drinking “tiger milk,” because Ed tells his son that he has to be a real man, male athleticism being equated with success.
We then see the family in church, as the clergyman gives his sermon and asks the congregation to bow their heads in prayer. On Ed’s face is a look of scorn as he refuses to lower his head. Back at home, he says that the preacher is not worthy to tell others about morality. In order for him to be above everyone else, Ed wants to even topple those holding religious authority, calling them “sanctimonious stuffed shirts.” So, he says he must now take on Richie’s religious education as part of his burden, since the rest of the world is not carrying its weight. Richie, showing the mature responsibility that Ed stated at the open house children do not possess, finds Ed’s hidden stash of cortisone. He takes the telephone, locks himself in the bathroom, and starts to call the doctor in order to help his father. Lou in the meantime calls Wally. Ed cuts the phone cord (and symbolically his connection to his son), and calls him a thief. He reads from the bible about the sacrifice of Isaac. Lou tries to dissuade Ed from going down this path by saying God saved Isaac after Abraham passed his test. In an ultimate expression of superiority, Ed says, “God was wrong.” He says that he will be saving the boy from being a criminal by sacrificing him. He knows that the bible says killing is forbidden, so he and Lou must also die. He locks Lou in a closet and is ready to use one blade of the scissors to kill Richie. Wally bursts in and the two men struggle. Significantly, Ed falls from the stairs, implying that Wally knocked him off of his inflated place of importance, and they wreak havoc in the house during their struggle, showing how Ed’s world is now in shambles, as circus music plays on the television, its carnival sounds commenting on the bizarre chaos unfolding.

They eventually get Ed back in the hospital. Lou and Richie rest in the waiting lounge. The film then brings us back to the default class distinctions shown at the beginning of the movie as Ed is no longer a factor. An African American janitor cleans the floor, showing the low-level job to which society has relegated him. Richie comments that some people have to work very late. When a nurse goes by and Lou asks for information, she walks right by, ignoring her, just as did the salesperson in the dress shop. The story now shows the other extreme where sometimes there is no respect for the individuals that make up society.

Lou wants to show Ed that his family is there to support him after he wakes up after being sedated. When a doctor asks if she has faith that he can be okay once the proper level of medication is taken, she says she has faith in her husband, but does not mention the medical profession.
 When Ed does wake up, he asks that they turn out the “sun,” referring to the bright light in the room. Is he still feeling grandiose, believing that the sun can be blotted out? He tells the doctor that he is a poor substitute for Lincoln. Again, is he delusional, thinking he should be in the presence of the great president? But, then he realizes that Abraham is Lincoln’s first name, and he remembers about the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in the bible. He says he was afraid he tried to hurt Richie, and now says he remembers everything. The doctor comments that he is no longer psychotic because Ed has left behind his violent tendencies.
The ending on the surface appears uplifting, as the family gathers together. But there is a staged feel to their embracing each other with exaggerated smiles on their faces. Will Ed be able to take the correct doses of his medicine without reviving his addiction? Will he again become delusional? Will the medicine even actually save him from the disease? There is no fair and just solution presented that reconciles the desires resulting from the individual’s wants and the sometimes punishing restraints of society trying to reign in those wants. Ray, as an artist, does not provide answers, but instead raises the questions.

After a one week break the next film will be Fight Club.

Monday, May 1, 2017

American Beauty

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The tag line for this 1999 Oscar-winning film was “Look closer.” We can see it written on the work cubicle of the main character, Lester Burnham. The movie invites the audience to delve under the appearances of American suburban life to see what reality lies beneath the lives of its characters.

The title of the motion picture suggests one of its themes. It is the name of a type of rose. It is lovely on the surface, but its roots have a tendency to decay. Thus, the plant serves as a symbol that there may be too much emphasis on the surface appeal of upper middle class existence in the United States, where its people restrict themselves to an incomplete perspective. This lack of vision can lead to a zombie-like state, with no genuine life coursing through it. Because the requirement to achieve superficial acceptability is rigidly enforced, the effect on those who don’t conform can be devastating. Lester, (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance), narrating from beyond the grave, (similar to William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard, which director Sam Mendes said was an influential here), says that he will be dead within the year. But, he adds, like a creature from The Walking Dead, he’s “already dead.”
Indeed, Lester’s daily “high point” is masturbating in the shower after awakening, fantasizing being better than the life he is living, because at least it employs the use of imagination. He works in advertising, where, as in Mad Men, the point of the job is to make a product appear attractive, whether or not, under scrutiny, it lives up to its presented image. Mendes (who won the Oscar for his movie directorial debut) said he used vertical lines of data appearing in the computer screen Lester looks at in order to suggest the bars of a prison. Reflections are important in this movie, and, thus, Lester sees himself in a metaphorical jail, locked into a passionless routine. But, he is failing at maintaining this façade, and is about to lose his job. The agency hired a layoff hit man, Brad (Barry Del Sherman), who offers up a pretense of reputable fairness by asking workers to write up statements of their value to the company. But, if we “look closer,” this assignment actually is a way of pushing the blame of being fired onto the employee, supposedly being let go because of his inability to show his worth, when in fact, his fate is already sealed. (Lester sarcastically satirizes the insincerity of the advertising business when Brad asks him if he has a minute, and Lester, with exaggerated smile and enthusiasm, says, “For you Brad, I’ve got five!”).
Alan Ball, who received the Oscar for this screenplay, said he wanted the story to emphasize that there is more life existing beneath our preconceived notions, that we need to go beyond what we see on a first look at things. So, the film presents a variety of perspectives from the characters’ points of view. The first scene of the film, actually a flash-forward, is of Wes Bentley’s Ricky Fitts (who pretends to “fit” into the role his father wants him to play) shooting a video of Lester’s teenage daughter, Jane (possibly a reference to her initial feeling about herself being a “plain Jane”). So, we, the audience, are watching the director with his cinematographer, manipulating our perspective of what we see, as we watch a character also focusing on what he wants to be in his video. Mendes is thus commenting on the “look closer” theme, and suggesting that this search for depth is what the nature of film can be about. In this scene, Jane says her dad is so lame for being obsessed with her female friend, that someone should “put him out of his misery.” Ricky asks her if she wants him to kill Lester, and Jane says, “Yeah. Would you?” Along with Lester’s comment about being dead within the year, this opening adds an element of mystery, which, by its very definition, invites further investigating. It suggests a possible suspect in Lester’s future death, but, it is an incomplete scene, a red herring, again stressing how initial appearances can be deceiving without more inquiry.

Lester’s beginning description of himself is the one he derives from his wife and daughter, who feel he is a loser, someone who can’t even wave his briefcase around without it spilling its contents all over his driveway. He confesses that he knows he lost something along the way to adulthood, and he turned into someone who was “sedated,” akin to his expressed feelings of being dead-like. But the imminent loss of his job seems to wake him up, and he starts to “look closer” at his world and those who inhabit it. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), has become “joyless,” whereas, she once was a rule-breaker, going up on the roof and flashing helicopters in her younger days. She has sold her soul to the god of capitalistic success. She says, “My company sells an image. It's part of my job to live that image.” That image is one of material achievement, which is measured by the accumulation of things, and adhering to a code of what constitutes attractive and fashionable acceptable appearances. As Lester points out when we first see Carolyn, her gloves match her clogs, so she is properly packaged, even while getting dirty doing gardening. She is a realtor, and repeats an economic, not spiritual, mantra, “I will sell this house today,” before conducting an open house. (She complains that the neighbors, who used to live nearby, in the house bought by Ricky’s parents, did not list with her. They are significantly called “the Lomans” – a Death of a Salesman reference suggesting commercial tragedy). When she fails to close on the sale, she cries, demonstrating the genuine emotion of a fully realized person. But, the businesswoman in her can’t allow that feeling, so she tries to smack herself out of the tearful display, calling herself weak. She listens to recordings in her car on how to be successful. She at first envies the real estate “king,” Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). But, as her marriage to Lester is failing, she does what businesses in America do. When you want to cut out competition, you merge. She literally gets in bed with him. Buddy’s nickname of “The King” shows how in America, royalty does not derive from noble lineage, but restrictively from the bottom line.
Carolyn cannot tolerate suburban failure in her husband or her daughter, because that would tarnish that “image” of leading a successful life. Physical appearance is, therefore, to her, a sign of “making it.” The pressure to have that fashion model look has taken its toll on her daughter, Jane, who we see looking at an ad for breast augmentation. Carolyn’s disappointment concerning her daughter is obvious in their morning exchange before dropping Jane off at school. Carolyn says, “Are you trying to look unattractive?” Jane’s only weapon is sarcasm, as she responds, “Yes.” Carolyn’s condemning remark, “Well congratulations. You’ve succeeded admirably,” communicates to her daughter that Jane is only good at failure. Jane takes refuge from such harsh criticism in the teenager’s time-honored expression of how lame and embarrassing parents are. Lester, in his re-examining of reality, says that his daughter is a typical teenager, “Angry. Insecure. Confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her.” That Jane finds herself caught in the middle of her parents’ crumbling marriage is shown at dinner, where the growing distance between Lester and Carolyn is pictured by how they sit at the ends of a large table, and Jane eats between them. Lester, feeling sorry about how he and his daughter are no longer “pals,” awkwardly tries to reconnect with Jane by asking how her day at school went. She says it was “okay.” He says, “Just okay?” wanting more, but sounding like a phony cheerleader. Her bitter response is, “No, Dad, it was spectacular,” and criticizes him because he can’t all of a sudden act like he takes an interest in her after not even talking to her, probably due to his suburban somnambulistic state.

Lester starts his journey with alienation, followed by what on the surface is self-indulgence. He can’t stand being at a phony realtor get-together with Carolyn, which he emphasizes with an overly passionate public kiss with his wife, which is in stark contrast to the coldness in their marriage. She tells him “don’t be weird,” which is the major crime one can commit in a society driven by conformity to a code of appropriate behavior. He goes outside and with Ricky, who is working at the event. Ricky is a rebel in disguise. He pretends to take on legitimate catering jobs as a cover while he deals marijuana. He can fool his father, because as he tells Lester, “Never underestimate the power of denial,” indicating that people want to believe that the comfort of their static lives is secure. So, he uses the “normal” world to mask his actual freedom from that normality. In this story, he indulges in rule-breaking through the use of a mind-altering substance, which, symbolically, can mean promulgating consciousness-raising. To emphasize the false exterior of the life he pretends to lead, he keeps his weed in a fake drawer, showing how his true life lies hidden beneath a layer of respectability. Lester and he smoke weed together, and Lester becomes a client. But, it is more than that. He tells Ricky that when he was the young man’s age, he worked in a burger joint all summer to buy a music tape deck. He says that it was “great. All I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me.” So, Lester seeks a rebirth, by acting like a child again, where all of life’s possibilities are in the future. Thus, it is fitting that his mentor in this process should be a youth in the form of Ricky. The young man becomes his “hero” when he just quits the job on the spot after the hall owner complains about Ricky taking a break. Lester then quits his job, and gets a year’s salary with benefits after threatening to expose the boss’ use of corporate funds on prostitutes, and saying he will blame Brad for sexually harassing him. Just as he did when he was Ricky’s age, he gets a job in a fast-food burger restaurant, saying he wants a job with as little responsibility as possible, which is what a young boy enjoys. He smokes dope in his car while singing “American woman, stay away from me,” obviously referring to Carolyn, and what she, and his country, have become. He sits around the house with his bare feet up, playing with a remote-controlled toy truck. He tells an outraged Carolyn that he bought a “1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I've always wanted and now I have it. I rule!” Yes, he has bought something materialistic, but it is not practical. It is symbolic of youthful exuberance. His “rule” contrasts with that of “The King’s” purely monetary accumulation of wealth. When he starts to remind Carolyn of her once youthful joy, and she passionately responds to his kisses, she then stops him in his tracks when the bottle of beer he is holding might spill on her expensive Italian silk couch. The Firebird for him represents the excitement of youth, while her things connotate status. He tells her “This isn’t life, it’s just stuff. And it becomes more important to you than living.”

Lester’s return to adolescence causes him to fixate on Jane’s teenage friend. Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), like a boy reaching puberty. Her first name implies something angelic; however, her last name sounds similar to the character of Lolita Haze, the title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. (As is noted on the IMDB site, “Lester Burnham” is an anagram for “Humbert learns,” the name of the older character in Lolita who is fixated on the young girl. Thus, Lester’s name implies the arc of his journey). So, Angela is a person of contradictions. On the one hand, she represents purity, because of her age, but she talks explicitly about her sexual adventures, which implies a loss of innocence. Since Lester is forty-two years old, there is an obvious “ick” factor here, which is not lost on Jane, who is grossed out by her father’s obvious infatuation. But for Lester, it is a sort of rediscovering of his sexual energy. Mendes cinematically provides us Lester’s perspective as he zeroes in on Angela. It is at a basketball game, where Jane and her friend perform as cheerleaders. Everyone disappears in Lester’s mind, and he imagines Angela dancing seductively for him in a private performance. She slowly opens her blouse, but what flies out are numerous rose blossoms. They can represent the combination of life’s beauty and its eventual decay symbolized by the American Rose. In fact, Lester has several fantasies involving Angela. In one he kisses her, and a rose then comes out of his mouth. In another, she is in a bathtub full of roses, saying how she needs him to bathe her because she is very “dirty.” He envisions her naked, with roses strategically placed over her breasts and pubic area. However, there are white backgrounds offsetting the color red in the movie, as in the bathtub fantasy. (We also see it with a red door against a white frame; blood on a white shirt; a red car in front of a white garage door – all of which are mentioned on IMDB). The white can signify youthful innocence becoming compromised by encounters with sex and violence as one grows up. Lester’s fantasies may be uncomfortable for some to watch, but he is at least using his imagination, which makes him more alive than what he was before his reawakening.
Jane and Angela are opposites in the film. Jane wants to fit in, doesn’t, and feels shame when she does not believe she meets the standards, especially those of “beauty,” imposed upon her. Thus, she wants to use her babysitting money for breast augmentation. In a way, she is like her mom, because she thinks of her father as a freak when he acts inappropriately for his age, and later tells Ricky that her father should be a “role model”. And, it is difficult to blame her, because that’s the job a mature parent usually plays. Angela, however, represents what America worships, a blonde beauty. She has already worked as a model, and seeks a future in that field. Boys, and men, adore her. In this story, she is, apparently, already the grown-up, talking about how she seduced a famous photographer to get ahead, and proud of her purported promiscuity, waving it like a flag of savvy sophistication. But, she doesn’t want to just fit in, she wants to excel, but within the boundaries of what society values. She admits that the worst thing in the world to her is being “ordinary.” (Which is what Lester calls himself. But, what makes him extraordinary is that he says he jettisons what suburbia prizes, so he “has nothing to lose.” That allows him the freedom to do and say what he wants. Mendes also cited Ordinary People as another influence, a film about seemingly regular upper-middle class people with unusual problems.)
Since this movie urges us to “look closer,” we should better examine Ricky Fitts, who is the filmmaker’s surrogate, using his camera to reveal more deeply about what he sees, including Jane and Angela. Angela tells Jane that he was in their school, but left for a few years and put in a mental hospital before returning now as a student. Both girls consider him weird, the same branding Carolyn gives to Lester’s unconventional activity, weirdness also being a condition attributed to artists, as they reflect in their creations the insights they observe. Ricky focuses his camcorder, not on the traditionally photogenic Angela, but instead on Jane. Angela considers him a freak for ignoring her, thus not accepting the given criteria of beauty. He sees a deeper beauty in Jane, and a kindred spirit. She at first finds his oddness off-putting, but she begins to find self-importance through his attention. We observe her seeing herself in a different light, the way Ricky sees her, when he records her (as does Mendes) through her bedroom window, ignoring the exhibitionistic writhing of Angela. Just as Lester saw himself as in a jail, reflected in his computer monitor, so now Jane looks in a hand mirror, finally able to admire herself. Ricky also records a dead bird, and says he can see “beauty” in it, because “it’s like God looking right at you.” As Jane and Ricky walk together, they see a funeral procession drive by, and Jane says she never experienced seeing death, a foreboding of what will happen to her father. Ricky shows Angela what he feels is the most beautiful thing he ever recorded – a bag blowing in the wind. The way it floats and moves is like nature creating a ballet, and inviting him to join in the cosmic dance. He had an epiphany the day of that recording, because he “realized there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.” He says despite the limitations of what his recordings reveal, they help him “remember” that “there’s so much beauty in the world.” Ricky has achieved a sensibility which allows him to appreciate the totality of life.

Ricky’s perspective on life is diametrically the opposite of his father’s. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), a colonel in the U. S. Marine Corps, definitely wants to live up to his name, and overcompensates to do so. He looks at the newspaper and sees his country “going to hell,” probably because not all of it is marching to the sound of the same drummer. His career as a military man shows how much he wants himself and his family to follow society’s orders, and deviation from that norm warrants punishment. His wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) is so intimidated by any deviation from his rigid order, that she cringes in guilt when someone calls at the door, as if it is her fault. She appears like a Stepford Wife. She serves Ricky bacon, even though he doesn’t eat it, because that is the food she has been told to cook. She apologizes for the way the house looks, when it is completely clean and devoid of clutter. Frank tells his son that the boy needs structure and discipline. He comes to collect urine to make sure he hasn’t been using drugs (a test Ricky dodges by securing someone else’s samples, again showing how he lives a life that underscores how one can’t tell a book by its cover). 
After Ricky breaks his father’s rule about staying out of his stuff by showing Jane a Nazi dinner plate, Frank beats his son. The father relents when Ricky says that he was showing the plate to his “girlfriend.” Frank seems relieved that his son is showing heterosexual interest, because one thing he professes to hate are homosexuals. He is repulsed by the gay neighbors who welcome him to the neighborhood. Mendes again uses the mirror motif, as Frank sees the reflection of the gay men jogging in the polish of his car as they approach. What Frank is seeing is his own self-hating, closeted homosexuality coming toward him, scaring him because he does not want to “look closer” at himself. He is not capable of changing his perspective, so when he looks at a video which Ricky just happened to record of a naked Lester working out, he assumes that his son is really gay. This misconception is confirmed in his mind when he sees Lester running with the gay neighbors, when all Lester is doing is trying to do is get into shape. When Frank spies his son through the window of Lester’s garage, he thinks he sees Ricky performing oral sex on Lester, when all the boy is doing is leaning over to roll a joint.

Let’s get back to Lester working out. He overhears Angela purposely shocking Jane by saying that he would have sex with her dad if he just toned up a bit. Lester pulls out his weights, buried in the garage and starts pumping iron. We again have Mendes using that mirror image, as Lester looks at himself in the garage window as he hardens his muscles, perceiving himself as a rejuvenated object of masculinity. In the meantime, Carolyn feels broken, because Buddy broke off their affair after Lester saw them necking at the drive-through window at the burger joint. For Buddy, business always comes first, and he feels it will suffer if there is more evidence of infidelity, both of them still being married. However, Buddy introduced Carolyn to the American way of relieving tension, shooting a gun, obviously here associated with sexual release, and accentuating how sex and violence are joined together in American culture. She now carries a gun around with her. After we catch up to that first scene of the movie, we realize Jane and Ricky were just kidding about killing Lester. Will it be Carolyn who does him in?

After Frank confronts Ricky over what he thought he saw going on with Lester, Ricky realizes he can liberate himself from his father. He lies by saying he performed gay sex acts for money. His father again hits him, and Ricky knows his father will finally not search for him if he leaves. The rain is pouring outside, and Frank visits Lester in his garage. Lester admits that his wife is not around and is probably having sex with someone else. He says he doesn’t care about that, since his marriage is just for appearances sake, which Frank probably equates with his own marital situation. Frank is shivering form getting soaked, and Lester says he should get out of the clothes. Frank, misunderstanding Lester’s situation with Carolyn and Ricky, allows his homosexual feelings to emerge, and kisses Lester, who tells him that he has the wrong idea. After exposing himself this way, and having been rejected, Frank leaves in shame.
Ricky goes to ask Jane to run away with him, telling her he has enough money saved. She now realizes she can contribute her savings since she no longer sees the need to have cosmetic surgery to prove her worth. Angela is with her this night and is outraged, calling Ricky a freak. Jane now waves the nonconformist flag, telling Angela, “Then so am I. And we’ll always be freaks and we’ll never be like other people and you’ll never be a freak because you’re just too … perfect!” So, in their differentness, Jane and Ricky are special. Angela says at least she’s not “ugly.” But, Ricky forces a new perspective onto Angela. He tells her, “Yes you are. And you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.” He also tells her that Jane is not her friend, “She’s just someone you use to feel better about yourself.”

To think that someone can consider her “ordinary” feels like an assault on the image Angela has tried to project about herself. She runs out of the bedroom, crying. She runs into Lester, and seeks reassurance of her worth from him. She asks him if she is ordinary, and he tells her what she wants to hear: that she couldn’t be ordinary if she tried. They kiss, and Lester starts to undress Angela. She now appears vulnerable, telling him this is her first time. Her sexual bravado was just an illusion, a way of making her look more mature, and worldly successful. She now looks to Lester, and us, like what she is underneath the false surface, an insecure teenage girl. Lester now segues from sexual exploiter to paternal protector. He covers her up, and gives her a reassuring hug after she says she feels stupid for her actions. They talk about Jane, and Angela tells Lester that his daughter is in love, to which he says, “good for her.” Lester seems to have reached a level of peace with the world now, coming back to his proper age as an adult, but with more appreciation for life. He tells Angela that he feels “great,” as she goes off to use the bathroom. And, ironically, or appropriately, depending on your point of view, at this moment of tranquility, a gun appears at the back of Lester’s head, and he is shot in the head. We see the different characters react to the shot from their respective perspectives, but somehow, now all united in this one act, joined together for the first time. It is Frank who did the shooting, probably out of anger for being rejected, and maybe because the self-loathing of his sexuality erupted into violence to assure that his repressed identity will not be exposed.

Ricky looks at the dead Lester as he did the expired bird. Lester seems to have a smile on his face, and Ricky smiles, too, perceiving the beauty that Lester experienced before his demise. Lester reveals that just before he died, he was able to share Ricky’s view on life, telling us that he saw stars, and maple trees, and his grandmother’s hands, and Carolyn, having fun on a rollercoaster, enjoying life’s bumpy ride before she changed. He says, “there is so much beauty in the world … and I can’t feel nothing but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”

Perhaps the movie is simply trying to tell us that, if we look close enough, we can find beauty not only in a plant’s flowers, but also in its hidden roots.

The next film is Bigger Than Life.