American Beauty:
I was a teenage psychopomp

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

I've only cried twice at movies. The first time was at the end of Longtime Companion, a movie about AIDS. I saw it during a week when several friends lay dying. Out of the blue, I was struck by such a bolt of despair and sadness that I began bawling uncontrollably.

The second time was last week when I saw American Beauty. My sudden paroxysm of grief was even less anticipated at this movie, which basically begins as a black comedy. But it's a black comedy that gathers gravitas as it proceeds, wrapping itself around the painful wound that occurs when the soul is given over to consumerism, violence and compulsion - those evils the entire world now associates with America. (And this film was directed by a Brit, Sam Mendes. Only an outsider could see us so clearly.)

American Beauty situates the soul's ruination in suburbia - a geographical metaphor at least as old as The Graduate (and there are echoes of that film's intergenerational sexual transgressions in this film). Former Mariettan Alan Ball's script is deliciously bitter. For example, the film's most "normal" characters are a gay couple - a pair of zombie nice guys, Jim and Jim, who have lost so much individuality in their attempt to occupy the American mainstream that they have the same bland name and wardrobe.

Contrarily, it is the Great Sin of Our Time, lust for a youth a la Lolita, that awakens the film's main character, Lester (played by Kevin Spacey), from his own living death inside the American Dream. But the same sin provides him the opportunity to redeem himself…before meeting a violent death when he likewise unintentionally reawakens eros in someone who can't tolerate it.

This twisted plot of twisted people is an excellent demonstration of the concepts of Archetypal Psychology that I have been trying to present in this column for years. In the film's desolate landscape, the very wounds and pathologies are the best evidence of the "beauty" lurking just beneath consciousness. The wound, the pathology, elicits healing.

It has been amusing to me to read reviews of the film. Most reviewers catch that the film is a piece of genius but they can't quite distance from their predictable outrage that Lester, 42, is initiated into eventual self-redemption by his taboo lust. In a nasty, hilarious caricature, he regresses to the status of a teen-ager, pumping sets naked and stoned in the garage while he fantasizes screwing the cheerleader. He gets a job at a fast food joint, drives a Firebird and attacks his hopelessly superficial wife with a remote-control toy truck.

As unpleasant as this picture is, something in us roots for him and I say it's our own souls. The soul knows that the route to the truth is always convoluted and messy, unpleasant, and full of embarrassing detours into the id. The soul abhors psychobabble and political correctness - roadblocks that value politeness and morality tales over self-revelation. The soul knows when it is on track and forgives the messiness getting there, no matter how much Dr. Laura says we should act more responsibly. Eerily, the film closes with Lester validating our sense that we are seeing a truth we know but can't quite yet seize for ourselves: We may not understand now what matters, but one day we will share his understanding, he says.

The film continually repeats this theme of the soul's telos, its intention and direction revealed not in spite of but actually through the pain and pathology of life. Thus the sanest character in the film - the one whose words Lester actually borrows in his closing line - is a "troubled" teenager living next door. The son of a violent military father and catatonic mother, Ricky sells primo dope and videotapes his experiences with an obsession beyond the early Warhol's.

Several reviewers have scoffed at the idea that Ricky (played by Wes Bentley) could represent the film's sanest character, but he is a genuine psychopomp, a guide of souls. He has been to the "underworld" - a mental institution for several years because he violated his rigid father's rules. His extravagantly pure dope is a Dionysian substance. It shatters tragedy into comedy. His videos are not voyeuristic obsessions but penetrations to his subjects' depths. Thus, in one of the film's most striking moments, he shows Lester's daughter a video of a bag "dancing" in the wind and says that it taught him "there is an entire life behind things." This "life," he says, is beauty. Like a true psychopomp, he sees the beauty behind everything - including death and violence.

I doubt that Ball has read a word of Archetypal Psychology but the bag blowing in the wind is a remarkable reiteration of the idea that images often convey meaning through nothing more complex than their movement. Ricky (and everyone who sees this film) is spellbound by this image. We watch its movements without any sense of a concrete meaning. We are inclined to think it's just the random interaction of wind and bag. But what if there is, as the phenomenologists argue, life behind the "inanimate" other? What if the world seeks to reveal its beauty in every aspect of our experience? Our eye follows the bag, the image. The image leads us, not the contrary.

There is so much more I'd like to say about the profound use of images in this film, but it seems sufficent to suggest you go see it…and talk about it with someone.

From a follow-up column

Archetypal Advice
"Must I lust after young chicks?"

I loved your comments on American Beauty. I agree that it's ridiculous the way some reviewers and psychologists have dismissed Lester (Kevin Spacey's character) because of his attraction to a chick his daughter's age. But surely there are alternatives to regressing to adolescence and chasing "Lolitas" when life becomes stagnant! My wife won't approve. -- Bob of Dunwoody

I've rarely received as much e-mail as I did following the publication of my column on this film. Most of it was positive, but I did receive a few predictable criticisms that I was advocating inappropriate sexual relationships.

Of course, there are "alternatives" to regression and taboo lust in the face of a stagnant life. I think the point is that we often don't have a choice about the way we respond to life circumstances. One of the fantasies of mainstream psychology is that our adult experience is mainly conditioned by our childhoods and that, once we become conscious of that conditioning, we have complete control over how we respond to life. (This of course is the argument for therapy.) Psychological types like Dr. Laura argue even further that we have responsibility simply to live according to certain values, regardless of our childhoods and our id drives.

The reality for most people is quite different. In American Beauty, Lester is desperately treading water in the stagnant American Dream when his erotic imagination is literally overtaken by the image of beauty in the form of a high school cheerleader. This is not a failure of ethics or morality. It is instead an incursion by an archetype - the archetype of beauty, imaged most commonly in classic mythology as the goddess Aphrodite. But youthful beauty was particularly imaged by the Greeks as the tormented goddess Psyche, who also represented soul (and obviously lends her name to "psychology"). So one way of viewing Lester's obsession with the teenaged girl is as a search for the beauty of his own soul life.

An archetype is a predisposition of human behavior. Other examples are the spiritual quest; the search for wisdom in aging; the reckless exploration of youth; the needs for love, friendship, mothering. These tend to get expressed in images that are culturally inflected. In youth-obsessed America, the cheerleader - that fantasized creature of virginity and eros who fuels the fantasies of teenaged boys - is certainly one expression, if comically twisted, of beauty as psyche.

Now, these archetypes tend to seize us and compel us to change. Certain circumstances in life - like the boredom and frustration that precipitate midlife crisis - invite the archetype into our lives. This happens regardless of how responsible and psychologically stable we have been in the past. In fact, the more we resist responding authentically to our circumstances, the more dramatically we are likely to be overtaken.

It's also important to understand that, just as the archetypes themselves have a culturally inflected expression, we are told by the culture how we are supposed to respond to them. For example, "father" is an archetype and, in our (patriarchal) culture, we tend to believe obedience to father, authority, is more important than anything. So, if you are possessed by, say, the archetype of the mother, and are drawn to goddess worship, part of your experience will be to be told you are wrong, silly, absurd.

Likewise, the culture's authoritatians - like some critics and psychologists - immediately respond to Lester's engagement with a young woman, even as fantasy, with outrage. In fact, he refuses to consummate his fantasy and redeems himself. This is, typically, the way an archetype functions: It seizes us and challenges us in the most outlandish way. If, like Lester, we stay present to our conflict - rather than running to Dr. Laura for self-castigation or acting it out immediately - something quite wonderful and completely contrary to our expectation can arise.

So, Bob, I'm sorry to say your question is beside the point. Que sera, sera.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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