Sweet Release: The Redemption of Carolyn Burnham
The final glimpse given to the audience of the character Carolyn Burnham in Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty, is a point-of-view shot taken from her husband’s perspective on a fast spinning carnival ride. Carolyn is thrilled and bursting with passionate joy; perfectly in focus while the world around the two lovers appears as a dark blur full of unknown terrors that are for that moment completely irrelevant. This is the only sign of true happiness that Carolyn Burnham, played by the great Annette Bening, displays in the entire film, and tragically it’s a flashback to days long past. In present day, Carolyn’s life is completely devoid of such lighthearted pleasure. She is, like most of the film’s characters, trapped in a life of suburban stagnation, where confused and often hollow values contribute to a concealed despair and clouded longing. As Carolyn’s husband, Lester (Kevin Spacey), explains in the film’s opening narration, things weren’t always this way: “She used to be happy. We used to be happy,” he recalls. As the film’s main protagonist, Lester evolves radically throughout the story, completing an entire cycle of the Hero’s Journey: departing from the confines of his known world, overcoming obstacles, transforming, and ultimately dying at the very moment when his much needed epiphany is realized. Carolyn’s developmental cycle is more complicated and less conclusive than Lester’s. When he dies at the close of the film, Carolyn is understandably consumed with grief and guilt. Given the events that lead up to that point, many would assume that she’s emotionally and morally lost. However, a closer look at Carolyn’s storyline reveals a complicated trajectory of false progress that is ultimately corrected, leading her not to tragic defeat, but to a promising and even optimistic new beginning.
To appreciate how Carolyn grows throughout the film it is important to have an understanding of her daily life and its entrapments. Carolyn works as a real estate agent and in a cleverly constructed scene in the first act we watch her clean and attempt to sell a run down house in a lower middle class neighborhood. We are aware at this point in the film that her primary focus in life is maintaining an appearance that suggests success, competence and flawlessness, and her job perfectly embodies these values. When Carolyn arrives at the home she’ll be working to sell, she notices that across the street a similar home has just been sold by an agent named Buddy Kane who is both her idol and her competition. In response, Carolyn – before even having begun her work – grimaces and lets out a defeated sigh. She envies Buddy Kane’s success, perceives it as a failure of her own, and in doing so reveals a particularly poisonous psychological defect. Instead of developing her own definition of success, Carolyn looks to the world around her.
Naturally, as a result of this constant focus on image and the successes of others, Carolyn has developed rigid, unrealistic expectations of herself and leaves virtually no room for self-forgiveness. This is made clear when she’s shown rigorously cleaning the home while repeating a mantra that she “will sell this house today”. Rather than create a trustworthy rapport with her clients by marketing the house for what it is, she describes it to her clients as precisely what it is not. The drab kitchen is described as “a dream come true for any cook” and the backyard swimming pool, which really requires no embellishment to be seen as a luxury for somebody in a lower income bracket, has been deceitfully marketed as “lagoon-like”, affectively not only losing the trust of the women viewing the property, but having the opposite of the intended effect by making a perfectly fine pool seem unexceptional. When her last client is gone, Carolyn walks inside, slams the door, and weeps in private; a near silhouette against the vertical blinds that oppress the scene like prison bars. She begins slapping herself and scolding the unwelcomed display of weakness, screaming “stop it!” repeatedly to herself. Her failure to sell leaves her feeling fraudulent. After having worked tirelessly to develop the facade of a picturesque family life she can’t seem to achieve the level of success necessary to legitimize it, and worse may be wondering if she’s the only one being fooled by it. She’s incapable of self love. In the context of the Hero’s Journey, this scene epitomizes Carolyn’s “known world”; the problematic place in which she resides and must in some sense escape or transcend.
In Act 2 we watch Carolyn begin an affair with Buddy “The King” Kane, and at a glance she appears to be thoroughly revitalized. They’ve been shooting guns together, having raucous sex, and she is finally tasting the freedom, excitement and pleasure that she has hungered for. However, an unexpectedly intimate encounter with Lester reveals the faulty foundation on which the “new” Carolyn is being built. When she arrives home after a fling with Buddy Kane, she is annoyed with Lester and reprimands him for his recent streak of bold behavior, and yet Carolyn has an unmistakable glow about her. She stands in the entrance of the living room behind Lester wearing a tight fitting blue dress and her body language shows that for the first time in years she feels sexy, confident, desired. Curiously though, only her body is lit in this shot while her head remains in the shadows, suggesting a reawakening that is strictly sensual. This change in Carolyn is not lost on Lester, for he too is experiencing a cathartic renewal of passion and freedom and he too is wrestling with confused and inappropriate desires as a result of it. But the most significant similarity in their metamorphoses is that they both remain without real, meaningful intimacy and in a manic race to fulfill their long ignored desires have continued to neglect the importance of familial love. In an inspired (and perhaps drunken) fit of passion, Lester makes an advance on Carolyn and they end up face to face on the sofa. Their eyes lock, and as Lester describes the Carolyn he fell in love with, “who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters,” the camera slowly moves in on them. Up close we see their smiling faces reflecting a deep mutual attraction, so much so that it serves to emphasizes exactly how hollow her affair with Buddy Kane is. We’re ready; almost eager to forgive Carolyn, and Lester too. But just as their mouths are about to connect, she spots the beer he’s holding tilted over the couch. Instantly, their connection is severed and the stripes on the sofa appear as prison bars, their blue color standing in perfect harmony with the blue of Carolyn’s dress. She lashes out at Lester for his carelessness and we realize that she is not yet capable of prioritizing love over material wealth and image. She remains captive to the toxic aspects of her known world that are being reinforced by her false mentor, Buddy Kane.
In the film’s final act, Lester, seconds before being shot in the head, finally has the soul-changing epiphany that’s been eluding him for so long, and the rest of the world is left to deal with the tragedy of his murder. Carolyn, having the same day been publicly confronted by Lester while on a rendezvous with Buddy, suffers immensely and with Lester dying before amends are made it may seem that all hope is lost for her. However, I believe that when looking closely at Carolyn’s behavior in reaction to her husband’s death, it becomes clear that in her darkest hour she breaks free from the grip of her false mentor and overcomes the primary obstacles that have been impeding her spiritual development; effectively slaying the proverbial dragon and beginning a journey into the unknown world of love and redemption. After Lester’s murder, a flashback sequence shows each of the primary character’s reactions to the gunshot that killed him. As a result of her affair with Buddy being exposed, Carolyn is in the midst of a downward spiral of shame and guilt and she’s directed all her pain at Lester. When the gunshot rings out, she’s in a trance-like state, walking in the pouring rain toward the Burnham home. Against her chest, she clutches desperately to the two hollow truths of which her affair with Buddy Kane has fed on: her purse and the gun within it. The next shot of Carolyn shows her inside the house crossing the threshold into the master bedroom. The trance is broken as soon as the door is shut. She leans back and breaks into hysterical sobs. We are reminded of the shot in act 1 of her weeping after the failed real estate pitch, but this time there is no prison bar imagery, nor does she attempt to hold back her grief. She opens Lester’s closet and dumps the purse into the hamper with regretful urgency. She is released from the grip of money, power and emotional repression. Disillusioned by tragedy, all that matters in the world is suddenly made clear and she collapses into Lester’s clothes, clinging to them desperately as she had to her purse just moments prior.
This last devastating shot of Carolyn in the modern day dissolves into the aforementioned flashback of her on the spinning carnival ride without a care in the world. The transition is brilliantly jarring; at once heart wrenching and hopeful. A film with less respect for its audience may have shown Carolyn catch a glimpse of a framed “Home is where the heart is” picture upon entering the bedroom in order to drive home the point that she’s finally broken free of her oppressive delusions. Luckily, Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball are masters of clever motifs and subtle prompts that enable the story to serve as both a scathing critique of the American dream and a multifaceted tale of hope and redemption. While we are certainly left feeling deep remorse for Carolyn, we have seen her learn from her missteps and discover new meaning in life. In letting go of her obsessions with wealth, power and image, Carolyn has acquired the most powerful tools in coping: forgiveness, love and human connection.
American Beauty as Melodrama
Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) is a good example of melodrama’s presence within the modern American film industry. Its moments of comedy and tragedy are a result of its essential melodramatic intentions. However, it differs from classical melodrama in the sense that the idea of maintaining a nuclear family is not an important theme. The film starts off in a style that can be considered “film noir-esque”, similar to that of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard in which we hear the voice of our protagonist Lester Burnham in a voice over. “I’ll be dead in a year,” he says. “In a way, I’m dead already.” This solemn introduction by Lester Burnham parallels the introduction of Sunset Boulevard when we hear the voice over of William Holden narrating the story from the dead protagonist’s perspective. Similarly, both American Beauty and Sunset Boulevard are told in a flashback sequence of events all taking place in the recent past. Kevin Spacey plays Lester Burnham, the protagonist who is fed up with the lack of respect from his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane. As the film progresses, we learn more and more about Lester, while following him on a journey to achieve happiness. In one of the first sequences of the film, Lester narrates the story of his day-to-day life. There is a shot where Lester is clearly masturbating in the shower. In a voice over Lester says, “Look at me, jerking off in the shower. This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.” Lester’s sexual repression is evident by this bold statement. Since Lester is a family man with a wife and daughter, and knowing that masturbation is the high point in his day, one would automatically assume that Lester’s wife is not fulfilling his sexual needs and that his daughter does not respect him. Melodramatically, the sexual longing for a desired mate is a cornerstone to the genre. There is always sexual tension that needs to be resolved, or in some cases, unresolved. The film Written on the Wind (1956), for example, ends with the sexually repressed protagonist – who has also just lost her father and brother – crying at her father’s desk and stroking a phallic oilrig statue that represents the family business. Such symbolism is quintessential to the melodramatic genre. The same kind of phallic symbolism, once used as a masked strategy to punctuate sexual connotations within the film’s subtext, is still notably present in modern films. In one scene in American Beauty, the phallic beer bottle plays a pivotal role Lester tries to seduce his wife. He leans over her on the couch, speaking sweet nothings into her ear. “Whatever happened to that girl… who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment to flash the traffic helicopters? I haven’t forgotten about her.” His wife seems to be responding to his overtures when she says, “Lester, you’re going to spill beer on the couch!” and ruins the mood for them both. Lester recoils in disappointment. In one of the final sequences of American Beauty, the phallic beer bottle metaphor appears once again. Throughout the film, Lester tries to seduce his daughter’s friend Angela Hayes. When he encounters her in the kitchen of his home, Lester is again holding a bottle of beer. “Do you want a sip?” he asks. She accepts his offer, taking a swig from the bottle. This metaphoric fellatio empowers Lester to continue pursuing her. The sexual blonde is a common figure in melodrama, most notably in actresses like Lana Turner, Kim Novak and Marilyn Monroe, and the Angela character supports the melodramatic nature of American Beauty. We see Lester’s longing for Angela grow through dramatic and highly sexual dream sequences. When Lester first notices Angela, it is at a cheerleading rally for the high school basketball team. Halftime begins and the cheerleaders disperse on the court. The choreographed cheer commences normally, and then Lester catches a glimpse of Angela. The sequence shifts to Lester’s point of view. The music changes with the point of view shift. It is clear that Lester is the looker while Angela is the object of his gaze. The foreground lights dim, shadowing the other cheerleaders, and Angela is the only one left visible. It appears that she is looking directly at Lester. The camera reverses angles and shows Lester sitting alone in the gymnasium bleachers while the rest of the crowd hides in the shadows. Angela performs a provocative dance, clearly portraying the sexualised, youthful female that Lester longs for. She dances while caressing herself. Multiple close-ups show details in Angela’s body to heighten the sexual tension felt between these two characters. Angela is finally about to reveal her breasts – she pulls her cotton cheerleader’s top open – but no breasts yet. A sequential triple-take shows Angela opening her sweater. On the third take, red rose pedals pour from inside her top, obstructing what Lester really wants to see. Back to reality. The rhythmic tempo from the cheerleading music continues while the cheerleaders finish their dance routine. Although the male gaze is a crucial part of Lester’s sexually repressed character, it is equally crucial from Ricky Fitts’ point of view. During the course of the film, the visual aesthetics change from the common 35 millimetre “Hollywood look” to that of a digital video camera. These instances emphasise the fact that the person or people being “seen” through the video camera are objects of a voyeur, in this case Ricky Fitts, the next door neighbour. Jane Burnham is Ricky’s primary focal object. Although not sexualised by any means (she’s not blonde and therefore, from a melodramatic perspective, not sexual) there is something about Jane that interests Ricky. “I remember this really creepy incident where you were filming me last night.” says Jane. “I didn’t mean to scare you, I just think you’re interesting.” However, not only does American Beauty display a traditional notion of the male gaze in the case of Ricky Fitts, it also represents a non-sexual object of desire, that of Jane’s father Lester. “Welcome to America’s weirdest videos.” He says as he peers through the lens of his video camera at Lester ruffling through old items in the garage. Later in the film, Carolyn and Lester attend a ballroom party for Carolyn’s real estate agency. Coincidently the catering company who is servicing the party employs Ricky. He introduces himself to Lester, and they hit it off instantly as they smoke a joint in the back parking lot. Although Lester and Ricky’s gazes have similar intentions, they are entirely different. We notice the pace of the sequence changes when the audience realizes that Lester’s focus of concentration is on Angela. The male gaze represents the desire for a female counterpart. In Ricky’s case, the gaze is not of a sexual nature. His gaze represents an interest for both Jane and Lester. This dichotomy of the gaze is also evident in Joshua Logan’s 1955 film Picnic. The more prominent of the two is the female gaze towards Hal. Hal is looked at from many female perspectives, and not just as a sexual object. When Hal first reaches the small town, he is looked at by Helen Potts, the widowed women who lives next door to the Owens family. Her gaze is that of a sexual nature. When the Owens girls see Hal later in the scene, it is apparent that all three of them view Hal a little bit differently. Mrs. Owens’ gaze for instance is that of an observatory nature. She does not see Hal as a sexual object. Instead, she wants to find a potential male companion for her daughter Madge, who is getting old according to her mother’s traditional ideology. Millie, the tomboy daughter, sees Hal not as a sexual object, but as a male friend and perhaps even a role model. By contrast, when Hal first sees Madge, it is apparent that he sees her as an object of desire. His gaze (almost pornographic in nature) suggests that Madge’s good looks and youth symbolize the traditional notion of “desire” in the melodramatic genre. Many melodramatic films of the 1950s emphasize the concepts of beauty and youth as quintessential factors for one’s object of desire. This theme runs parallel in American Beauty. The notion of beauty and youth is apparent in Lester’s quest to obtain his object of desire, Angela Hayes. Lester overhears a conversation between Angela and Jane. “You’re dad’s actually kinda cute…” says Angela, “…if he just worked out a little, he’d be hot.” This statement sends Lester on a quest to “buff up”, reliving his youth in the meantime. During this realisation, Lester reacquaints himself with Ricky Fitts. Ricky sells Lester the same marijuana that they had smoked a few nights prior. Lester also regains his youth by listening to old rock bands such as The Guess Who and Bob Dylan. There is one scene in particular that encompasses all three of these transitions that Lester undergoes. Carolyn crosses the driveway after finishing some gardening work. She notices a strange smell coming from the garage. Lester is pumping weights in the garage, while listening to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and smoking dope. “I see you’re smoking pot now. I’m so glad. I think using illegal psychotropic substances is a very positive example to set for our daughter.” He retorts by saying, “You’re one to talk, you bloodless, money-grubbing freak.” In the next scene, Lester quits his job. He writes a letter to management stating why they should release him from his current position. A management representative reads Lester’s resignation letter. “My job consists of basically masking the contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off, while I fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble hell.” It is obvious that Lester does not want the responsibility of being an adult. He quits his job in pursuit of a life with fewer responsibilities. This is determined in the sequence when Lester applies for a part time position at local fast food restaurant. “I’d like to fill out an application,” he says. “There’s not jobs for manager, just for counter.” the clerk says. “Good. I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility.” This notion of lack of responsibility connotes the privilege of being young. Not only does Lester want to look and act young, (by pumping iron and listening to ‘70s classic rock), but he wants to feel young again in order to obtain the confidence to pursue Angela Hayes. Youth and beauty represent the symbol of power in the melodramatic genre, if not always explicitly. For example, in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), it is youth and beauty that gives Carroll Baker’s character (also blonde) the upper hand to decide which man she sleeps with. There is a competitive struggle between both Archie Lee and Silva to gain Baby Doll’s love and appreciation. Archie Lee must regain their furniture to make Baby Doll happy. This will in turn allow them to “consummate the marriage”, or so he thinks. But Archie is in strong competition with Silva, the rival cotton gin owner who discovers Baby Doll when he heads over to the Meighan home to confront Archie about burning down his business. Both men perceive baby Doll as an object of desire. As the film progresses, she is the ultimate deciding factor as to which man she decides to be with. In the end, Baby Doll leaves Archie Lee to be with the sexualised, tall, dark and handsome Sicilian stud. Similarly, in American Beauty, it is Lester who with his sense of youth and his heightened self-confidence eventually comes to the point of confronting Angela about how he feels. After a fight with Jane, Angela is left abandoned in the Burnham kitchen crying while Jane and Ricky leave the house. Lester approaches her, noticing that she had been crying. This is the scene where he offers Angela a sip of his beer. The sexualised blonde has lost her sexy edge. She is vulnerable and incomplete. This is when Lester makes his move. The lights are dim. Angela lies on the Burnham couch and Lester hovers over her thin body. “[Jane]’s mad because I said I think you’re sexy,” she says. “So… are you going to tell me? What you want?” he responds. “What do you want?” she asks. “Are you kidding? I want you. I wanted you since the first moment I saw you. You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” Lester proceeds to become the sexual aggressor that he has dreamed of. “It’s my first time,” she says. At this instant, Lester’s newly found sexualised, youthful, confident character spins a full one hundred and eighty degrees. He never crosses the sexual barrier with Angela, arguably making him a moral man. However, this is also the point in our protagonist’s life that incidentally results in his death. In many film genres, guns represent power. Since the late 1930s and into the 1940s, it was the gangster film genre that portrayed tough mafia men as negative symbols of power. Even in current Hollywood cinema, guns are seen as something to be afraid of and it is usually the “bad guy” who abuses this power. In the final scene of Scarface (1983) a crazed Al Pacino fires off many rounds (and kills) the gangsters that invade his home. But throughout American Beauty, the gun represents sexual release and the embodied power that goes along with that. By the end of the film, we realize that this is the point in our protagonist’s life that he mentions in the first few lines of the film. When Lester gets murdered, we do not see the person who murders him. There are some definite possibilities though. We know that at the beginning of the film, Ricky and Jane talk about killing Lester, and before the killing occurs, Carolyn comes in from the rain holding a gun. But neither of these people is the murderer. Colonel Fitts is the character that murders Lester Burnham. Earlier on in the film, we realise that Colonel Fitts’ character is a homophobic army veteran. He lectures Ricky about homosexuality. “How come these faggots always have to rub it in your face? How can they be so shameless?” says the Colonel. “That’s the whole thing, Dad. They don’t feel it’s anything to be ashamed of,” says Ricky matter-of-factly. “Well, it is.” Before the shooting sequence, we figure out that Colonel Fitts actually is a homosexual and that he has repressed his feeling for a long time. He approaches Lester in the Burnham garage and tries to kiss him. Lester recoils by denying the Colonel of any homosexual activity. Colonel Fitts breaks into the Burnham house, killing Lester at point blank range. This power to kill Lester is the result of the Colonel’s pent up sexual repression. Similarly, after Carolyn’s first sexual encounter with Buddy Kane, he suggests that if Carolyn feels stressed, she should go fire a gun. “I’ve never fired a gun before,” says Carolyn. “Oh, you’ve gotta try it. Nothing makes you feel more powerful…” We see Carolyn in a later scene at a firing range relieving tension by firing off several rounds to relieve her sexual stress that cannot be fulfilled without a man. American Beauty can indeed be classified as a modern day melodrama. The codes and conventions from the 1950s classical era of melodrama are present in this film, allowing for countless assimilations to be made paralleling this film with films of the classical period. While all the characters functioned as separate units, it is evident that they co-exist with relevance to the melodrama genre. Our protagonist Lester Burnham is the most apparent of characters. His longing for the sexualised blonde, his desire to be young again and his repressed sexuality all comprise a character sketch that fits the classical melodramatic format. Angela’s youth, her sexual nature and her blonde hair complement Lester’s character by adding a silent third party in the Burnham marriage. Nevertheless, since Carolyn cheats on Lester with Buddy Kane, she obviously does not regard her marriage with much importance. And within the story of this struggling family in search of happiness comes the sub-plot with Ricky and Jane. These outcasts do not feel loved within their own families, thus leaving them to seek refuge with each other. So in essence, this modern melodramatic tale veers far from the cut and dry genre of the 1950s. Although it incorporates many of the same themes and conventions, it steers clear from the conventional notion of the nuclear family as central importance. American Beauty exemplifies what a 1990s version of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama would be.
How does Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ manifest the representation of mimetic desire in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’?
The mimetic theory, originated by Rene Girard, is based upon the observational tendency of human individuals to subconsciously imitate others and the extension of this mimesis to the realm of desire. This mimetic theory is portrayed throughout both Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ and places emphasis on the roles of the triangular relationship, otherwise known as the mimetic mechanism. The representation of mimetic desire in ‘Lolita’ addresses the desires of an individual by highlighting the distinct qualities of the romantic poet. Whereas, in ‘American Beauty’, the depiction of mimetic desire stems from the protagonist’s self actualization, which is a result of the competing desires in the pluralistic nature of the postmodern city in which he lives. The approach to the portrayal of mimetic desire is notably contrasting, with Humbert depicted as a character who believes his motives in regards to Lolita are authentic. Whereas, Lester’s desire for Angela is a result of him beginning to separate himself from the societal policies within his image-obsessed neighborhood and family. His desire is depicted as more lustful, rather than authentic. However, despite the different aspects of Girard’s theory portrayed throughout ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Lolita’, both texts depict the violent nature of the mimetic desire theorem through murder and death.
The representation of mimetic desire in Lolita is based on Girard’s theory, but with slight differences; especially relating to the intention of ‘desire’ and ‘self-preservation’. The metafiction elements of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ places further emphasis on this through his depiction of Humbert as an unreliable narrator. Humbert often contradicts himself throughout the novel, openly pleads for the reader’s sympathy and wallows in his disdain of others. His seductive gloominess is a portrayal of the inherently melancholic aspect of the Romantic hero. Humbert cannot help but recognize that a relationship with Lolita is inconceivable, yet proceeds to persevere nonetheless because the Romantic hero believes that salvation is solely possible through the love of a woman. Throughout the novel, Humbert cherishes the belief that only with Lolita will he be able to feel at peace. This is the distinct feature of the Romantic poet, which is the individual who believes in the absolute authenticity of his desires. Throughout ‘Lolita’, it is evident Humbert has a desire to become a poet, or more specifically; the Romantic poet, and attempts to prove this by shining a false light of brilliance on Lolita; the object of desire. In accordance to the mimetic theory, the subject believes the object designed by the mediator is a treasure and envisions fulfillment and bliss when in possession of the object.
Similarly, Humbert is the subject and desires the gratification of Lolita. The Romantic poet acts as a mediator for Humbert, allowing him to continue through with his exploitation of Lolita. Through the proclamation to his readers regarding his admiration of poets, Humbert conveys that he is one of them, not that he is imitating them. He couples literary references throughout the novel alongside the regular reminders that Humbert is the author, as well as the protagonist, of the book. This is evident through the quotes “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” and “if you can still stand my style of writing”, which presents Humbert as not just the narrator, but also a writer. Nabokov’s use of intertextuality throughout the text further affirms this concept. In Lolita, Humbert refers to Charles Baudelaire, Dante, Goethe, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Rimbaud and several other poets. However, Edgar Allan Poe is a poet which is consistently persistent throughout the text. In fact, Humbert’s desire for Lolita is heavily influenced by Poe’s poetry, in particular; Annabel Lee. Humbert states, “In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.”, in reference to his first childhood love, Annabel Leigh. Humbert uses various quotes from Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and paraphrases them, thus using them as his own and affirming the theory of him as a poet. Humbert’s inclination to become the romantic poet reinforces the belief that the possession of Lolita will place him in a state of euphoria. The mediator, the Romantic poet, shines a false light of brilliance onto the object of desire, thus explaining the fact that Humbert never achieves the fulfillment he anticipated. Rather than the attainment of the object of desire, it is evident that the search for the unattainable object is what preserves the illusion of the Romantic poet.
Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ also represents the theory of mimetic desire and the role of self-preservation. However, the focus on the role of imagism to exacerbate the pursuit of objects for self-preservation of identity is how the two texts differentiate. The representation of mimetic desire in ‘American Beauty’ is portrayed through the post modern society where mimetic desire is exacerbated by imagism. The neighborhood in which Lester Burnham, protagonist of ‘American Beauty’, lives in is a conspicuous depiction of an image-driven society. At the beginning of the film, the long shot view of the neighborhood portrays all the houses as virtually identical, with Lester’s voiceover accompanying the shot. Lester quotes “This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life.” The repetition of “this is my” highlights the drudging and dull lifestyle of Lester Burnham. This mimetic desire continues to influence the lives of several individuals throughout the film, with the major victim to the mimesis being Lester’s wife, Carolyn Burnham. The title, ‘American Beauty’, is a referral to the empty beauty of the American dream, along with the subspecies of the rose; a significant motif in the movie.
Although the rose is present throughout almost all scenes in ‘American Beauty’, it is first associated with Carolyn Burnham. Carolyn is the depiction of the rosy-looking exterior lifestyle of a content American wife when in fact, she is burdened with profuse anxiety and frustration. Carolyn has lost the spontaneity character she once obtained, and has become a terrified woman obsessed with order and maintaining a pruned image of herself. She attempts to live her life like the cut roses in the glass vase in the dinner scene. The first depiction of the family sitting at a dinner table appears to be an average, American family. However, Mendes urges the audience to look closer as the camera continues to zoom in and film increasingly closer to the family as their imperfections are ultimately spotted. The audience subsequently is able to identify the true psychoneurotic nature of the family due to Carolyn being a victim to the mimesis within the neighborhood in ‘American Beauty’. Ultimately, the visual text suggests that the suburban middle class values of image obsession are erroneous and Mendes asks audience to look past the superficial appearance, of the ‘rose’, and avoid being indoctrinated by these values.
As per the mimetic mechanism process, a rival can influence the subject to adopt violence to secure their object of desire. The role of a rival is an essential requirement in the mimetic theory, as it intensifies the desirer’s yearning for the object of desire. Humbert’s desire for Lolita is amplified when Quilty is introduced as a character with similar traits and interests to Humbert himself. Quilty is open in regards to his sexual preferences whilst Humbert feels obligated to hide them due to social protocols. Alongside that, Quilty is also a successful playwright whereas Humbert is a man who merely aspires to become a poet. Despite Quilty possessing the same intellectual and physical qualities as Humbert, he still believes Quilty to be an articulate man, much better than himself and although he does not admit it, he desires to be a man like Quilty. When describing Quilty, he quotes “His allusions were definitely highbrow. He was well-read. He knew French. He was versed in logodaedaly and logomancy”. The repetition of “he” represents Humbert’s explicit obsession with Quilty. In ‘Lolita’, Quilty is thus shown as the rival of Humbert. Interestingly, Humbert’s desire for Lolita is also what constructed Quilty’s desire for her. Due to this portrayal of mimetic rivalry, the mimetic mechanism is clearly evident throughout the text, with Humbert and Quilty both being the mimetic rivals who yearn for Lolita. Quilty is not just Humbert’s double in his desire, but he also physically and mentally resembles him, which adheres to the theory of ‘doubling’ in the mimetic mechanism. The two are thus displayed as two characters both caught in mimetic desire. Lost in his desire to become Quilty, Humbert no longer recognizes the differences between the two and consequently loses his own personal identity. He quotes, “I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us”. The changing of “I” and “him” into “we” and “us” represents Humbert and Quilty conjoining into a single individual, both lost in the mimetic mechanism. Eventually, Humbert cannot bear with the success of Quilty and murders him.
However, whilst ‘Lolita’ has an evident portrayal of a rival, ‘American Beauty’ depicts the theory regarding the existence of mimetic desire without a rival, in the form of another character, with the purpose of amplifying the desire. Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ focuses on this theory, suggesting that a rival is no longer required. Unlike ‘Lolita’, the fixation is on what individuals do not want. This suggestion is thus, an inversion of the original mimetic theory. Ultimately, the mimetic desire which Lester faces is amplified by these societal pressures regarding an image-obsessed society. A strong animosity for social protocols can lead to individuals pursuing objects for the sake of rebellion, as demonstrated by Lester’s infatuation with Angela Hayes, his daughter’s best friend. Lester is depicted as increasingly careless as the film progresses. His blatant obsession with Angela is exposed in various scenes, as his desire for her overcomes his desire to comply with societal policies. Lester violates the typical social protocols regarding marriage as he is revealed self-pleasuring himself, in his bed by his wife, as he fantasizes about the young Angela Hayes. The long shot of Lester dazing lustfully at Angela laying in the bathtub with roses in his fantasy is a portrayal of the full extent of his implausible desire. However, there are various scenes throughout ‘American Beauty’ which places further emphasis on the unreality. In the cheerleading scene, where Lester first notices Angela, Angela is seen unveiling her jacket, as the rose petals erupt from her exposed chest. However, Mendes’ editing of her repeatedly pursuing this same motion in closer shots creates a disruption in the narrative flow and thus, reminds the audience that what we are watching is a violation of social protocols. As depicted through Lester’s course of action, it is evident that, although the rival is nonexistent throughout ‘American Beauty’, the infringement of social protocols creates a motive for Lester’s unethical desire.
Both ‘Lolita’ and ‘American Beauty’ highlight the violent nature of mimetic desire and its dangerous implications. The conclusion of both texts involve the death of both protagonists, representing the consequences of mimetic desire and rebuking the violent aspect of Girard’s mimetic theory. In ‘Lolita’, the mortality rate is excessively high. Death envelops the entirety of the text, with the death of Humbert’s childhood love, Annabel Leigh, being the root causation of his infatuation with nymphets. Though Humbert would never literally murder Lolita, it is evident that his actions have annihilated her nevertheless. Thus, Lolita is mentally killed long before she is physically killed in childbirth at the end of the text as conveyed through the quote, “Quilty broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”, as she converses with Humbert again, years after she had run away. The unperturbed diction of Lolita, as conveyed through her use of “merely”, depicts her broken mental state as she devalues her own life. Although in ‘Lolita’, all of the relevant characters ultimately descend into death, Lester is the sole character in ‘American Beauty’ who passes away. Although ‘American Beauty’ highlights the violent nature of mimetic desire, the causation differs from Lolita as it focuses on the identity of an individual. Mendes conveys that despite his death, Lester had lived a greater life than majority of the individuals who were victims to the mimetic theorem. Before his death, the constant depiction of Lester as ‘alive’ is represented through the differing camera angles throughout the visual text. Whilst in the beginning of the text, Lester is portrayed as an inferior individual, particularly to his wife and employer, and is constantly victim to low angle shots. However, as the movie progresses, Lester quits his job and begins to yearn for Angela. As the character of Lester begins to grow audaciously and his life establishes change, the high angle shots of Lester depict a far more superior character in contrast to before. Thus, although Lester is ultimately killed in a violent manner due to his growth in character, he is nonetheless considered the only individual who was courageous enough to seek an opening outside of the mimesis influencing the desires of those around him.
To conclude, the representation of mimetic desire in Mendes’ ‘American Beauty’ is manifested in a similar manner to the representation of mimetic desire in Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’. However, the central differentiation between the two texts is the disparate portrayal of the mimetic mechanism within the texts. In ‘Lolita’, the triangular relationship is clearly evident; with Humbert, as the subject of desire, and Quilty, the rival of the subject, both yearning for Lolita, the object of desire. Humbert also portrays himself as a Romantic poet, in order to further convince readers that he is the original, despite him still being a victim to the mimetic mechanism. Whereas, in ‘American Beauty’, although majority of the text adhered to the process of the mimetic mechanism, Mendes made an effort to depict several flaws to Girard’s theory. Unlike in ‘Lolita’, Lester Burnham had no rival, and instead, the social protocols in the post-modern neighborhood was a major influence to Lester’s drastic change in character. The protocols and constant image obsession caused Lester to desire what others did not, thus encouraging defiance against the standard societal policies. Another major difference included the distinct portrayals of the violent nature of mimetic desire. Whilst Nabokov’s text was utilized as a cautionary warning on what is to happen when an individual is caught in mimetic desire, Mendes’ visual text focuses on the representation of the inverse of the original theory as an awakening to reality. Ultimately, both ‘Lolita’ and ‘American Beauty’ are an evident portrayal of Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and represent the distinct qualities of the theorem in both disparate and similar manifestations with differences, such as the role of the rival, and similarities, as they both end with a death.
American Beauty: The Troubled Pursuit of Happiness and Self-Worth
In everything we do, we seek to find happiness and meaning. While they aren’t necessarily what we always find, we strive to find it even if it’s the smallest shred of it. That couldn’t be farther from the truth in the gripping film American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes. The story is about Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a forty-something husband and father who is depressed and has a midlife crisis. Lester is at a point in his life where he feels imprisoned in himself. He feels insignificant to wife Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane Burnham (Thora Birch). Lester meets Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) who is her daughter’s friend, and he becomes infatuated by her. He finally decides to take control of his life by quitting his job, buying a sports car and everything else he’s ever wanted to do. His desire for a younger girl rejuvenates him to want to feel like a young person again, yet this change is only one part of a decadent and problematic lifestyle that is also in evidence among the other characters in the film.
Carolyn has become so materialistic and Lester is beginning to notice that she is not the woman she married. She has changed and is more focused on her success than their marriage. It’s clearly evident when Lester tries to engage with her sexually in the living room. They are lying on the couch kissing but Carolyn is more focused on the beer that is about to spill on the couch. Lester is angry and yells, “it’s just couch!” (Mendes, 1999) but Carolyn is more concerned about how much it costs and what material its made out of. This is not entirely Carolyn’s fault as she is no longer in love with Lester as much as she is to her career. For the most part of their marriage, Lester was depressed and unhappy which Carolyn hated. She seeks a husband that is successful and full of life. Unfortunately, Lester’s awakening came at the wrong time. Carolyn is having an affair with a real estate agent whom she considers more accomplished and more worthy of her affection than Lester. She feels that if she is with a successful man it will reflect on her. She finally realizes that the affair lacks the emotional connection she needs which causes her to spiral out of control.
Jane is an angsty and typical teenager who is mad at the entire world. She feels insignificant because she feels normal and nothing sets her apart from the rest. Her friend Angela further fuels her insecurities by telling her that being ordinary is boring and the worst thing anyone can be. Angela pretends to be well versed in sexual experience and beauty so that people may like her. Her happiness is just a lie meant to hide her “ordinary self”. She hates being ordinary, and she constantly keeps on reminding Jane how ordinary she is. Jane begins to find meaning and a little shred of happiness when she gets romantically involved with Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), her neighbor. Ricky is the most genuine character in this story. Despite his father constantly abusing him, he chooses to see the good in the world. He tells Jane that there is nothing wrong with being ordinary. He gives her confidence and self-esteem she needed. Jane benefits most in this story since she’s still young and has a lot of room for growth. She has the chance to live her life better considering what she’s witnessed with her parents. Despite their terrible life together, they get to make a better life for Jane.
Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is another character who is at odds with himself. He is homophobic who constantly abuses his son. In a scene where Frank thinks Lester is having a homosexual affair with his son brings bottled up rage. The audience does not understand this rage until the final moments in the film when he approaches Lester and kisses him. Frank is secretly a homosexual who is in denial. As Ricky notoriously put it describing his father, “Never underestimate the power of denial” (Mendes, 1999). He masks his sexuality by being homophobic thus hiding from his true self.
American Beauty focuses on the terrible realities of families struggling to find the happiness that is otherwise unattainable. This is because of the cultural tendencies of focusing on career paths so much that the family unit becomes drenches in resentment and sadness. Carolyn views Lester as a failure and Lester views Carolyn as someone who cares about things that don’t matter. Lester is in his 40s, and he feels like he just wasted his entire life with a wife who does not appreciate her. The nostalgia effect where Lester has a chance to relive some of the best moments of life even just for a brief moment of happiness to make his life mean something. In the film when he dies, he’s at peace with it because, in the end, he found happiness. The roses in the film signify themes of how these characters are pursuing the idea that being perfect will mean achieving true happiness, but they forget that all the resentment, lies and pain inside cannot be simply eradicated by hiding it. It’s like a beautiful rose, but at its roots, it’s rotting.ReferenceMendes, S. (Director). (1999). American Beauty [Motion Picture]. DreamWorks Pictures,