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Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Criterion of Beauty! Whatever Next?

In Uncategorized on September 9, 2011 at 7:36 am

Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham descending through American Beauty's multiple dualities with the inevitable McDonalds motif; 'Have a NICE day'

We want happy people in a Big Society. We want excellent schools. We want, we want… Who wants to be happy in actual fact? Do we really want excellence in an inane grinning fashion? There is something dreadful about ‘being happy and excellent’. It’s all too artificial. Nick Clegg’s suggestion that teachers are ‘put upon’ I suspect is the allusion to the fact they’re ‘grinning’ all day long offering the false construction of a ‘happy school’ where all the boxes are ticked but they’ve no time to read for themselves or maybe inclination to read and form their independent opinion. Curriculum ‘B’ demands no opinion other than prescribed! Flipping burgers and reports all day long denudes the intellect.

In the Sam Mendes directed film, American Beauty, magazine writer Lester Burnham is reaching a mid-life crisis. The back plot sets a scene of the Utopian ideal of middle-class and respectable suburban America, with its ideals of hard-work and family values. But this life has become too sanitised and banal for Lester. The plot presents a life-time of conformity to the ‘beautiful ideal’ with Lester reacting manically, embarking on increasingly drastic and regressive life-changing actions as he tries to escape ‘his life’. He stares into his work computer contemplating his reflection; the straight columns of text on the screen resemble the bars of a prison cell with Lester trapped within. Lester fantasises about leading a life other than his own. In the end Lester pursues his fantasies in the real world only to meet a messy end at the hands of his neighbour, an American Marine Colonel. The Colonel’s own dual existence of archetypal war hero in public and confused sexuality in private unravels after Lester thwarts his approach. There are other such dualities in the film but dominant is the Beautiful American modern-life metaphorically  represented by the femme-fatal college-cheerleader friend of Lester’s daughter who offers herself as a perfect and worldly ‘prize’ but in reality her ‘true self’ is vulnerable and fearful.

These dualities run as loose patterns or motifs through the film, sufficiently loose to inspire multiple interpretations. Lester and the other characters are ontologically trapped in the ideal modern life they did not choose for their selves.  Being referent to your ontological ‘self’ and not an ideal given by the society you are born into is a meaningful liberation, suggests the cinematographer. But does anyone know what ‘being true to your ‘self’’ really means? What is self precisely or even loosely today? And how is ‘self’ crucial to
leading and has leading been trapped in a modern Utopian ideal formed outside of the individual’s true experience?

Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s Bulldog, offered his modern vision against the significance of ‘woolly’ literature, with all its ordinariness, dismissing its value as a poor relation to his master’s discoveries: “the ‘aesthetic faculty’ needed to be ‘roused, directed and cultivated’ by science”. Could he have said anything else given the time and space he occupied?

He goes on: “literary culture, while imparting a ‘sense of beauty’ and ‘power of expression,’ was unable to furnish a ‘criterion of beauty’ or ‘anything to say beyond a hash of people’s opinions’.” (White, 2003). A criterion of beauty is a ‘dreadful project’. Like explaining art by virtue of the artist’s DNA predisposing his brush strokes. Knowledge frequently wishes to usurp wisdom as the wily native whose life on the Savannah shouldn’t represent more than our Western university professor. Very unseemly. Imagine saying ‘I love you darling – I know this because due to the determinist nature of the universe I had no choice’. Charmed I’m sure.

This denigration of the human textual existence against the shiny new didn’t stop or maybe inspired his grandson Aldous Huxley to use the ‘aesthetic faculty’ in Brave New World to leave I suggest a more lasting impression. Huxley’s title offers the dualities of modern life in all its systemised potential. Huxley visited Los Angeles and described it as a city of ‘dreadful joy’. And his Brave New World is a happy place but with deadened consciousness. Like Zygmunt Bauman’s zombie modern institutions. They’re dead but alive and don’t respond to leaders pulling the levers of change as no-one is listening anymore. It’s what we wanted from our modern society but having built the ideal existence we know something real is missing. Lester lives in his ‘American Dream’ existence; he has everything the 1950s marketing man offered but still he fights to find the real. He makes the mistake of thinking he’s entitled by indulging his self rather than making sense of his self.

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