Perhaps the Key is in “American” Films
By Robert Capozzi
In your heart, you know something has gone wrong. Terribly, horribly wrong. With the world. With America. And even with your life.
This is a thoroughly negative perspective, and yet, try as one might, it’s a conclusion that is difficult not to, in those quiet moments in which we really reflect on the state of affairs, quietly nod in agreement.
Surely there are blessings. Much seemed to have gone very right. Americans, at least, are by and large healthy (if overfed) and wealthy, if not wise. Except for the hardest cases, even those among us who are considered “poor” have more materially than most on Earth, and far more than perhaps 99% of those who’ve ever lived.
The answer to what’s gone wrong perhaps is found in, of all places, a quartet of films with the word “America” or “American” in it. Film, unlike any other art form, has the ability to tell us stories that touch us in some ineffable way. And, while there’s no reason to believe that the filmmakers set out to diagnose what ails us, I suggest here that they have stumbled, perhaps, toward the truth.
Upon recently re-viewing these four offerings, the theory seems to hold. The films are:
• “Lost in America,” (1985), directed by Albert Brooks.
• “American Movie: The Making of Northwestern,” (1999), directed by Chris Smith.
• “American Beauty,” (1999), directed by Sam Mendes.
• “American Splendor,” (2003), directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini.
Each film has one thing in common, beyond their names: They give us an inside look at the lives of everyday Americans unraveling in some form or fashion. Indeed, “American Movie” is a documentary, although all four give us a glimpse – in their own way – of what life is really like.
“Lost in America” and “American Beauty” show us examples of corrosive lives of the reasonably upwardly mobile and well-to-do. “American Splendor” and “American Movie” provide us a look at the daily struggles of some “common folk” of the blue-collar variety. The central character in each film is a white man, although their torments are shared by the women in their lives. And all these films are lily-white, with no minorities to be seen. While this white-male perspective may be exclusive, it nevertheless seems fitting for films about American dysfunction.
The poster for “Lost in America” begins our thesis nicely: A well-dressed couple is shown in the desert, with their heads in the sand, like ostriches. The opening scene sets up the message. David Howard (played by Albert Brooks) is lying in bed. It’s night, and his wife Linda (played by Julie Hagerty) is next to him. David is expressing his many fears, about work and about the new house the couple is about to buy. It becomes clear that he expects to be promoted to Senior Vice President tomorrow at work. He is a pool of neuroses, anticipating various scenarios for how his promotion might go. Half-awake, his wife assures him that all will go well. As the film unfolds, she’s proven incorrect. David doesn’t get the promotion, and his vast disappointment leads to his being fired. Because David and Linda have amassed some wealth – the “nest egg,” as they like to say – they decide to “drop out.” Without giving away too much of the film, let’s just say it doesn’t work out as they planned, yet again.
“American Movie” – winner of the 1999 Sundance Film Festival for best documentary – is the story of one Mark Borchardt. Mark is an aspiring 30-year-old filmmaker, with an obsession for horror and slasher flicks. Hailing from suburban Milwaukee, Mark barely makes the ends meet by living in his parent’s basement and holding down several dead-end jobs, including delivering the Wall Street Journal and groundskeeper at a cemetery. His mullet head and sometimes mangled English (delivered with a manic intensity) make for many comic moments, along with the cast of characters who enable Mark in his arguably delusional dream of being a great filmmaker. We learn that Mark is a high school drop-out, unmarried father of three, and a man of seemingly bottomless – if unfocused – ambition. Director Smith gives us an inside look at Mark’s challenges in making a shoestring independent film. While Mark achieves his goal, we can’t help but wonder whether his odyssey was at all worth it.
The greatest commercial success of this “American” quartet is “American Beauty.” Winner of the 2000 Academy Award for Best Picture, “American Beauty” shares with us the trials and tribulations of Lester and Carolyn Burnham (played by Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, respectively), reasonably financially successful suburban Americans. While on the surface, all seems well with the Burnhams, we learn that little is. Their alienation and purposelessness become all too clear, as Lester sleepwalks his way through his roles in his working, corporate life and his there-but-not-there fatherhood to his confused teenaged daughter, Jane (played by Thora Birch). Like David Howard in “Lost in America,” Lester’s grinding alienation at work leads to his demise, as he can no longer suffer the corporate fools that he must deal with on a day-to-day basis. He too quits and drops out, much to the chagrin of his image-conscious (even fixated), real-estate-broker wife. His liberation from this leads to an awakening of sorts, only to meet another, more permanent, demise.
Then there’s the hardest of cases, Harvey Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti), in “American Splendor.” This film’s innovation is to mix together a fictionalized bio-pic about Pekar with footage of the real Pekar and his circle of friends and associates. Set in Cleveland, Pekar is the mal-est of malcontents. His life as a file clerk belies his education, which includes some college and a lot of extra-curricular reading. While he’s somewhat more “functional” than, say, “American Movie’s” Borchardt, he’s barely so economically, and emotionally, we get to know a very angry white male. So angry is Pekar that he often loses his voice, due to his frequent screaming.
Nothing about the world escapes Pekar’s criticism. This pattern of his was set at a young age; at the film’s outset we meet the young Harvey, with him asking at the end of the first scene: “Why does everybody have to be so stupid?” Oddly enough, the romance sub-plot of Pekar and Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis) is perhaps the most healthy, at least on some levels. Pekar finds in Delaware the one woman who seems to match his alienation and discontent. While romancing her, Pekar asks Brabner, “And you don't mind moving to Cleveland?” She replies: “I find most American cities to be depressing in the same way.”
All four characters show us the downside of Horatio Alger-ism. For these characters, their ambitions for what “could be” lead to a discontent about “what is.” The white collars, Howard and Burnham, live lives of plenty. Even the blue collars, Borchardt and Pekar, have much to commend about their existence. And yet all four – we learn – have a roiling discontent about their lot. From that disgruntlement, each film shows us that from their unhappiness and anger, they do self-destructive things, designed to improve their lots, but which backfire in unintended ways. They are each their own worst enemies.
Pekar and Borchardt especially attempt to “channel” their pain. (So much so that our fascination with these two men was repeatedly showcased in “real life” on the David Letterman show, with both Pekar and Borchardt being frequent guests of Letterman’s.) Pekar vents through his “real life” comics. And Borchardt’s technique involves his quixotic quest to become a great filmmaker. At one point, Pekar’s comic alter ego asks him, “Are you going to suffer in silence or are you going to make a mark?” Borchardt, in “American Movie’s” opening scene, poignantly states: “I was a failure. I was a failure, and I can’t be that no more.”
This desire to “make a mark,” to be a “success,” not “a failure,” is devastated by our white-collar characters, Howard and Burnham. By outward appearance, Howard and Burnham are successful – financially, at least – and yet their suffering is not entirely dissimilar to Pekar and Borchardt’s. Howard spends the first third of “Lost in America” explaining how this promotion will solve all their problems. By becoming Senior Vice President, his newfound responsibilities will allow him to be carefree. His wife Linda is skeptical, sensing that this promotion will be like the previous ones, financially better, and yet somehow hollow.
In “American Beauty,” Burnham appears not as upwardly mobile as Howard. We learn that he once had “dreams,” but he went the corporate route in order to provide for his wife and daughter. This film shows just how lost he’s become; his wife has contempt for him, and his daughter is experiencing all the confusions that beset teenagers as they prepare to leave the nest. Burnham has shut down. As the film progresses, he begins the process of awakening and taking charge of his life. Of course, he does so in sometimes infantile, mid-life crisis ways: buying a vintage red Firebird, pulling out his old 70s hard-rock music, pumping iron, and becoming a customer to his pot-dealing teenaged neighbor. And then there’s his obsessive fixation on his daughter’s comely friend Angela, (played by Mena Suvari), who gives him the attention that his wife Carolyn no longer does.
One might get the impression from these films that there is no way out of our discontent. Rich or poor, our foibles are what they are, and we simply must muddle our ways through this thing called life. Each film shows us a glimpse of how, by accepting our lot, we can find some semblance of liberation.
In “Lost in America,” we find it in a little scene in which Linda is bemoaning to her co-worker the emptiness she’s feeling about the big, new house she and David are about to buy, and how David’s impending promotion will not solve their problems. “Things are always the same, back to the same,” she says. Her wise co-worker suggests: “Then you get a divorce, I dunno, whatever you gotta do.”
In “American Movie,” the documentary wraps up with Mark going to see his Uncle Bill. Bill had financed Mark’s shoestring film, and Mark goes to him to begin lobbying for additional funds for his next film. Mark, in a reflective mood, asks his aged uncle what his “American dream” is. Bill, bemused, answers, “I ain’t got no dreams no more.” Instead, Bill’s goal in life is simpler, and, in his view, far more fulfilling: “Make everybody happy. Be a comedian.”
“American Beauty” ends with a voiceover for the ages of Lester Burnham, reflecting back on the slice of his life we’ve just watched: “I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me….but it’s hard to stay mad when there so much beauty in the world.”
And, in one of the sweetest scenes in “American Splendor,” Pekar walks his step-daughter Danielle to the bus stop. As they approach the bus, Danielle asks, “Do you have to hold my hand?” Harvey responds: “What are you, embarrassed of me? I know, I'm embarrassing. I felt the same way about my father.” Danielle will have none of Harvey’s neuroses. She curtly responds, “No. It's just, when you hold my hand, you squeeze it too hard.”
All four “American” films are dark comedies of sorts. Even in a nation where we’ve got just about anything anyone could ever want, there remains a numbing existential pain that seems to stay with us. The old saying “misery loves company,” oft repeated in “American Splendor,” seems to hold. And yet, we are given glimpses of how, by looking unflinchingly at our misery, it can melt away into the nothingness that it is. And, perhaps, with a little help by counting your blessings, for they are everywhere, in every moment. If floating trash in “American Beauty” can become performance art, anything and everything is possible.
Robert Capozzi is an Associate Editor of The Free Liberal.