Cinematic Critiques of Culture

Kevin Spacey, American Beauty (1999) Image credit:

by Matt Rindge

When asked what especially worried him about contemporary culture, Czechoslovakian philosopher Vitezslav Gardavsky replied: "The terrible threat is that we might die before we really do die, before death has become a natural necessity. The real horror lies in just such a premature death, a death after which we go on living for many years." Gardavsky's fear describes actual life for many of us in 21st-century America. Underneath our functionality is a vague sense that something is missing. We ache for something more. We hunger for something beyond the deadness of our lives.

Such hunger is a central theme of three relatively recent films – AMERICAN BEAUTY, FIGHT CLUB, and ABOUT SCHMIDT. Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, begins AMERICAN BEAUTY with a lament: "Within a year I'll be dead…but in a way I'm dead already." In FIGHT CLUB Edward Norton's character typifies the zombie-like state described by psychologist Erich Fromm. A perpetual insomniac, Norton's character is capable neither of restful sleep nor a full life while awake. ABOUT SCHMIDT explores the musings of a recent retiree, Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson. Schmidt eventually realizes the meaninglessness of his own life:

"I know we're all pretty small in the big scheme of things and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But – what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? … Once I am dead, and everyone who knew me dies too, it'll be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all…"

Each film roots the internal deadness of its main character to the empty promises of the American Dream. Schmidt's sense of failure comes despite his life-long commitment to his wife and career. Lester Burnham has a family, a nice house, and a successful career. As such, he has attained three core values of the American Dream: financial security, relational stability and professional success. Yet as the film invites us to 'look closer' we discover how bankrupt the American Dream proves to be in fulfilling Lester's hunger for meaning and significance. In the midst of having everything the American Dream has to offer, Lester grieves: "I didn't always feel this…sedated." Masturbating is the highlight of his day.

Norton's character in FIGHT CLUB is convinced that meaning is to be found in the accumulation of goods. Pleasure is thus derived from perusing and purchasing myriad items in the latest shopping catalogue. "Like so many others, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct … I'd flick through catalogues and wonder, 'What kind of dining set defines me as a person?'" Acquiring merchandise becomes the primary avenue towards fulfillment: "When you buy furniture you tell yourself, 'That's it, that's the last sofa I'm gonna need. Whatever else happens, I got that sofa problem handled.' I had it all – I was close to being complete." Acquisition is his sine qua non of satisfaction.

Character development in each film involves eventual recognition of the emptiness of the American dream. In FIGHT CLUB such realization is articulated by Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, who observes: "The things you own end up owning you." Rather than a source of liberation, Tyler views the American dream as the cause of a subconscious slavery. Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps more of a sophisticated philosopher than Tyler, comments: "Things are in the saddle and ride mankind."

And get ridden we do. Our commitment to consumerism perverts our notions of what truly matters. So notes Tyler: "Murder, crime, poverty…these things don't concern me. What concerns me is cable T.V. with 500 channels…" Encouraged by Tyler's aphoristic admonitions, Norton's character undertakes a radical departure from the values of Americana. He rids himself of his precious possessions and leaves his upscale condo to live in a shack. Freedom is found in his abandonment of stability and success. Pleasure is found in his willingness to receive and feel pain. And liberty is found in accepting Tyler's repudiation of advertising: "You are not your job…you are not the content of your wallet…"

Lester Burnham's journey toward health is similarly rooted in his ability to reject the lures of materialism. Such rejection sparks intense conflict with his wife Carolyn, played by Annette Benning. In one scene Lester seeks to reconnect with Carolyn by kissing her. Though initially enjoying her husband's romantic advances, Carolyn notices a bottle in Lester's hand and immediately explodes: "Lester, you're going to spill beer on the sofa!" Instantly deflated, Lester retorts: "It's just a couch." Carolyn shrieks: "It's not a couch – it's a $4,000 Italian-designed sofa!" Unable to contain his anger at his wife's priorities, Lester points to their furniture and shouts: "All this is just stuff – but you've made it more important than life!" Intimacy is thwarted by the concern for things.

Nothing could be more antithetical to the American Dream than Jesus' Dream. "Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it' (Luke 17:33). Jesus subverts the American Dream by turning it on its head. Meaning is found not in the pursuit of self-protection but in the giving away of oneself to others.

Jesus envisions a kingdom of relationality where the rule of love takes precedence over every other commandment. The hoarding of wealth, understood by Jesus as a regular obstacle to the love of neighbor, receives consistent criticism in the Gospels – one out of every seven verses in Luke's Gospel, to be precise. The rich man who stores up all his goods for the future is a fool in the eyes of God. It is nearly impossible for the rich to enter this kingdom of love. A rich man fails to love the beggar Lazarus who lies at his gate. The only rich person in Luke to receive praise is Zacchaeus, a man who gives half of his goods to the poor. Not that Jesus is negative about wealth in and of itself. Indeed, he views it as a potential tool for loving the poor. Hence his frequent admonition, not simply to discard wealth, but to give it to the poor. What these three films invite us to consider is the impact of wealth, not only upon our needy neighbors, but also upon our own souls. Jesus sees in wealth the potential for loving others; these films depict the more common reality of wealth as the basis of one's own prison.

The incompatibility of these two Dreams poses a serious dilemma for an American Church that simultaneously proclaims Jesus and embraces the ethos of the American Dream. New Testament scholar Gerd Theissen notes:

"When a religion ceases to be the cor inquietum (the restless soul) of a society, when the thirst for a new form of life is no longer vital in it, when it becomes the anti-spirit amid spiritual and dispirited conditions, then there is something to be said for the proposition that this religion has expired. When that happens, no kind of interpretive art can rekindle it, and the question becomes all the more important: 'If salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?'"

Fortunately God's Spirit is not restricted to the confines of the church. Where the church has often failed, these three films succeed – by offering an antidote to our culture's obsession with self-protective ambition: a remedy no less than Love itself. Lester Burnham?s quest to commit adultery with Angela ends when he declines an opportunity to have sex with her, placing instead her interest above his own. The last two actions of Ed Norton's character are to risk saving the life of his friend Marla and to sacrifice his own life. And Warren Schmidt eventually experiences a deep sense of meaning once he realizes the profound influence he has had upon Ndugu, a young boy he sponsors in Tanzania. There are places where one can find some of the saltiness that the church has lost.

Matt Rindge speaks regularly at churches and universities for Compassion International. He and his wife live with their two daughters in Atlanta where he is working on a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University.

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