Reality. Merriam Webster's Online Dictionary defines reality as "something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily." But what is real by today's standards? Does what appears to be normal equal reality? By looking at two different films it seems that the old cliche stands correct. Things aren't as they appear. American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides give classic examples of how "normal" and "happy" suburban life is anything but. American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes (1999) and The Virgin Suicides, directed by Sofia Coppola (2000), share many of the same themes even though the plots are contrasted. Underneath the layers of white picket fences, beautiful houses, and safe neighborhoods, lies a truth. A truth so dark that it leads to the destruction of many characters in both of these movies.
The first element that must be looked at is the imprisonment of the characters in both films. The main character of American Beauty, Lester Burnham, is the man whom feels the burden of imprisonment the most. He is in an ongoing marriage that should be coming up to the red light. He is also stuck in a job where he feels under appreciated and not well respected. He has been at this job for fourteen years. That is fourteen years of being in jail. It is quite evident that he is not happy. Who would be when you know that your wife and you daughter think that you are a "gigantic loser" (American Beauty)?
Lester is not the only character who suffers from this. His wife Carolyn and daughter Jane both know what it is like to feel trapped in an unhappy life. Carolyn is imprisoned by image. She has the notion that she cannot be happy unless everything appears as perfect. And Jane, feeling the weight of her parents, wants to break off from her prison, her home life. She like most teens views her parents as weird and wants out of that life.
In The Virgin Suicides the characters that are the most imprisoned are the five Lisbon sisters. After the youngest sister plunged to her death during the first party they were allowed to have, and Lux came home late after the homecoming dance, their parents literally turned their home into a prison. "For most children, mothers and fathers set boundaries; for the Lisbon's, it's iron bars" (Berardinelli). They were not allowed out, had the tree cut down that was near their window, and even had actual bars put on the window. If that is not prison, what is?
But what is not really emphasized is that the parents did not do this to the girls out of cruelty but rather out of sorrow. For they too were in their own cells. They both were confined to the hurt and desperation of having one of their children take her own life. Was it because of failure on their parts? The answer to this they will never know. And so they will continue to live in the prison of ignorance.
Other elements that are seen throughout both of these films are infatuation and obsession. Anyone who has seen the movie American Beauty can not miss Lester's obsession with Angela, his daughter's classmate and friend. He first sees her when he and Carolyn go to see their daughter perform at the school basketball game. Instantly he became mesmerized by her beauty and couldn't stop the feelings he had for her. Obviously they were strictly sexual feelings. Is this normal? Is it normal for a father to have any kind of feelings for their daughter's friend? It may be normal but it is not what is correct. And so in order to portray the perfect family Lester tried for a while to suppress the feelings he was having for Angela.
Carolyn is also a victim of obsession. She is overly obsessed with appearances. She often makes comments to Jane about the way she looks. She feels that she cannot be happy unless she is presented in an ideal way. "Because of the necessity to keep up appearances, a serene facade often conceals a breeding ground for dysfunction, anxiety, and hypocrisy" (Berardinelli). An example of this is when she is trying to sell a house. She goes deranged trying to clean it and then the prospected homebuyers did not even buy it. They can see right through her. Although the house may look clean on the outside, it is not a valuable investment. That is something that Carolyn herself cannot see. She is blinded by her obsession with image.
In The Virgin Suicides, the obsession and infatuation is presented in a mysterious manner. The neighboring boys of the Lisbon sisters have become obsessed with them. But is it because of their beauty? Or is it because they want to be the heroes that save these girls? Or are they just infatuated with them because those girls are indeed a mystery to them? They watch them through a telescope. And that is the closest that they will ever get to these girls. By watching them through a projected image.
The one sister that becomes the center of the obsession is Lux. "Lux is at once a blond icon of girlish suburban innocence and an emblem of womanly eroticism" (Scott). She is the middle daughter and the most adept. She has been engaged in sexual encounters which makes her more exciting for the boys to watch. After she was thrown into her prison she lets loose this woman loving sexual escapades with different visitors on her rooftop. Thus becoming the object of desire for many young boys.
Loneliness plays a huge role in both of these films and why the characters act the ways in which they do. Lester Burnham is obviously lonely. His own wife does not want to be intimate with him. And his daughter wants nothing to do with him, although she suggests that it is his fault because he does not pay her enough attention. So of course he is lonely. Which is what makes him obsess over Angela. It leads him to try and find a new direction in his life. A life that may lead to happiness. Will he find it? Ultimately in the end he does.
The Lisbon girls all surrender to loneliness. They have no choice but to be alone. They will never be allowed to socialize in normal environments for a long time to come. And when that time comes it may be too late. They are confined in their home with each other. But that is not enough because each one of them suffers separately. It is too bad that they could not come together to get through the hardships. It is the hardships that lead to their individual demises.
Failure is another element that is crucial to understanding these characters. They all feel as though they have failed in some way. Lester feels that he failed as a husband, as a father, and as a man in general. He could not make his wife happy. And he could not make his daughter happy. And he also could not make his boss happy. No wonder why this man feels worthless. What is the point if you are not making a difference? His failures are what drive him to change. They make him realize what life really is. Unlike his wife who just can not see reality. She doesn't see her problems as being due to failure. She just adds to them with new failures such as committing adultery with another man. She does not see this as a failure to her duties as a wife because as long as her home looks perfect, and she and Lester look like they have a perfect relationship, then life is good. The rest are just details. Failure is written all over the Burnham's dining room. In the beginning everything was placed accordingly and had a perfect order. Slowly the candles were out of line and the roses that once lit up the room were completely vanished. What once was symmetrical is now erased and the true image of Carolyn's perfect family is coming through.
Failure's role in The Virgin Suicides is shown through the parents. They are the ones who will get the blame for the death of their children. It is because they failed as parents why the girls all self-destruct. They did not show enough love. Or was it that they loved too much and were too overprotective? They were not letting the girls live so they felt they were better off dead. And so onward to the other side, one by one they went. But no one knows what their exact motives were, but it doesn't look good when the parents are the ones who practically suffocated them.
Freedom is another important element of both films. It is actually the most important one. Through freedom in these films the truth of life is seen. Each character's own sense of freedom is what is real. Their imprisonment is what seemed normal. But most people are trying to escape and it is more common now. The ways in which people are trying to escape are out of the ordinary, which is the whole point. And therefore since it is not always politically correct is shunned and looked down upon.
Lester Burnham starts his escape by quitting his job. He had the choice to stay with the company and stay in a low respected position. But he made the choice to blackmail his boss for a large amount of money. Then he continued to push the envelope further by taking a low paying job at a fast food restaurant. But what did he care. It brought him back to a time when he had no responsibilities and it made him happy. And he also traded in his luxurious car and bought an old red sports car. The car that he always wanted. Now he feels that he is finally living. He also tries to escape through his obsession with Angela. Her little come-ons and teases make him start working out. He is feeling better about himself on the outside and on the inside. And to enjoy life even more, he started smoking marijuana. All of these things take him to the days in his life where he felt like a king.
Which is ironic because his wife's escape is through her affair with another real estate agent that calls himself "The King." Through him she gets a sense of adrenaline, something that has been missing in her life for a long time. But instead of breaking the perfect image and getting a divorce she wants to go on with her affair which will eventually lead to her ruin when Lester catches her.
Jane plans on escaping in the literal sense. She wants to just get up and run off to New York City with Rickey, the boy next door. She can not take her family anymore and the dysfunction that goes along with them. She wants to be on her own doing things her way. That is her freedom. To get away from Lester and Carolyn. To have a normal relationship with Rickey, the only person that she has open communication with. It seems that relationship is all she needs. Because the three other people she is supposed to have relationships with (Lester, Carolyn, Angela) have all failed her.
The escape for all of the Lisbon sisters is apparently suicide. "The deaths of the Lisbon sisters are equivalent to the destruction of the elm trees that line their street: they are beautiful and it's sad to lose them, but they have no inner life" (Scott). Lux did have the privilege of having more freedom than the rest of her sisters. For she got to experience having sex. She is the one who got to rebel against her parents on the rooftop. She also found retreat through listening to her records. That is sometimes a great escape for many. And it made Lux very content, until her mother made her burn all of them. So then she finally joined her other sisters in ending her life because she wasn't living anyway.
These two films show that image is everything. And so the way that the directors portrayed this through cinematography was great. In American Beauty Mendes used all sorts of different camera shots. He had so many close-ups and it really made you get a feel for what was going on inside the character's head. Mendes wanted the audience to take a closer look at the characters. If they looked close enough they can see the true selves that the characters are trying to reveal. He had many images that made it seem dreamlike and out of reality. The ways that he made the rose petals appear in different scenes was very unique and very appealing to the eye. In The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola also made it appear very dreamlike. She used techniques such as fantasy sequences and pretending that her camera had an X-ray lens on it to portray that. And she pulled it off well because this movie is a memory. And memories are often dreamlike. So it was very accurate to show the film in a dreamlike manner.
American Beauty and The Virgin Suicides may not share the same idea along the line of plot. But they definitely share the same themes. The theme that people are too wrapped up in appearances to notice what is really going on. The theme that people will go along in a miserable existence because to escape it is not normal. The theme that one can't judge a book by its cover. Because with both of these families it is present that on the outside they both seem very normal. Both of them live in mid-upper class suburbia, with the parents still married, and have beautiful children. But on the inside every one of them are fighting demons. And who wins? Lester won. "He does reckless and foolish things in this movie, but he doesn't deceive himself; he knows he's running wild-and chooses to, burning up the future years of an empty lifetime for a few flashes of freedom" (Ebert). Even thought he was shot at the end he found his escapes and was happy. But he is the only one. The Lisbon sisters found their escapes, but suicide is not an acceptable one no matter what. They could have found a better way to gain freedom. But they helped us see that what is so-called reality isn't real at all. People are constantly trying to break free from these "realities." It causes destruction and is sad to say is the ultimate reality.
In a way these movies can be somewhat intertwined. Because the freedom that the girls are looking for in The Virgin Suicides, is to be more independent. To grow up and not have to deal with the likes of their parents. And in American Beauty, Lester wishes so profusely that he could go back to the time when he was young. When he lived with his parents and had no responsibilities. " You're not even old enough to know how hard life gets,' he tells her. Obviously, doctor,' she says, you've never been a 13-year-old girl.' No, but his profession and every adult life is to some degree a search for the happiness she does not even know she has." (Ebert).
Berardinelli, James, Review: American Beauty, http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/a/american_beauty.html, 1999
Berardinelli, James, Review: The Virgin Suicides, http://movie-reviews.colossus.net/movies/v/sirgin_sucides.html, 2000
Bowman, James, Suffering Poses, American Spectator, Jun 2000, Vol 33, Issue 5, p. 66
Ebert, Roger, American Beauty, Chicago Sun-Times, http://www.suntimes.com/cgi-bin/print.cgi
Ebert, Roger, The Virgin Suicides, Chicago Sun-Times, http://www.suntimes.com/cgi-bin/print.cgi , May 5, 2000
McKittrick, Casey, Shaping Pedophilic Discourse around American Beauty Happiness. Velvet Light Trap, Spring 2001, Issue 47, p 3-12.
Scott, A.O., Film Review; Evanescent Trees and Sisters In an Enchanted 1970's Suburb, The New York Times, http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/review.html
Viner, Russel, The Virgin Suicides, Student BMJ, Jul 2000, Vol. 8, p 254