There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.
Ricky in “American Beauty”
The Bay Area has seasons, but they aren’t as dramatic as other places. It basically moves between winter’s wet and summer’s dry, with a burst of pale pastel blossoms in the spring and a gradual turn of color as the leaves surrender to autumn.
It doesn’t snow here. I have on occasion visited a place where when I went to bed, the world was brown and grey, and when I woke, it sparkled white. The landscape had been transformed. I have experienced the moment when you realize that the silence you hear is the sound of falling snow.
I have never lived with snow, so I don’t know if you can become inured to the magic of it. For me, it is magical.
In the film American Beauty, Ricky shows Jane the most beautiful film he has ever made, a plastic bag blown about by the wind against a backdrop of a brick building and leaves skittering on the ground.
“It was a minute away from snowing,” he says. As he watched the bag dance, he realized, “There was this entire life behind things. . . . There was a benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid – ever.”
I watched the movie on New Years Day. I hadn’t seen it for eleven years, since it first came out. It’s wonderful revisiting a good movie after many years. Time and experience make it seem as if you are watching the film for the first time.
It takes place in a suburban neighborhood. I don’t think it’s so much a comment on the banality of suburbia as it is a story about what happens to us when we feel our life has become banal, when we no longer experience beauty, when we feel we have been banished from beauty.
Please come along with me as I make a leap.
There is much discussion among politicians and political pundits about the American dream. The new Speaker of the House chokes up when he talks about having chased it his whole life. It is too painful to look at school children, he says, because he doesn’t think they will have a shot at the American dream.
The American dream seems to have something to do with making money and keeping it for yourself. That doing that will make you feel secure.
I think that dream formed as a response to the Great Depression that was followed by a war. The generation who came of age during that time, some call it the Greatest Generation, were determined to protect their children from what they suffered, particularly from economic hardship.
I think that suburban growth reflected that dream.
But, that dream was limited, and exclusive. I can’t help but think that the horror of the Concentration Camps branded itself on our collective psyches. I think it showed us what can happen when societies are built on the notion that there is an us and a them, and the very survival of the society requires that the “them” are not quite as human as “us.”
We were the good guys who liberated the death camps, while we made American soldiers ride in cars behind German prisoners of war because those soldiers were black.
We had to look into our own dark shadowy side. Out of that came the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, the independence of the disabled movement, the recognition that homosexuality is not a perversion.
That is the American dream to me — the dream that Martin Luther King spoke of so eloquently in 1963. It is a vision of what can be, rather than what has been. To me, the Constitution provides a framework that says there is no us and them, there is only us before the law.
I’m not sure when the American dream turned into the promise of economic certainty. I saw the owner of the Dallas Cowboys interviewed on 60 Minutes. He is worth two billion dollars, but is worried about losing his fortune, any of it. He is more scared than I am, and I am about two billion dollars away from having two billion dollars.
What concerns me most about the current political climate is that it seems that fear of the other is its rally cry. The new crop of senators and members of congress seem like very young souls whose notion of the future is measured by business quarters, rather than the cycles of nature. They seem to view life as a sentence to be served rather than a story to be lived. They do not seem to see that there is an entire life behind things.
Kevin Spacey, in an interview about American Beauty, says that he thinks it’s a story about how events stir up your life so you can realize that what you have is enough.
“Look Closer” is the subtitle of the movie. If you look closer, you see past the façade. And therein lies the beauty—the life that is messy and uncertain. There is no reason to fear life—ever, even though it is uncertain. Change is the electricity that fills the air, a minute away from snowing.