Monday, April 7, 2008

The Pursuit of Ugliness and the Loss of Beauty

I recently watched two films in the same weekend. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and American Beauty (1999). I couldn't help but reflect on how these two films shared so much in common and yet came to vastly different results.

To briefly summarize each of these plots. The Pursuit of Happyness, set in San Francisco 1981 introduces us to Chris Gardener a low income working man who is struggling to make ends meet. Everything changes when opportunities for him to escape his poverty come through hard work and a payless internship at a stock broker firm. Gardener completes the internship as a homeless man and is granted a full time job at the company.

American Beauty is story of American suburbanite Lester Burnham's spiral into a depression fueled by his lustful obsession with his daughter's friend. When given the chance to actualize his fantasies, he is shocked back into his fatherly role, but this revelation comes all too late.

There is one particular question that both of these films explore and offer an answer to: What is beautiful? What is worth pursuing?
Despite these movies' great differences, one great similarity they share is that they are both about the DNA of what it means to be an America, and interestingly they are both made by non-Americans (British screenwriter Sam Mendes directed AB, Italian director Gabriele Muccino TPoH). Chris Gardener seems to be working towards everything that Lester Burnham already has, a well paying job, his own house, a family. Yet, Burnham is less that satisfied with it all. They seem to be two slices of the same person, one looking forward with wishful eyes while the other looks back grimacing.

If one were to develop a soteriology from The Pursuit of Happyness, it would be, as William Edgar says, solus bootstrapus. This move shows us a man who is essentially a "good guy", someone who has been dealt a bad hand, given the chance to do the right thing he will. Sure enough as we see, he works hard pushes through, shows himself to the be the good guy that he is. Thus happiness has been attained, or has it?

One fundamentalist website reviewed American Beauty saying this"This is the story of an American tragedy, not beauty. It's about despair. Isolation. Hopelessness." (Pluggedin review of American Beauty). Well, that is correct. The problem is, that the reviewer missed the whole point of what is ugly, what creates despair, isolation, and hopelessness. The story shows us that chasing after the American dream, reveling in greed, lust, and apathy is ugly. What we assume to be beautiful as Americans is truly ugly. Our lake houses, suvs, sterile picture perfect homes are an affront to beauty of a man who came in a borrowed inn, rode a borrowed donkey, and was buried in a borrowed grave. American Beauty's antidote for the ugliness of the American dream is to show us that the moments that truly matter are the small things in life. The voyeuristic next door neighbor shows us with Edward Hopperian style, that this world is so full of grace and beauty that sometimes his heart feels like it will explode. He remarks that in the face of a dead homeless woman, he saw the face of God staring back at him. This kind of grace, as the title of a sermon I recently heard reminds me, sings in a minor key. What would Lester Burnham say to Chris Gardener? Perhaps "eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we may die".

Interestingly that fundamentalist website said this about The Pursuit of Happyness.
Inspirational isn't a word I would normally choose to describe a great movie, as it conjures up connotations of something sappy or overly sentimental. Nevertheless, I think that's the word that best captures Will Smith's powerful portrayal of real-life father and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps worker Chris Gardner. (PluggedIn review of Pursuit of Happyness)
I am grateful for the poignant message of movies like American Beauty, and appalled at the ugliness of The Pursuit of Happyness. With one you weep for redemption entering in like a bull on parade, and while with the other one find yourself looking for a coffee table from Ikea to turn over. What these movies show us that, while the reviewer of American Beauty cited it as a tragedy, perhaps that title is more fitting for The Pursuit of Happyness.


Jon Furst said...

This is an excellent post. It is clear, witty, but still generous.

However, how "The Pursuit of Happiness" portrays ugliness is still a bit unclear. Could you perhaps explain more?

It's about time one of us wrote on this bloody thing. Good show!

Paul-David Young said...

This was a stab, the activity on this thing has been in PVS (that's short for persistent vegetative state) for quite some time. I think I might do a follow up post, with less typos.

Julie said...

I like this post, P.D. I love that you contrasted these two movies, very striking. So you are saying that the ugliness of Pursuit of Happyness is that it glorifies the attainment of something that actually brings the opposite of happiness? I wholeheartedly agree that to watch these two movies is to understand the paradox of our culture's endless striving for the American dream and then subsequent disillusionment when it is obtained.