by Sean Hilton
Discusses how these two films show the darker side of the "American Dream"
|The films of America generally have two objectives: to make money and to keep the masses occupied and unreflective of their dreary lives. The entertainment industry has constructed movies in a way to lure Americans into a sedated state of complacency and contentment, in order to condition them into feeding off the frenzy of the latest fad or philosophy. The constant media exposure to the latest styles of our favorite actors and actresses is the method of conditioning and our unconscious yearning to go out and buy every product that bears his or her face or that is even remotely connected to him or her is the controlled response.
This does not mean that there is some diabolical villain with a hook for a hand sitting in an office at the top of a large skyscraper cackling away as he or she plots to use the entertainment industry to take over the world. Nor does it mean that directors, actors, screen writers, and everyone involved in film production are all part of some conspiracy to control the masses. What it does mean is that all artistic and creative integrity that may have taken place in the beginning of a film's making somehow mutates into a massive marketing scheme set in motion, which seems to be fueled by the collective greed, not just of the entertainment and marketing industry, but of humanity as a whole. By doing so, an image of infallible beauty is cast upon the entertainment industry and the "American Dream", for all to marvel at. Still there are movies of a rare breed which arise in order to shake the clever facade of Hollywood and America and reveal the monster that never comes out of the shadows. Two of such movies are appropriately named American Beauty and American Psycho. Both movies show how the myth of the "American Dream" fails to compare to the nightmarish reality of it all.
If one was to take two divisions of society which seem to reflect the "American Dream" in its fullest state of success, one would quickly look to the business division and the suburban division. The main character and narrator of American Psycho is New York 26 year old Patrick Bateman, played by Christian Bale, who is the poster child for the world of business oriented yuppies. Bateman is a handsome, affluent, and respected wall street broker at the top of his game. He has everything that every American dreams of: the nice apartment, high paying job, beautiful girlfriend, social charisma. But Patrick Bateman doesn't really care about any of this because it just doesn't fulfill his needs. Which is why he goes out and brutally murders men and women on his free time. Throughout the movie he even admits to other characters of his demon-like nature by saying things in the middle of a conversation like "By the way, did you know I'm utterly insane?", yet none of his friends, his girlfriend, or anyone else ever really pays attention to what he's revealing because they're so sucked into their own little worlds. The more obvious Bateman's insanity becomes, the more the absurdities of the corporate world are revealed. The film successfully shows the vanity and depravity that takes place within the arena of corporate competition, although rarely to the blatant extreme portrayed in the film.
The sense that there is more than meets the eye beneath the threshold of those who happily live the "American Dream" is also successfully addressed in the film American Beauty. The film's main character is Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, who is a middle aged married man who has lost all care for everything in his life and has slipped into a catatonic state of apathy. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening), places such value on status that she has turned into a "bloodless, money-grubbing freak" who has no time for any form of intimacy, which further sedates and frustrates Lester. In the middle of all of this is their insecure daughter Jane, who feels stuck between her dysfunctional parents. The film has other characters which fill in the space for the other stereotypical suburban yuppies, with a twist of course. The eccentricities of each character blend together to create a confounding story line that shows just how messed up the suburban life can truly be, and yet none of the characters are able to see it unraveling because they're to wrapped up in their own insecurities and self absorbed worlds. That is until Lester is murdered where upon it is obvious just how far astray from normal they all are.
Both films effectively show that there is a shadow to the "American Dream" which we are all unwilling to take sight of, because we are afraid that we'll see the undeniable truth which we try so earnestly to ignore. The truth is that no matter how hard we try to build this monolith of perfect order and stability, the natural winds and waters of chaos will eventually cause it to erode. We were not meant to force ourselves into these squalid imposters of utopian dreams. We were meant to live free from the confinements of lifeless commodities and products and corporate competition. Our "American Dream" is to live in this world we have been amazingly granted without the fear of having to enslave ourselves to the petty and vain idea that we can actually escape who we are.