On American Beauty and Lost Summers

I was watching American Beauty for the third time (if you haven’t seen it, the film is brilliant and this post may contain some spoilers, so go watch it!). The times when I have watched the movie previously are interesting: the first time was a point in high school when I stopped doing homework, questioning its relevance. The second time was in the middle of college applications, when I felt like I was losing touch with the substance I should have in my writing and I had started to litter feel-good anecdotes in my application essays to appease both my parents and possibly, admissions people. The film is a startlingly accurate depiction of American suburbia and its hollow underpinnings, which contrasts greatly with the surreal, bucolic imagery that most of us see on a movie screen. Let’s shuffle back to part of my day yesterday to show how eerily familiar the movie becomes to even those of us not going through a midlife crisis like Lester Burnham.

Here’s part of a conversation with one of my closest friends, a really nice, smart guy (and yes, the first part mentions physics, but don’t fret, the post has nothing to do with physics!).

6:43 PM:

Him: “Ugh, I’m confused here- string fixed at x=0 and x=L, tension=T, density mu” [physics]

Me: “I’m sure there’s a formula in the book for that; I haven’t done standing waves for a long time. There is probably a generalized formula and you can take derivatives to see what happens to phi, delta, etc since the deflection will be zero.” [physics]

6:45 PM:

My friend calls me to ask more in detail about the physics question, but it’s clear he has something else on his mind.

Him: “So I’m going to dinner tomorrow night” and then hesitates and with subtle emphasis in his voice, “…with a girl”.
Me: “Oh awesome, is it the same beautiful girl as yesterday?”

Him: “Nope, a different girl than before! I’ve decided that I’m just going to go on as many dinners as possible with as many girls. I don’t even know with this one; she just reminds me so much of one at Berkeley. It’s thrilling, isn’t it?”

The conversation gradually goes to other things and it’s obvious that he thinks that I am silently judging him, as he shifts the conversation to my life. I tell him how I might go to England over spring break and I ask him if he wants to come, to which he says, “No, I’m a settle down kind of guy.” We both share a chuckle at the irony in this statement compared to what he said only two minutes before. We continue the conversation for a couple minutes but realize it is dinner time for both of us.

7:25 PM:
I think back after dinner and I sort of admire my friend. Maybe he’s not going about his interests the proper way, but he is at least displaying some sort of passion. Here I am, in front of a computer, doing nothing of the sort. Sure, I’ll make kind gestures to someone I think is amazing, or maybe even send a message to talk about a mutual interest and indirectly say that I miss them. While I certainly don’t have the option to ask them to dinner since they might be 3000 miles away, I have my doubts on whether I’d be so bold. Whether my friend has welled up with bravado or newfound confidence I don’t know, but when we both came into Berkeley as freshmen, we were both shy, quiet people bonded by similar interests- and now look how different we’ve become.

7:45 PM:

After twenty minutes of engaging in conversations with friends in which neither of us have anything to say in particular which results in half-hearted jokes and reminiscing, I decided that I should watch American Beauty. This time, I was watching the movie because it seemed more and more like my life was echoing the initial life of Lester Burnham. I was living suburban life, lulled by its sense of comfort and doing nothing important beyond the usual 8-5 grind. You could generalize a midlife crisis as a place where you either have no passion or do not seem to put in enough to follow your passions; even though I’m certainly different from Lester Burnham, was I much better?

8:20 PM:

After watching about thirty minutes of the movie, something dawned on me. The movie is quite the achievement because of the contrast between the quiet, peaceful music and cinematography in the background and the turbulence and vulgarity of the scenes. Even Lester, at some point, when there is elevator music playing at the dinner table, remarks how the music is unfitting of the family’s current state.  In most dramas, the music would be more filled with arpeggios and would reflect the turmoil in the household rather than the beauty behind suburban misery. Perhaps that’s why the film is so well-received by critics and viewers alike, but I digress from my point. The reason the movie is beautiful is because it is a fluid portrait of a society we live in, in motion. Now, if we strip the musical compositions and motion and instead just have individual shots of the film, is it remotely interesting? I would argue that the answer is certainly no, because it is hauntingly similar to the lives that we as college students live, away from college. Sure, some of us are working or doing internships, but what about after work hours?

8:30 PM:

I decide that while watching the movie, I’ll start learning dynamics. Perhaps the movie has made me question how I should live like it had previously, or it has made me concentrate on something that could be important.

9:30 PM:

In the middle of my learning session, my phone alarm goes off. I breathe a sigh of relief; the USA soccer game is on and now I can avoid working and putting in any effort. I can focus on my passion for watching soccer. I vowed to learn more dynamics by waking up early on Saturday morning.
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With all of this being said in a narration of a recent, recurring and dull Friday night, I guess an excellent question to ask yourself would be whether your life is worth watching on a piece of film. Sure, there will be dull moments, but they should lead to more exciting moments or important ones. Looking back, will the hour I spent learning physics while watching American Beauty be memorable? Probably not, but it could be the start of something good, for example, if I learned dynamics well enough, maybe I could be part of a research group that designs a robotic exoskeleton that could help people walk again. I think back to an exchange of dialogue in the movie which is simple yet powerful.

The girl and aspiring model that Lester is infatuated with (who is his daughter’s best friend) meets his daughter’s new boyfriend and questions him.  Lester’s daughter, Jane, says to the girl, “…And you’ll never be a freak because you’re just too perfect.”
Her friend retorts, “Yeah? Well, at least I’m not ugly!” The boyfriend, who appears stoic in this scene, then replies, “Yes, you are. And you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.”

In reality, I think one of the biggest fears of any individual, whether through introspection or by someone rudely pointing it out, is the fear of being boring. I think we’ve arrived at the awkward junction where I have somehow made this post blend into the usual carpe diem, make the most of the moment, etc post, so I’ll leave it up to interpretation.  Also, I would like to state that I’m not saying I’m bored throughout the summer and in general; it’s just less action-packed than college. I still maintain many passions (in fact, often I feel I have too many), which tend to be the topics of different blog posts; I just have less of a chance to explore them back home.
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Next day, 10:30 AM:

After sleeping through three alarms placed 15 minutes apart and then deciding to just enjoy my morning by reading a book in bed, I officially get up to brush my teeth at 10:30. Has complacency reared its ugly head?

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