Americans Break Hearts and Guitars
"American ________! Stay away from ___!" Fill in the blanks. Go ahead, I dare you to. I know, this is an academic paper, but that doesn't have to stop us from a friendly bout of Mad Libs. So what did you pencil in? "Diabetics" and "excessive sugars"? No. Odds are, you filled in "woman" and "me", respectively. Even if you had never before heard "American Woman" by the Guess Who, after watching Lester Burnham, the protagonist of American Beauty, calmly, cooly, and somewhat arrogantly croon the verse while driving, you'll probably never forget those words, and it's not by accident or simply due of the talent of the Guess Who. It's one of the scenes in American Beauty that, through song, serves as both validation and nostalgia (for Lester) and (for the viewer) as a metaphor or even a vessel to better transmit and actualize Lester from the flat screen we watch him on. In John Cheever's short story "The Country Husband", Frances Weed, Lester's literary doppelganger, does not have the modern advantage of having songs of symbolic power as a backdrop to his own dramatic alienation. One must wonder, then, if the songs American Beauty director Sam Mendes have picked to use for Burnham would also be applicable towards, say immortalizing Frances Weed onto celluloid, or is his life's soundtrack would differ from Lester's?
The first song to cling to ol' Les is Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." The song is played while Lester is doing bench presses and smoking pot (a somewhat unrealistic and naive mixture, to the fault of the film's writer Alan Ball) in his garage. By this time in the story, Lester is beginning to reject his supposed suburban fate to be no less vanilla than the siding on the neighborhood houses (not homes) and is subversively lashing out, Dylan-style. There are a few related events that instigate this sudden crisis of this: his infatuation with his daughter, Jane's, cheer partner, the realization of the "bloodless money-grubbing freak" his once-sweet wife has become, and his meeting of his "personal hero" Ricky Fitz, the stereotypical sensitive, mysterious, dark new neighbor who gives Lester a familiar taste of both pot and a cavalier, youthful lifestyle at a gala he caters. Dylan's song illuminates a sense of urgent disorder, even panic, during stressful times. "There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief," whines Dylan, and continues to recount men who "drink wine" and "plow earth" without knowing "what any of it is worth." Francis is in a similar boat. He also has several events in a span of days that wake him up from his suburban slumber: the survival of plane crash, the emergence of a girl he had seen being ostracized in war-stricken France, and his own infatuation of a much younger girl, this time a baby-sitter. His surviving of the aerocrash lets him feel he has a new lease on life, and that this time he needs to do what he needs to do rather than should do according to the conventions of his peers. However, instead of some faux-artist teenaged neighbor as a role model (although I will here not that while Clayton, the fiancee of his babysitting-crush, is basically a Holden Caufield/Ricky Fitz hybrid, he does not play the same role to Weed as Fitz did to Burnham), Weed has his dog Jupiter to function as the empowering reminder that while in takes a large group of people in order to assemble a monotonous status quo, it only takes one free individual to completely ruin it. As his wife says, "I've worked hard for the social position we enjoy in this place, and I won't stand by to see you wreck it." Both Burnham and Weed have begun their journey to discover "what any of it is worth" thus being simultaneously yards away yet yards ahead of their neighbors.
The next instance is the aforementioned "American Woman." Lester is watched singing this ditty directly after a scene of his wife, Caroline, a maniacally career-oriented success-driven snake is boinking...
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