Friday, September 17, 2010

American Beauty (2001)

So I came across this blog post on American Beauty and decided his "deconstruction" of the dinner scene was done poorly. I opted to give my own thoughts on the scene. Hopefully it's cogent.

I think that this “deconstruction of a scene” is done poorly. What is it about Thora Birch’s presence/placement in the scene represent? How does the sound and the lighting add to the film’s main themes? How does the dialogue play out? What do Annette Bening and Kevin Spacey overlap & deliver their lines? What does the blocking accomplish?

Thora Birch’s mere presence in the dinner scene (and Spacey’s insistence that she stay to witness it) demonstrates that she fully comprehends the facade that her parents put on outside of the walls of their “home.” She understands the dysfunction that each of her parents exhibit privately & hide publicly. Her placement at the dinner table was mentioned but not elaborated upon. She sits between Spacey & Bening, signifying that she is the only thing that is keeping the two together. She is the bridge between the couple that have nothing more in common.
The “Lawrence Welsh shit” playing in the background implies some sort of air of civility & sophistication that is contrasted greatly by the bickering between the married couple. The use of candles versus fluorescent lighting embodies Bening’s artificiality already alluded to by the background music’s presence. It also darkens scene (obviously), and gives the whole scene a somber mood. The dining room itself does not have too many adornments on the walls, so it shows that beyond the beautiful facade, there is little substance there, reflecting the “lie of a happy marriage” motif recurring throughout.

Spacey politely asks for the asparagus, yet his requests are unheeded. Bening interrupts him with her frantic ranting about her own anxieties. Birch says nothing but a declarative statement of detachment, mirroring her own distance between each parent.

Spacey is the only one who breaks the space of the other two characters in the scene. The horizontal space of the scene can be split into thirds, with Bening, Birch, & Spacey going from left third to middle third to right third, respectively. Spacey cross occupies all three thirds to get the asparagus he so fervently wants & is denied.

What could this indicate? Spacey’s Lester Burnham is on a quest to find efficacy in his comfortable, suburban world. He is crossing boundaries a normal suburban dad would not otherwise. He transforms. This turning point is where it’s so evident.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Frenzied Narcissism's Post "On Progress"

I was reading Frenzied Narcissism's Post "On Progress", and it got me thinking about the US's foreign policy & what it means to be American. Recently, I've been pondering the US's role in the rest of the world.

Upon reading FN's post, I was reminded of my Sophomore year in high school when my World History II professor stated, "We had it coming to us." Sometime later that week I came home and repeated what I had heard in class. My venerable step-father (an older, conservative type) quickly trounced my pronouncement that maybe the US's aggressive foreign policy had provoked the attack. Having been shut down, I put those thoughts to the back of my mind. It has recurred ever so often, but I think that after having learned a little more about the US's exercising of power in the post-WWII world, I'm still on the fence about whether we "deserved" such a horrific act.

In Frantz Fanon's work The Wretched of the Earth (or the Wikipedia article), he discusses how the disparity between the haves & the have-nots (a more simplified term for what used to be the colonizer & the colonized) results in a pressure-cooker type of situation where the colonized majority need to release the frustrations of their life of servitude under the colonizer minority. Frantz Fanon is a French-trained, Martinique-born psychiatrist and presents his arguments within a psychological framework. His book discussing the process of how the colonized would revolt against the colonizer is studied at West Point in classes on combating insurgencies, paradoxically enough. Needless to say, Fanon argues that colonizers need to be more equitable with the colonized (or leave the space entirely) since colonization (& its resultant manifestation of subjugating the masses) is a bad thing. In the first chapter "On Violence," Fanon discusses how decolonization is a violent event; it is not a "rational confrontation of viewpoints", but an "impassioned claim" that the colonized is not like the colonizer (& doesn't want to be). Basically, reason is required of the colonized by the colonizer in order to "procede forward" with negotiations. The interesting point to make is that subjugating another class of people is not a rational thing either. We will agree that slavery is a bad thing, but alternative mechanisms of control have been designed in order to subjugate groups of people, all the same.

This is where the United States's form of neo-imperialism & reactions against it come to head. The US learned that occupation of a territory (a la the Roman, British, or Spanish empires) was not the way to operate effectively. As a result, the US created an economic mechanism to control small, more dependent nations. This is the world we live in. The US has the largest economy, military, and consumer spending in the world. The United States dictates the terms of its trade with less-powerful nations. And the citizens of the United States benefit from these negotiations. We get $3.50 for a gallon of gas. We pay $2.99 for a gallon of milk. We get our widgets for cheap & raise our standard of living at the expense of the livelihood of the citizens of foreign countries.

Global institutions have a very difficult time trying to be autonomous of the US government's sphere of influence (at the very least), when the policies & terms for financing economic growth. Joseph Stiglitz went to great lengths to deride the grip that Washington Consensus had on "global" institutions like The World Bank, the IMF, and the United Nations. I'll meet his arguments somewhere on the moderate end of the spectrum and say it's "very difficult" for these institutions to be independent. So what does this say about the flow of people/ideas within the world and their relevance to the United States?

In Jude Wanniski's book The Way the World Works (or a Wikipedia article), he takes a resigned stance against the flows of philosophical movements, relating it to a neoclassical approach to the economic & political. It's a neoliberal stance that assumes there's some sort of Invisible Hand guiding the people's decision, either for the good or for the bad. All decisions made "by the people" are done so because they wanted it. In order to not be so conspiratorial, I will assume that most of the information available out their about particular social or economic policy is known by the masses. (In truth, I feel there is a lot of obfuscation and reliance upon the decentralized & conflicting sources of information by the financial/political elite. It's not a room full of people who meet every 11th of the month at 11:11 am, but I believe it's smaller than one would think.) Given that the masses to which Wanniski refers have the majority of the information needed to make a "correct" voting decision, the vox populi will go (& vote) where it wants the nation to head. Evidence of this fact is the election of Barack Obama by an electorate that had less understanding of his policies but more passion contra George W. Bush & his Republican Party. Barack Obama, from a public perception standpoint, had a lot of negative publicity against him during his campaign, but somehow, none of it ever stuck. He was still able to pull off 53% of the popular vote and 68% of the electoral vote. People wanted "change", and Obama's campaign gave them that, without understanding what "change" actually stood for.

So where does this leave us? I've brought up Frantz Fanon's book on the subjugation & reaction of colonization (and implied that it still applies to the modern age of seemingly, autonomous nations). I brought up Wanniski's book on how the people of a nation will flow wherever they desire (and want legislation to satisfy their needs). So did 3,000 US people deserve to die? It seems like I haven't answered that question.

I've resigned myself to apathy & ambivalence really, but I will put forth something that is uncomfortable for me as an American. I feel like we are complicit in aggressive foreign policies that push nations to maximize profits & minimize the benefits to their own citizens. The citizens of the United States subsist in their bubble reveling in ignorance of the suffering that occurs elsewhere in the world. We shrug off the toil caused by our government's economic policies as mere flashes of light coming from not-here. This is how anger & frustration is displaced onto the public by radical terrorists. This is why I think "we deserved it." Any group who feel their lives (political, social, & economic) have been hijacked will react with angst. Despite the cowardly nature of their attack (which is cowardly only because I am of the opinion that dying is easy, living's hard), I can come to understand how an ignorant group of religious extremists can believe they're fighting the "colonizer" with a devastatingly symbolic act "for the cause". No one deserves the bad things that happen to them, but the perception of how these "bad things" manifest themselves is greatly contended & debated. I will argue that bridging the divide between have & have-nots must be the American people's directive. We should not "spend more," but "think more/question more."

What would other countries do that had this sort of absolute power over us? Probably the same thing, realistically thinking. Would I be willing to pay more for gas/food/etc. in order to be more equitable with people I've never met? Probably at first, but then I'd hit the "Ctrl+Z" button to get out of my overly idealistic wonderland. Where's the middle ground between maximizing profits and minimizing anguish in the world? My ambivalence & apathy comes from the fact that I have no answer to these tough questions.