According to the book Thinking Fast and Slow, it doesn’t take much for us to think something is good. A psychologist ran a study at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University that placed Turkish words (or Turkish sounding words) in the newspapers of each school. For several weeks, words such as kadirga, saricik, biwonjni, nansoma, and iktitaf showed up on the front page. When students contacted the newspaper to figure out what was going on, they were told that the person who paid for the words declined to comment. Some words showed up more often than others, and after the test ran its course, students were given a questionnaire asking them, “What words sound good and what sound bad?” The words that showed up the most were rated as sounding good, while the words that didn’t show up as often were rated as sounding bad. The experiment replaced the words with shapes and symbols, ran it at different schools, and got the same results.
Thinking Fast and Slow broadened my understanding of the word meditation; it’s not just an intense focus of the will reserved for scripture and old texts, but simply giving something attention often. It doesn’t matter if it’s a few minutes of thought or hours of study each day — it’s still meditation. Looking at the Nike billboard every day on the way to work and meditating on scripture are the same thing. In both scenarios, the thing we look at is on our minds a lot, and we think it’s good as a result.
This has huge implications for our spiritual lives. When I was in high school I would commit a number of habitual sins (I was a high schooler, use your imagination — or maybe you shouldn’t). When I first started practicing them, I felt bad. Over time, though, I stopped feeling remorse and shame. I told myself that I didn’t feel bad because I was numb to the sin I was doing, but after reading Thinking Fast and Slow, I don’t think my problem was any level of numbness. I realize now that I had thought about the sin and committed the sin so often that, like the words in the student newspaper, the sin I was committing had inexplicably transformed into something good. To put it another way, I thought my sin was no longer actually sin — my sin had become a virtue and it was good for me to do bad.
It’s disconcerting to think that if we gaze at something often enough, our minds will think it’s good, our hearts will desire it, and our bodies will put it into action, but Paul was already aware of this in Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Our perception of goodness is easily corrupted, but it can also be redeemed if we think about and meditate on the things listed above.
American Beauty asks us to consider what we meditate on and how it forms what we love. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) has meditated on the American Dream for most of his adult life, and doing so has made him think that this dream — with its promise of control and contentment through material wealth — is good. His only problem is that in pursuit of this dream he’s lost something that made him feel… Better? Happier? Confident? Satisfied? He’s not sure, but he realizes that the Dream doesn’t exist. He nearly has everything taken away from him until he learns to meditate on the proper things, and through its use of color symbolism, American Beauty shows us what those proper things are.
Although Lester can’t pinpoint it, he’s lost his sense of control. He realizes he can’t make his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) and daughter Jane (Thora Birch) like him. Nor can he will his boss to keep him. Before work, he watches as Carolyn prunes her roses and chats with their neighbor Jim Olmeyer. Jim sports a purple tie and is the boyfriend of Jim Berkley (more on the importance of the couple and the color later). “How do you get your roses so red?” Jim asks, and Carolyn shares her technique. Neighbors have these types of polite conversations every day, but within Carolyn and Jim’s conversation is the idea that they can control the beauty of the roses to “get” them to suit their tastes. Jane Burnham also saves three thousand dollars for breast augmentation surgery, believing she can increase the level of her own beauty as well. This belief applies to every aspect of their lives, including their careers and their family. They believe that once they’ve adjusted everything to suit their preferences and desires, they’ll be happy and content.
The idea that they can force beauty to do their will is rather tyrannical, but they’re not alone. The commercials, motivational speakers, and co-workers that surround the American people have promised each of them that they can be in control and thereby be content.
Yet Lester begins to realize he’ll never achieve such control as he sits at work and tries for the millionth time to get ahold of an advertising executive. He sarcastically asks the secretary on the other end, “Does he, does he even exist? I’m starting to think he doesn’t.” The ad man he’s trying to reach might not be real — just as the American dream and its promises of control and contentment might not be real. It recalls the Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy and Co. realize the mythical wizard is actually just an ordinary man incapable of controlling much of anything.
Lester then meets with Brad, the company’s efficiency manager, who tells Lester he needs to justify his value to the company because they’re in a tight spot financially. Brad doesn’t care that Lester’s been with the company for fourteen years. He only cares about figuring out who to fire so he can accomplish his job. From Brad’s suit, to his office, to the computers, the scenes at work are saturated in blue, which symbolizes the cool, passionless reason that only cares about order and profits.
Carolyn hasn’t had a much better day either. She spends her time cleaning a house she’s trying to sell and repeating the mantra “I will sell this house today.” No one is impressed with her or the house though, and the scene ends with her talking to two women who are disappointed with the pool. “This is just a concrete hole.” Reason crushes another Burnham’s attempt at control, and both husband and wife arrive home angry.
Instead of learning to give up their desires for control, the Burnhams spend their time seeking new ways of gaining the control they’ve lost. Carolyn’s solution is to meet with another realtor, Buddy “The King” Kane (Peter Gallagher), at a dinner, so he can teach her how to sell more and therefore be content with herself.
Lester’s solution is to simply get drunk at the dinner. He meets Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), who works there as a server. Ricky also happens to be the Burnham’s next-door neighbor and a schoolmate of Jane’s. The two smoke weed in the alley when Ricky’s boss suddenly opens the back door of the kitchen, casting a yellow light into the alley.
The yellow light pouring from the dinner is the color associated with those pursuing worldly goods and trying to stay in control, yet Lester and Ricky have removed themselves from the party and have stepped into the dark alley. Black is more ambiguous, but the alley is associated with the fringes of society and symbolizes the unknown. Lester is just beginning his venture into the unknown, but Ricky often wears black, showing that he has already embraced it.
Rick’s boss threatens to fire him for slacking off, and Ricky says, “I quit. Stop bothering me.” His boss slams the door and retreats back into the light. Lester says, “I think you just became my hero.” Lester admires the ease with which Ricky severs his connection, and the apparent freedom it brings. He wants to be untethered from his responsibilities so he can indulge his desires rather than repress them.
In A Defence of Rash Vows, Chesterton writes that this type of untethered freedom doesn’t exist because everyone is a lover of one thing. A man is bound to whatever it is he loves; he can hop from loving one thing to another, but he’s never free from loving. For Lester, vocational success made a boring lover, so his new love becomes Jane’s best friend and fellow cheerleader, Angela Hayes. He can’t take his eyes off her during a halftime performance and imagines rose petals fluttering out of her clothes as she undresses for him.
Lester’s fantasies are associated with red, symbolizing passion and the desires of the flesh (note that the Burnhams’ bedroom is devoid of red). The environments and clothing of Lester and Carolyn are both blue and red, revealing that they suffer from excesses of reason and passion. Alone, the rigid order of blue and the unmitigated passion of red don’t offer much contentment — in fact, they’re pretty destructive. The film suggests that contentment is found not by getting rid of one or the other, but by unifying the two, and that’s why the purple tie of Jim Olmeyer is so important.
Jim Olmeyer and Jim Berkley are the only ones associated with purple because they embody the synthesis of reason and passion perfectly. As an openly gay couple, they needed passion and courage to reject the rigid norms of late 90’s suburbia. Yet as domestic partners, they stay faithful to a set of rules that guide and order their relationship.
Lester doesn’t go after this balance right away. After blackmailing his company, unleashing his repressed anger on his family, beginning to smoke weed, and working out, he thinks he’s finally free from the middle-class rat race. It’s true that he has removed himself from the corporate world, but he’s not free from discontentment and he’s still grasping at control. Ironically, he wears a yellow shirt and yellow Walkman as he jogs, revealing that he has become just like the people professes to hate — the businessmen bathed in yellow at the dinner.
At the beginning of the film, the Burnhams go their separate ways to seek contentment, but their door is red and their shutters are blue, suggesting that contentment is found in their home—they just need to return home, appreciate it anew, and work towards synthesizing reason and passion.
Lester finally understands the need for the balance between passion and reason when he nearly has sex with Angela. The realization that she’s a virgin shocks him out of his lustful desires; he uses his reason to subdue his passion and redirect his interest towards his family. Although he seems to have synthesized head and stomach, he doesn’t wear purple. He dons a black and white jacket because things are clearer for him — literally “black and white.” He’s no longer distracted by Angela Hayes (haze, get it? She obscures his sight and draws it away from what he should be looking at). Lester has stopped lusting after Angela and has begun to desire closeness with his family again. He asks Angela, “How’s Jane?” which is a simple but important question, because he’s meditating on his family again and beginning to love them anew.
He then picks up a black and white picture of his family, places it in front of a vase of roses, and stares at it, reenamored with them. Holding the picture in front of the roses is another simple but important gesture. It illustrates the principle that the desires of the appetite may never go away, but he can resist the temptation by meditating on his love for his family rather than on his lust. This gesture also demonstrates the movie’s tagline “Look closer.” It acts not only as the movie’s tagline but as an exhortation for the audience. As Lester holds the picture he notices details that he had previously missed. I think the intent of that phrase is to get people to notice the nuance of something. Perhaps a better phrase would be “look longer.”
Gazing at an image for a long time can be pretty boring, but boredom seems to be an integral step towards appreciating something anew. Boredom is necessary because it indicates a dissatisfaction with the current state of things. For instance, Lester was bored with his family, so what’s he supposed to do? He can move on to a diversion like Angela (which will inevitably lose its thrill) or continue gazing at what’s in front of him and asking more questions about it.
As Lester looks at the picture I imagine he is asking himself, what was Jane like back then? What’s she like now? Why did she choose to wear that jacket? What made her so excited in the picture? What changed? Looking longer means asking questions about whatever’s in front of you so can discover more about it. Once we do that, we notice details that we would have missed, and ideally, the object of our gaze suddenly becomes re-infused with wonder and excitement.