Saturday, October 22, 2005

American Beauty and Six Feet Under: The World of Alan Ball

A couple of days ago I rewatched American Beauty for the first time since seeing the end of Six Feet Under. Before I go on, this article's going to go into stuff from the end of Six Feet Under, so if you haven't seen the whole series, don't read it.

But if you have seen the series, you've come to the right place. The thing that Six Feet Under and American Beauty have in common is the fact that both are works by Alan Ball, he wrote American Beauty and created/wrote/directed SFU. American Beauty is one of the rare films where I'd consider it as much a product of the writer as the director. I suppose that's mostly because Ball went on to make SFU, while Mendes has only done one film since, and it wasn't particularly thematically connected to American Beauty, whereas SFU has a lot of commonalities with American Beauty.

First off a bit about the film itself, this is a movie I've loved from the first time I saw it. It's probably the best film to ever receive the best picture Oscar, and the only best picture winner in the past ten years that was truly a great film. It's a film that some people find depressing, but is exhilirating to me. It's a movie that covers a lot of the themes present in my work, the need to stop messing around in a routine and start doing what you really want to do.

The film tells the story of a guy who starts living life how he wants to instead of how he's supposed to, and ultimately he dies, the implication being that society will not tolerate people who so blatantly flaunt its rules. If you compare Lester's arc to Nate's, there's a lot of interesting parallels, and also a lot of insight into the difference between the differences in story construction between film and television.

Both me follow the same basic arc. Numbed by the difficulties of family life and work, they find a female muse who reignites in them something that was lost, and pursue her, until they're struck down and suddenly killed. However, the morality of their actions are presented in opposite ways. The entire movie glorifies Lester's new outlook on life, whereas Nate's actions are presented as troubling at least, morally unforgivable at worst. I seriously doubt it's coincidence that his AVM strikes immediately after having sex with Maggie.

So, why is Lester a hero for what he does, while Nate is bad? A lot of it is in the fact that this is a pattern for Nate. Lester is someone who's been trapped in this life for years and just accepted it, whereas we'd already seen Nate struggle to adjust to married life. During the Lisa arc in year three, the implication was that Nate couldn't adjust to married life because he was in love with Brenda, and it was that sense of missed opportunity that stopped him from being happy. So, let's imagine that Lisa hadn't died and Nate had stuck with her for twenty years, growing more and more numb. Then, we could probably sympathize with Nate shirking responsibility in favor of getting what he wants.

However, the narrative of Six Feet Under seemed to be leading us towards a happy romantic resolution for Nate and Brenda. When Nate has sex with Maggie, it devestates the audience because it means that Nate doesn't live up to our expectations for the kind of man he should be. It's the same as when Brenda goes on her sexual journey in season two, she's pushing Nate away, except that Lisa's pregnancy takes away from us blaming her. At the end of season five Brenda is trying, and has overcome her demons. One of the most devestating images from the season is Brenda sitting alone in the Quaker church, while Nate and Maggie are at her apartment having sex. That really got to me, she was giving everything she had to Nate and he was behaving inexcusably.

But, is what Nate did really that different than what Lester did? Both of them saw a woman who would make them believe they were something they weren't. For Lester, Angela's youth and beauty would allow him to tap into an energy that he's long since lost. He saw her as someone with all the fire that Caroline has lost through the years.

For Nate, Maggie would allow him to recapture some of the idealism of his youth. Nate is someone who's spiritual, and I would imagine back in Seattle he was involved with all kinds of New Age and Buddhist stuff. Maggie, and her Quaker faith, would put him back in touch with this spirituality, and make him a part of something bigger than himself. As Brenda says, Nate wanted someone who could make him seem like a better man than he is. This came at a time when he was beginning to realize that Brenda wasn't what she used to be. She had lost some of the crazy fire that first attracted him to her. She grew out of the youthful restlessness that had dominated her life until her breakdown in season two, Nate never reached that breakdown point, he was always able to get by no matter what he did. In season three, Nate's little rebellions against Lisa could have eventually led to a breakdown, but he didn't reach that point until he slept with Maggie. That was the act that crossed the line, and he was appropriately punished.

Lester never actually crosses that line. When he's given the chance to have sex with Angela, the reality of who she is intrudes on the mental fantasy he has constructed for himself. The sexual temptress of his dreams turns out to be a virgin once her masks fall away. For Nate, Maggie was purity and goodness, an image that he destroys by having sex with her.

The joy of American Beauty is in watching Lester gleefullly trump societal taboos. It's basically a fantasy for people stuck in a routine, he tells off his boss, smokes pot when he wants, buys the car he wants and works a job so meaningless it becomes entertaining. He consciously chooses to live like he did when he was a teenager, and as a result is happier than he ever was before. In the entire Alan Ball-verse, Lester is the character who encounters the least problems, and in the time we see him, is almost always happy. He's able to accept death because he knows he's lived his life to the fullest, for Nate, death is something to fear, because he always feels like he's lost something by choosing to come back and work at the funeral home. He's lived the exact life he didn't want to lead, and that's what makes him forever restless.

Ball clearly supports Lester, but how does the work present the morality of Nate's actions? To my mind, Nate is a character with a fire for life and a constant desire to move forward and try to reach a utopian existence. This is the thing that keeps him forever moving forward, but it also prevents him from being happy in the moment. Lester is able to find joy in the little things, but Nate can never stop thinking about the big picture and the fact that on some level he considers his life a failure.

That's one of the most interesting things about Ball's work, the characters all have grand ambitions for their lives, but they're radically different. Nate has it all, but he can't stop wanting more, whereas his brother David wants is a normal life, family and kids. However, the fact that he is gay means that wanting this puts him into conflict with society. He has to struggle to get that which Nate takes for granted. Claire is more like Nate, she's always reaching for something more, yet she finds herself in danger when she takes a temp job at an office and finds herself getting increasingly drawn into the routine of office work. If she continued down that path, it's likely she would find it impossible to break out and return to her art. And then, what she abandoned would become a psychological cancer destroying her like missed opportunity ultimately destroyed Nate.

One of the other major themes the two works share is the characters' desire to be unique, as Angela says "There's nothing worse than being ordinary." This is the governing principle of Brenda and Claire's lives, even though they would never admit it, because to do so would imply that their uniqueness is a conscious effort rather than just how they are. Angela's situation is different from Brenda and Clarie's in that she sees being ordinary as blending into the background, whereas she always wants to be the center of attention. That's what grates her so much about Ricky being with Jane, he shows no interest in her, seeing through her glamourous mask to the inner beauty of Jane. Jane is a proto-Claire, with a similar attraction to slightly insane boys. She doesn't have that much depth though, I suppose her biggest act is her decision at the end of the film to abandon the pre-chosen societal path and go to New York with Ricky. Seeing what 'normal life' has turned her parents into, she decides that this isn't for her and instead chooses to run away and try something completely different.

Like Jane, Claire runs away to New York at the end, but because of the development that a series allows for, Claire has passed through that rebellious period and instead leaves for New York on good terms with her family. I like the fact that both Claire and Brenda, who were so obsessed with remaining unique, ultimately end up embracing traditional values, but doing it in their own way. So Brenda winds up with kids, and family has her top priority, but the family she's assembled is unique, I love the scene in the last episode with Olivier, Margaret, Billy and Brenda all gathered around Willa.

I think the ultimate rejection of the idea that being ordinary is so bad comes when Claire and Ted speak in the last episode. Claire pokes fun at Ted for his decidedly unhip musical tastes, to which Ted responds that being hip is a decidedly adolescent concern. He says he'll listen to what he likes and not care what anyone else thinks, as long as it makes him happy. So, Ted, even though he may be listening to what society tells him to, is actually following his own impulses more than Claire who struggles to remain above the mainstream, even though it alienates her.

There's a whole bunch of other parallels, but this is something to think about. Even though I love American Beauty, Six Feet Under is just so much deeper because of the time allowed to develop character. AB does so much in its running time, but Nate alone has richness enough to talk about for pages on end. Then again, American Beauty does have "Fuck me your majesty!" That makes up for something.

Ultimately, Alan Ball's work always touches on really interesting issues that no one else is talking about, issues of purpose in the modern world. I think he's one of the most talented and entertaining writers working today and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.


Anonymous said...

i really enjoyed reading your analysis. it was well-written and thoughtful. Some of the parallels you drew were ones i hadn't thought about, but really enriched my thinking about Six Feet Under (since i am just finishing the last season now). thanks!

Patrick said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I wrote a whole bunch about the end of Six Feet Under back when it aired. It's all linked from the index page, so you can check it out.

Patrick said...

Sorry, messed up the link before. If you click here, it should work.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that you still check this page, as I see how long ago in the past this was posted. I stumbled across it today while looking up something else Six Feet Under related. I wanted to pause a moment to tell you that I thought you gave an exceptional assessment here. Being a writer myself, and a huge fan on both AB and SFU, I found the comparitive discussion very iteresting. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, it was certainly my pleasure to read them.

Patrick said...

Thanks man, I'm still reading here, and I can't wait for Ball's new show, True Blood. It's got a heavier genre element, but I'm sure the same quality human interaction will be there in full.

sahil said...

great analysis, i really enjoyed reading it. i'm a huge fan of both SFU and American Beauty.

a few things about the final season of SFU left a bad taste in my mouth, though. firstly, the melodrama involving Nate and Brenda became excessive to me, particularly the Nate's actions and decisions. sure, he was a thrill seeker but it rang very false to me when he slept with Maggie. after all he'd been through in his own life and with Brenda- not to mention the impact she had on him- it just seemed unbelievably out of character for Nate. he didn't cheat on Lisa at all despite being bored throughout, and Maggie was like a more boring version of Lisa. Nate was a moral person and i feel like they treaded too far out of his character for the purpose of making the end of the season climactic.

also, Claire genuinely enjoying the mundaneness of corporate life? wanting to be a part of it despite all her leftism and idealism? ending up with a conservative who likes top 40? something just didn't fit.

as for the final montage, i loved what Ball did with the other characters (sad about Keith, though)- particularly Brenda and having Claire live for 101 years- the girl clearly had so much life in her.

i'm interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Patrick said...

If you haven't already, you might want to take a look at my lengthy article about Nate, written after rewatching the series. That addresses the issue you bring up.

The way I see it, Nate always held out hope of being with Brenda, she screwed things up the first time, but all his time with Lisa, he had Brenda out there, giving him some hope that things could one day be better. Did he intend to leave Lisa? I don't know, but he had this dream that kept him going.

In season five, he's achieved his dream, he's married to Brenda and all is going well. The problem is, he's got everything that should make him happy, but there's still an emptiness. Brenda has lost some of the wild spirit that attracted him to her in the first place, and now, in place of her world weary cynicism, he's attracted to the quiet spirituality of Maggie.

Maggie is now what Brenda once was, that cure all woman who could give meaning to his life. Nate was a seeker, someone who always wanted more out of his life, and I don't think he ever could settle down. Unlike David or Ruth, he wouldn't be happy just being with someone, he wanted to live the most meaningful life he could, and family life just wasn't that. His tragedy is that he could never be happy, that he always wanted more.

As for Claire, I think the point of the story is that she's grown beyond the cynicism that ruled her life in the early days. She may not like the same things as Ted, but she can respect him as a positive and open person, someone who makes her happy in a way Russell or Billy never did. As he tells her, being hip is an adolescent concern.

And crucially, though she learns to adjust to the office, that's not where her life ends up. She still takes the risk, moves to New York, and invents her own new life.

Johnny_Rhine said...

Great review! I absolutely loved both the movie and six feet under. However I missed the optimistic approach to life by enjoying the little things, following your heart and accepting death. Six feet under mainly focused on the dark side of life and human characters. All the characters took themselves too seriously, contrary to Lester in American beauty. That's too bad. And I agree with you that Nate's actions were inexcusable. He always behaves like a little child, constantly leads a good conversation into a fight about nothing and failed to take responsability for anything. I must admit that I celebrated his departure of the show. But that's Alan's strength: we don't need to like the characters for them to be interesting. He is a great writer! said...

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