The Awakening Of Lester Burnham Critical Thinking Examples
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American Beauty encompasses elemental facets of the American Dream and its pursuit of happiness. More importantly, the movie pays close attention to its darker byproducts that arise from a dismissal of the spiritual world and an unbalanced dependence on the physical realm: insatiable materialism, the deceptiveness of outer appearances, denial accompanied with repression, and increasing loneliness and emotional isolation. Throughout the film, each character meets these mental and emotional consequences with their own realizations and experience subtle or dramatic inner transformations. Lester Burnham embodies the most dramatic transformation, transcending his previous state of tragic ennui and waking sleep. He comes to this transformation by letting go of the attachment-based way of life that was engrained by society through emphasis on physical appearance and material reality, while demonstrating through his rebirth the idea that the self is not separate from the world in its eternal grasping for external happiness, but rather one with all of its mysterious beauty.
In order to magnify the power of Lester’s eventual awakening, the film exhibits every unsettling aspect of pursuing happiness in a world that one believes is separate from him or her.
On the surface, Lester has every making of the American Dream: beautifully trimmed rose garden, cheery neighbor banter, commute to corporate job, expensive couch upholstered in Italian silk. This extends to the less noteworthy aspects of the dream, which include a broody teenage daughter who secretly wants time and attention rather than material items, a wife that is a slave to appearances and worships possessions, and a bleak, nihilistic emptiness deep in the pit of his soul. In addition, the film reveals other abject facets of the modern day pursuit of happiness, such as the utter banality of glorified suburbia, the inanity of using appearance to garner success, the self-obsession with body and fitness, and the unceasing need for individuals to stand out and be special. True identities are repressed as lives carry on with heavy loads of denial for fear that their true selves will be seen and therefore eternally banned from any potential happiness and sense of belonging. Eventually, however, hope transcends the dysfunction that is meticulously portrayed.
The Upanishads teaches that thought and the mind cannot lead one to truth. Instead, faith in the Self must be exercised in order to reach a place of awareness and understanding of the true nature of reality. When Ricky Fitts tells of his experience filming a dead woman and almost seeing God look right back at him, the film uses this scene to point to the Hindu belief that the spirit of God is within every human being. Furthermore, the pleasant appearance on Lester’s face at his death speaks of a deeper peace, perhaps not only because he had finally felt alive after years of deadened existence, but also because his experiences led him to understand that life is truly worth living. In the dinner scene after Lester tells Carolyn that he quit his job, he tells both his wife and his daughter that he is tired of being treated as if he does not exist. If the sole focus is placed on the ego, appearances, outward accomplishments, and the opinions of others, the Self, for that moment, truly does not exist because attention is not being placed on its presence. This is the source of such emptiness and purposelessness. When he quits his job, Lester states his reasoning for blackmailing as being an ordinary man with nothing to lose. This idea of having nothing to lose mirrors the Hindu philosophy of the changeless source of supreme Love in the midst of illusory attachments. While the world can shift and alter the senses in an infinite number of ways, waking up from the dream involves letting go of the idea that joy exists outside of ourselves. In Lester’s case, part of waking up is realizing his power as the Self and not allowing outer influences to determine his behavior anymore. The Upanishads states that when spirit and matter are seen as one, the Self can become a divine instrument. The bliss and peaceful contentment that begins to infuse Lester’s awareness are evidence of this merging of what was once painfully separated.
The catalyst for Lester’s transformation also contains within it the message of illusion and separation. As the perfect, blonde American cheerleader, Angela serves as an exhibition of the illusion of fulfillment fed by the myth of the seductive blonde woman. What is categorized as beautiful in American culture is shown to be bankrupt in meaning when Angela reveals her innocence and deceptive projection of confidence. After she bares her real self to Lester, a glimmer of hope is revealed when she washes her face and looks in the mirror, symbolizing the dissolving of appearances that she had so heavily based her importance upon. Her fear of being ordinary is ironically contrasted by Jane’s growing sense of inner beauty and meaning despite her outwardly commonplace looks. The closer one looks at the subtle indications in the movie, the more one is able to see that it beckons the viewer to look beyond appearances and to see what truly matters, which are the things that cannot be physically touched or seen.
The experience of beauty can be met with true happiness, but only if it is true. Real beauty cannot be seen with physical sight, but rather with spiritual vision and awareness. American Beauty uses the experience of Lester Burnham to portray the deadening effect of our souls when we deem things as beautiful that are actually meaningless in reality, while his transformation reminds us of the Hindu belief that earnestly seeking the Self is the first step to discovering the oneness of all of life and ultimately attaining the bliss of immortality. 970
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