Tag Archives: American Beauty

Eye of the beholder

Now that I have your attention...

My good friend George alerted me yesterday to a recent news item from The Hamilton Spectator.  Recently a young student, Paul Gomille, was suspended for two days from a Catholic high school in Ajax for distributing a speech he’d written, which was ironically not about creationism versus evolution, gay rights, racism, terrorism, the existence of God or any of the other subjects that usually raise red flags.  Instead, the piece was a thought-provoking essay on the nature of beauty.  The gist of the suspension was that he had asked his principal for permission beforehand but was refused because of some language in the piece that was considered “judgmental,” and he went ahead and did it anyway.  He was suspended, the school argues, because he had disobeyed staff.  What is remarkable to me is that this is obviously a message Paul felt very strongly about sending out.  His essay, which you can read for yourself at the link above, speaks directly to those who feel marginalized because they do not fit the ideal of the glossy magazine cover, because even though their hearts need love as much as anyone else, they are passed over for failing to live up to an unrealistic expectation set by corporations.  That someone so young should choose to tackle the subject of the beauty of all women, in this climate, when women’s rights are under attack in the United States by impotent old men, when the level of debate among his classmates is pronouncing one girl or another “f—in’ hot” based on the shortness of her skirt, is a cause, in my opinion, for celebration, not suspension.  I get that he disobeyed an order.  Couldn’t he have been asked to write lines a la Bart Simpson instead?

Beauty is a difficult concept, and its paradoxical nature is one of the many examples of the human contradiction.  We are hard-wired to respond positively to physical characteristics we find appealing – it’s the primate in us, the genetic drive to find the most suitable mate capable of creating the strongest offspring.  Instinctively, I am more attracted to dark-haired women, always have been, can’t help it – it’s my nature.  (No offense to blondes and redheads.)  When a woman catches a man leering at her and accuses him of being an animal, well, unfortunate as it is to society’s mores and the concept of proper behaviour, that is sort of how it’s supposed to work.  There is certainly nothing wrong with physical attraction, indeed, that’s how 99% of relationships start out anyway.  However, it used to be, in the days before mass media saturation, that our ideals of physical beauty were limited to the people we interacted with.  Some historical Don Draper then figured out how to use beauty to sell you his wares – by making you feel ugly and inadequate in a way that only a specific product could cure.  Nowadays, go to Google Images, search for “beauty” and all the pictures that come up will be variations of the same perfected female face, Photoshopped within an inch of her life, staring blankly back at you in an expression meant to be smoldering, inviting, and at the same time, berating.  You don’t look nearly as good as me, but if you buy this lipstick you just might come within a thousand miles.  These non-people are everywhere now, like gods casting wary eyes down from skyscraper billboards at the homely mortals ambling through meaningless lives.  And despite ourselves, we look up to them as impossible ideals.  My better half and I kid each other about our celebrity crushes – I have Kate Beckinsale, she has Alexander Skarsgard.  But there’s every chance that if we were ever to meet either of them we would find them off-putting.  (Particularly Beckinsale – she smokes like a chimney.)  In fact, one can obsess over, but cannot love, a fantasy.  And one should not be intimidated by fantasy either.  What makes us fortunate is that as human beings, we don’t have to be.

Where we differ from our animal cousins is that our intellect makes us capable of responding to the radiance that lies beyond the physical.  Our desire for love can only be satisfied when our soul connects with another, beyond biochemistry, beyond pheromones.  When we reach beneath the hardened shell to touch dreams, fears, insecurities and longings, and embrace them with our own.  The capability to love and truly devote oneself to another comes when we attain the maturity to see the complete person inside.  Paul Gomille seems to have reached this understanding far sooner than other boys his age, and for that, at least, he should be admired.  The other guys will make the cracks about Mary’s legs and Cindy’s chest, and recycle the cruel joke about the girl who fell from the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down, but someday, they’ll get it.  At least you hope they will, otherwise they are fated to live very lonely lives.  The beauty of the soul is where it’s at; where lasting and fulfilling relationships are forged.  And where “what’s hot” may be framed by Vogue and Vanity Fair, what’s beautiful is everywhere around us.  Like the movie American Beauty says, look closer.  Look past the physical.  Look into the heart.  Paul sums it up very nicely.  All women are capable of being beautiful.  All women are beautiful.

He shoots, he scores

You can hear it in your head, can't you?

My tastes in music have always been a bit of a joke among my closest friends.  I was about five years late to the party buying a CD player, and my first CD purchase wasn’t the White Album, or any of the chart-topping or even lesser known indie bands at the time – it was the soundtrack from Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, not even a movie for which I had any particular affection.  In fact, over the years I’ve probably purchased dozens of soundtracks from movies I didn’t like that much, swelling to a collection of hundreds.  The sole reason?  I loved the music.

Music and film have long been committed companions, from the beginnings of the silent era when a live musician would sit in the theatre and play piano to dramatize the grainy black-and-white images flickering across the screen.  The coming of the talkies, thankfully, did not diminish the need for music to continue its cinematic journey.  Early composers like Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Alfred Newman and Miklos Rosza developed upon the traditions of the classical masters to fashion, together, a new musical language for the 20th Century’s most popular new art form, a tradition expanded upon by men like Bernard Herrmann, Maurice Jarre, Nino Rota to name but a very few.  How many of the incredible movie moments have been etched into our collective memories in large part because of their music?  Scarlett’s longing for the halls of Tara in Gone with the Wind.  Janet Leigh’s shocking death in Psycho.  The lonely trumpet that opens The Godfather.  Robert Redford’s home run blast in The Natural.  Rocky Balboa’s race up the Philadelphia steps.  The mere glimpse of the photo above can conjure immediately the haunting John Williams motif of the yearning of the hero to set out on adventures bold, much as thoughts of sharks can summon his remarkably economical two-note overture for Jaws.  The movie score is its emotional brush, painting the subtext of the characters’ deepest passions directly onto our hearts, uniting the audience in a shared experience of joy, pain, despair, and most endearingly, hope.

The 1990’s were a rough era for lovers of orchestral soundtracks.  Madonna’s Music from and Inspired By Dick Tracy begat a misguided and disappointing era of music marketing whereby soundtracks were reconfigured as pop/rock/rap compilation albums that had little to do with the movie itself – maybe one or two songs at most were used in the film and the rest were chosen at random by committee.  And yet some brilliant scores were flying beneath the radar.  I’ve been listening a lot lately to American composer Thomas Newman’s work on 90’s epics like The Shawshank RedemptionNewman’s music isn’t as recognizable as someone like John Williams, who works very much, particularly in his Spielberg and Lucas collaborations, in the mode of leitmotif – assigning a specific theme to each character and recurring emotional beat.  Newman’s music is always more subtle, relying on gentle piano, soft percussion and swaying strings, yet its emotional resonance is just as strong.  His scores for American Beauty and Road to Perdition are a masterwork of forlorn and melancholy understatement, letting you peel layers from the characters and see directly into their wounds.  American Beauty in particular is a movie that would not work with the more upfront, heroic style that Williams is so good at – as Wes Bentley’s character Ricky describes being overcome by the beauty he sees in the world, even in innocuous things like a plastic bag floating in the wind, Newman’s soft piano embraces both him and us, and just for a moment we can see through his eyes.  In a sense, the music is that intangible, untouchable beauty, capturing the moment in a way that dialogue, performance and image cannot.

Joseph Campbell suggests that amidst our billions of stories, there is only one – the journey of the hero with the thousand faces.  Cinematic scores likewise number in the thousands, some remarkable, some forgettable, but singular in their indispensability as storytellers.  They can be our emotional anchor as we fly off into the strange new worlds of the imaginations of directors, writers and actors, and a truly magnificent score can come to define moments in our own lives as well as the ones we see on the screen.  Truly, who hasn’t imagined the music swelling at our most heroic, and even our most despondent hours?  Stories, like our emotions, are our universal connectors – and music goes with us on the journey as a narrator, speaking the truth in notes and phrases through all barriers to comprehension when words sometimes fall short.