“A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual, but also, consciously or unconsciously, the lives of his epoch and his contemporaries.” —Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
The eight-month period from late 1999 through May 2000 saw the release of three remarkable films from three different countries of origin: Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, Agnès Jaoui’s Le Goût des autres, and Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi. Each was a critical and (relative) commercial success, with American Beauty receiving the Academy Award for Best Film and Jaoui’s work its French equivalent, the César; the Taiwanese Yang was named Best Director at Cannes and Yi-Yi recognized internationally by numerous professional societies and other festivals.
Released in rapid succession, widely diverse in origin, these three works share uncanny similarities of narrative incident, characterization, and theme. Addressing male mid-life crisis against a backdrop of millennial anxiety and a pitilessly mutating global economy, they raise intriguingly similar questions about personal, familial, and social identity in ways that are often strikingly analogous. Yet in their full cinematic elaboration of these themes — what we might consider their responses to these questions — the three films diverge dramatically. While these abundant discrepancies are the evident function of the individual artistic visions of each film’s screenwriter and director working within the framework of certain commercial filmic codes, such an explanation remains incomplete. Weighing just as heavily is the freighted cultural dimension of identity and social behaviour apparent in each film. In large part, these otherwise similar works diverge from the parallel under the gravitational pull of the invisible but very real dark matter of culture.
In Yi-Yi (“A One and a Two”), Le Goût des autres (“The Taste of Others”), and American Beauty, we find ourselves, respectively, in a densely populated Taipei of skyscraper apartments; an unidentified Rouen largely reduced to a convivial café, a humming factory, and an overdecorated house; and a stereotypical American suburb of elmy streets and built-in appliances. Our protagonists inhabit extravagantly dissimilar décors, but geographic difference fades beneath the sad whitewash of starkly similar fates: wherever it is, this is no country for middle-aged men. Jean-Jacques Castella, Lester Burnham, and NJ Jian are in their forties and lost; their professional lives are directionless; their wives and families have become familiar strangers. In each case the first reel leads to a tingly, sharply framed moment of revelation in the form of the Other Woman. From this point the three plots stagger forward through gauntlets of marital and professional tension, past aching regret, self-questioning, zany unpredictability, silent withdrawal.
The bewildered dad, the failing marriage, the meaningless job, and the other woman are not a novel combination, of course. In the hands of Jaoui, Yang, and Mendes, however, a cinematic plot situation familiar to the point of stereotype evolves into three excitingly dissimilar patterns of thematic questioning and (semi-)resolution. Where they take the viewer in their treatments of the by-now familiar particulars of mid-life crisis will depend, I will argue, on powerful, if unstated, cultural assumptions borne by these artists or tapped in the act of engagement with subject matter and implicit collaboration with a projected audience that is filmmaking. The three narratives, in other words, are informed by differing cultural models that in part determine the sharply distinct directions the films take. Bringing stinging immediacy to larger questionings about duty and individual desire, these American, French, and Taiwanese films proceed from essentially the same starting point to create radically distinct social spheres and narrative arcs marked, respectively, by obsessive self-absorption, tolerant openness toward others, and the insistent primacy of social obligation and pattern. While evidently the product of individual talents, these divergent cinematic outcomes owe at least an equal debt to the weighty imperatives of cultural difference.
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Memory and Desire
The protagonists of Le Goût des autres, Yi-Yi, and American Beauty are adrift in the same seas, the deep waters of their forties, lost off leaden coasts they know too well. The adult world they sought has not kept its promises. At best, their marriages are tepid standoffs, the office ludicrous or without interest. Time has done its work on Monsieur Castella, NJ, and Lester Burnham, and the women who abruptly seize their imaginations do so like Eliot’s sweetly cruel April “mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” The different choices they make on these painful and hopeful awakenings will determine both the personal fates of these three different men with so much in common and the divergent thematic emphases of the films they inhabit.
The viewer’s initial glimpse of Lester Burnham in bed may prefigure this eventual awakening, but the father and husband we are introduced to in the opening frames of American Beauty is by his own posthumous account “already dead.” Significantly, his first traits appear in absentia, for, to his disaffected daughter in the crosshairs of her boyfriend’s omnipresent video camera, he is at best an extraneous object of derision. While the voice-over that follows certainly confirms this state of affairs, the actorly irony of Kevin Spacey subtly undermines Burnham’s robotic timbre: this is the first hint that Lester’s struggle — and partial achievement — will be to retake control of his personal narrative. For now, though, the high point of his day is furtive masturbation rushed through under the symbolic threat of castration by a compulsively gardening wife whose clogs match her shears’ handles. To wife and daughter a hapless bumbler, eavesdropping Lester is cut off behind his pane of suburban glass. This snipped-off existence continues at work, where to smooth Brad he is, significantly, rather “Les” than more. The new corporate ax-man essentially requires Lester to come up with a reason he shouldn’t be cut loose.
Lester’s bewildered rising from bed in the early scene, already bushed, finds an echo in the central portion of Yi-Yi. “I wake up feeling unsure about everything,” NJ murmurs to his comatose mother-in-law, “I wonder why I wake up at all.” Indeed, throughout much of the film, as his loser brother-in-law marries, he fumbles for meaning at work, and his wife leaves, NJ wears a puzzled somnolence in the impassive creases of his face. Expressing its protagonist’s sad state less explicitly than American Beauty, Yi-Yi makes its point by accreting quiet images of middle-aged confusion: reflective solitude in a crowd, NJ rummaging through drawers and forgetting what he’s looking for. Through such figures as his sadsack hero’s mother-in-law and wife, director/screenwriter Yang both mirrors and comments on NJ’s plight. Like the older woman, victim to a stroke, he too is the living dead, with others’ words perhaps heard but, it seems at times, hardly processed. Like his wife, he lives “a blank every day,” her unannounced departure to join a spiritual cult paralleling NJ’s inarticulate yearnings and unexplained absences of attention, his mute withdrawals into music and headphones.
Like Lester’s downsizing firm, NJ’s tiny start-up is facing what the subtitled translation calls, blandly, “a time of transition.” Software? Content? Computer games apparently, but the real choice will be whether to go with the Japanese Ota — an expensive but creative partner, a man of quality — or with a maker of cheap Taiwanese knock-offs. The soul-killing business-think of Burnham’s corporate world is propagated here in the vulgar attractions of Ato, the copycat company, its three letters swapped about like a viral mutation. “Confusing, isn’t it?,” chirps an administrative assistant to an increasingly dazed NJ, who chooses sedated staring at home and leaves his short-sighted partners the key decisions.
In Le Goût des autres company president Monsieur Castella is similarly disengaged. Trailed everywhere by a somber bodyguard imposed by the insurance company because of an imminent deal with Iranian investors, he leaves day-to-day operations to a dapper young director, forgets important meetings, passively resists the English he should be learning. What Castella’s factory makes is not revealed. What matters is what his life is making of him at this time when the hair is thinning and he has been wearing the same slightly out-of-fashion suits too long. Our first view of M. Castella is at a business lunch with his smooth company director and the solicitous Mme. Castella, spoiled dog in lap. His life is a series of petty, mostly well-meant irritations: the young professional who requires more attention from his boss, a ground-down sister who needs help, the wife who nags in saccharine puppy-talk. When what Castella wants is dessert or that extra beer. These hungers do not name the vague spiritual appetite they represent, a desire nearly unnameable by this man too long locked into his narrow range of concerns, parts of the self beyond the standard husband and thoughtlessly functioning businessman virtually undiscovered.
For Jean-Jacques Castella, as for his American and Taiwanese counterparts, that discovery will come with the sudden apparition of a new woman. Frozen into routine, Castella at first fails to “see” her when she reports dutifully to his office for an annoyingly imposed English lesson. He will not do so until he is dragged by his wife to catch a young niece in a local theater production: from one tired, suddenly quickening heartbeat to the next, he only has eyes for Clara in her starring role in Racine’s Bérénice. The fireworks in Castella’s rapt gaze are silent, for this is, again, an inarticulate man ill at ease with unfamiliar sensations and ideas. As he ineptly follows his poorly understood feelings, his life will careen off track into new terrain. Much as she will for Lester and NJ, the new woman will render palpable what was but potential, precipitate a desire for change that was only vaguely implicit before. The itch was already present, but now he knows where to scratch.
Lester Burnham’s first vision of Angela Hayes is presented as even more grandly revelatory. Like Castella, Lester is towed along unwillingly to see a family member perform. In this case, it’s his cheerleading daughter at the high school hoops halftime show. Vaguely taking in the number, his eyes suddenly rivet on Angela — blond and curvy according to the good girl/bad girl fantasy canon of American attraction, and somehow, his penetrative male gaze projecting madly, interested. Given full figure in this American beauty, the film’s omnipresent rose imagery becomes clearly that of carpe diem, of gathering rosebuds and coy virgins urged to make much of passing time. Passionate petals raining, the baroque scenography slips Angela off from the other cheerleaders into a slow-motion peephole fantasy of exotic dancing to enigmatic tonalities. As it does for Castella, the new feminine presence will trigger a movement from pent-up personal frustration, tired marital constraint, and professional anomie toward their wild opposite.
In a somewhat quieter manner, Yang’s film provides a similarly theatrical moment of crystallization when, a dozen minutes in, an elevator abruptly opens to reveal NJ’s long-ago first love. Set at his brother-in-law’s wedding reception, the opening scenes vaguely suggest his marital and personal problems. Like a grey landscape dimly sensed through fog, their outlines emerge in NJ’s stiff interiority amid forced hilarity, his wife’s henpecking, perhaps the implied parallel with his sweet, long-suffering son Yang-Yang tormented by a band of teasing girls. When lovely Sherry literally walks back into his life from the hotel elevator, the already taciturn NJ is stricken to even greater silence. Charming and chic, she politely asks about the staring Yang-Yang, says she’s married and living in the States, distributes business cards, invites a later call. Leaving a numb NJ, she strides attractively off — and then aggressively back: how could he have left her that day decades earlier, without a word? In subsequent scenes, NJ’s thousand-yard stare mutely speaks of this revisited, and now reactivated, past. The formula is the same: the chance meeting that rattles, then sets into motion a scary, necessary journey both from and toward. Knotted-up, then energized, NJ will sink into greater domestic isolation and near-total disengagement from work before finding the nerve for a tense phone call and a clandestine weekend in Japan.
Setting up their treatments of male mid-life crisis, the three films in question thus begin along similar narrative arcs, with forty-something drooping spirits suddenly uplifted by reinvigorating appearances of the symbolic feminine. Like the parallel female awakenings in such as Chopin or Flaubert, the pattern is eminently familiar: The Seven Year Itch through Lost in Translation, Anne Tyler or Kingsley Amis through much of Cheever and Updike. Whether she is finally reality or illusion, antidote or false hope, the woman who appears with the force of near-sacred revelation clearly embodies lost youth and unachieved dreams but also teeming potential and, this time, the possibility of getting it right. When, strewn with failed aspirations, the route is suddenly apprehended as shorter and darker ahead than behind, she represents what was, what might have been, what could still be.
Research conducted in more than 80 countries argues convincingly that the dull void this feminine presence abruptly illuminates — the space first called mid-life crisis in the 1960s — is something close to a universal constant, tending equally to envelop a significant proportion of men and women, poor and affluent, single and married, in national cultures from Albania to Zimbabwe (Blanchflower, Oswald).1 That these American, French, and Taiwanese films would diagnose this condition in such similar terms lends a certain credence to this argument. Yet in their full elaboration of the problem — most notably, how their protagonists react to it under the spell of this new woman and the emergent self-knowledge she activates — the three films go on to differ dramatically. In other words, while the initial malaise is a constant, its ramifications are not. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (1998, p. 26) offer terms that may shed light on this distinction. “In every culture,” they argue, “a limited number of general, universally shared human problems need to be solved. One culture can be distinguished from another by the specific solution it chooses for those problems.”
Again, these different solutions grow from strikingly similar soil. With evident allowances for tone and plot detail, the three films bring their leads to roughly the same narrative and emotional place when they experience their fateful encounters. At a loosely equivalent moment in each film,2 stressed and emotionally flattened by home and job, these dispirited souls are hauled along by their wives to a ritual occasion with familial undertones (a daughter’s or niece’s performance, a brother-in-law’s wedding). In narratives stressing the smothering effect of responsibility to wife and family, the symbolic suggestions of such an act seem apparent. It is at this key moment that the new woman emerges, each, again, in strikingly similar fashion. In Le Goût des autres and American Beauty, this occurs in a nearly identical manner, one face in a mass of performers suddenly gripping the bored protagonist’s attention. In Yi-Yi the actions differ slightly, but the emotional movement is parallel, as a swirl of faces in a crowded reception at an anonymous luxury hotel abruptly drops away before the sharply framed features of the once and future (?) lover.
It is significant that in each case the new woman is first sighted within a distinctly demarcated visual frame. Jaoui’s film places bored Castella in a theater seat before the rectangular frame-within-a-frame proscenium where, his eyes drawn to Clara, the camera further tightens to an extreme close-up of the actress’s face. Camera work does the same for bored Lester, who, eyes glommed onto Angela, expressionistically separates her from the other dancers to center the girl, seductively and vulnerably alone, on the gym’s bare hardwood planks. In Yi-Yi Sherry’s appearance is equally theatrical: elevator doors open like a parting stage curtain as NJ’s former lover detaches herself dramatically from the passing faces of other passengers. While the appropriative male gaze identified by Laura Mulvey is certainly at work here, even more pertinent is how sharp visual framing speaks to the troubled relationship between individual desire and the prerogatives of the larger group central to these films. At this particularly delicate moment in the protagonist’s life, drawing visual lines eliminates the extraneous, focusing inclusive energy on the new object suddenly brimming with subjective potential. Stephen Heath (1982, p. 12) applies Saussure in discussing the incitatory role of cinematic and other framing in this abrupt passage from signifier to the richly signified. Under its spell, the stunned protagonist becomes suddenly oblivious to the family member next to him. Presence abruptly invading a life of absences, he is alone with his stirring vision and its rapidly coalescing meaning.
When their heads stop spinning, the films’ leads will each take a distinctively different direction, this journey from a common starting point to widely disparate destinations paralleling the passage from relatively stable signifier to a signified that varies inevitably and radically with person and context. In the films in question, that movement is guided by orientations that, like the subjective perception of age itself, are in significant part “mediated by cultural models” (Shore 1998, p. 103). His imagination inflamed by his first revelatory vision of cheerleader Angela, Lester Burnham’s middle-age infatuation will plunge him wholeheartedly into his society’s fast-food, fast-car obsession with youth and the fine American art of recreating the self. Where Lester will turn onanistically from society into essentially solitary dreams and self-indulgence, the Gallic protagonist of Le Goût des autres will fumble in a nearly opposite direction, toward the other of the film’s title. Within a French tradition of longstanding, if recently challenged, cultural tolerance, he will ineptly crack open the doors of a thoughtlessly conventional self to the puzzling and curiously pleasing light of other relational and aesthetic models. The broodingly isolated NJ of the Taiwanese Yi-Yi will also trace a route toward social reconciliation. His, however, is a reconciliation based less on the tolerant acknowledgment of difference than a not-unhappily resigned Confucian recognition of timeless human patterns in which separate individuals find their place and their lives’ significance. Vigorous solipsism, nascent tolerance, sage acceptance: to an essentially universal predicament, then, a broad spectrum of distinctly different — and, clearly, culturally inflected — responses.
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With its obsessively referenced title and opening aerial pan of wooded suburban streets, American Beauty overtly declares its wide-angle cultural focus. Stretching social satire to the point of stylized, cartoonish exaggeration — Lester’s daughter goes to Rockwell High, the Loman family just moved out — Mendes creates an iconic world of welcome wagons and real estate signs that, while contemporary, hearkens back to Donna Reed and Ward Cleaver. But Beaver and his parents did not know their world was nuts, and Mendes does. Even updated with a weed-dealing neighbor kid and gay couple, this is still a viewer-familiar 1950s America meant to be timelessly representative. Almost literally from the first scene of the film, the point of the caricature is evident: that, in the famous diagnosis by the good doctor Williams, “the pure products of America / go crazy.”
This they do in American Beauty, crazed from Puritanism, desperate both to conform and stand apart, frantic with competition, catatonically lonely. The film is rife with dysfunction. Lester’s wife Carolyn gets high on self-help mantras; broad humor lurches into back-lit pathos when, a tense wind-up doll pitching a tract home to bored buyers, she collapses into tears after a long day. Lovelessly married, she has motel sex with her idolized real-estate competitor, then finds the warm gun of happiness on the pistol range. This is the wife and mother who plays Muzak at dinner. In addition to hating her parents, her daughter, we find, looks wistfully at Internet ads for boob jobs and hangs out with the mythomaniacal Angela, whose imagined modelling career goes manicured hand in hand with a girls-gone-wild exhibitionism.
Then there are the new neighbors. In Chris Cooper’s over-the-top portrayal, the extravagantly pinched Col. Frank Fitts (USMC, ret.) is a distillation of his culture’s repressed urges. Ramrod straight, he chuckles over Reagan’s G.I. films, requires regular urine tests of his son, and — Norman meets George Lincoln Rockwell — maintains a private museum of Nazi memorabilia. To somewhat less narrative surprise than the film clearly aims for, we find that Frank Fitts, his name a scabrous pun, locks his homosexual desire in a closet of shamed fury. As they do for Lester’s wife and her lover, covert sexual desire and gun fetishism join in short, violent bursts. Col. Fitts’s wife has checked out long before. Reflexively apologizing for a house dusted and re-dusted an hour earlier, what self there was has retreated morosely inward and left a drab shell of domestic functioning.
Lester blackmails his boss, gets high all day, and masturbates to fantasies of his daughter’s teenage friend, and his is the voice of sanity in this world. In his own words, the message of Lester’s sudden infatuation is clear: “it’s never too late” to feel alive again. That his life’s story has lost its sense is highlighted in the bored dinnertime disregard of wife and daughter as he patiently recounts his misadventures at work. Blood humming anew in his veins, Lester starts to re-take control of that narrative through a series of dramatic showdowns, first with Carolyn in bed, then in Brad’s office, and finally at a family dinner, its loud punctuation a thrown platter of asparagus. John Cheever’s great short story “The Country Husband,” about a suburban dad who falls for the babysitter, addresses the shimmering autumn-spring fantasy and its subversive revitalization in terms that Lester would recognize: “He wanted to sport in the green woods, scratch where he itched, and drink from the same cup.” For Lester this will mean, concretely, shaking down his boss for a fat settlement, scoring dope and a muscle car, and working on his pecs instead of working.
Busting out of his adult life, Lester essentially moves into the garage, where he parks the Firebird he always wanted and bench presses to Pete Townshend. When he gets a job flipping burgers, this attempt to return to the green woods of youth — where, he tells neighbor Ricky, “all I did was get high and get laid” — is complete. And, of course, we root for the comically noble Lester, so different, it seems, from the warped bunch around him. Yet the American beauty of the film is that its hero is far less different than he thinks he is and might at first seem. When we examine his choices carefully, we see that, while Lester ostensibly flees the sick excesses of America, in fact he simply replicates versions of the same cultural patterns that have created the sickness. Seeming to reject the me-first individualism and commodification of the other as reflected in wife Carolyn and colleague Brad, Lester’s actions reflect the same cultural impulses as he cuts social links to isolate himself in a solipsistic fantasy projection of youth and Penthouse desire. Lester’s obsession for nymphet Angela is far more than the sweet-creepy fantasy of a likeable, understandably frustrated guy. It contains a larger, darker cultural witnessing. An apparent signal of this is the way, with its Burnham/Humbert, Hayes/Haze wordplay, Alan Ball’s script leads us explicitly to Nabokov. Throughout American Beauty, as throughout Lolita, bigger cultural truths resonate in the obsession with unplucked youth in a corrupt world, the objectification of the other, constant searching movement, sex as foreplay to murder.
An equally pertinent literary parallel is The Great Gatsby. In a similarly degenerate world, Fitzgerald addresses the central theme of self-creation and the “mythic individualism” identified by Robert Bellah (1985, pp. 144, 82) as the marrow of American identity. “Clearly,” continues Bellah’s distinguished cultural study, “the meaning of life for most Americans is to become one’s own person, almost to give birth to oneself.” At the transformational moment of Angela’s initial appearance, Mendes provides an acutely significant image of such self-fabrication in the form of a nearly literal tabula rasa. But for the idealized image of desire, Lester’s selective vision sweeps the hardwood clean — where the process of remaking the self can begin. Lester attempts to return to the imagined clean slate of youth, back before the responsibilities of adulthood, its compromises and masks. Significantly, along the way he becomes aware of his slumpy middle-aged appearance. A comically urgent response to a remark tossed off by the show-offy Angela, his weight training then enacts a fantasy remaking of the self.
As such, Lester’s disciplined body sculpting is finally little different from Carolyn’s and Buddy Kane’s obsessive adherence to the self-help psychobabble that promises you can take control of your life and “break free from the constant cycle of victimhood.” In such a world, where a mother starts her daughter’s schoolday off with insulting reflections on her dowdy looks, Lester’s fixation on appearance further recalls daughter Jane’s secret yearning for costly new cleavage and Angela’s narcissistic dependence on the gaze of others. Isolated yet craving superficial visual attention, he poses flexing before the framed mirror like Jane before her dream self in the wish-reflective Internet window or Angela’s centerfold fantasy self in the bedroom window before neighbor Ricky’s avid video camera.
Seen in this way, Lester is victim of his culture’s excesses but also one of their many perpetrators. Can-do individualism, willing a new self, the commodification of desire, image standing in for content: what Lester seems to reject is also what drives him. The narrative’s real darkness is that no one, not even its affable hero, is innocent. The film, however, does offer Lester one moment of true grace. As it accelerates toward its suspenseful conclusion, the unhappy husband and father is allowed to step briefly off the American treadmill of endless self-creation and forward-looking desire. Rejected as a phony by Jane and her boyfriend Ricky, Angela slips downstairs, where, hurt and rejected, she eases willingly into the lascivious clutches of Lester. Yet this moment so close to his goal is also the moment Angela at last lowers her mask as worldly seductress. When she becomes again a vulnerable young girl like his own daughter, Lester swiftly and soberly accepts his role as adult and father, recognizing her not as Humbertian object but as sensitive and exposed human subject. I would argue that this encounter, the film’s only touching moment, constitutes a truer form of rebellion against his culture’s dominant values than the earlier ersatz gesticulation of job quitting, iron pumping, and burger flipping. In this brief instant Lester recognizes forms of human meaning and contact beneath the competition and the appearances; he sees the truth in empathetic responsibility. In the world of American Beauty, this is true revolt.
Lester will pay for the quiet but emphatic subversion implicit in this change of heart. He will discover that it is never too late to feel alive again, but, like Francis Macomber’s, his intense moment of happy, felt aliveness will be short. In symbolic terms the homicide that immediately follows Lester’s transformative encounter with Angela recalls Macomber’s death: it is an execution, an emblematic punishment for the transgression of norms. Clearly implicating both Ricky and Carolyn as potential assassins before the murder, Mendes does more than heighten suspense and prepare his twist ending. Each character has his or her motives, as does the eventual shooter Frank Fitts, but in the twisted world of the film, Mendes suggests, the motivations and identity of the killer may matter less than the simple fact that the straying Lester must be eliminated. One thinks again of the Hemingway short story. Within its framework, whether Mrs. Macomber is consciously aiming at the back of her husband’s head is of little importance. What’s clear is that Francis achieves — briefly, happily — an unacceptable, subversive selfhood. Doing so, he threatens the status quo and is forthwith punished. In American Beauty, the way several characters share the same murderous motivations may suggest that a collective unconscious, as much as any one personage, is in fact addressing Lester’s mutiny. In story and film, in any case, the results are the same explosive crimson splatter. On the wall of Lester’s house, a toxic American beauty blooms.
Punished so implacably, Lester’s redemptive heroism gives off a brief flash of light that, through contrast, only serves to heighten the extreme moral darkness of this film. In stories like this highlighting utter adult failure and dysfunction, the narrative convention of childhood’s innocence often kicks in to suggest that the next generation at least may represent a glimmer of hope. In the desperate world Mendes creates, even this is not the case. Their initials emblematic, neighbor Ricky and daughter Jane at her upstairs window might seem to be the star-crossed lovers whose daring choice to cleave to one another points up the fatuous insanities of their elders. From the moral high ground of adolescence, the two do turn critical eyes on the world, a regard crystallized by the insistent focus of Ricky’s video camera. Present from the film’s first scene, the camera reveals the emptiness of this life by simply bearing witness to its surfaces. Or perhaps it just seems to. For, on closer examination Ricky and Jane may not be quite the distinctive, rebellious “freaks” Jane proudly claims they are.
To be sure, by turns adult savvy or nerd-cool affectless, Ricky has a believable off-center appeal. Dealing weed, he turns Lester on, then walks when his part-time employer gives him grief. Lester’s “new hero” rigs his dad’s urine tests, runs his business right out of the Fitts barracks, speaks to Jane’s adolescent angst, and sends phony Angela packing. He at last stands up to his father in a scene paralleling Jane’s resistance to her mother’s twisted overtures, and the two decide to join their fates in clear rejection of the “me-centered living” that drives the crazed adults. Given the inhabitants of this cinematic world, it’s not surprising that the balance of viewer affection shifts the way of the young couple. Yet, as Lester’s example suggests, the audience may again be rooting for characters whose rebellion remains superficial at best.
The young man’s name offers a clue, for Ricky “Fitts” actually quite well into the hollow suburban world of Mendes’s film. He may act knowingly, but for most of the film he still plays a social role just as stoically as his father and others do. He’s as enthusiastic a capitalist as Buddy (the Real Estate King) Kane, with the abundant fruits of his business dealings going to state-of-the-art video equipment and countless tapes that recall Lester’s former job at Media Monthly, as well as the self-help cassettes of desperate Carolyn. Yearning for magazine breasts, Jane offers little more than teen-age petulance until she falls for the mysterious, artsy Ricky and agrees to follow him to New York. High school romantic perhaps, but hardly a noble alternative to Adultsville, for all we hear is that they’ll live off his dope earnings until they can connect with other dealers.
Arguing elsewhere that “Ricky is the film’s conscience” (Fanshawe 2000, p. 32), Mendes clearly suggests that we see the teenager’s obsessive video camerawork as an insistent moral regard on his sterile society. Yet even here I would argue that he and his camera participate symbolically in the dominant cultural ethos — willful American individualism in its many manifestations — at least as much as they reveal its emptiness. As Ricky and Jane murmur love secrets in bed, the camera runs consistently, each filming the other and spitting back cold digital likenesses. When Ricky’s big confessional moment arrives, it plays out on a video screen, both distancing and cheapening the revelation. Elsewhere, as Ricky voyeuristically trains his lens on Jane or her window, on Lester or Angela, he tightens reflexively to a narrow, selective framing that does not so much validate the other as control and soullessly objectify it, while endorsing the possessive primacy of subjective vision. Such sharp video framing optically echoes the film’s repeated imagery of car and house windows, mirrors, door frames, and TV screens, clear emblems throughout the film for shattered aloneness in a broken culture. Jane may reject her mother’s lecture about self-sufficiency as “a Kodak moment,” but, existentially alone, she has an ironic mirror moment immediately thereafter, the self reflected and delimited within its cadre. Through such scenes as this, or Lester framed by the Smiley Burger checkout window and his adulterous wife by the car window, American Beauty shows us selves reduced to mere image, disconnected, preening for imagined others, yearning for a vague something.
The film wants us to see Ricky’s camera intentionally revealing this sad truth beneath the ordered surfaces of a Potemkin suburbia, but what’s more important is the way he does this unintentionally. Ricky’s aesthetic sense tragically reflects a profound inculcation of the culture in question, so profound that even those who, like Ricky, define themselves as outsiders remain its creatures. Look at the boy’s self-proclaimed masterpiece, the celebrated plastic bag footage. Proud, choked-up, Ricky shows Jane film of “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” a random white trash bag that, he said, danced fifteen minutes in eddies of wind. In his Oscar acceptance speech, screenwriter Ball said that no less than his root idea for the film came from his witnessing of a similar phenomenon. It proved, he argues, that beauty can exist in the strangest places, even in a piece of trash turning in the wind. To be sure, Mendes movingly presents Ricky’s sincerity and quiet sensitivity to this odd manifestation “of so much beauty in the world I feel I can’t take it and my heart feels like it’s going to cave in.” Impressionable Jane is certainly won over; as she takes his hand for the first time, their relationship moves abruptly beyond curious friendship.
Yet this scene lives within a narrative context that suggests a radically different interpretation, one more consistent with the overall sweep of the film, with its symbolic momentum and its accreted meanings. Again the question of the frame-within-a-frame is important. Strictly in and of itself, as pure line and movement, the dancing bag presents a certain aesthetic interest. This means, however, seeing it as completely removed from any larger context — such as, for example, one that might induce reflection on the consumer economy or the urban environment or the value of the disposable. The observing, creating eye here is the same that finds a bird stark dead on the ground “amazing,” the same that leads Ricky to a faint, chilling smile on his close inspection of the face of a tragically dead father and husband. His is an icy, appropriating gaze, qualitatively little different from Lester’s proprietary male stare at Angela. The difference is that, for at least a brief instant, Lester learns to see Angela, which means viewing her not as isolated object of egoistic pleasure, but as whole subject with intrinsic value, past and future, and a complex web of human relationship and connection. Ricky’s eyes intentionally take in only part of a larger whole of meaning, not unlike his father’s beady stare at Lester and his son through the deceptive partial framing of his neighbor’s garage windows.
Aside from the fact that he must finally leave his repressive home, Ricky learns nothing. His introspectively artsy discourse turns on what he presents as an apprehension of the underlying beauty in sheer existence. It is ironic that his reflections clearly parallel Lester’s posthumous voice-over closing the film, for, in his moments of revelatory empathy with Angela, Lester indeed does briefly glimpse that beauty beneath the surface of the conventions, the materialism, the competition. This occurs with Lester’s discovery of the three-dimensional humanity of his two-dimensional centerfold dreamgirl. Ricky’s video does literally the opposite, taking the complex and multi-dimensional and rendering it as flat, closely cropped two-dimensional image. Critics have rightly highlighted the soft-porn quality of certain of his shots, for they indeed suggest something of Ricky’s fetishistic, onanistic relationship to the visual world.
Ricky may be planning to leave, but his is a mind fundamentally at home in these leafy suburbs. In Alan Ball’s original script, he and Jane are later framed for Lester’s murder by Col. Fitts. Mendes removed this plot twist, first to Ball’s displeasure, then finally to his contented realization that it made the film more optimistic (Ball 2000). I find the change appropriate but not for this reason. In no fundamental way is Ricky the cultural rebel that, for a few instants at least, Lester becomes, and as such, in the logic of the film he should remain unpunished. The heart of American Beauty is a moral and social darkness briefly illuminated by a single trangressively redemptive act that is almost immediately expunged. Everywhere else you look, even in the youthful, presumably hopeful next generation, what the film clearly identifies as the worst aspects of American culture — preoccupation with surface, consumer hunger, self as ultimate measure — remain the deterministic facts of life.
Mendes’s later Revolutionary Road is marked by the same deep pessimism. Though less emphatically than in American Beauty, the title signals a parallel intention to offer equal attention to individual lives and their cultural setting. In the later film what we might identify as another nearly universal human predicament — youthful ideals slumping under the awful weight of the real world — is set against a ’50s America cultural background that, we realize over the course of the film, plays a dramatic role every bit as significant as that of the human protagonists. This essentially repeats the pattern of American Beauty, where culture, finally as much star as background, drives the fate of an individual facing the familiar pressures of mid-life crisis. Whether in the lovely suburban home of American Beauty or that of Revolutionary Road, its calling card is the same, a bloodstain that blooms with the terrible beauty of its truth.
* * *
The Other Way
Monsieur Castella is, in the French expression, le bien nommé: a castle, a fortress, dull matter formed to hold its ground. Much of the subtle charm of Le Goût des autres comes from its protagonist’s hesitant, clumsily dawning awareness of the numb insufficiency of an existence behind those defences. Even when Clara’s image sears itself into his consciousness, his reactions to the new sensations it provokes are, because so unfamiliar, maladroitly undirected and unassured. Forced into the open by feelings he barely understands, Castella veers from empty, unexamined assurance into a bare field of inarticulate yearning and, finally, to the rich discovery of other feelings, of other ways, of others. That filmic path is, by turns, comic, poignant, eye-avertingly embarrassing, and, in an adjective at last fairly bestowed upon the at first unsympathetic Castella, “touching.” Never sentimental, The Taste of Others has an acerbic optimism that links an unblinking acceptance of human complexity with a tolerant belief in the possibility of understanding and meaningful connection.
As such, despite their apparent similarities, Le Goût des autres could scarcely less resemble American Beauty. While so much the same in its narrative opening and its central premise — la crise de la quarantaine, the pressures of the new economy at century’s end, the increasing drag of marriage and dramatic appearance of the other woman, hangdog disinterest become puppy enthusiasm — Jaoui’s film ventures in a radically different, culturally driven direction, its recurring motif the act of fumbling toward and finally validating the otherness announced in the title. When the scales fall from Jean-Jacques Castella’s inexpressive eyes, he does not isolate himself with the solipsistic illusion of youth’s clean slate. He may not know exactly why or how, but he does go to the theater and to art show openings; he tries new novels, joins large parties at restaurants, buys a young painter’s work. Significantly, this film about others and their differing tastes is structured not around one but two mid-life crises, that of Castella mirroring that, more slowly and gently revealed, of the actress Clara.
Castella’s unnamed hungers are there in the dessert he manages to order over his wife’s objections in the first scene or in his vacant gaze behind the protective car window — raised, again, on marital orders — as the opening titles roll. An even foggier discontent inhabits Clara, who couldn’t live more differently than Castella, with his cramped schedule and limo, chauffeur, bodyguard, smooth technocratic assistant, promised foreign buyers, overfurnished living room, and spouse ever alert to his sugar intake. Past forty, as often on unemployment as off, single Clara’s hanging on, still hoping to make it as an actress, taking one last lead in a small provincial theater, warmly surrounded but vaguely elsewhere during a string of after-show nights with a band of friends.
Jaoui does not so much face off the vague aches within these conventional and bohemian lives as gently interlace them. Sending Clara tentatively in as Castella’s English teacher, then Castella grudgingly off to a niece’s play, Jaoui steps back to watch as wakened desire tugs him step by embarrassing step into her unfamiliar circle of waitresses, gay painters, and unemployed makeup artists. What follows is a sentimental education for both figures. Oblivious to Clara on their initial meeting, Castella eventually moves from the shock of love at second sight toward a slow apprenticeship in the larger act of looking and seeing. Near the film’s conclusion, at last resigned to Clara’s lack of interest, he of the Laura Ashley nightmare house is buying contemporary art on his own, by this point irritated she would think it might be to impress her. His widening aesthetic and relational horizons have their counterpart in Clara. Failing to notice that he has shaved his moustache, she can’t see anything at first but a gauche vulgarian. Only through her friends is she alerted to, essentially, Castella’s humanity, and only then does she begin to come to the silent realization that the absences each harbors just might together amount to a presence. The film’s last scene offers a radiant mirror image of the earlier theater moment, when Castella first sights Clara on stage. The shocking gunshot suicide of her desperate Hedda Gabler morphs into a close-up on the bowing actress — obstinately refusing triumph, heart hungry, now searching from the stage for Castella’s face in the crowd. At last seeing him, seeing him, her face melts into a moist human warmth completed across the room by his. Jaoui’s partner in art and life, Jean-Pierre Bacri brings buoyant gratitude to the features of a man still half stunned by the activation of unknown parts of his inner life.
Somehow Jaoui pulls this off without sentimentality. While the narrative arc is that of Hollywood romantic comedy, its elaboration is grounded in anything but easy emotion. In part this may be because, as exceptionally garrulous as the script is, the main characters say next to nothing about their yearnings. For both, articulate expression of inner feelings comes hard, with Clara clipped and resistant to the relationship-gab of her friends and Castella’s only overt declaration of his crush the hilarious pathos of a poem hacked out in earnest schoolboy English: “When I look at that woman / My heart gets a tan . . . .” Most of Castella’s liberating, confounding interest in Clara or her resistance or eventual incipient attraction to him goes unsaid, lodging itself loosely in contextualized gesture: the adolescent trying too hard, a sigh or knowing glance to a friend, the too eager inquiry. That the characters at the heart of the action reveal in speech so little of the emerging selves they themselves are only just discovering works in a film about the deceptive superficiality of appearance, convention, and habitual cues, as well as the self-incarceration inherent in reflexive judgments based on such things. We don’t really know others and other ways, Jaoui argues, we don’t even want to. Why look beneath surfaces when one’s reaction is predetermined? When the businessman in the brown suit enters the dressing room, Clara and her friend know the type, and so look through him. Castella just has to hear the play’s in verse to groan.
Learning to outflank the reflex, to open the self truly to the reality of others and other tastes, is, the film contends, a gruelling, destabilizing, and potentially exalting experience. Its opening segment comically raises the issue as, waiting for their boss to finish lunch, chauffeur Bruno and bodyguard Franck go on about some mysterious, deeply troubling question of professional integrity. Turns out they’re going over last night’s soccer game and the referee’s controversial ruling: blown? fixed? Their chatter echoing clowns from Shakespeare to Beckett, each takes his stand on the question, the whole making the serious point that appearances are deceptive and inner motivations very hard to figure. Like Franck, a realist true to his name, or the ever-naive Bruno, the human tendency is to establish a priori categories and orientations that guide our decisions by radically filtering what we see. Drawing on a rich ensemble cast, Jaoui sets into motion subplots that, among other things, shake these foundations. Involving flings with Manie the waitress, misplaced trust in Bruno’s faraway girlfriend, Franck’s lost-then-recovered faith in a cop colleague, and a friend’s “Purloined Letter” discovery of love, these slyly intertwined stories aerate the central plot while getting at the difficulty in really knowing others and the unsuspected multiple nature of personality.
The spiky adult complexity of these minor characters stands in what is clearly intentional contrast to the two-dimensional characterization of Castella’s wife. Manic in her devotion to home decoration and little animals, the meringuey Angélique functions primarily as a foil to Castella. Her intrusive vigilance about his diet paralleling her self-anointed role as aesthetic arbiter, she patronizes and infantilizes her husband (the loveytalk “Cabbage”) and sister-in-law, tyrannically imposing her taste on both. Mme Castella doesn’t know what it is, but she knows something’s happening when her husband hangs his new steel-dark abstract canvas on the cream prints of the living room wall; for the man whose artistic references are first presented as the ability to recognize the Juanita Banana jingle, this is a big step. Like the spoiled pets defying her smothering affection by dying or repeatedly biting, the sight gag emblematizes inner revolt and a still inarticulate desire for a bigger, wilder world. Angélique epitomizes the delimiting constraint of sugary domestic comfort, neatly framing and deodorizing real life like the small-screen soap opera she so avidly follows. Its hero is a certain Palomino, the name cleverly calling to mind Angélique’s decorative animal friends and the reductive, controlling affection with which they are rewarded. Angélique’s rapt TV attention recalls in sterile miniature Castella’s heart-pounding rapture before the Bérénice of Clara. From this packaged, emotionally stunted world the philistine finds himself drawn to the tragedy of Racine and Ibsen, and the heady, gratifying dangers of feelings he’s totally unprepared for.
Le Goût des autres is, again, a tale of parallel educations in seeing. When the eyes of the by now desperate Clara finally find Castella in the closing scene, he is, significantly, sighted within a sea of others. The thematic curve of the film traces the movement from a tightly framed, obsessional regard for one individual through a transformative series of interpersonal and aesthetic encounters, and on to a widened, open field of vision that takes in others and other ways. Castella’s transformation is represented most notably by new interest in art and his decision to commission a mural. Drawn to an opening at first uniquely by Clara’s promised presence, he finds himself genuinely intrigued by the edgy abstraction of her friend Benoît. Despite a throwaway homophobic gaffe, the purchase of one painting leads by tenuous steps toward a separate personal friendship and professional collaboration with Benoît and his partner Antoine, and finally to a lucrative commission for the outer wall of Castella’s factory. Part of the action’s significance stems from Castella’s nascent desire to break and blend categories: he transplants art from the refined milieu of the gallery and literally removes its enclosing frame, in the process offering the aesthetic pride of place in the pragmatic. Notably, while musing his final decision, he calls on a colleague in order to take into account another’s taste.
The tolerant sociability of this film about the taste of others finds resonant expression in such images: art finding new life in the world’s bustling reality, the face Clara seeks one of a happy many others, or, in the closing credits, the disillusioned Bruno no longer practicing the flute alone, now playing in a makeshift combo. Together he, a flirtatious young flautist, and a half dozen other musicians give good-humored vigor to the melody from the well-known “Je ne regrette rien.” “I don’t regret anything,” goes the closing refrain in English, “Because my life, my joys, / Today they begin with you.” For evident reasons this song speaks directly to the film’s love plot, but Jaoui’s use of the Edith Piaf classic rings right for another reason as well. Sampling the iconic French singer at this emphatic moment is, among other things, to suggest the cultural dimension inherent in this film that, like the song, argues throughout that the joys of life begin with the other. As in American Beauty, we have here the recurring predicament and, again, a distinctive development of its ramifications that to a significant degree seems culturally determined.
One need hardly recall Rousseau’s social contract or consider the country’s social safety net and still relevant union movement to recognize in French life a substantially less individualistic cultural orientation than that so expertly diagnosed by Mendes in American Beauty. While threatened by the reductive identity and immigration politics of recent decades, such cultural values as social cohesion, solidarity, and tolerance remain consensual, and their fit with the artistic expression of the co-writers of the evocatively titled Un Air de Famille is apparent. As in so much other French cinema — one thinks immediately of Klapisch, Desplechin, Sautet — there is an immediately recognizable social buzz to Jaoui’s film. Characters just don’t go for the dramatic individual gesture — homicide, say, or absurdist isolation. No, in a world of daily sociability and connection they stand in line for a play, flirt with a waitress, angle for a dinner invitation. It’s not just language and geography: the Frenchness here has at least as much to do with the small, convivial scale, the talky quotidian texture of commonplace civilization, and the picture of people as, primarily, social beings. For homo sociabilis is, finally, the subject of Le Goût des autres. At the risk of simplification, one way to see this César winner in relation to the Oscar-winning American Beauty is to think of the two great verbal triplets that long ago inscribed themselves in the cultural consciousness of the American and French peoples. If the appropriately titled Declaration of Independence is any guide, Americans tend to think first of individual rights: “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The French might seem at first to charge off in exactly the same direction, but their famous road signs “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” just as quickly urge a left turn toward the other.
* * *
For NJ Jian as for his American and French counterparts, again the creeping discontent and again the woman bringing dramatic form to both promise and regret. During much of Yi-Yi he is essentially alienated from the suspendered partners in his struggling software company, and, distraught about her mother’s stroke and resulting coma, his wife leaves home to join a religious cult. After Sherry re-enters his life at the wedding reception opening the film, NJ broods and tarries before at last leaving a message of awkward, moving reticence on her Chicago answering machine: “There were many reasons [I left]. Now they all sound stupid. I’m glad that you have a good life.” This painfully private sorrow and the surreptitious action it entails live quietly within an otherwise cramped social context of family, in-laws, growing children, noisy ritual gatherings, newborns and dying relatives, loan requests, screaming neighbors, business meetings. The beauty and essential meaning of Yang’s film lie in the delicate interrelationship between these two realms — between the intensely private and the crowded social world — which he gently invites the viewer to recognize and to understand. His treatment of an individual faced with the recurrent plight of middle-age malaise is uniquely the work of one auteur, but is also, as Yang himself freely confides (Rayns, Yang), clearly marked with the cultural traits of a living and breathing Taiwan.
Like its filmmaker, a Taiwanese emigrant to the States and software engineer turned artist, the Taipei of Yi-Yi is a hybrid: there Japanese and Chinese influences meld, a recent authoritarian past colors freewheeling contemporaneity, and age-old Chinese faith in lucky dates or numbers coexists with New York Bagels, a multiplex called Warner’s Village, and the same Nasdaq bust that shook ’90s technology start-ups worldwide. Questions of identity and meaning resonate against the mottled confusion of this background in a family whose members are asked, for therapeutic purposes, to speak to the comatose matriarch in her bedroom. Grandma’s state clearly mirrors the numb daze of the others, NJ managing to mumble to her unresponsive features that “there’s very little I’m sure about today,” his wife existentially desperate about the “blank” she lives. Guilt that her negligence might have caused grandma’s stroke gnaws at earnest teen-aged Ting-Ting, and little Yang-Yang can simply not bring himself to speak to her until the funeral closing the film.
In a plausible, finely observed quotidian of neighbors in the hall and in-laws short of cash, of office and school, NJ and the members of his family try to make sense of things. Her spiritual search will literally remove mother Min-Min from much of the film, but her absence is felt throughout in the related angst of her children and husband. Shyly confused yet determined, young Yang-Yang will conduct his own naive, systematic inquiry into the mysteries of adult understanding, while, first in theory, then in practice, Ting-Ting’s learning ordeal will take place in the timelessly recurring maze of puberty and adolescence. NJ’s sense of disorientation and loss is distinctly his, but it also closely resembles his wife’s; the questions he will ask about his life grow from the unique particulars of that life, but they will echo his son’s wonder at the unknowability of others and his daughter’s pensive experimentation with love. Such is the method of Yang, to establish simultaneously both the highly particular strands of experience and character, and the interlaced nature of all the separate strands. Nicely rendered in its Anglicized version, the title Yi-Yi is essentially a visual pun, two horizontal Chinese characters insisting on the literally parallel relationship between “a one” and the number “two.” Part and whole, the singular and plural parse each other.
Mutely sketched in bemused forgetfulness or solitary staring, NJ’s singular preoccupation is the regrets and questions that, in the form of Sherry, literally walk back into his life. Throughout much of the film, however, as NJ deals with the demands of domestic drama and a faltering company, they remain discreetly submerged in a character whose abundant emotional depth and sensibility only occasionally reveal themselves through an otherwise taciturn manner. One such moment occurs against the backdrop of the cynically competitive business world. NJ’s instinct has rightly told him that the better partner for his company is the refined Japanese creator Ota and not the cheap knockoff artist Ato preferred by his next-balance-sheet partners.3 The business meetings with Mr. Ota that follow have a luminous, understated poetry. Reduced by their lingua franca English and by personality to a soulful simplicity of expression, the men communicate a touchingly direct sense of profound personal connection immediately overriding the pragmatic intentions of their meeting. Playing out of character, the Japanese stand-up comedian Issey Ogata brings a visionary sincerity to his philosopher king Ota — his quiet moment of solitary communion with a pigeon is a marvel — who in this new relationship of mutual trust immediately senses and articulates the essential honesty and goodness in NJ. Elsewhere so reticently inward within the symbolic rampart of his headphones, NJ here quietly shares with his new friend the treasured experience of classical music and then the intimate heart-secret of his lost and now found love Sherry. For the reserved NJ, this amounts to daringly naked personal exposure and trust.
The filmic context for the immediate personal warmth and mutual revelations of the two men is important. Their moments of instinctive understanding occur not only across the formidable barriers of culture, language, and the cagey conventions of business negotiation, but also within a pattern of contrary meaning established most notably by the doings of NJ’s son Yang-Yang and particularly evocative camera work. Little Yang-Yang goes on about his quietly curious business on the margin of the adult world, teased by girls at the wedding, fascinated by an older girl, in innocent trouble at school. Possessed of something of his father’s emotional depth beneath similarly even, deadpan features, he puzzles over his mother’s apparent sadness, frustrated that we can’t see and understand more about others. His childlike image for this failure is the way we can never see the back of our own heads. “Daddy,” Yang-Yang asks, “Can we only know half the truth? I can only see what’s in front, not what’s behind.” When his father buys him a cheap camera, he clicks away at the unseeable and unknowable backs of passers-by. Slipped gracefully into the cluttered lives of the protagonist’s family, this little vignette light-handedly orients our viewing of numerous shots in the film portraying characters from behind, often in reflection. From Sherry’s initial appearance, her back reflected in the brightly lit elevator, through such other important scenes as grandma’s hospitalization, Min-Min’s mental breakdown, and the final Tokyo image of NJ in his separate hotel room, Yang’s camera speaks visually of loneliness and the mysteriously unfathomable nature of others.
Flying off to Tokyo to meet his former lover, then, NJ carries double luggage — in one bag this vision of selves as hermetically separate, in the other his unexpected discovery of kinship and connection. This dual impulse conditions the couple’s wary, circling reconnection after years. Following a visit to the warmly encouraging Mr. Ota at the hotel, they slip off to a deserted beach town known as a honeymoon retreat. Disoriented in the subway, tentatively taking each other’s hand at a level crossing, they both rehash and relive the past. Behind everything, the dark matter toward which their halting dialogue will gravitationally wheel is, of course, NJ’s decision — still essentially inexplicable — to leave Sherry abruptly decades earlier. Both bear that scar despite the healing of other choices and later lives. Yang allows the strolling couple time to sort through past and present selves, their conversation a desultory blend of giggles over remembered details, pro forma reports on marriage since, and those nagging regrets that hit in our forties and fifties. In the reticent emotion of two adults trying to be reasonable, only occasionally does Sherry’s acrimony rise to the surface, as when, walking through temple grounds, “that day” and what might have been comes up, or when Sherry sobs that NJ never loved her as she enters her hotel room alone. Though marked by his delayed response — leaving her again at her separate hotel room, this time in Tokyo — that he never loved anyone since, NJ chooses not to stay and try to build again on the foundations of their past.
The couple’s reunion ends in the rueful, perhaps mutual acceptance that what is past is past. According to the conventions of modern cinema storytelling, this decision may surprise. Not only does the weekend with attractive Sherry take place after NJ’s wife has removed herself from the picture, but previous moments of male bonding with Ota have yielded advice that would seem to encourage fervent risk-taking in the cause of personal fulfilment. Significantly, just before NJ opens up about his private life, Ota addresses the hesitations of his colleagues to try something new. “Why are we afraid of a first time?,” he asks. “Every day in life is a first time. Every morning is new and we never live the same day twice.” Yet NJ will refuse the risky promise of a new day with Sherry. In so choosing, he is not so much rejecting Ota’s counsel — presented without irony as valid — as responding to a complementary truth of equal validity, a truth given form in the very structure of this long and multi-layered film. Throughout, Yang is careful to present NJ’s individual drama within a multi-generational context of intertwined personal histories. In the latter third of the film, as NJ at last acts on his middle-aged angst, Yang extends this sense of interreaction by drawing a series of more explicit parallels that, together, suggest both his protagonist’s deepest motivations and values, and the cultural wellspring that is, in part, their source.
The parallels in question concern specifically the separate story lines involving Yang-Yang, his older sister Ting-Ting, and their father. At the film’s 85th minute, Yang-Yang, whose puppy-love interest in an older girl at school has become increasingly apparent, slips into the so-called Concubine’s middle-school health class — and the lightning literally starts to flash. In one of the film’s rare overtly comic scenes, we feel the heavy atmosphere of cross-cuts between a peeking Yang-Yang and his object of desire as the droning audiovisual presentation tells the story of life’s origin. Against a background of burdened clouds and then the innocently yearning face of Yang-Yang, we hear about “the two opposite forces attracted to each other . . . violently coming together,” then an accompanying clap of thunder: and “that was the beginning of everything!” From this comically fraught moment Yang cuts immediately to sister Ting-Ting worriedly standing in the rain on what will be for her a day of emotional turbulence. Shortly her role as fascinated go-between for neighbor Lili and her thin and attractive boyfriend “Fatty” will lead to her first courtship and initial stirrings of love and desire. The issues raised in the Yang-Yang vignette will find elaboration in Ting-Ting’s story, just as her discoveries will in turn be seen in relation to her father’s weekend of rediscovery. In what critic Tony Rayns calls “the most ambitious ‘doubling’ in the film” (Yang, Rayns 2006), Yang will devote much of the closing reels to the point and counterpoint of two generations and their parallel stories of love.
In a magical sequence of cross-cuts and insertions — quiet, unrushed — Yang shuttles between NJ and Sherry in Tokyo and flower-fresh Ting-Ting beginning a flirtation with the more experienced Fatty, now on the rebound after his girlfriend’s infidelity. Visual and aural overlapping links the two narratives, each of which, it quickly becomes apparent, serves as lens through which to view the other. So, in on NJ’s little escapade, Mr. Ota tellingly reassures his friends as they start their Tokyo adventure: “You are young people. Young people always find their own way.” From them quickly lost in the famously confusing Japanese subway, the scene will shift to truly young people, Ting-Ting carefully choosing her clothes, Fatty picking her up on his motorbike. As both pairs venture into town, NJ and Sherry recall the old railroad crossings, gone today from modern cities, and how they first held hands at one. Their overlaid voices accompany a cut to Taipei, where the kids are now hesitantly taking each other’s hand. Then back to NJ and Sherry: “And now I’m holding your hand. Only it’s a different place, a different time, a different age.” Described, such correspondences seem heavy-handed. In their cinematic context, however, they come across as poetic and inevitable. Yang’s explicit generational parallels exist deep within a choral, multi-generational film that, through its demanding relatives, crowded conviviality, and neighbors’ dramas, speaks throughout, indirectly but movingly, to a felt sense of common humanity and life’s cyclicity and recurring patterns. Here, to juxtapose father and daughter, past and present, regret and promise is not to make a bald statement but rather to write the closing phrase of a long and delicately complex sentence.
For indeed the truth of the film is that of the enlaced recurrence and connectedness of our individual choices and fates. Following the older couple in Tokyo, Yang gestures toward this theme with a haunting visual image. To overlaid voices recalling the couple’s first date, we see in a vast trainyard with dozens of hopelessly entangled rails two trains headed in opposite directions on parallel tracks crossing directly under the camera’s high-angle bridge viewpoint. After their passage, the tracks remain empty a few seconds until, to the continued accompaniment of the couple’s nostalgic voice-over, two other trains, now on the right of the image and parallel to the first, repeat the same action, again in opposing directions. Openly addressing the generational parallels constituting this portion of the film, the image prefigures the older couple’s happy train ride out and unhappy return, as well as the eventual separations toward which each couple is heading. More largely, the scene figures individual life journeys, each on a free course toward its separate destination, yet equally embedded within fixed relationships of parallelism and interconnection.
Yang’s sober camera work participates in this development of theme. Like those of other New Taiwanese Cinema directors, Yang’s shots are frequently long, stable, and distanced in perspective. Reacting to norms of American cinema and, no doubt, inspired by his master Ozu, Hou Hsiao-hsien has argued that extending takes while avoiding zooms, frequent cutting, and synch-sound is a way to come into closer contact with the true texture of everyday life and, by the simple fact of prolonging the shot, to create fruitful viewer tension (Yang, Rayns 2006). Yang’s long, distanced takes achieve both objectives, especially when the emotion of a scene roils just beneath the surface, as in Sherry’s and NJ’s strolling conversation through Japanese temple gardens. In this deep-focus landscape painting with human figures, the viewer experiences the intense intimacy of the couple’s shrouded phrases but from a consciously, carefully held distance; the distinctive story of two individuals is literally part of a much larger picture, figure dependent upon ground.
This thematic relationship finds expression as well in Yang’s frequent shots through reflective windows, generally from outside in but occasionally in the other direction. In takes of Ting-Ting and her friend through a storefront or the family through a windshield, the window’s reflection of the busy world behind the camera inserts the activity of the contextualizing exterior directly into the shot’s framed intimacy. A particularly remarkable instance of such camera work occurs at one of the most emotionally wrenching moments in the story. “What am I doing every day?,” Min-Min asks a bereft NJ after trying to speak to her comatose mother. “If I ended up like her . . . .” After the brief transition of Yang-Yang’s queries about only ever knowing half the truth, we follow his mother to work, presumably to explain her impending decision to leave. Yang’s outside-in shot catches her staring dully out through a half-lit office window as the shiny glass reflections superimpose upon her form the glowing nighttime lights of the city. In one of the miraculous accidents4 that great art encourages, just over the woman’s heart a red light from the city slowly flashes. The effect is both subtle and breathtaking, as personal and social coalesce gently within the visual image. Again we have the big picture imprinted upon a life’s poignant intimacy and separateness.
Asian and Westerner, tech-team member become creative artist, the late Edward Yang was, unsurprisingly, drawn to intersecting questions of group and individual identity. In Yi-Yi he very clearly nods toward both sides of a cloven self. His late ’90’s Taiwan is torn by contradiction, just another cityscape of scrambling capitalist aspiration and directionless teenagers at McDonald’s, and a traditional land of timeless ritual, belief in directive fate, and familial obligation. Like Yeats creating poetry from the quarrel with himself, Yang seems to be presenting cultural truths responding to aspects of himself and his own experience. On one hand Yi-Yi presents in essentially positive terms a modern “Western” sense of adventuresome individual autonomy while recognizing its sad partner, lonely alienation; the former finds attractive expression in the admirable Ota, the latter in sweet Yang-Yang’s anxieties about knowing others and the mute symbolism of the grandmother’s blank unresponsiveness before the sad confessions of her family’s members. The alternative is, understood largely, the Confucian rén: it is the Chinese sense of family, tradition, social obligation, and timeless intergenerational continuities that, at times supportive, at others suffocating, provides the daily texture of much of the film. NJ’s personal crisis lays the two modes of being — both valid, neither perfect — on his cluttered table in the form of nothing less than life-defining choices. Returning to his wife — who will soon return as well, disappointed in her own personal search for ultimate truth — he chooses the tissue of connections and recurrence into which he has woven the prior choices that over time become a life.
With the rhythmic inevitability of ritual, the film begins with a wedding, punctuates its mid-point with a birth, and concludes with a funeral. The final words then go to the cast’s youngest member, his character reading a text he has at last composed for his deceased grandmother, its oldest member. Though the auteur denies any such intention (Rayns 2006), it is tempting see in Yang-Yang the Yang of Yi-Yi. “I want to tell people stuff they don’t know and show them stuff they haven’t seen,” slowly reads the young boy. Then of his still-unnamed infant cousin: like you, grandma, “I want to tell him that I feel old too.” At this the closing credits begin to the air from Beethoven’s Ninth that opened the film. A one and a two, and we hear the same slow fall of separate piano keys — black, white, high, low — that, only together, bring the melody to its lasting shape and meaning.
* * *
American Beauty, Le Goût des autres, and Yi-Yi were released in rapid succession from September 8, 1999 through May 14, 2000. Arguably the finest films to appear during that period, they present a remarkable coherence of premise, each set at century’s end against the same contemporary background of implicit economic tension and each structured to explore the effects of that apparently universal affliction, mid-life crisis, upon three similar, tired men in their forties. Yet from the evident parallelism and striking similarities of narrative impetus, the films quickly part ways. In their elaborations of the same initial situation, they head toward widely disparate meanings certainly determined by the alchemical imaginings of individual creators but equally, it seems clear, by cultural forces bearing upon those creators. While much of that cultural energy enters the work unconsciously, there seems to be a certain overt design to the cultural content of the films of Yang, Jaoui/Bacri, and Mendes/Ball. English theater director Mendes clearly brings the distant, appraising foreign eye to Ball’s Yankee suburban hell, admitting that he was inspired to direct the film by the “mythic landscape” of America portrayed in Wenders’ Paris, Texas (Lowenstein 2008, p. 249). Yang’s awareness of the Taiwanese cultural salad and of his own status as one culturally neither here nor there is patent in Yi-Yi, as it is to varying degrees in each of the six films preceding it. Jaoui and Bacri are working in a contemporary France self-consciously torn between reflexive identity politics and bien-pensant tolerance, where l’Autre has taken on distinctively negative connotations for an embittered minority in recent national debates on French identity and immigration. Discussing her work, Jaoui acknowledges recurring interest in questions of “solidarity and individualism” while accepting with a good-natured wince the critical label of “typically French” (Ferenczi 2008, p. 20).
The cultural content of these three diverse films is most apparent in two related areas, their reflection of culturally distinctive communication styles and their varying representations of the individual’s relationship with the larger community. Throughout his discussion of French and American culture, Pascal Baudry (2005, p. 247) repeatedly contrasts with its French opposite the binary tendency of Americans to distrust complexity and thus favor directly explicit, practical communication: “The understanding of what constitutes a fact is different in each culture. Americans tend to go straight to the point and to eliminate unnecessary details (‘low context’); the French seem to always want more information and to base decisions on a wide variety of factors (‘high context’), which require them to take more time to decide and to keep constant attention on the networks with which they surround themselves. The Americans are more focused on the task, the French on the relationship.” In Taiwanese culture, with its layered traditional relationships, ritualized social interaction, and a sense of human truth as necessarily partial (Hofstede 1997, p. 171), communication tends to occur in what Westerners would characterize as an even more oblique manner. Reflecting the culture it so clearly means to anatomize, American Beauty thus begins and ends with voiceovers as baldly explicit as the protagonist’s break with society is brutal. As sociable and talkative as Jaoui’s film is, the emergent couple at its center never directly express their needs and desires, relying instead on contextualized gestures and indirection; drawing its taciturn protagonist into and not out of a web of relationship, Le Goût des autres ends wordlessly, a private moment of mutual recognition mutely revealed within an intensely public moment. Similarly, the densely interconnected social world of Yi-Yi is convivial, even noisy, yet NJ’s emotional crisis remains essentially unexpressed — or, rather, it is expressed in a deeply contextualized silence that speaks volumes.
The cultural dimension of the three films in question is perhaps most visible in their their treatments of self and society, desire and duty. Geert Hofstede’s landmark Culture and Organizations (1997) sheds particularly incisive light upon this tension. Famously identifying in mathematically indexed form how members of defined social groups tend to approach certain key questions, Hofstede’s so-called “Individualism Index” ranks fifty national cultures according to their relative degree of individualistic vs. collectivistic behaviour. Not surprisingly, the United States takes first position, with France tied for number ten, and Taiwan far closer to the collectivist extreme, at 44. Such rankings confirm other research, as well as the common impression, that strictly personal autonomy tends to matter far more in the West than in Asia, and that self-realization in Europe is tempered by collectivist sympathies apparent in, among other things, the more active role of the state in the redistribution of wealth. In any case, such a scale speaks directly to certain thematic differences clearly apparent in these films: the desperate isolation seeping into every pore of American Beauty, the redemptive swing toward tolerance in Le Goût des autres, NJ’s voluntary submission in Yi-Yi to the force-field of tradition and social pattern. To have seen the three films in this their order of release is to have swept the eye across Hofstede’s spectrum.
In the visual language of these films, something as basic as framing speaks eloquently to their variously explicit and implicit cultural preoccupations. Introducing the other woman on whom the protagonist’s regrets and hopes will fall, all three start with scenes of sharply defined visual framing. American Beauty essentially stays there, the film a sequence of narrowly bounded window or mirror spaces and that tight video focus separating and simplifying individuals. When Lester dares look outside the centerfold borders at another Angela, the punishment is swift. Within the frame of Ricky’s cool subjective regard, dead Lester and his rose staining the wall become empty, contextless form, another plastic bag twisting in the wind. Le Goût des autres begins with an eerily similar initial visual focus. One of the film’s ironies, however, is that single-minded obsession will in fact drive Monsieur Castella toward others. Those others in turn open other parts of the self, a flowering made splashily apparent in the abstract composition later blooming free and unframed on a factory wall.
The painterly composition within Yang’s supple framing speaks perhaps most self-consciously of all to the competing urges of cultural conditioning. Dropping his weary forty-something husband and father into the classic quandary, he delineates the bottom-line alternatives — should I stay or should I go? — in terms clearly drawing on the expatriate’s cultural schism. The film avoids the schematic by remaining patiently true to the nuanced rhythms of real life in a city that, faithfully portrayed, gently reveals its own crossbred nature as well as that of its creator, at once Eastern and Western, ancestral and modern. Shooting the Jians in that world, Yang’s camera frames from behind the reflected loneliness of selves always withholding half their truth. Discreetly distant, it also finds a place for the intimate reality of deeply personal relations within the calm order of a larger picture. The most striking technique of Yi-Yi is, again, the way Yang films through the reflective surface of windows. Shooting evening-lit Tokyo offices from inside a couple’s passing taxi or lunchtime confidences from a busy sidewalk, his camera eye lodges within the same frame layers of singular and plural, personal and contextual. The shiny transparent surface exists as a visible barrier between these realms, and it doesn’t. In cinema, as in life, it’s all how you look at things.
Ball, Alan. Panel remarks, Writers Guild annual screenwriters conference, Los Angeles, 18 March 2000, “American Beauty Screenwriter Alan Ball Conducts Case Study at the IFP/West Screenwriters Conference,” Inside Film Magazine On-Line http://www.insidefilm.com/alan_ball.html.
Baudry, Pascal (2004) French and Americans: The Other Shore, Paris, Village Mondial/Pearsons Ed.
Bellah, Robert N., et al (1985) Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley, University of California Press.
Blanchflower, David G. and Oswald, Andrew J. (2008) ‘Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?’,Social Science & Medicine 66 (8), pp. 1733-1749.
Fanshawe, Simon (22 January 2000) ‘Sam Smiles’, The Guardian.
Ferenczi, Aurélien (17 September 2008) ‘Entretien avec Agnès Jaoui’, Télérama, p. 20.
Heath, Stephen (1982) Questions of Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Hofstede, Geert (1997), Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York, McGraw-Hill.
Lowenstein, ed. (2008) “Sam Mendes on American Beauty,” in My First Movie: Take Two, New York, Pantheon.
Menon, Usha (2001) ‘Middle Adulthood in Cultural Perspective: The Imagined and the Experienced in Three Cultures’, in Lachman, Margie, ed., Handbook of Midlife Development, Hoboken, John Wiley and Sons, pp. 40-76.
Mulvey, Laura (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Shore, Bradd (1998) What Culture Means, How Culture Means, Worcester, Clark University Press.
Trompenaars, Fons, and Hampden-Turner, Charles (1998) Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, 2nd edition, New York, McGraw-Hill Professional.
- Quietly contradicting earlier research such as that of Usha Menon, which found individuals in Western cultures somewhat more prone to mid-life crisis than those in other cultures, the results of this 2008 study may reflect the intensive infusion worldwide of certain Western values in recent years in an increasingly globalized market and media economy. The apparent discrepancy between earlier research and the more recent study may also illuminate distinctions later made in this article, notably regarding the cultural tensions apparent in Yi-Yi and its Taiwanese-American creator Edward Yang. [↩]
- In the three films the protagonist’s initial attraction to the other woman occurs between the eleventh and fifteenth minute. [↩]
- According to the video commentary of Rayns and Wang, the names Ota and Ato are English-language equivalents for two Chinese characters which, in a similar manner, evoke each other while remaining distinct. [↩]
- In the DVD commentary, Wang refers to his happy surprise upon viewing the rushes of this shot. [↩]