American Beauty: Music, Marimbas, and the Mundane

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the musicality of film and how a deeper understanding of film music might grant us insight into the spiritual dimensions of both film and filmgoing.  For more thoughts on the spiritual and theological significance of music in film, check out Kutter’s upcoming book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience (available January 2013).

The true measure of a great film is whether it can withstand the test of time. Thirteen years have passed since American Beauty first graced theater screens and captured the hearts of a generation of moviegoers. Yet, perhaps now more than ever, Sam Mendes’ cinematic masterpiece continues to confront us with a compelling vision of life’s fragile beauty in the midst of an otherwise fractured and cynical world.

It is precisely because of its many enduring qualities that American Beauty garnered such critical acclaim when it was originally released (it won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture). But it also explains, at least in part, why this film continues to draw the attention of those who are interested in the spiritual possibilities of cinema. Indeed, our friends over at recently named American Beauty as the number one encounter with wonder in their “50 experiences in wonder” series

Thus, it comes as no surprise that, over the years, numerous individuals have reflected theologically on American Beauty, offering their take on why this particular film connects so readily with the contemporary cultural imagination.  In his beautifully written Catching Light:  Looking for God in the Movies, Roy Anker explores this very question. I am quite fond of Anker’s work. However, I must admit that I am bringing his voice into this conversation for a somewhat self-interested purpose.

In contrast to Anker and others who have reflected on this film over the years, I want to suggest that the reason that American Beauty continues to connect so profoundly with contemporary individuals is not simply because of the script or the cinematography or the acting. Rather, it is because of the way music functions in the film. For, as it is with any great piece of art, a truly transformative movie engages us holistically – through our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts – and American Beauty is no exception.

According to Anker, the thematic core of American Beauty is directly related to “the necessity to ‘look closer,’ to behold with wonder the exquisite beauty of ordinary human life” (pg. 345). Indeed, the film follows Lester Burnham during the final year of his “stupid little life,” from his imprisonment in bourgeois banality to his gradual awakening from a stupor of apathy and discontent, and finally to his appreciation of life’s heartbreaking beauty.

Yet, for Anker, the film charts a path to this destination of wonderment by contrasting two competing, wholly divergent notions of beauty. Anker suggests that, in the character of Ricky, Lester’s young neighbor, the film supplies “another rendition of beauty, one diametrically opposed to the renditions set for by Carolyn, Lester, the gay Jim and Jim, Angela, or Ricky’s own father….In Ricky’s radically different vision of life, the emphasis falls on beauty itself, pure and very simple, free of its often grotesque American incrustations” (356).

Thus, Anker’s interpretation of the film centers on Lester’s eventual rejection of what he believes to be the ephemeral desire that lies at the heart of American culture in favor of “true” beauty, or the “amazing, uncompromised glory of the created world” (356). According to Anker, the “first note struck in the film,” and the one that “plays repeatedly throughout” is a satiric condemnation of the “soul-numbing niceness and triviality” of suburban utopia (349).

Yet, if we pay attention to the music in American Beauty, we quickly recognize that this highly cynical take on American life is, in fact, not the first note struck in the film.  Rather, the first note we hear in the film comes from the marimba leitmotif. Normally, leitmotif is a short musical figure that is repeated throughout the course of the film. However, in this case, the symbolic meaning that the marimba leitmotiv conveys is not simply related to a musical phrase, but rather, to the marimba itself.

The marimba figures prominently, not only in Lester’s opening monologue regarding the vapidity of his suburban life, but also in Carolyn’s attempts to close one of her real estate deals and in Lester’s sexually charged dream sequences. It appears while Lester jogs with Jim and Jim, while Carolyn and Buddy begin their affair, and while Jane and Ricky watch a funeral procession move slowly down their street. Moreover, we hear the marimba as Ricky captures a number of bizarrely beautiful moments on his camcorder: Jane in her bedroom, Lester posing in his garage, a bird lying dead on the side of the road. Thus, we cannot directly associate this leitmotiv with any one of the film’s characters. Rather, as its numerous iterations sound and resound over images that reflect various conceptions of what constitutes a meaningful and beautiful life, the marimba leitmotiv serves to signify the aesthetic impulse that unites all of the film’s characters. In other words, each person, in his or her own way, is driven toward beauty.

Contrary to Anker’s contention however, the music does not set these various drives toward beauty in opposition to one another. Rather, the marimba leitmotiv connects the aesthetic impulse that motivates each of these characters by pointing toward a collective disorientation. To be sure, Ricky’s obsession with capturing the magnificence of the ordinary world on film is seemingly more contemplative than Carolyn’s longing for professional success and prestige. Yet, just as Carolyn confuses human fulfillment with materiality, Ricky often blurs the line between quiet contemplation and voyeurism, between a pure and simple appreciation of life’s beauty and a medicinally mediated engagement with the world. Thus, rather than offering two renditions of beauty as Anker suggests, the film’s music functions to unify these characters through their distorted visions of beauty.

Ultimately, though, just as the marimba leitmotiv signifies the characters’ aesthetic impulses, the transformation of this leitmotiv signifies a reorientation of their basic understanding concerning the good, the true, and ultimately, the beautiful. As Ricky and Jane watch footage of a plastic bag being tossed about by the wind (as Ricky puts it, “the most beautiful thing I have ever filmed”), the marimba leitmotiv is displaced and finally replaced by a new theme; it is, in a certain sense, “over-written.” Rather than a marimba, we hear a single piano with a string accompaniment; rather than the major and minor 3rds of the prior figure, we hear a progression of harmonic intervals that are now comprised of perfect 5ths. It is this new, “mundane beauty” leitmotiv that slowly emerges throughout the rest of the film.

In the penultimate sequence, as Lester awakens to the emptiness of his sexual fantasies while the object of his lust lies naked before him, it is this theme that accompanies his reorientation. Not only are Lester’s eyes opened to his radically misplaced desires, but, as Anker suggests, “Lester has come to recognize and care about something apart from himself” (358). Moreover, in the final sequence, as he narrates from beyond the grave, we hear this music once again playing over images of Lester’s life. As his voice-over narration makes clear, through an unexpected encounter with life’s unspeakable beauty, Lester has stumbled upon the true source of joy and contentment. If there is a tragedy here, it is that he only recognizes this truth in the waning moments of his life.  More than any other element in the film, it is this “mundane beauty” leitmotiv that functions to indicate that which Lester encountered, the very thing that cannot be contained in the images we see – the redemptive presence of life’s beauty.

In both its earlier and later manifestations, the leitmotiv pervades the whole of the film from beginning to end, impinging upon the characters’ lives and the film’s progression.  Anker is therefore surely correct to emphasize the film’s affirmation of the ordinary world as “resplendent and suffused with a radiant, implacable love that shows itself in the exquisite beauty of the very fabric of the created world” (350). Yet, by not attending to the film’s music, he cannot acknowledge the redemptive trajectory of this beauty. Consequently, his interpretation unnecessarily denigrates the legitimate impulses that compel persons to pursue material wealth, sexual expression, and aesthetic pleasure.

Without question, the film offers a scathing criticism of those whose passions have become disoriented and who misconstrue the object of their desire as an end in itself. However, as it signifies the beautiful presence that saturates life, the film’s music affirms these characters’ basic impulses by effecting, not an abandonment, but a reorienting of their passions. Thus, rather than presenting us with two competing visions of beauty – one “grotesque” and one “pure,” one beyond redemption and one charting a path toward redemption – the film allows the pervasive presence of the music to envelop all these visions, investing each of them with redemptive potential from the very beginning. In doing so, the first note that the film actually strikes is innately theological.  It suggests that no one stands outside the influence of the “incredibly benevolent force” that suffuses the whole of our lives, not even a middle-class American materialist.

Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience, on the theological significance of music in film, is due out in January of 2013 through Baylor University Press. He also contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture.