Scripts of escape

There are multiple ways to script escape, some of which provide invaluable lessons in how to live. One is to devote oneself to the immediate concerns of life and to view mundane struggles, achievements, and commitments as the most sacred plane of existence to be had. The novelist John Irving is very skilled at scripting escape, and his blend of tragedy and comedy teaches us that neither sorrow nor happiness are endless, that one will necessarily and inevitably prepare us for the other, and that the wonder of life is to be found in this ebb and flow. Nick Hornby (About a Boy, High Fidelity) is also good at this in his own way, inviting highly isolated individuals into the mysteries and deep satisfactions of human community, with all the attendant risks. Both Irving and Hornby are soft Epicureans, however, in that while they sacralize the ordinary, they don't absolutely foreclose on a reality that transcends it.

This is different from a more disciplined Epicurean escape route of withdrawing one's demand that life have depth or meaning, and seeking ultimate satisfaction from what is close at hand. The door on depth must first be closed, a bona fide Epicurean maneuver, before one can find grace in the surface of things. Sam Mendes' 1999 movie, American Beauty, takes this perspective.30 This story is narrated by its central character, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), in the minutes after his murder. As his consciousness leaves his body, rises from the scene of the crime, and floats down the suburban streets of his neighborhood, he recounts events of the past year that led to this simultaneous moment of death and awakening. It was a year in which he realized his money-smitten wife, Carolyn, hated him, that his sullen and self-loathing teenage daughter, Jane, was embarrassed by him, and that his employer had concluded he was overpaid and obsolete. He plunged into a yearlong regimen of self-indulgence, chasing down every adolescent fantasy he had deferred in order to lead a respectable life in the suburbs. His conscientious pursuit of each passing desire, the "new me" as he described it, further alienated him from his family but, the story wants to tell us, also served as a kind of catechism for the sudden epiphany he was to experience in the minutes before his neighbor shoots him in the head. Standing in his kitchen he catches sight of a framed photograph of his wife and daughter leaning into him on a spinning teacup ride, taken many years earlier at an amusement park and, as if scales were lifted from his eyes, he is startled at how happy they each look. The picture transfixes him. Sitting down, he rests his elbows on the kitchen table and folds his hands as if in prayer. Then he smiles -a knowing, sated smile - as if he has in this moment understood what it was all about. At this instant of satori, his next-door neighbor who has stealthily crept up behind him and raised a revolver to Lester's head, pulls the trigger. The screen goes white, we hear the sound of rushing wind, then we see Lester in his pajamas rising to the sky. In a voice over, he confides:

They say your entire life flashes in front of your eyes when you die. It's not really your entire life. It's just the moments that stood out. And they're not the ones you'd expect, either...

The moments you remember are tiny ones, some you haven't thought of in years, if you've thought of them at all. But in the last second of your life, you remember them with astonishing clarity because they're just so... beautiful that they must have been imprinted, on like a cellular level. For me it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars. Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper. And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new GTO... Carolyn...

He pictures his wife sitting across from him in the spinning teacup ride from the photograph, laughing as she spins the wheel.

He sees his daughter when she was seven years-old, dressing as a princess for Halloween and smiling at him.

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst.

We see Lester now, flying above the clouds and laughing.

And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

He is soaring higher and higher.

You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure ... but don't worry... He floats out of sight.

You will someday.

The screen fades to black.

The epiphany he has undergone in the instant of his death is the astonishing optical beauty of so many forgotten moments of his "stupid little life." This vision is reinforced as the scene cuts to the final appearance of a white plastic bag wafting and falling in a gentle, swirling breeze, captured on video. This shot has appeared at intervals throughout the movie. We receive the instruction at its first appearance that it represents a beauty so stunning that it suspends all fear. Like a visual Greek chorus, the dancing bag coaxes us to pause over the ineffable wonder of such mundane beauty, whereby the image of a discarded grocery sack, swirling fairy-like, can take away all fears, even the fear of death. American Beauty directs us to invest much in beauty, a beauty captureable in photographs and on video, a beauty of surfaces. To derive happiness from ready-to-hand aesthetic delight is the "bright god" that Mendes offers. No need to be perturbed further with the meaning of life, nor to impose duties or disciplines upon oneself to acquire a deeper wisdom. Be content with modest aesthetic pleasures and the world will not hurt you. Even if you are shot in the head by a deranged neighbor in your own kitchen.

A final direction to push within this subcategory of escape is the impulse to project "kindly and beneficent powers" into one's world, lesser gods who exist to make our lives come out right. These may be angels (Touched by an Angel), the recently departed (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones), the fool (Sling Blade, The Green Mile), cyber-technologies (the omniscient Internet, the omnipresent wireless network), space aliens (ET), superheroes, Mayan deities (Chocolat), product brands and totems (Levis, Ronald MacDonald, the Jolly Green Giant), dumb luck (Forrest Gump), or even the simple power of romantic love, which can overcome all obstacles (country-western music).

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