American Beauty (h2so4 14)

Film by Sam Mendes

That American Beauty is a tragedy in terms of form occurred to me right away. After all, we start out already knowing how it will end, and so it is not the suspense that keeps us invested but rather the process of reaching a predetermined goal. That being said (or observed), I for the most part dismissed the film, mostly because suburban angst is nothing new, and has been done well before; and it is, after all, hard to stay focused on the disappointing lives of privileged people as a source of tragedy.

But then it occurred to me that “real”tragedy (by which I mean Greek, and even then, mostly Sophocles) also focuses on the disappointing lives of privileged people, not in order to draw for us a picture of just how “sad” it can be to have no real wants,but to give us the outlines of certain tragic sorts of characters or situations that transcend their own individuality to stand in general for human folly, and even the necessity and inescapability of human folly. Tragedy doesn’t seek to teach us how to live better, but rather acknowledges the presence of fate in our lives.

For the Greeks, fate did not mean predetermination. It meant those moments when a daimon—a god or other force outside human control—enters a life and wreaks havoc. Fate doesn’t render the choices humans make with regard to their actions unimportant, it merely reminds us that we are not omniscient, and that even the best of intentions can walk us down a path of ruin.

However, those who end in tragedy don’t usually start on their paths with the best of intentions. They lust for power, or revenge, or something equally unimaginative but compelling. The paradox or irony of fate, and of tragedy in general, is that it teaches a lesson its protagonists can’t use, because it’s always too late for them.

We, the modern audience, love tragedy too. But do we know what it is trying to teach us?

—Felix Culpa