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I recently saw the brilliant film adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel, Revolutionary Road and, like so many works exploring conformity, dissent, the incapability to escape the choices one makes, I was mesmerized. It lodged itself in my head, like a splinter, slowly working deeper and deeper to my core. I was a bit rattled. The film brought to mind other great works of art that address this dreadful part of the human condition. The existential itch to find the greenest grass, to casually cast aside any impediment to fully realize one’s dreams, has plagued artists since landlords began demanding rent, since food required the exchange of currency, since the notion of ‘compromise’ entered the human consciousness.
There is a slew of great books and films that deal with this very theme. Below are the novels and movies that had the greatest effect on my life, which caused me to pause and consider my decisions. While the impact isn’t always a positive one, it is sometimes wonderful and insightful. Through brilliant lyrical language and powerful metaphors these writers produce a result, as do all great works of art, which evokes a myriad of feelings, often too complex to limit to short synopses.
American Beauty —At my mother’s suggestion, I saw this film when it debuted in the theaters. I felt at the age of 17, I could see my midlife crisis just over the horizon. Sam Mendes would go on to direct Revolutionary Road, honing his ability to direct films that evoke malaise, and intelligently using metaphor as a commentary on the individual’s desire to break the bounds of imposed conformity.
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow—I read this while tending bar in a dank, dirty, beer soaked basement. My life felt better after reaching the end. This novel represents the inverse. The protagonist never fully reaches his potential, never making the right decisions, and having to live with the consequences of being a totally ineffectual individual. Bellow’s insight predates the ennui so often characterized by Generations X and Y.
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett—a play in which two characters wait for a third, Godot, who never arrives. The play invites a multitude of different interpretations. The ambiguity is not helped by the fact that Beckett has refused to indulge in commenting on any of the interpretations (he famously told an actor “it’s symbiosis, Peter, it’s symbiosis”). My favorite thematic interpretation deals with the existential questions. Godot’s absence is more powerful than the other characters’ presence. And it doesn’t really matter who Godot is; these two characters are simply waiting. Waiting for something. Waiting for change. Waiting for redemption. Waiting for opportunity. Waiting for success. Waiting for the something that never arrives. Ahh…such is life, sometimes.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis—This book just might be the most famous, well known novel exploring conformity, and the emptiness of the middle class. This book is too good to give a short synopsis here. I will simply add my two cents’ worth…..if you’re at all interested in the above works, by this theme in art at all….GO READ IT NOW!