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Jewish World Review March 22, 2000/15 Adar II, 5760

Don Feder

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Oscar nominations show Hollywood's nihilism -- AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS ceremony on Sunday evening, Hollywood will do what it does best -- celebrate itself. "American Beauty," nominated for eight Oscars this year, shows Hollywood's reigning ethos isn't liberalism as much as a pervasive nihilism that transcends left and right.

Politically, "American Beauty" is predictable. Its most sensitive, sympathetic character is a teen-age drug dealer. The least appealing is a retired Marine Corps colonel who beats his son (the pusher), turns his wife into a zombie, collects guns and Nazi memorabilia, raves about "fags" and has a secret crush on the lead character, played by Kevin Spacey. Now that's original.

"Beauty" also indulges Hollywood's passion for middle-class bashing -- portraying suburbia as a wasteland of soul-dead, sexually frustrated, status-obsessed losers.

Coming from a town whose more prominent citizens have homes that make the Taj Majal look like a hovel and have gone through rehab almost as many times as they've been married, such moralizing about spiritual impoverishment is rather droll.

But there's more to the movie than its unremitting Motion Picture Academy correctness. "American Beauty" is the highest expression of the cynicism, hopelessness and death of ideals that the entertainment industry calls entertainment.

The syndrome is analyzed in a new book by Thomas Hibbs, a professor of medieval philosophy at Boston College, "Shows about Nothing -- Nihilism in Popular Culture from 'The Exorcist' to 'Seinfeld.'"

The author defines Nietzschean nihilism as "the moral state in which the highest values devalue themselves, human aspirations shrink, and the great questions and elevating quests of previous ages no longer have any resonance in the human soul."

Hibbs observed that in "serious" films we increasingly encounter "an implacable and inexorable force, a malevolent power that prevents not only moral transformation and understanding but even escape."

"American Beauty" is a parable of the meaninglessness of existence. It opens with its anti-hero (Spacey) telling us he will be dead within a year, but that's irrelevant because, in a sense, he's dead already. In his closing monologue, he expresses gratitude for his "stupid, little life," which he's come to appreciate by accepting its utter wretchedness.

At the outset, Spacey's "stupid, little life" consists of a boring job, shrewish wife and sullen teen-age daughter. He has an epiphany when he falls for the latter's cheerleader friend.

Hibbs notes that Hollywood nihilism treats "traditional divisions of good and evil, and victims and assailants as mere conventions. Societal norms of right and wrong are obstacles to self-knowledge, obstacles that render us timid conformists. By contrast, anyone who breaks through the conventions attains a kind of clarity and resolve that most lack."

For Spacey's character, this clarity and resolve leads him to quit his job, devote himself to bodybuilding (to court his Lolita), get high as often as possible and buy the sports car of his dreams. Thus he achieves a salvation of sorts by reverting to a youth where his highest ambitions were carnal and chemical.

Even this transcendence isn't enough to save him from his inevitable fate -- to die violently at the end of the film. For "American Beauty," good is whim indulgence. Evil does not exist.

The dealer-next-door (who films dead birds because he finds them aesthetic) says the father who beats him is "a good man." In a universe without an ultimate source of values, there is no evil, only what is.

In the most popular book of the past year, "The Greatest Generation," Tom Brokaw speculates that the greatness of this generation was forged by the crucible of war and depression. Brokaw has it backward. It was the generation's values that allowed it to overcome the century's monumental challenges.

Today, many of Hollywood's most successful films argue that happiness is an illusion, striving is futile and values are a myth.

Among other culprits, the recent spate of school shooting has been blamed on cinematic violence. That's only part of the story.

When Hollywood continually tells impressionable adolescents that life is a hopeless, meaningless trap, is it so surprising that some choose to exit in a blaze of Wagnerian glory?

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest book is Who's Afraid of the Religious Right. Comment on his column by clicking here.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate