Compare and Contrast the Representation of Enlightenment in "The Matrix" and "American Beauty." How do these films represent enlightenment and what difference does enlightenment make to the characters of Neo and Lester Burnham?

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Compare and Contrast the Representation of Enlightenment in “The Matrix” and “American Beauty.”  How do these films represent enlightenment and what difference does enlightenment make to the characters of Neo and Lester Burnham?

        Enlightenment is represented in very different forms in both of these films.  This is not merely because one is science fiction and the other is about a dysfunctional family in a happy American suburb, but it is also portrayed by various film techniques and the portrayal of the characters themselves.  However, there are also similarities between the two characters as they both seek enlightenment, as they are not only insecure but also unsure of what their place on earth is and why they are meant to be here.  The answer from each movie is very different to this question but as a result of their enlightenment both characters achieve a state of relative contentment although for how long this will remain is unknown.

        American Beauty initially pokes fun at suburbia so as to allow the audience to realise the situation that Lester Burnham is facing.  It quickly describes the suburban houses and the products their owners have the need to fill them with. Cyril Connolly described suburbia as, "the incubator of apathy and delirium" (quoted in: Carey, 1992: 51).  This therefore sets the scene for the dysfunctional family with the male going through a mid-life crisis, and explains the reality behind closed doors.  Lester is disgusted with the false bravado he has to put up with and the happy family man he pretends to be.  He realises that you only get one chance at life and he wants to make an attempt of enjoying some of it for a change.  In this way enlightenment is represented in his realisation of needing to enjoy life and the joy he gains out of such mundane things as working in a fast food restaurant.  He recognises that life should be fun and not full of stress.  He therefore attempts to achieve some goals he has always wanted in his life such as the Pontiac firebird he purchases.

        The suburbs are used in the film to represent the continuous monotony and form that everyone has to adhere to.  It sets the scene with a wide panning view of the suburb where Lester lives demonstrating the similarity between all the houses and in this way relates to how the people should also adhere to this form keep up appearances.  This need for normality is portrayed further by the suburbs in a haunting fashion as it is immediately distinguishable, but it is never entirely familiar.  Alongside this and the eerie music it sets the scene for an obviously sad and ultimately violent and depressing ending.  The suburbs are also portrayed as an ultimately self-destructive environment forcing the realisation and requirement for enlightenment and some form of freedom that Lester eventually receives.  It also explains the way that they chose the security of the enclosed environment in place of the naked insecurity and unpredictability of the city.

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        This, then, is the context in which American Beauty is located. From its opening moments, when the narrator, Lester Burnham declares that he's forty-two and "in less than a year I'll be dead…. in a way I'm dead already", we know that this is another portrayal of dysfunctional family life.  This also quickly demonstrates who the main character and the theme showing he is unhappy with his life and that he seeks some form of enlightenment.   Mendes describes this reawakening with deadly accuracy and the gradual disintegration, and premature demise of the anti-hero.

        Deconstructing the American Dream becomes a ...

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