The character of Colonel Frank Fitts is one of many figures in the film American Beauty presented as engaged in a process of psychological growth towards a state of maturation and ideal self. A closeted homosexual while bred out of militaristic notions of discipline and social values, he deals with the conflicting nature of his inner selves though rejection of their coexistability and repression of his desires. This inner conflict rears its head throughout the film in acts of verbal and physical violence against his wife and son, alienation and isolation from other figures, and eventual inability to cope, resulting in the murder of Lester, the film’s central character. Concepts of psychoanalytic theory, from Freudian notions of personality to Jungian “individuation” and symbolism, are useful in application to his transformative journey characterized by intense struggle between chaos and order as a means to discover further depth in the meaning of his behavior.
Narrative typically presents conflict between oppositional values which lead to an end resolution and/or reconciliation achieved through psychological growth. In many ways, this narrative process parallels the manner in which psychoanalytic thinkers viewed the development of ones personality and arrival at an ideal self. Freud believed this ideal was a balance maintained by the “ego” between the biological, purely pleasure seeking “id” and the socially constructed moralistic and parental “super-ego.” In the film, Fitts struggles to reach a state of ideal balance because he has internalized a system of moralized social codes of order and discipline which stand in violent opposition to a pleasure-seeking body inherently chaotic and unpredictable in nature. In order to find a balance, he must consciously acknowledge the existence of both his “id” and “super-ego” layers of self and attempt to reconcile them in a middle ground. This acknowledgement is made exceptionally difficult as his desires are hidden beneath a fortress of defense mechanisms which act as a “barrier between [his] consciousness and unconsciousness and do not allow repressed material to pass through it (Berger, 77).”
According to Jung, in order to arrive at an ideal state of self, one must journey through a process of “individuation” in which elements of the unconscious are gradually confronted, acknowledged and integrated. These elements of the unconscious are primarily those which are in opposition to elements of the conscious self. For example, one’s “shadow” side stands in direct opposition to one’s “ideal archetype[al]” side. Assuming roles of both father/husband and military colonel, he struggles in achieving ideal archetype of the king and of the warrior. As king, he attempts to “establish order through laws” in such an obsessive manner that he becomes a tyrant. At the same time his failure to establish true authority is exemplified in his son’s structural deviance. As warrior, he is emotionally distant and remains dedicated to an ideal (order in politics, purity in society) however he embodies the shadow sides of the ideal in that this “transpersonal commitment” is carried out, often violently, at the expense of physical and emotional wellbeing of his wife and son (Karlyn, 72). In the scene in which he confronts his son with suspicion of his having performed fellatio for money, his beating him exemplifies his bully/sadist shadow side while also presenting him as the coward/masochist which the son recognizes when he says, “you are a sad old man.” The Colonels embodiment of both shadow sides of archetypal ideals which concurrently oppose and support one another presents him as a character “obsessive and simultaneously controlling and out of control,” making it difficult to acknowledge his shadows without entirely removing himself from the roles from which they emerge (Karlyn, 84).
The colonel physically faces elements of his shadow-self when his new neighbors, a homosexual couple, knock on his door. In dreams, the “alter-ego” is represented by an alien or non-human figure that comes uninvited and unavoidable. The film medium has often been likened to dream space. In the American Beauty dream, Fitts confronts figures which he understands as essentially separate from himself, yet which represent his “alter-ego,” unavoidable in that they are his neighbors, uninvited in that he feels as though they have intruded into his space, physically by coming to his doorstep and psychologically through the ideas they embody. While driving his son to school, he responds to the welcome visit by asking, “How come these faggots always have to rub it in your face? How can they be so shameless?” He is unable to confront his “latent” desires in a way that incorporates them into his sense of self and thus uses defense mechanisms, such as “fixation” (on nostalgia for phallic power and structural purity and verbal declaration of ‘truth,’) “rationalization” (of his beliefs due to his son’s [albeit forced] agreement with him,) and “avoidance” (by physically and mentally barricading himself from the ‘other,’) to neutralize them (Karlyn, 3).
In order to confront one’s opposites so as to incorporate them, one must also abandon one’s “persona,” removing the mask used to survive in the world. The scene in which the Colonel steps into Lester’s garage out of the rain provides a visual of this unmasking. His mask of rigid composure, of aggressive and empowered masculinity, is replaced with a teary-eyed look of vulnerability. This enables him to confront the latent desires and opposites of his unconscious, here represented by the pleasure-seeking and unpredictable character of Lester and the misassumption of his homosexuality. The subject of homosexuality itself is not what Fitts fears and rejects, so much as that which he views it to stand for. It is utilized in the film as a means of “condensation” in which it is associated with the emotional and psychological meaning of numerous ideas, feelings, memories, or impulses, all of which in his case deal with chaos and deviation from order and expectation. Although he sought direct confrontation with his opposite, he instead was confronted with rejection. The encounter did not allow Fitts to incorporate his opposite because a necessity for both sides of the opposition to “engage with one another and be able to explain or understand the opposing (O’Shaughnessy, 257)” was absent, met only with Lester’s remarking, “Whoa. I'm sorry. You got the wrong idea.” Film often presents the concept of reconciliation in narrative endings with coupling of figures. The fact that Lester and the Colonel both end up alone suggests an absence of reconciliation.
The film medium visually communicates Fitts’ psychological conflict by presenting symbolism which, according to Hinsie and Campbell, may represent “an order or idea by a substitute object, sign or signal (Berger, 88).” There are many instances in which doors presented in the film seem symbolic of a means of removal and/or defense, suggested by Ricky’s reference to his father’s study full of locked doors as his “hide out.” They suggest an amount of control though his power to choose to open or close them, power provided through social and economic privileges in owning property and in the fulfilling the dominant male role within the family structure. Doors may also symbolize his weaknesses or dependencies. For example again, in his scene of vulnerability, he must rely on Lester to open the garage door to let him in. This holds a sexual connotation as well in its presentation of a cave-like hollow space which is opened up and made seductively available to him (
The white Nazi plate is locked in a glass case in significant contrast to the gunnery surrounding it, with a round feminine form and fragility. On one hand, the plate can be viewed as symbolic of defensive preservation, withheld from potential damaging forces of the outside. Its Nazi symbol identifies it with fascism, a political movement whose rise has been connected to “the repression of sexuality within patriarchal and capitalist society” and “authoritarian-masochistic tendencies within the family,” both of which are also present in the Colonel’s world (Heineman, 23). Further, Nazi fascism allowed a certain ambiguity in reference to the subject of homosexuality which grew out of homoerotic bonds that emerged from Nazi concepts of the “ideal” man which would permit a man to be at once masculine and homosexual (Henieman, 26). In this sense, the object symbolizes the ability for two seemingly opposing natures to exist harmoniously and to function with purpose.
The gun is a phallic symbol with which Fitts strongly identifies in its associations with power, masculinity and the warrior self. What is significant about the gun in the context of the film in particular is that it embodies the Colonel’s own struggle of opposition. It can signify order when possessed (or stockpiled) with the threat of its potential use while at the same time, symbolizing chaos when utilized in a moment of passion or emotion. His act of shooting the gun may solidify the Colonel’s inability to incorporate his opposites into an ideal self, recognizing the incapacity for order and chaos to coexist. Conversely, the act may demonstrate a reestablishment of his authority and control over the situation, while simultaneously appeasing desire and arousing pleasure through a symbolic extension of self in the gun as it physically engages in an aggressive and dominating penetration of Lester as sexualized object.
American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper. DVD. Dreamworks, 1999.
Berger, Arthur Asa. Media Analysis Techniques.
Heineman, Elizabeth. "Sexuality and Nazism: The Doubly Unspeakable?." Journal of the History of Sexuality, 11.1/2, Special Issue: Sexuality and German Fascism(2002): 22-66.
Karlyn, Kathleen. "’Too Close for Comfort’: American Beauty and the Incest Motif." Cinema Journal, 44.1(2004): 69-93.
Moore, Michael. "On the Signification of Doors and Gates in the Visual Arts." Leonardo, 14.3(1981): 202-205.
O'Shaughnessy, Michael, and Jane Stadler. Media and Society: An Introduction.