Ricky Fitz’ Dancing Bag
For those who have seen and appreciated one of the last great films to be released, American Beauty (1999), I offer an in-depth analysis of its most interesting character, Ricky Fitz, and his dancing bag.
Ricky Fitz is a modern day William Wordsworth. He follows his emotionalism in a cycle of separations and reunions with nature and humans. He is Wordsworth’s techno-logical extreme. In the pivotal scene of the plastic bag, writer Alan Ball makes Ricky commit verbal plagiarism: emotions overflowing, Ricky describes his epiphanic realization—“There is an entire life behind things.” His language of “the life in things” takes us back to Romanticism, the secular religiosity of nature headed by William Wordworth. In his famous Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth, engorged with feeling, describes his “lighter mood” sitting on the banks of the Wye river beholding the “steep and lofty cliffs” and listening to the “soft inland murmur” of the mountain waters. His “blessed mood” achieved through his thoughtful communion with nature becomes an extraperceptional state:
…with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things (47-49).
Wordsworth’s exalted mood is proof of the benevolence of Nature. Ricky’s emotional ecstasies convince him of the “incredibly benevolent force” which tells him “there is no need to be afraid, ever.” Both are rebel Romantics, extolling feelings in cold times, asserting goodness in the face of malice and evil, asserting the value of life and all that is in it. Both shine their light on the “insignificant” in a quest to reveal the important goodness of everything.
In the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” Wordworth translates his democratic political sympathies into critical terms, “justifying his use of peasants, children, outcasts, criminals, and idiot boys as serious subject of poetic and even tragic concern” (Critical Theory Since Plato) For Wordsworth “common things,” everyday events are suitable subjects for poetry because they can inspire emotion, to which the poet can apply his imaginative feelings, which he can then use to ascend into the “blessed mood.” Wordsworth’s principal object in poetry “was to choose incidents and situations from common life.” In other (crass) words, let’s give the servants some close-ups. Let’s make poetry more populistic. But Wordsworth draws his line well above Ricky’s dancing bag. There is still a Wordsworthian hierarchy, at the bottom of which is the “indifferent,” a category he smiles about but rejects as emotional “wasting.” For Wordsworth, admiring “indifferent things,” a stick or rock or even “the vacant air” is not the focus of art, but rather the side-effect of the luxury-state of the poet whose heart is uplifted, and who reaches the peak of his nature-high. Free of all worry, all darkness, his heart “luxuriates” (Nutting).
Ricky’s perhaps even more luxurious marijuana highs on G-13 make him Wordsworth’s extreme. Wordsworth does not write a poem about a stick floating down a stream, an ant crawling over a rock. In his G-13 highness, for Ricky the “indifferent things” become everything. The image of a dead bird, an indigent corpse, a whirling bag, these are the beautiful images of life.
Alan Ball gives Wordsworthian Ricky a Coleridgean interest in drugs, suggesting he may be a hybrid of the two Romantic archetypes, Wordsworth and Coleridge, two minds at war, divided by their conflicting views of Nature. Wordsworth loved Nature and felt it to be a benign, loving force. Coleridge too wanted to think so, but in his poetry we see his inner knowledge of Nature as the source of all death and destruction coming out in powerful, twisted works like Christabel. Like Wordsworth, Ricky feels the forces of life are “benevolent” but his speech in the bag scene leaves him in a trembling state of abundance anxiety. There’s too much. His heart might “cave in.” Irving Babbitt says the romantic can only find happiness in “dreamland:” “Every finite satisfaction, by the very fact that it is finite, leaves him unsatisfied” (Romantic Melancholy). Ricky is quick to focus upon the danger of his special beauty-sense. He must inform us of its grave potential to be his destruction.
As Paglia shows, we will always find signs of conflict in those who espouse the strict benevolence of life forces. Strange behaviors will be exhibited. Murder and cruelty must come from somewhere. Wordsworth’s most interesting poem in this regard is Nutting, a striking short work which, surprisingly, Paglia does not analyze. In his calm, eloquent lines he recounts one of his solitary boyhood walking tours through the countryside. He fights through acres of tangled brush and uncovers a “virgin scene,” a vision of pure healthy nature untouched by man. He sits down in this bower under a tree to commune with the “hazels” and “tempting clusters.” Once again he finds “that sweet mood,” that state of poetic power. But then a strange thing occurs:
Then up I rose,
And dragged to earth both branch and bough, with crash
And merciless ravage: and the shady nook
Of hazels, and the green and mossy bower,
Deformed and sullied, patiently gave up
Their quiet being (43-48).
The Romantic demands the everlasting perfect moment, but it is only a moment. In a fit of temper Wordsworth destroys the virgin scene that moments before had paralyzed him with its rare splendor. He lashes out in a fit of teenage vandalism. We see there is hate in his love, conflict in his nature-worship. His selfish act of destruction he blames on the “spirit in the woods” which causes him to lose self-control. But what could this “spirit in the woods” be other than Nature itself? As Paglia points out, “Arguing that Nature is benign, Wordsworth is haunted by a spectre of isolation, his own repressed dread of mother nature’s cruelty.” In Nutting we see Wordsworth return cruelty for cruelty. He becomes proof of what he does not believe in.
Ricky tells Jane of his own out-of-body lash-out. He becomes violent, like the father he hates, when a kid at school makes a crack about his haircut. We see two conflicted Romantics, but Ricky’s spell of blood-lust (“…I would have killed him…”) again makes him Wordsworth’s extreme.
Nutting ends with an appeal to a “dearest Maiden,” whom scholars have yet to identify biographically. He interrupts his expression of guilt at having ravaged the bower to address her, warning her of the aforementioned “spirit in the woods” in the poem’s final line. Tintern Abbey also ends with a sudden appeal to a beloved female, his sister Dorothy. Paglia explains: “Dorothy’s sudden materialization…is Wordsworth’s strategy to keep despair at bay” (SP,308). This strategy is even more nakedly apparent in Nutting. As the pain of what he has done dawns on him his nervous mind must change focus.
Ricky also seeks a maiden. In the film, fate has put two only children in adjacent houses. Chance has provided brother with sister and sister with brother. The Ricky and Jane romance is a cosmic sibling finding of each other. Their sexual involvement (cosmic incest) stays shadowy. Jane won’t talk about it with Angela, saying, “It’s not like that, okay?”
Ricky’s contemptuousness of Angela Hayes raises questions as to his true sexuality. His harsh behavior toward her is more like that of a jealous female rival. After he first introduces himself to Jane outside of school, a perplexed Angela reports he never looked at her once. We wonder at this singularity of focus. Does he possess a special power to instantly sense a supposedly only skin-deep attractiveness like Angela’s and ignore it? Or does he simply not find women attractive? Are we seeing gay writer Alan Ball slipping some of his homosexuality into the heterosexual character of Ricky? Perhaps Colonel Fitz’ suspicions regarding Ricky’s sexuality are correct.
There is a real connection between Angela and Ricky. They meet at the concept of the “ordinary.” Her snooty remark: “Because there’s nothing worse in the world than being ordinary” can only come from a state of anxiety. She reveals the focus of an obsessive thought life. Ordinariness is a curse, a disease she’s terrified she might have. She compulsively compiles proof of her physical irresistability, and relates to Jane her logic: "If people I don't even know look at me and want to fuck me, that means I really have a shot at becoming a model." She envisions her escape. A model cannot be ordinary. But confronting Ricky, her belief in her extraordinariness becomes unstable, because she fears his is the true face of the extraordinary, and she notices there’s nothing physically beautiful about him. His eyes are close together, his teeth a mess, his face morbidly intense. She categorizes him as ugly, but he has a magnetism she cannot account for. Based on her fashion model understanding of how to escape ordinariness, she creates the rule that ugliness equals ordinariness. But Ricky does not fit into that reality. If people are superficially determined (as Angela's insecurity demands), how can Jane be choosing Ricky over her?
The antipathy works both ways. Ricky’s dislike of Angela is a little too active to be innocent. We see a symptom of some psychological turmoil. Emboldened by his victory of Jane, he manifests a swelling ego. He now confidently peers down on immature Angela and bitterly tears her down: “You’re ugly, and you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.” By attacking Angela, Ricky questions himself. How does he know? His anti-superficiality is itself superficial. He looks at Angela, at her physical irresistibility, and knows she must be locked in a surface-only understanding of life. That makes her boring, ugly. He commits a reverse discrimination, hypocritical in its unknowing superficial determinism. When Jane joins in: "We'll never be ordinary. We'll always be weird," we confront the extent to which she is now under Ricky's loner mind-control.
Ricky’s eye-choice of Jane over Angela is indicative of a non-sexual attraction to women. “I just think you’re interesting,” he says. His relationship with Jane is like Wordsworth’s with his sister Dorothy. He needs Jane to help him solve his conflicted Romanticism. His “unreal” social confidence, his comfortableness while nude on camera comes from his deep-seated denial of sex. Like Wordsworth’s poetry, Ricky’s videos are not at all sexually oriented. For Paglia, this is symptom of an insecure belief in Nature’s goodness, a strategic denial of sex. When Jane dramatically returns Ricky’s benevolent voyeurism with sympathetic exhibitionism after a fight with her mom (when she steps to her window and disrobes), note how Ricky’s zoom frames out her breasts. She goes further than he wants her to. She interprets his interest in her as conventional (sexual), but his private camera eye is strangely prude. His very unusualness, his “freakiness” comes from his seeming lack of typical sexual motivation. When Jane rebuffs Angela’s curiosity about their sex life, Angela asks, “Does he even have one?” Literally, yes he does, but perhaps he has metaphorically castrated himself.
The Ricky/Coleridge drug link does not hold, because Ricky’s G-13 is Wordsworth- approved. The artificial perfection of the G-13 high keeps Ricky in a Wordsworthian haze. The “mellow,” “no paranoia” high of G-13 does not permit the wild visions of Coleridge’s laudanum (opium mixed with alcohol), which led him into eerie chamber-stages, where dematerializing lesbian witches with ghost penises rape young virgins under spells as in the fragmented Christabel.
Ricky is a benevolent voyeur. He looks in from a sense of genuine interest and healthy curiosity. Filming seems for him an enjoyable act of learning. From his silent, socially desolate, overly austere environment with his parents, Ricky understandably looks out into the lives of others. He especially seems to like the feature of zoom. He can look past the attention-craving Angela in the window and zoom into the room’s interior to find the reflected face of the more mysteriously self-enclosed Jane as she grins to herself. Ricky’s camera is a harmless super-eye, seeking to know, not to use. His voyeurism is clean, wholesome.
Ricky is a videographer with a philosophy. We are offered four of his productions. Three in succession—the dead bird, the dead homeless woman (we are told about) and the dancing bag. The other is Mrs. Fitz, his mother, whom Ricky films in profile, an image which creates the startling moment in American Beauty when snooping Colonel Fitz apprehends his catatonic wife on the screen. Though we want him to stop and look and learn, he quickly ejects the tape. We focus now on the three successive images. As viewers we share in Jane’s wary confusion at the first two images, the dead bird and the dead homeless woman. Ricky’s all-purpose answer (every artist must have one) “Because it is beautiful” does not help us understand. Ricky’s corpse-love stays peripheral, a piece of sit-com charicaturism left over from Alan Ball’s TV days. It does not enhance his fascination. We await Ricky’s master-image—the dancing bag.
Ricky’s bag is an ugly piece of garbage, a particle of human pollution, an object of extreme insignificance. We cannot think of anything more insignificant. This static-energized air focuses its force on this plastic bag, tossing it like a loving father carefully tosses an infant. The bag is “like a little kid, begging me to play with it,” like a child giggling with the thrill of trust as he’s airplaned down and back up. Ricky’s word is “dancing.” This means the wind has mind, a sense of form, of performance. The wind, a cardinal Romantic motif, wishes to communicate with Ricky, through the acrobatics of the bag, something true about the universe, something beautiful, something that is still mostly secret. Ricky, apprehending this, becomes a chosen one, a tormented messenger, a messiah visited by the angel Wind, and his message is beauty.
Ricky’s dancing bag is his first parable. Even something so insignificant, a piece of garbage, has life in it, has beauty in it. We need only the imagination to animate it.
The scene of the dancing bag and Ricky’s tearful narration amplified by the saccharine strains of the film score was funny to me from the first viewing. I remember twice being the only one in the theater having to stifle their chuckles. I commented to others I felt the humor was intentional, but I had to face facts seeing Alan Ball expound in an interview (with not a hint of a grin on his face) his heart-felt idea of beauty, of which Ricky is the earnest film messenger. I admit: the humor is not intentional. There is no humor in the scene. I, with my twisted mind-eye, imposed it.
To find humor in the scene is to violate the spirit of the film. I am supposed to relent to the heavy manipulation of the film score which, combined with Wes Bentley’s intense narration, sweeps us off on a wave of feeling to a place where a piece of refuse blowing in the wind could be a “beautiful thing,” a magical place where Ricky could believe that his jerky footage of a swirling bag “the most beautiful thing [he has] ever filmed” and not be a comic character. He could relive his epiphany where he saw beyond the material world, into the “entire life behind things” while watching a plastic bag skid across the sidewalk and still not be a comic character. This swirl of incongruous ideas is held together by expertness of movie-making. Conrad Hall’s “romantic” cinematography turns the two youths into cherubs, the bag into a butterfly—the perfect match for Thomas Newman’s adagio. The music is the sonic manifestation of soft lighting richly-textured. These professionals have taste, an understanding of film amplified by imagination and natural intelligence, and their confident collaboration creates a powerful harmony, seen especially in the bag scene.
The breathiness and dramatic pausing of Ricky’s elocution is not to be underestimated. His speech is a powerful dramatic reading. “This bag…was…dancing…with me.” Then the finale: “Sometimes there’s so much…beauty…in the world…” A rebel Romantic, he has no embarrassment evoking the cliché of the bursting heart, another extreme of Wordsworth. Coleridge is still ridiculed for his abominably maudlin “To a Young Ass,” but Ricky Fitz can offer his “Ode to a Garbage Bag” and we neither sneer nor laugh. We instead watch in emotionalized amazement.
The real question for Ricky is “What is not beautiful?” If dead birds and windswept bags are beautiful, what isn’t? For Ricky beauty does not lie in human achievement or even in Nature. It is found only in unexpected places, and pertains only to objects and conditions that have no traditional association with the idea of beauty, such as in the eyes of a man with his head in a pool of blood, just murdered. Hazard Adams says “Wordsworth shifts emphasis from the relationship between poet and reader to that between poet and poem.” Art becomes self-enclosed. Ricky pushes this extreme as well. To the scientist, Ricky’s dancing bag is just a piece of trash randomly circulating in the turbulence of architecturally pocketed air. For Ricky beauty is the imagined life in the lifeless. He asks, what has no life, that I may give life to it? He takes Wordsworth’s aesthetic to its decadent extreme: Oh, that Michelangelo sculpture? That’s just a pretty rock. Come check out this plastic bag on the ground.
Ricky’s tiny video camera is to poetry what Warhol’s silkscreen is to painting. Seek to make it easier. “Video is a poor excuse, I know,” he says, “but it helps me remember. I need to remember.” In Wordworth’s formula—“emotion recollected in tranquility”—remembering is first priority. Sitting on his bed, high on G-13, watching his bag dance across a large TV screen, Ricky Fitz is the reincarnation of Wordsworth, whose poetry is all about seeing. Ricky’s camera is a tool of selective memory. He remembers from a state of heightened tranquility while in command of frame-by-frame controls of his ‘memory,’ which he shapes and re-frames through digital zoom. He is Wordsworth plus technology, his camera a poetry “mod.” Wordsworth’s abstract conditions become a matter of science (camera) and agronomics (G-13). And technology offers one more most important convenience—no writing of poetry.
Ricky takes poetry past the printed page, heightening its effects. Its experience is an act of watching, not reading. "Video is a poor excuse," but words are even poorer. Metaphor becomes actual image; words are only heard, enacted with an interpretive inflection not possible on Wordsworth's black-ink-on-white-page. The page prioritizes imagination, a faculty which many do not have. Ricky's bag scene is poetry in compliance with modern video injunctions, moving Wordsworth's populism forward. He follows the film's pattern of imagination-killing exhibitionism. All wonder must end. We are shown what we do not need to see, culminating in the final sequence with the display of Angela's much-fetishized breasts in all their undeveloped, misproportioned reality. Our imaginations recoil, but the lust of the eye is fulfilled. In the bag scene we are limited to one professedly superlative image. We glimpse the world of the "benevolent force" in its stark, empty realism. This ultimate force is concerned with loose trash, and expresses itself in the language of garbage.
The bag scene is a work of true modern art. Modern art worth experiencing. We see philosophy and aesthetics presented in today’s terms under today’s conditions, and we are interested.