Have you seen Sam Mendes’ 2008 film ‘Revolutionary Road’?
What does “Revolutionary Road” actually mean?
And what happens if you do decide on going down that road?
Where will it lead you?
Revolutionary Road explores these questions through following the journey of a young couple, April and Frank Wheeler. The “Revolutionary Road” is simply a road to being a “Man” which supposedly leads to a meaningful and happy life. In the film, being that Man means living up to an anthropocentric view of mankind defined as “…the most valuable and wonderful thing in the world….[a being] who is somehow very special and superior to the whole thing [to other sentient beings].” This implies that the film understands Man as that which mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called a “hero.”
It is: “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond normal range of achievement and experience; someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” Man, to the film, is “a big deal,” or as other character Bart Pollock says, “not the second rate…not your average.”
This whole idea is Heideggerian in nature, as it originates from the Heideggerian notion of dasein which refers to human beings as the “there being.” It means, as Levinas explained in his essay “Time and The Other,” that humans achieved their existence / identity by putting themselves out in the world among other sentient beings, exploring their possibilities to do/to be this or that. “Human existence is always in-the-world and not enclosed within a subject ‘in here’ [in himself or in solitude].” In this sense, being a Man is thus reserved not only for men, but for humankind in general.
Accordingly, to be a Man must be done by putting oneself out in the world among other sentient beings; to be a Man is to show up or to make yourself seen in a public and/or political space. In this sense, the putting oneself out there in the world is equal to going down that “Revolutionary Road.” What we are essentially doing on this Road is working on our interest. As revealed through the remark April later made to her husband Frank, “When I first met you, there was nothing in the world you couldn’t do or be,” the film understands interest in the Heideggerian sense as “one’s possibilities to do this or that; the ability [power] ‘to do [to be] this or that.’” This very ability/possibility to be or to do constitutes our subjectivity.
This form of interest is, to follow Levinas, “desire for the object that I do not yet possess; desire to be/to do this or that.” We could imagine desire/ interest as that of sunlight of which orients plants movement. Just like plant, we consciously and unconsciously move toward something such as warm sunrays which invokes feeling of aliveness and we are often not afraid to make sacrifice for it. Otherwise, we might feel unhappy in one way or another. At this point, it’s safe to say that inherently we all have interest as desire to do/to be this or that. What differentiate us eventually is the attempt/ work we do to manifest that desire/interest.
By working I simply mean doing any action to overcome whatever stands between our desire and its possible fulfillment. Working is moving toward what we desire. For those who already know what their interest is, working could mean: taking courses, doing internships, seeking advice. For those who are unsure about what their interest might be, working is likely about finding out that interest. Working, in short, is about taking chances or putting oneself outside of one’s comfort zone. It is about trying, failing, trying again.
Working is the very principle of Revolutionary Road‘s “Man” essence, and it presents the case that the absence of this work precludes the ability to call oneself Man, as in the case of Frank whose wife sees him as not yet a Man. Viewers can find this idea in the last prologue scene, when April and Frank are on their way back home from April’s unsatisfactory soap opera performance. Frank tries to console April and yet only upsets her more. They end up having a heated argument about their comfortable, yet jaded lives among people who are just not their kind. The argument ends with April’s emasculating remark about Frank.
“…Listen, Goddamn it! It wasn’t my fault the play was bad…it’s certainly not my fault you did not turn out to be an actress …..the sooner you get over that little piece of soap opera, the better off we’ll be……you know what you’re like when you are like this? You’re sick, I really mean that…” Frank yells in anger.
“…Oh, you don’t fool me, Frank. Not for a second. Now, you’ve got me safely in your little trap,” April yelled back.
“You’re in a trap! Oh, Jesus, don’t make me laugh!”
“Me! Me! Me! You pathetic, deluded little boy– look at you! Look at you, and tell me how by any stretch of imagination you can call yourself a man!”
Frank is not a Man in April’s view because of the absence of effort in pursuing his desires to “feel things” he revealed to April when they first met in a party in New York in 1947.
“So, what do you do?” Frank asks April.
“I am studying to be an actress. You?” she replies.
“I’m a Longshoreman……..Starting Monday though. I am starting something a little more glamorous. Night cashier at a cafeteria.”
April smiles and says, “I mean really……I do not mean how you make money. I mean what are you interested in?”
“Honey, if I had the answer to that one, I bet I’d bore us both to death in half an hour… All I know is that I want to feel things. Really feel them. How’s that for an ambition…?”
However, Frank does work hard. He is a salesman at the Knox Company and is able to support his family’s comfortable life in a nice neighborhood, such as Revolutionary Road, which is much nicer than Crawford Road. Crawford Road is, by comparison, the property agent character Mrs. Givings said, “…mostly these little cinder-block-y, pick up truck-y places plumbers, carpenters, little local people of that sort….Revolutionary Road is much nicer. Now, the place I want to show you, is a sweet little house and a sweet setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children.” Frank is a Man already from the perspective of society. He is not yet a man in April’s view.
Such is the case because Frank does not work in the sense of putting himself out there; He does not move toward his goal “to feel things.” Moving toward light [something] that can make you visible to public eyes is seen as, at least in Levinas’ view, part of masculinity, in opposition to femininity which characterized by the moving away from being known [to hide oneself; to live a private life]. By not moving toward something that can make him be known and, subscribing to a form of private life which closely associated with labor work to meet bodily needs, Frank is considered as not yet a man.
This kind of life and job which centers around meeting bodily needs is an endless cycle that robs Man [Frank] the time and freedom “to find out what it is that you actually want to do, and the freedom to start doing it.” Within this kind of life, men’s responsibility is to provide for his family and, hence, makes it a standard of manhood. Meanwhile, women’s place is at home, not working outside. For this very reason, Frank has to “go on working like a dog year after year at a job he can’t stand, coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.” Therefore, April calls this kind of life “trap” which has “denied and denied and denied “the essence of Man as thinking being. Within this kind of life with repetitive jobs as wife and salesman at Knox, Man do not need to think if only because there is a procedure/ rule/principle to follow already, both in workplace and society in general.
In this sense, Man becomes like automata, or at least Man who are jaded, who have eyes yet see not; ears that hear not and; hearts that neither feel nor understand,” as National Geographic host Jason Silva puts it. April sees that this kind of life with all material achievements holds them back to be “a big deal” and “to live a life as if it matters.” Thus, she thinks the solution is to sell the house and to use their savings to move somewhere else “worth-living,” conducive for their goal to be a Man. In that place Frank will be reading and studying and April will work. Such a place, in their case, is Paris.
At this point, the realization on the part of April – and later Frank about their current life and the decision to move to Paris constitute the first of three phases that make up the heroic journey to be a Man [or the Revolutionary Road]. This first stage is known as the departure, the separation from, the breaking up with the present/current self, situation, habit, people, achievement and other things in it. Great Man such as Buddha, Gautama and Muhammad also took this move. The Buddha, who was prince Siddharta, left his palace life, his wife, his son, his beloved parent to meditate in the forest. Muhammad left his beloved homeland Mecca and uncle to migrate to Medina. Or, if we look back at our lives, we can see this move as well. May be in the form of leaving old habit in order to develop the new one. At this point, we can see that leaving is a form of sacrificing things and people dear to us. And in all those leaving moves, pain is inevitable. It’s painful because it’s part of us that we leave behind and, it is more painful when it results in nothing. It is for the very sudden break up with the past and things close to us which makes the road revolutionary. In addition, this leaving that we must continuously do, which often result in nothing which is what make the road is also known as “the path of despair.”
One simple pain exemplified in the film is the contempt and mockery from Frank’s and April’s neighbors and co—worker when they told them the news about moving to Paris. “I’m moving to Paris.” said Frank. “Right. And I’m moving to Tangiers,” his co-worker Jack responded. Meanwhile, their neighbors, a couple Milly and Sheeb discuss that news, “I think this whole plan sounds a little immature……I mean what kind of man is going to sit around in his bathrobe all day picking his nose while his wife goes out and works?” We are all familiar with it and have encountered it in one way or another. The courage to leave place, habit, person for another place or habit which potentially elevates us is a heroic act. Yet it is not the last heroic act one must perform in this Revolutionary Road. More heroic acts, and challenges are available in the next stage of heroic journey, that is in the liminal space.
By giving up their stifling life, April and Frank are leaving the center of society and automatically enter into the next stage, that is the liminal space. A space which is often known as an underworld characterized by uncertainty, fear, the unknown and confusion and others. Liminal space is then synonymous with death event, the decisive moment in which philosopher Bataille claims, “Man is dying while watching themselves doing it”; it is when “everything seems to be effortlessly sinking into nothingness, crumbles and we catch ourselves sobbing and reaching out for help,” wrote Blanchot and Levinas.
This stage and all its difficulty is an inevitable result of the decision. Campbell said in his talk with Bill Moyers, “if you are not eligible for this place into which you put yourself, it’s going to be…. a real mess. But, if you are eligible, it can be a glory that will give you a life that is yours, in your own way.” In other words, if we manage to survive the death event, we will come out as a better person and, sometimes we can even transform painful experience into “something tangible” which benefits other people. This shapes the definition of what it means to live a fulfilling life.
This “something tangible” or being “a better person” is supposedly something that differentiates us from each other and, thus, orients us to which part of society [spot] within humanity we belong. This being part of certain group within human world is equal to having social existence, whatever that group could be. In addition, if this “something tangible” or “better person” quality benefits people’s lives, it may allow us to be Man in the way the film understands as “being a big deal, not the second rate.”
The key to survive this liminal space is, to follow Hegel, by “looking at the negative [death event] in the face and tarrying with it,” which I understood as doing anything in our power to elevate ourselves from the situation, including asking for help from the Other. Be it the Other as God or other fellow human being, such help is likely to be around if only because in liminal space we will likely meet people. People “who’ve been out there…who might be able to offer help,” Campbell explained.
The liminal stage is presented in the film when Frank found out that April is unexpectedly pregnant with their third child and he has job promotion to be part of special sales team. They see the pregnancy as a possible stumbling block to their Paris plan. April secretly bought a rubber syringe because she plans to self-abort the baby. Frank opposes that plan and starts to throw the job promotion on the table.
“What the hell are you going to do with this?” Frank asked as he holds up the rubber.
“Look, you really are being a little melodramatic about the whole thing. I had a friend in school who did it twice. As long it’s done in the first twelve weeks. It’s fine….so tell me that we can have the baby in Paris, Frank.”
“We can’t have the baby in Paris…” Frank said.
At the end, the Paris plan was cancelled because Frank was afraid of not having enough money in Paris to raise the baby. “Suppose we just say that people anywhere aren’t very well advised to have babies unless they can afford them,” Frank answered the question as to why they cancelled the Paris plan. To see it from Campbell’s view, this financial insecurity is a form of economic temptation which was common in all heroic journeys in the past. Muslim prophet Muhammad, for instance, underwent years of embargo from his opponents. Fortunately, he survived it. But, Frank, in this case, yields to that temptation. People like April and John see Frank’s decision as incapability to overcome comfort zone, as not having the backbone “to live the life you want,” as not showing up. He is seen as “hiding behind that maternity dress [in the sense that]….making babies [and being able to provide material support as ]… Big family man is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls [that he is a man].” It is because, to them, “money’s always a good reason…But it’s hardly ever the real reason..”
April couldn’t accept the decision and attempted to self-abort the baby and died in the attempt. Frank then moved to the city and just dedicated his life for work and his two children.
At this point, we can say that the last stage of the journey, that is the return, a return from underworld/liminal space to world, is a sad one. A “real mess,” to use Campbell’s words. April died, and Frank isolated himself from people he knew. And I guess, it is not so much about the question of incapacity to be a Man as that of readiness for what they want. As Campbell pointed out, “…the achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for… The adventure that he’s ready for is the one that he gets”. I think that Frank does have the Man quality that is, to Levinas, always glimpsing at one last chance; always finding one last chance. He did show this characteristic when he tries to convince April that the cancellation is not the end of their plan to pursue the life they want. “.. [this new job] ..an option…that’s all..we could save some money and go in more style in a couple of years…it’s possible Parisians aren’t the only ones who know how to lead an interesting life..”
Finally, this film left me pondering on how much travel, either in the form of migration or short vacation, can help us with finding our interest and journey to be a “Man”?
Should we give up the boring job that satisfies our basic needs and move somewhere else that looks conducive for our mission to find this passion/interest? Or, should we go with Jack’s idea to remain within the situation we barely can stand on the grounds that if there is a such thing called true passion, why aren’t we likely to find it here as it is there in that new place? Does being a Man need to be either leaving the everyday life associated with pleasure and worldly achievement or, can actually be done without leaving this system?
Levinas, Emmanuel. Time and the Other [and additional essays]. Translated by Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.
Campbell, Joseph. Interview by Bill Moyers. The Hero’s Adventure. FIU Honors. Miami, Oct 9.2012. Youtube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1hftbjHi820.
Keenan, Dennis King. The Question of Sacrifice. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.