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Introduction

Since the early 1920s and 1930s, America has been plagued with an ever-domineering culture of consumerism (Strinati, 1995). Stuart (1999) associates this trend with the genesis of style by saying that symbolic democratization has propelled a culture of distinction and elegance. The significance of consumerism in today’s society largely traces to its association with mass culture. The culture of consumerism has infiltrated different aspects of society. For example, economic, social, and political dynamics of the society disintegrate in an endless web of consumerism. It is therefore unsurprising for Trentmann (2007) to say that politics and consumerism have found a new platform to associate – through the lens of “citizen-consumer” relationships. The media have especially been at the forefront of propelling this culture. Its extremes in doing so have bordered on creating a make-believe society where episodes of epic fantasies depict realism.

The pursuit of Happiness is a 2006 film that exemplifies this fact. Although real-life events inform the film’s production, this paper shows that the American Dream (which the film centers on) has been highly exaggerated to create a make-believe reality that does not mirror the true struggles of the ordinary American person. Thus, while the film centers on the theme of “pursuit of happiness,” this paper shows that the film distorts the concept of happiness to represent the orientation of earthly goods through which our reality revolves around. Although the film acknowledges that it creates some scenes and situations for purposes of storytelling, this paper shows that the film cannot compress reality (that occurred for many years, through the struggles of Gardner) into a two-hour film without distorting the facts.

Therefore, while it is important to appreciate the positive aesthetic values of the film, this paper shows that Hollywood can package real-life events by presenting everyday experiences as products that could sell for purposes of mass consumption.

Distortion of Reality

The commoditization of real-life experiences greatly distorts the perception of reality. Almost intentionally, Hollywood has been able to present reality as a superficial understanding of human existence. This distortion has happened almost effortlessly by appealing to the human need to feel unique and distinct (Marchand, 1986). Consequently, when Hollywood produces films, like the Pursuit of Happiness, to represent reality as a superficial understanding of happiness, it almost goes unnoticed. The understanding of happiness may take different forms, depending on the context of analysis. However, mass culture has successfully presented reality as a materialistic venture of our existence. It is therefore unsurprising when the movie, Pursuit of Happiness, presents happiness as a quest to acquire material wealth, through Gardner’s goal to be a successful stockbroker.

Several scenes in the film affirm the quest for material gains as the true definition of happiness. For example, when Gardner makes a bold move to secure a wealthy client, and the client invites him to a football game, he admires the wealth and flamboyance that his potential client has (Dargis, 2006). As Yulianto (2009) says, this new realization of money and wealth makes him admire material wealth and hopes that he would get to have it one day. The same realization manifests when Gardner meets with a successful stockbroker who drives a red Ferrari. He admires the flashy car and hopes that one day he will also get to drive one (Dargis, 2006). The periodic episodes where Gardner stops to imagine a better life through the acquisition of material things become the “lifeline” of the movie and unsurprisingly, the ultimate goal of the film (definition of happiness).

The film also portrays Gardner as a saint among mere mortals to exploit the ever-domineering secular culture in America that rewards persistence as an almost sure guarantee of success. To explain this ideology, Matt (2006) says,

“Perseverance, then, has always been the secular religion in America, and the man who shows pluck, grit, and determination — the sort who shows up day after day to see if you have looked at his application — will always wear the hero’s crown, regardless of the means by which he eventually succeeds” (p. 9).

This statement largely holds true for Gardner’s struggles because the film rewards his determination through material success through an admirable status of a successful stockbroker. Indeed, through his determination, Gardner gets what he asks for (a millionaire status) and a beautiful and envious life that only some people would dream about. While this definition of success largely reflects how America measures success, it also reflects how successful Hollywood has been in distorting the true measure of success by equating it to material wealth. Indeed, the idea that success is measurable through one’s integrity and conviction is almost laughable as the failure of the film would be if a material measure of success lacked at the end of the film. For example, the story would lack its appeal if it ended with Gardner in a rehab, or if his ex-wife would gain custody of his child because he was unable to fend for himself or his family.

The flamboyant ending is therefore highly crucial for the success of the story because, without it, the film probably would not sell. A deeper analysis into this situation manifests the commoditization of real-life experiences because the story had to be narrated in a way that would appeal to the masses, regardless of if it was factual or not. Certainly, it is correct to say the multibillion-dollar success at the end of the movie was crucial for the plot of the story; otherwise, it would have been difficult to validate the struggles that Gardner went through. This important presentation of success at the end of a struggle manifests the importance of portraying a story in a way that would appeal to the audiences. Its gratification lies deep within the culture and values through which American society perceives success. Matt (2006) says,

“Working like a demon — long hours, little regard, forced time away from the family — does not mean a thing to us unless there is a golden parachute to glide us to our rest. If it were just the process, we would have more stories about poverty and labor on the margins. Not here, though: we have to know that if we are to piss blood, we would better have a hot tub at the end of the run” (p. 7).

This statement shows the framework through which success would be ultimately justifiable in American society. Concisely, film producers understand this path of success and only choose to present stories that follow the same path. The Pursuit of Happiness is no different. Deep in the heart of such a production is the presentation of success as a status symbol.

Rosalind (1991) has analyzed the above presentation and said that the presentation of real-life events is similar to appealing to the fantasies of the consumer. She articulates different examples of real-life situations where different segments of society appeal to people’s fantasies. For example, she says there are many similarities between how film directors and sales people commercialize their trade. Sales people, for example, are fond of merging sales with seduction (appealing to people’s fantasies) (Rosalind, 1991). Similarly, politicians merge publicity and power to appeal to their audiences. Rosalind (1991) says the conjunction that merges these different attributes of people’s reality and perception is inherently deceptive. To explain this situation further, Rosalind (1991) says, “fantasy which openly presents itself as such keeps its integrity and may openly claim to point to the truth beyond everyday experience – the truth of the imagination” (p. 203).

Trentmann (2007) says this sudden push for filmmakers to adopt consumerism in film production is an old phenomenon that depicts the reorientation of political and social dynamics of the late 20th century and today’s 21st century. Neoliberals have especially played an instrumental role in offering an impetus to this movement. Counter ideologies (mainly stemming from neo-social movements) have tried to mitigate this push without much success (Rosalind, 1991). Trentmann (2007) believes that the global push towards consumerism is a bold attempt of political forces to mobilize people and foster action among them. In academic circles, the focus on gender studies and the renaissance of the civil society has pushed consumerism beyond the realms of state control.

Unreal Faith

The Pursuit of Happyness shows different episodes where Gardner encounters unequivocal luck from some of the people who “hold sway” in the society. Motivated by sheer determination and perseverance, Gardner is able to convince some top senior executives that he is worth the attention and limited opportunities that exist in their organizations (Yulianto, 2009). Being the “star” of his class is also noticeable because it fits perfectly within the understanding of the American dream, like a wheel that only churns success through the intolerance for mediocrity.

This is a core tenet of the commercialized American dream because it would be difficult to sell the idea that a person could achieve great success if they did not work hard enough to deserve the success in the first place (Dargis, 2006). Therefore, it is unsurprising for filmmakers to exemplify the theme of struggle as the predominant theme in the film. Indeed, even though the story ultimately ends with Gardner demonstrating success in his stock broking business, about three-quarters of the film highlights how he struggles to reach the point of success (Dargis, 2006).

Standing out, as the star of his peers, was also a key tenet for the story’s plot, especially when Gardner was able to solve the Rubik’s cube when every other person failed in this regard. In fact, through his demonstration of intellectual prowess, Gardner was able to secure his first internship. The movie does not fall short of sensationalizing Gardner’s struggles because it would not make sense to convey his success if the audience did not experience the struggle as well. Therefore, the movie goes out of its way to dramatize Gardner’s struggles (the way it did when Gardner pushed his way to a cab to demonstrate his potential employer that he was “worth his salt”). Almost effortlessly, the movie tries to sell the unreal idea that a top company executive, who sits at the helm of a multimillion-dollar company would take the chance on somebody who has no college education and allow them to work because they understand the national fad (Matt, 2006). In reality, this would be a “long shot.”

The instance when authorities arrest Gardner for unpaid parking fees, thereby forcing him to spend the night in jail, only to appear the following day and charm a panel of company executives into having a job, also paints a distorted picture of reality. Indeed few corporate executives would give such an opportunity to an African-American man who shows up to a job interview dressed as if he came from a dumpster. It is very unlikely to convince the audience that this would be a true depiction of reality, more so, because real life events inspire the movie’s production.

The most convincing argument would be that the producers intended the above incident to be humorous, to package reality in a way that would achieve commercial success. Indeed, humor is a core ingredient for successful Hollywood films (Dargis, 2006) and the pursuit of happiness is not an exception. In fact, showing up to an interview dressed inappropriately and still securing a job in a competitive labor industry (that is San Francisco) would only exist in people’s imagination. However, Hollywood presents this situation almost as a “common” and “ordinary” daily occurrence, more so for minorities in America.

Strinati (1995) says the problem with the growth of mass culture as described above stems from its close relationship with the concept of Americanization. Strinati (1995) says, “The greatest problem with the concept of Americanization is the fact that it embodies all that is wrong with mass culture” (p. 21). America is practically the epitome of mass culture because capitalism and mass theories seem to define people’s values and sense of purpose (possibly more than other cultures in the world). There is, therefore, a strong belief that consumerism defines America’s society, such that if critics of mass culture have their way, the concept of Americanization would easily also be under threat (Strinati, 1995). The interplay between Americanization and mass culture is, therefore, an integral understanding of the American society and more specifically, why most films tend to appeal to this understanding.

Character Uniqueness

In the depiction of real-life stories, Hollywood has developed a habit of creating a “superhuman” character that becomes the center of attention of a film. This is a widely accepted practice in the commercialization of films because film producers try to create a “special” and likable character for commercial success. This is part of effective cinematic productions where film producers aim to capture the attention of their audiences (Strinati, 1995). While this approach may be attractive, it distorts the true picture for which films are supposed to convey. The Pursuit of Happiness depicts an example of this attempt (to create an almost “superhuman” character that embodies mass perceptions of a hero in a film). For example, the film portrays Gardner as the protagonist in the film that experiences difficult challenges while trying to make a living and fend for his son.

His circumstances force him to live as a homeless person before his fortunes change for the better. However, during his ordeal, the film tries to distinguish him as a “different” homeless person, although his life is a downward spiral of desperation and anger (Matt, 2006). Although Gardner’s ordeal seems to surpass the challenges that ordinary people face, he still manages to cut out an image as an intelligent and hardworking homeless man who is able to distinguish himself from the other “lazy” and hopeless homeless people. This attempt at creating an almost “superhuman” personification of movie characters fits well within the attempt of moviemakers to create a commercially viable product that would awe the audience.

The creation of a superhuman personification of movie characters represents the role of style in consumerism. As Stuart (1999) says, consumerism creates an endless cycle that obsesses with self-image and self-expression, which movies have successfully managed to market through the distinction of movie characters from the rest of ordinary people. Stuart (1999) says, initially, people used style as a way to “fit in.” Particularly, many scholars associated it with an attempt for people to conform to societal norms and expectations (Strinati, 1995). Therefore, the style was a tool for avoiding societal criticism by trying not to be different from society (acceptable to other people).

While people accepted this defensive use of style in most parts of the 20th century, today’s consumerism trends use the same style as objectification of some subjective quality (Stuart, 1999). Some researchers have analyzed the same use of style and say it comprises of an array of meanings that denote people’s psychological essences (Strinati, 1995). This analysis prompts Stuart (1999) to say, “The fashionable person is a quantitative assemblage of objective elements, all which combine to represent the semblance of an integrated subject” (p. 82).

Conclusion

After weighing the findings of this paper, it is crucial to say consumerism has played a big role in the development of the Pursuit of Happiness. Evidence from the creation of a special persona, the reliance on unreal confidence in the same character, and the distortion of reality all gravitate towards consumerism and the packaging of reality in a way that film producers could easily sell to the consumer. Certainly, based on the movie’s plot, we see that there is an over-sensationalized attempt to present the protagonist’s experiences to appeal to the audiences. The movie creates a “dire” situation where Gardner is hopeless but ambitious, and while it warms the audience’s expectations regarding better times ahead, it further deepens Gardner’s plight, only to lift him again through his success as a stockbroker. The packaging of real-life events appeals to people’s imagination and fantasies regarding what it takes to acquire a better life and succeed. Therefore, while real-life events inspire the movie, its presentation exemplifies the hallmarks of mass culture.

References

Dargis, M. (2006). Web.

Marchand, R. (1986). Advertising the American Dream: Making way for Modernity. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. Web.

Matt, D. (2006). . Web.

Rosalind, W. (1991). The Dream World of Mass Consumption. Berkley, CA: University of California Press. Web.

Strinati, D. (1995). An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London, UK: Routledge. Web.

Stuart, E. (1999). All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture. New York, NY: Basic books. Web.

Trentmann, F. (2007). Citizenship and Consumption. Journal of Consumer Culture, 7(2), 147-158. Web.

Yulianto, B. (2009). Pursuit of Happyness Analysis. Web.

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