As our true introduction to Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) in Sam MendesAmerican Beauty, we see her arrive at a house, determined to sell it. She opens the front door and intones, “I will sell this house today.” This is a very name-it-and-claim-it strategy. I’m told it’s also the strategy of The Secret, but I will confess to having failed to read that book. For those of you who have seen the film, Carolyn sets out to clean the HECK out of that house, determined to sell it.

But she’s already at a disadvantage: Across the street, there’s a house that’s just been sold by Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), the “King of Real Estate.” Watch:

Notice the Law operating on Carolyn on two levels: Buddy Kane is the embodiment of the Law to her.
One of the most notorious qualities of the law is that it masquerades as tame, when it is actually a wild animal. I think it was Martin Luther who said that the Law appears as a cat, but, when released, turns out to be a lion, which then eats you! Carolyn thinks that the law says, “Sell this house” or “Be a successful real estate agent.” These laws are arguably fulfill-able. The underlying law, though, is the one with real teeth: “Be Buddy Kane.” Jesus-ers might quote his “Be perfect as God is perfect” line from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). Buddy Kane, despite any real human qualities he might have, is perfect, in his existence on the real estate sign across the street from Carolyn’s house.

Despite all of Carolyn’s hard work (we might say, her “good works”!), she is unable to sell the house. She has failed. And now, the Law begins operating on Carolyn in a new way: She hates herself for being weak, for feeling something, for crying. In the classic hymn “Rock of Ages,” Augustus Montague Toplady (great name for an emo band, right?) asks of Christ: “Be of sin the double cure / Save me from its guilt and power.” Sin and the law work on two levels. On the first level, Carolyn is convicted. She is not a good real estate agent. She is not Buddy Kane. This is the law’s power. Then, she hates herself for her weakness, for her failure. This is the law’s guilt. Toplady saw that self-loathing follows quickly on the heels of failure.

So this little clip illustrates two things: First, that the laws most damaging to us often masquerade as perfectly innocuous. “Be Buddy Kane” masquerades as “Sell this house.” “Be a good Father” often masquerades as “Get a raise at work” or “Go to your children’s soccer games.” We’re surprised to find ourselves unsatisfied by “accomplishing” our goals, by living up to our supposed laws. Second, the law gets at us on two levels: first, by convicting us of our inabilities, and second, by allowing us to “name it” but not to “claim it,” by keeping The Secret to itself, and making us feel terrible about ourselves.

The only way out from under is the Montague way: Admit the guilt and power, and ask for the cure. There’s a wonderful clip illustrating this from Thank You For Smoking, but to see that, you’ll have to come to my little breakout session at the Mockingbird Conference!

Great Movie No One Has Ever Seen (or, in this case, ever praised): The Cable Guy, 1996 (Ben Stiller, dir.)