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American Beauty

American Beauty

By Patrick Samuel • September 7th, 2012
DECONSTRUCTING CINEMA, PART 50: AMERICAN BEAUTY
DreamWorks

Original release: September 17th, 1999
Running time: 122 minutes

Director: Sam Mendes
Writer: Alan Ball
Composer: Thomas Newman

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper

You wana see the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?01:01:55 to 01:05:00

Deconstructing Cinema: One Scene At A Time, the complete series so far

American Beauty

There’s something missing in our lives. Despite all the things we have; the gadgets, the antidepressants, and the endless stream of information that filters through the internet to sell us things to make us happy – we’re just not getting there. Many of us fee emptier on the inside than we’ve ever felt at any other time in our lives before, so what’s the deal? Why do we feel this way and how can we fix it?

American Beauty was one the last thoughtful films we saw coming out of the late 1990’s. It took us all by surprise. Alan Ball’s brilliantly written screenplay told so much about the American middleclass and how appearances can be deceiving. Brought to life by Sam Mendes’ direction and a stellar cast, including a breakthrough performance by a young Wes Bentley, it’s nothing less than what its title suggests.

It begins with Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he introduces us to his life and tells us he’ll be dead in a year’s time, although he doesn’t know it. He’s 42 years old and stuck in a loveless, sexless marriage with estate agent Carolyn (Annette Bening). They have a daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), but she’s can’t stand him because he turns into an idiot when her best friend Angela (Mena Suvari) is around.

“Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. And they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, But I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated. But you know what? It’s never too late to get it back.”

Yet Lester isn’t the only one with a life he feels unable to control. Everyone else is doing their best to keep up appearances. Carolyn constantly strides for perfection but is never anywhere near achieving it; especially when she doesn’t sell any houses.
Next door a new family have moved in. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) is a retired Colonel and homophobe who tries to run things at home the same way he did in the army. His son Ricky (Wes Bentley) is terrified of him and although he has to submit to a urine test every six months to prove he’s drug free, he sells pot to make money on the side. Ricky likes to film things and even though Jane’s a little scared of him at first, she’s drawn to him and the way he looks at life. He shows her what he calls “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed”; a 15 minute video of a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

American Beauty

It’s a compelling, thoughtful and moving scene, one of many in the film. Sitting on his bed, next to Jane, Ricky tells her about the day he filmed it.

“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I realized there was this entire life behind things, and… this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… and I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.”

As they watch it, his eyes become filled with tears and his voice breaks with emotion. Jane looks at him and after a moment, takes his hand. Then she leans in and kisses him softly on the lips. Ricky’s sentiments will later be reflected on from beyond by Lester in his farewell speech, making this scene a pivotal one in the film, As Anker notes in Catching Light: Looking For God In The Movies.

This is where the movie breaks free of its own resolute churning of clichés about gender and American mores. It shows that, more importantly, Ricky supplies yet another rendition of beauty, one diametrically opposed to the renditions set forth by Carolyn, Lester, the gay Jim and Jim, Angela, or Ricky’s own father (whose piece of Nazi flatware is his vision of aesthetic beauty). In Ricky’s radically different vision of life, the emphasis falls on beauty itself, pure and very simple, free of its often grotesque American incrustations. ¹

Anker later on says,

Part of what fascinates Ricky is the utter “amazing”-ness of the world, because everything is laden with meaning and revelation. Early in the film, as Ricky and Jane walk along a parkway in the distance, beneath a long line of trees whose naked branches glow against the molten dusk, he tells her that he once videotaped the body of a frozen homeless woman because death itself is momentous: “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” ¹

Meanwhile, Eshelman remarks that the plastic bag is only the filmed reproduction of the original which Ricky plays again because he “needs to remember”.

However, the scene still embodies a basic unifying, thing-orientated projection shared by Ricky, Jane and ultimately, Lester (in fact, you could maintain that Lester is the plastic bag, since he becomes one with that animate, divine principle of which Ricky has spoken earlier. ²

When Lester decides to get his life back from the abysmal hole it’s being sucked into, he quits his job and blackmails his boss into giving him a severance package. He starts working out and smoking pot which he buys from Ricky. His entire manner changes and he’s no longer the husband Carolyn can boss around, bark at and humiliate. He also continues to fantasise about Angela; could she be the thing he’s missing in his life?

Carolyn starts an affair with business rival, Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher), and spends her afternoons screwing him before taking up gun practice to let off any remaining American Beautyfrustration left inside her. When the married couple sit down to dinner, the tension’s so thick even a knife won’t cut it.

They go from one irresponsible and extreme decision to the next, hoping to fill the miserable void in their lives without knowing how it got there in the first place. Even Buddy admits his perfect life is just a show; his wife’s just left him and he too is running low on self esteem.

As Ricky and Jane get closer, he films her saying she’d like someone to kill her dad. Things start to get complicated all round when Frank gets the wrong idea about Ricky and Lester. After beating up his son again and then kicking him out for thinking he’s a “cocksucker”, Frank pays Lester a visit. At the same time Carolyn’s sitting in her car with a gun. Unknown to any of them, Ricky’s upstairs asking Jane to run away with him and when Angela tries to stop them, she gets a few home truths thrown her way.

With everything coming to a head, we also know it’s Lester’s last day. What’s left to see is whether or not in those final moments he finds the thing that’s been missing from his life.

Ever since the first time I saw American Beauty, I found myself captivated by what Ricky said when he showed Jane his video. His way of looking at the world is the complete moral opposite of Lester, Carolyn, Buddy, Frank and Angela’s.

Whereas they see their weaknesses and insecurities as ugly parts of themselves and they put on a show for those around them, Ricky sees something else. He thinks the masks they wear are what’s ugly, like Angela’s painted face; her smile doesn’t compare to Jane’s because it’s part of the lie she’s projecting about herself. When they’re honest, like Jane is, that’s when they’re at their most vulnerable and beautiful and that’s why he likes to film; to capture and remember the beauty of life.

Sometimes that’s all that’s missing; we forget to stop, look around and remember there’s so much beauty around us. If we could just let go of all the things we think we need we need, and the notions we feel we have to conform to, maybe we’d see it too.

SOURCES:

  • [1] Roy M. Anke Catching Light: Looking For God In The Movies (2004), William B Eerdmans Publishing
  • [2] Raoul Eshelman Performatism, Or the End of Postmodernism (2008), The Davies Group Publishers

Lester finds it, though he could’ve found it a lot sooner, but like he said, it’s never too late. In the end he says he “can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life…” and assures us; though we might not have any idea what he’s talking about, we will someday.

It’s an incredible and life affirming film that holds a mirror up to society, forcing it to look at itself and see how ugly it’s become…forcing us to look at ourselves and see what we’ve become. American Beauty also tells us there’s more to our lives than we think; we just have to look closer and see the beauty that’s hiding.

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is an emerging artist with a philosophy degree, working primarily with pastels and graphite pencils, but he also enjoys experimenting with water colours, acrylics, glass and oil paints.

Being on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is stimulated by bold, contrasting colours, intricate details, multiple textures, and varying shades of light and dark. Patrick’s work extends to sound and video, and when not drawing or painting, he can be found working on projects he shares online with his followers.

Patrick returned to drawing and painting after a prolonged break in December 2016 as part of his daily art therapy, and is now making the transition to being a full-time artist. As a spokesperson for autism awareness, he also gives talks and presentations on the benefits of creative therapy.

Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and science fiction, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

Patrick Samuel ¦ Asperger Artist

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