American Beauty, Dir. Sam Mendes, Dreamworks Studios, 1999
Reviewed by Vishvapani
What is beauty? What is American Beauty? Well, an American beauty is a kind of rose, and this becomes an emblem for the American beauty, pubescent nymphette Angela. Lester, the film’s hero, sees her when he goes to watch Jane, his daughter, cheer-leading at a basketball match - and love bursts out in a rose-festooned fantasy. This propels him into a rejection of his suburban life as an advertising drone and the material values of his wife Carolyn. It sets him on the trail of an abstraction – American Beauty, meaning both the beauty of America, and the beauty Americans perceive. The movie, American Beauty, is a cause for rejoicing: a sharp portrait of American society, a wise investigation of character, and a moving exploration of beauty – how we need beauty, yet blind ourselves to it, and how we might learn again to find it, even in the most banal of cultures.
The film is many things. It has elements of farce, yet it is sad and touching. It is a satire on suburban America, but its affection for and understanding of its characters saves it from cynicism. It is a whodunnit, but one seen from the perspective of the victim – who does not mind having been killed – after his death, reviewing the events which led to it (so really it’s a ‘who’ll-do-it’). It invokes all these genres, yet subverts them, peers beneath the conventions, and refuses to reduce human complexity to the stereotype that usually get from the media. There are three possible assailants in the film, but all of them are strange and complex. Character is unknowable. Motivation is mysterious.
But part of the film’s cleverness (and both the script and the direction are extremely clever) is its ability to work on several levels, and American beauty owes much of its popular success to the fact that it is very funny. The observant yet distanced sensibility it expresses is that of a generation reared on the America of soaps, sitcoms, and films like ET, as well as its debunkers like The Simpsons, and Soap. American Beauty observes with affectionate incredulity the verbal, physical, emotional and cultural contours of this landscape, seeing the grotesque in TV-fixated families, teenagers who drive BMW convertibles, and a credible but utterly pervasive materialism. Carolyn, Lester’s adulterous, materialistic real estate broker wife believes in this American dream, and has come to epitomise it, at a great, though secret, emotional cost. We see the desperation behind her manicured façade, but she never lets up. She ruins a romantic clinch - the one hope of reconciliation with Lester – by warning him not to spill his beer on the setee. ‘It’s just a couch!’ he shouts.’ And she shouts back, ‘It’s a $4,000 sofa upholstered in Italian silk!’
Lester’s vision of Angela turns him from a passive malcontent declining into middle age, into a reborn adolescent. He is saved by Ricky, the boy next door, an enigmatic outsider who listens to Pink Floyd and deals dope. More importantly he listens to Lester and refuses to play the games that designate social identity. Self-possessed and detached, Ricky is an observer to the extent of capturing everything he sees on video. But this is awareness, not voyeurism. He sees beauty in the things conventional eyes overlook, and records these images so he can remember them and recollect himself in them. The bag playing in the wind, which he considers the most beautiful thing he has shot, has become an instant icon of anti-materialism – the antithesis of the manufactured experiences we call ‘entertainment’. Ricky’s message is, it’s not what you see, it is how you look - an Emersonian creed which holds that at such moments, ‘its like God staring back at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful you can look right back.’
The gaze of Ricky’s camera, like that of his steel-blue eyes, disconcerts Lester’s daughter Jane He sees in her a beauty she cannot find in herself, just as he sees it in a dead bird, or a corpse. She fears him, yet is entranced – and there is, perhaps, a hint of something disturbed in Ricky. His desireless gaze offers a perspective from which suburban values appear ugly, yet for Ricky the world is overwhelmingly beautiful, and his camera connects him with a source of meaning. He tells Jane that on seeing the plastic bag, ‘I realised there was this entire life behind things and this incredibly benevolent force for goodness that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid.’
The quest for such authenticity drives Lester’s transformation. He throws in his job and works in a fast food joint. He stands up to his wife who, he says, ‘would prefer I went through life like a prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.’ He smokes dope, listens to rock music, and works out in the hope of seducing Angela. It is not so much that Lester discovers an alternative to his lifestyle as that he finds a new attitude. He says, ‘It’s great when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do.’ He is on his way.
The culminating shift comes when Lester changes his view of Angela. At last he becomes a benign, paternal, mature man full of tenderness, but without desire. He is a man without a role, capable of being rather than doing, and of dwelling in the space of aesthetic appreciation that Ricky has indicated and embodied. Lester is filled with quiet happiness. In a culture built on greed, neurosis, and unstated conflict, he can again surprise himself with his new spaciousness. ‘I’m great,’ he says. And then, movingly, ‘Man, oh man, oh man…’ Then he is shot.
The film could have been a broad satire with awkward pretentions, but it works hard to lend depth to the characters. Angela’s glitzy, ambitious persona belies a fear that she is ordinary and boring. Carolyn is frustrated and insecure. Ricky’s violent, intense military father, Colonel Fitts, has secret, repressed drives. These motivations might still have seemed cheap psychologising, but the acting is extraordinary, and the characters are subtly developed. The identity of Lester’s murderer is revealed in a genuinely surprising twist, and the film’s message is the unpredictability of human nature, the mystery of life.
American Beauty is a marvellous conjuring act, finding beauty and meaning, while remaining rooted in witty social observation. There is not a single moment on screen that is not interesting and intelligent. It is sad and funny, sophisticated and sincere. These elements are kept together by a directorial tour de force, but one feels the tension residing between them. I am much taken by American Beauty and I think it articulates something important in a cultural language that belongs to my generation. I love it. But its limits appear when one asks if it has fully earned Lester’s epiphany. The film seems to me a brilliantly achieved sketch of an alternative vision of life.
Lester’s death is not tragedy, and it avoids melodrama. He is at peace with himself before his death and after it. He looks down on his life and watches the film with us from a post-mortem vantage point, that resonates with ‘The American Sublime’ described by Wallace Stephens:
‘the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,
The spirit and space,
The empty spirit
In vacant space.’
One could call this transcendence except that its message is the immanence of beauty in the every instant of life, especially in the things that cannot be quantified and served up to consumers. Lester’s final monologue itself has an eloquent American beauty.
‘I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it is hard to stay mad when there is so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I am seeing it all at once and its too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… But then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every moment of my stupid little life.’
First published in Urthona magazine
Vishvapani's articles on the Arts: http://web.mac.com/vishvapani/iWeb/writingonbuddhism/Arts.html