Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Reflection on my Favourite Film - 'American Beauty'

"I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn't a second at all. It stretches on forever, like an ocean of time. For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars; and yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined my street; or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper; and the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird...and Janie...and Janie...and...Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me, but it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst, and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life. You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't will someday."

The above monologue constitutes the final words spoken in American Beauty, my favourite film of all time. I'm not exactly sure if this blog entry counts as a review or an essay. I'm just going to write about the film until I get sick of it. 

The Basics
Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay by: Alan Ball
Main cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Chris Cooper
Genre: Drama + Comedy
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: MA 15+ (Australia)
Awards: Won 5 Oscars. Another 83 wins and 74 nominations
Plot outline: Lester Burnham, a depressed suburban father in a mid-life crisis, decides to turn his hectic life around after developing an infatuation for his daughter's attractive friend.

My Reflections
Now, some of you may have read that plot outline and thought "This film sounds sick, and thus it probably is." The mark of a great film, or a great piece of art in general, is that it can focus on a theme that is generally frowned upon by society, and make the audience accept it. I didn't feel the slightest bit sickened by the relationship between Lester and Angela. That's because both characters seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of sexual exploration. It should be noted that the story of American Beauty isn't centred upon Lester's infatuation over Angela. Rather, it is about Lester realising that he lives an unhappy, monotonous life, and taking steps to fix that problem. He comes to realise that the 'American Dream' is just a myth, and that he needs to start doing things that make him happy, not things that society believes leads to happiness. We see Lester change his lifestyle by rebelling against his family and society's expectations in general. He lusts over Angela, as his marriage to wife Carolyn has fallen to pieces. He starts smoking marijuana once he is acquainted with his new next-door neighbour, Ricky Fitts. He quits his job as an office worker to work in a fast food restaurant. He eventually buys his dream car - a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, without his wife's knowledge. All of these actions help Lester to recapture the essence of his adolescence - a time when life's challenges weren't so distressing.

Lester's wife, Carolyn, symbolises the irritating demands of society. She is a real-estate agent who is a portrait of materialism, without even knowing it. She doesn't have to be happy to find contentment. Seeming happy is good enough for her. Her life revolves around the constant struggle of projecting an image. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, she fails to sell a house, and hence slaps her face with brute force and bawls her eyes out in that very house she failed to sell. All behind closed doors, of course. She tries to keep herself together by listening to a self-help tape which features the mantra "I refuse to be a victim." Carolyn becomes involved in her very own adulterous sexual exploits, as you will find out.

Ricky Fitts is characterised as an 'outcast' of society. The weird kid. He sees beauty in a dead bird, and in a homeless lady freezing to death. In arguably the film's most recognised scene, he shows Lester's daughter, Jane, the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed - a plastic bag 'dancing' in the wind. Ricky explains the significance of this bag to his life:

"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 knew 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. The 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." 

Ricky's words resonate as the film's enduring message. There is, after all, so much beauty in the world. We just don't always realise it, as we don't attempt to look closer. "Look closer" happens to be the film's tagline. By the end of the film, the major characters have all taken a close look at themselves, and they come to realise that the dreams they aspired to at the beginning are nothing but mere illusions. Some of them realise the beauty in this, whilst others are left to slay their personal demons.

I have vague memories of watching American Beauty when I was six years old. I could only remember specific images from it, but that was enough to make me buy the film on DVD, one Thursday afternoon in Year 10. I immediately watched the film when I arrived home, and my eyes were filled with tears from the moment the credits began to roll. The film touched me in a profound way. The last film that touched me as deeply as American Beauty was Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, and I watched that a little over one year ago. Regular readers of my blog would know how much I value truth. Many people have labeled American Beauty as a satire of American suburbia. I agree with that view, to a certain extent. The backdrop of American suburbia elegantly complements, though paradoxically contrasts against the film's truthful elements. Though the film's story is fictitious, I felt for the characters as though they were real people. I felt their joys, however scarce they were, and I occasionally ached for them.

This is all I have to say about the masterpiece that is American Beauty. There are a heap of other things relating to the movie that I could talk about, but the vast amount of interpretations this film has garnered makes it difficult for me to form my own opinions. Occasionally, people will ask me for suggestions on a good movie to watch. My first instinct is to say American Beauty, but I realise that the person is most likely more interested in some second-rate action film, or a comedy that gets 90% of its laughs from toilet humour. Right now, I will recommend to you all that you watch American Beauty. Download it, hire it, borrow it from a friend...heck, go out on a limb and buy it if you're confident. Just experience it, somehow.


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