Saturday, August 4, 2012

Personal Bits: American Beauty

This is a piece I wrote for The Reel Bits, which was featured in their 'Personal Bits' column. Here's the article as it appears on the site: Attentive readers of my blog will notice this piece is an amended version of a previous post of mine, which can be read here.

American Beauty - Roses

When I think of impressive directorial debuts, Sam Mendes’ American Beauty races to the forefront of my mind. Written by Alan Ball (in his screenwriting debut), it is a richly nuanced film, and of all the films I’ve watched in my life to date, I’m happy to call it my favourite. In a nutshell, it’s about a middle-aged man named Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), whose apathetic existence is injected with vitality once he grows attracted to his teenage daughter’s  friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Below the surface, it is about a whole lot more, and that’s what I’d like to espouse throughout this article.

It pains me that people dismiss the film as ‘sick’ because they hear about the relationship between Lester and Angela. I’ve heard people declare that they refuse to watch it because of this plot point, and others have watched the film and disliked it for this reason alone. 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. In fact, I wouldn’t even say they enter into a relationship, per se. Both characters seem enthusiastic about the possibility of sexual exploration, and at no point is sexual harassment evident or implied. Again, I must stress that American Beauty does not use this element of the story as its fulcrum.

At its heart, American Beauty 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 (Annette Bening) has been reduced to a semblance of what it once was. He starts smoking marijuana once he is acquainted with his new next-door neighbour, Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). 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 afterwards 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.

American Beauty - Kevin Spacey

Ricky Fitts is characterised as an ‘outcast’ of society. Or, for lack of a better term: 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 (Thora Birch), 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.

American Beauty - Mena Suvari

Examining the film on a technical level, Conrad L. Hall’s cinematography beautifully encapsulates the underlying beauty and personality of a quiet American suburb. There’s a particular scene where Hall creates the illusion that Chris Cooper’s character is disappearing as he walks into the rain, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking considering what takes place before it. It’s also worth taking note of how the colour red is used as a motif for a life force than cannot be suppressed. Thomas Newman’s score is the film’s pulse, and it complements so many pivotal scenes perfectly. His track Dead Already will sound awfully familiar, even if you haven’t seen the film. That’s because so many ringtones sound like it.

I have vague memories of first watching American Beauty when I was six years old. Fast forward nine years, and I could only remember specific images from it, but that was enough to make me buy the film on DVD, one Thursday afternoon in 2008. I immediately watched the film when I arrived home, and my eyes were filled with tears when the end credits began to roll. The film touched me in a profound way, and I knew that I had watched something special. One of my greatest values in life is truth. Many people have labelled 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. Let it be said: American Beauty is a film you need to watch experience at least once in your life.

Got your own Personal Bits? If you want to write about your favourite film, please let us know! We will feature a new one every week!

1 comment:

  1. Perfect. I couldn't have articulated my feelings about this film better myself. "Look Closer" really tied it all up, you can't judge this movie on it's basic plot point and assume it's about paedophilia. There's so much in it about life and what is it to make life worth living. I'm glad this is also your favourite!