Monday, May 1, 2017

American Beauty

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

The tag line for this 1999 Oscar-winning film was “Look closer.” We can see it written on the work cubicle of the main character, Lester Burnham. The movie invites the audience to delve under the appearances of American suburban life to see what reality lies beneath the lives of its characters.

The title of the motion picture suggests one of its themes. It is the name of a type of rose. It is lovely on the surface, but its roots have a tendency to decay. Thus, the plant serves as a symbol that there may be too much emphasis on the surface appeal of upper middle class existence in the United States, where its people restrict themselves to an incomplete perspective. This lack of vision can lead to a zombie-like state, with no genuine life coursing through it. Because the requirement to achieve superficial acceptability is rigidly enforced, the effect on those who don’t conform can be devastating. Lester, (Kevin Spacey, in an Oscar-winning performance), narrating from beyond the grave, (similar to William Holden’s character in Sunset Boulevard, which director Sam Mendes said was an influential here), says that he will be dead within the year. But, he adds, like a creature from The Walking Dead, he’s “already dead.”
Indeed, Lester’s daily “high point” is masturbating in the shower after awakening, fantasizing being better than the life he is living, because at least it employs the use of imagination. He works in advertising, where, as in Mad Men, the point of the job is to make a product appear attractive, whether or not, under scrutiny, it lives up to its presented image. Mendes (who won the Oscar for his movie directorial debut) said he used vertical lines of data appearing in the computer screen Lester looks at in order to suggest the bars of a prison. Reflections are important in this movie, and, thus, Lester sees himself in a metaphorical jail, locked into a passionless routine. But, he is failing at maintaining this fa├žade, and is about to lose his job. The agency hired a layoff hit man, Brad (Barry Del Sherman), who offers up a pretense of reputable fairness by asking workers to write up statements of their value to the company. But, if we “look closer,” this assignment actually is a way of pushing the blame of being fired onto the employee, supposedly being let go because of his inability to show his worth, when in fact, his fate is already sealed. (Lester sarcastically satirizes the insincerity of the advertising business when Brad asks him if he has a minute, and Lester, with exaggerated smile and enthusiasm, says, “For you Brad, I’ve got five!”).
Alan Ball, who received the Oscar for this screenplay, said he wanted the story to emphasize that there is more life existing beneath our preconceived notions, that we need to go beyond what we see on a first look at things. So, the film presents a variety of perspectives from the characters’ points of view. The first scene of the film, actually a flash-forward, is of Wes Bentley’s Ricky Fitts (who pretends to “fit” into the role his father wants him to play) shooting a video of Lester’s teenage daughter, Jane (possibly a reference to her initial feeling about herself being a “plain Jane”). So, we, the audience, are watching the director with his cinematographer, manipulating our perspective of what we see, as we watch a character also focusing on what he wants to be in his video. Mendes is thus commenting on the “look closer” theme, and suggesting that this search for depth is what the nature of film can be about. In this scene, Jane says her dad is so lame for being obsessed with her female friend, that someone should “put him out of his misery.” Ricky asks her if she wants him to kill Lester, and Jane says, “Yeah. Would you?” Along with Lester’s comment about being dead within the year, this opening adds an element of mystery, which, by its very definition, invites further investigating. It suggests a possible suspect in Lester’s future death, but, it is an incomplete scene, a red herring, again stressing how initial appearances can be deceiving without more inquiry.

Lester’s beginning description of himself is the one he derives from his wife and daughter, who feel he is a loser, someone who can’t even wave his briefcase around without it spilling its contents all over his driveway. He confesses that he knows he lost something along the way to adulthood, and he turned into someone who was “sedated,” akin to his expressed feelings of being dead-like. But the imminent loss of his job seems to wake him up, and he starts to “look closer” at his world and those who inhabit it. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), has become “joyless,” whereas, she once was a rule-breaker, going up on the roof and flashing helicopters in her younger days. She has sold her soul to the god of capitalistic success. She says, “My company sells an image. It's part of my job to live that image.” That image is one of material achievement, which is measured by the accumulation of things, and adhering to a code of what constitutes attractive and fashionable acceptable appearances. As Lester points out when we first see Carolyn, her gloves match her clogs, so she is properly packaged, even while getting dirty doing gardening. She is a realtor, and repeats an economic, not spiritual, mantra, “I will sell this house today,” before conducting an open house. (She complains that the neighbors, who used to live nearby, in the house bought by Ricky’s parents, did not list with her. They are significantly called “the Lomans” – a Death of a Salesman reference suggesting commercial tragedy). When she fails to close on the sale, she cries, demonstrating the genuine emotion of a fully realized person. But, the businesswoman in her can’t allow that feeling, so she tries to smack herself out of the tearful display, calling herself weak. She listens to recordings in her car on how to be successful. She at first envies the real estate “king,” Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher). But, as her marriage to Lester is failing, she does what businesses in America do. When you want to cut out competition, you merge. She literally gets in bed with him. Buddy’s nickname of “The King” shows how in America, royalty does not derive from noble lineage, but restrictively from the bottom line.
Carolyn cannot tolerate suburban failure in her husband or her daughter, because that would tarnish that “image” of leading a successful life. Physical appearance is, therefore, to her, a sign of “making it.” The pressure to have that fashion model look has taken its toll on her daughter, Jane, who we see looking at an ad for breast augmentation. Carolyn’s disappointment concerning her daughter is obvious in their morning exchange before dropping Jane off at school. Carolyn says, “Are you trying to look unattractive?” Jane’s only weapon is sarcasm, as she responds, “Yes.” Carolyn’s condemning remark, “Well congratulations. You’ve succeeded admirably,” communicates to her daughter that Jane is only good at failure. Jane takes refuge from such harsh criticism in the teenager’s time-honored expression of how lame and embarrassing parents are. Lester, in his re-examining of reality, says that his daughter is a typical teenager, “Angry. Insecure. Confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her.” That Jane finds herself caught in the middle of her parents’ crumbling marriage is shown at dinner, where the growing distance between Lester and Carolyn is pictured by how they sit at the ends of a large table, and Jane eats between them. Lester, feeling sorry about how he and his daughter are no longer “pals,” awkwardly tries to reconnect with Jane by asking how her day at school went. She says it was “okay.” He says, “Just okay?” wanting more, but sounding like a phony cheerleader. Her bitter response is, “No, Dad, it was spectacular,” and criticizes him because he can’t all of a sudden act like he takes an interest in her after not even talking to her, probably due to his suburban somnambulistic state.


Lester starts his journey with alienation, followed by what on the surface is self-indulgence. He can’t stand being at a phony realtor get-together with Carolyn, which he emphasizes with an overly passionate public kiss with his wife, which is in stark contrast to the coldness in their marriage. She tells him “don’t be weird,” which is the major crime one can commit in a society driven by conformity to a code of appropriate behavior. He goes outside and with Ricky, who is working at the event. Ricky is a rebel in disguise. He pretends to take on legitimate catering jobs as a cover while he deals marijuana. He can fool his father, because as he tells Lester, “Never underestimate the power of denial,” indicating that people want to believe that the comfort of their static lives is secure. So, he uses the “normal” world to mask his actual freedom from that normality. In this story, he indulges in rule-breaking through the use of a mind-altering substance, which, symbolically, can mean promulgating consciousness-raising. To emphasize the false exterior of the life he pretends to lead, he keeps his weed in a fake drawer, showing how his true life lies hidden beneath a layer of respectability. Lester and he smoke weed together, and Lester becomes a client. But, it is more than that. He tells Ricky that when he was the young man’s age, he worked in a burger joint all summer to buy a music tape deck. He says that it was “great. All I did was party and get laid. I had my whole life ahead of me.” So, Lester seeks a rebirth, by acting like a child again, where all of life’s possibilities are in the future. Thus, it is fitting that his mentor in this process should be a youth in the form of Ricky. The young man becomes his “hero” when he just quits the job on the spot after the hall owner complains about Ricky taking a break. Lester then quits his job, and gets a year’s salary with benefits after threatening to expose the boss’ use of corporate funds on prostitutes, and saying he will blame Brad for sexually harassing him. Just as he did when he was Ricky’s age, he gets a job in a fast-food burger restaurant, saying he wants a job with as little responsibility as possible, which is what a young boy enjoys. He smokes dope in his car while singing “American woman, stay away from me,” obviously referring to Carolyn, and what she, and his country, have become. He sits around the house with his bare feet up, playing with a remote-controlled toy truck. He tells an outraged Carolyn that he bought a “1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I've always wanted and now I have it. I rule!” Yes, he has bought something materialistic, but it is not practical. It is symbolic of youthful exuberance. His “rule” contrasts with that of “The King’s” purely monetary accumulation of wealth. When he starts to remind Carolyn of her once youthful joy, and she passionately responds to his kisses, she then stops him in his tracks when the bottle of beer he is holding might spill on her expensive Italian silk couch. The Firebird for him represents the excitement of youth, while her things connotate status. He tells her “This isn’t life, it’s just stuff. And it becomes more important to you than living.”

Lester’s return to adolescence causes him to fixate on Jane’s teenage friend. Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), like a boy reaching puberty. Her first name implies something angelic; however, her last name sounds similar to the character of Lolita Haze, the title character in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. (As is noted on the IMDB site, “Lester Burnham” is an anagram for “Humbert learns,” the name of the older character in Lolita who is fixated on the young girl. Thus, Lester’s name implies the arc of his journey). So, Angela is a person of contradictions. On the one hand, she represents purity, because of her age, but she talks explicitly about her sexual adventures, which implies a loss of innocence. Since Lester is forty-two years old, there is an obvious “ick” factor here, which is not lost on Jane, who is grossed out by her father’s obvious infatuation. But for Lester, it is a sort of rediscovering of his sexual energy. Mendes cinematically provides us Lester’s perspective as he zeroes in on Angela. It is at a basketball game, where Jane and her friend perform as cheerleaders. Everyone disappears in Lester’s mind, and he imagines Angela dancing seductively for him in a private performance. She slowly opens her blouse, but what flies out are numerous rose blossoms. They can represent the combination of life’s beauty and its eventual decay symbolized by the American Rose. In fact, Lester has several fantasies involving Angela. In one he kisses her, and a rose then comes out of his mouth. In another, she is in a bathtub full of roses, saying how she needs him to bathe her because she is very “dirty.” He envisions her naked, with roses strategically placed over her breasts and pubic area. However, there are white backgrounds offsetting the color red in the movie, as in the bathtub fantasy. (We also see it with a red door against a white frame; blood on a white shirt; a red car in front of a white garage door – all of which are mentioned on IMDB). The white can signify youthful innocence becoming compromised by encounters with sex and violence as one grows up. Lester’s fantasies may be uncomfortable for some to watch, but he is at least using his imagination, which makes him more alive than what he was before his reawakening.
Jane and Angela are opposites in the film. Jane wants to fit in, doesn’t, and feels shame when she does not believe she meets the standards, especially those of “beauty,” imposed upon her. Thus, she wants to use her babysitting money for breast augmentation. In a way, she is like her mom, because she thinks of her father as a freak when he acts inappropriately for his age, and later tells Ricky that her father should be a “role model”. And, it is difficult to blame her, because that’s the job a mature parent usually plays. Angela, however, represents what America worships, a blonde beauty. She has already worked as a model, and seeks a future in that field. Boys, and men, adore her. In this story, she is, apparently, already the grown-up, talking about how she seduced a famous photographer to get ahead, and proud of her purported promiscuity, waving it like a flag of savvy sophistication. But, she doesn’t want to just fit in, she wants to excel, but within the boundaries of what society values. She admits that the worst thing in the world to her is being “ordinary.” (Which is what Lester calls himself. But, what makes him extraordinary is that he says he jettisons what suburbia prizes, so he “has nothing to lose.” That allows him the freedom to do and say what he wants. Mendes also cited Ordinary People as another influence, a film about seemingly regular upper-middle class people with unusual problems.)
Since this movie urges us to “look closer,” we should better examine Ricky Fitts, who is the filmmaker’s surrogate, using his camera to reveal more deeply about what he sees, including Jane and Angela. Angela tells Jane that he was in their school, but left for a few years and put in a mental hospital before returning now as a student. Both girls consider him weird, the same branding Carolyn gives to Lester’s unconventional activity, weirdness also being a condition attributed to artists, as they reflect in their creations the insights they observe. Ricky focuses his camcorder, not on the traditionally photogenic Angela, but instead on Jane. Angela considers him a freak for ignoring her, thus not accepting the given criteria of beauty. He sees a deeper beauty in Jane, and a kindred spirit. She at first finds his oddness off-putting, but she begins to find self-importance through his attention. We observe her seeing herself in a different light, the way Ricky sees her, when he records her (as does Mendes) through her bedroom window, ignoring the exhibitionistic writhing of Angela. Just as Lester saw himself as in a jail, reflected in his computer monitor, so now Jane looks in a hand mirror, finally able to admire herself. Ricky also records a dead bird, and says he can see “beauty” in it, because “it’s like God looking right at you.” As Jane and Ricky walk together, they see a funeral procession drive by, and Jane says she never experienced seeing death, a foreboding of what will happen to her father. Ricky shows Angela what he feels is the most beautiful thing he ever recorded – a bag blowing in the wind. The way it floats and moves is like nature creating a ballet, and inviting him to join in the cosmic dance. He had an epiphany the day of that recording, because he “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.” He says despite the limitations of what his recordings reveal, they help him “remember” that “there’s so much beauty in the world.” Ricky has achieved a sensibility which allows him to appreciate the totality of life.

Ricky’s perspective on life is diametrically the opposite of his father’s. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), a colonel in the U. S. Marine Corps, definitely wants to live up to his name, and overcompensates to do so. He looks at the newspaper and sees his country “going to hell,” probably because not all of it is marching to the sound of the same drummer. His career as a military man shows how much he wants himself and his family to follow society’s orders, and deviation from that norm warrants punishment. His wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) is so intimidated by any deviation from his rigid order, that she cringes in guilt when someone calls at the door, as if it is her fault. She appears like a Stepford Wife. She serves Ricky bacon, even though he doesn’t eat it, because that is the food she has been told to cook. She apologizes for the way the house looks, when it is completely clean and devoid of clutter. Frank tells his son that the boy needs structure and discipline. He comes to collect urine to make sure he hasn’t been using drugs (a test Ricky dodges by securing someone else’s samples, again showing how he lives a life that underscores how one can’t tell a book by its cover). 
After Ricky breaks his father’s rule about staying out of his stuff by showing Jane a Nazi dinner plate, Frank beats his son. The father relents when Ricky says that he was showing the plate to his “girlfriend.” Frank seems relieved that his son is showing heterosexual interest, because one thing he professes to hate are homosexuals. He is repulsed by the gay neighbors who welcome him to the neighborhood. Mendes again uses the mirror motif, as Frank sees the reflection of the gay men jogging in the polish of his car as they approach. What Frank is seeing is his own self-hating, closeted homosexuality coming toward him, scaring him because he does not want to “look closer” at himself. He is not capable of changing his perspective, so when he looks at a video which Ricky just happened to record of a naked Lester working out, he assumes that his son is really gay. This misconception is confirmed in his mind when he sees Lester running with the gay neighbors, when all Lester is doing is trying to do is get into shape. When Frank spies his son through the window of Lester’s garage, he thinks he sees Ricky performing oral sex on Lester, when all the boy is doing is leaning over to roll a joint.

Let’s get back to Lester working out. He overhears Angela purposely shocking Jane by saying that he would have sex with her dad if he just toned up a bit. Lester pulls out his weights, buried in the garage and starts pumping iron. We again have Mendes using that mirror image, as Lester looks at himself in the garage window as he hardens his muscles, perceiving himself as a rejuvenated object of masculinity. In the meantime, Carolyn feels broken, because Buddy broke off their affair after Lester saw them necking at the drive-through window at the burger joint. For Buddy, business always comes first, and he feels it will suffer if there is more evidence of infidelity, both of them still being married. However, Buddy introduced Carolyn to the American way of relieving tension, shooting a gun, obviously here associated with sexual release, and accentuating how sex and violence are joined together in American culture. She now carries a gun around with her. After we catch up to that first scene of the movie, we realize Jane and Ricky were just kidding about killing Lester. Will it be Carolyn who does him in?

After Frank confronts Ricky over what he thought he saw going on with Lester, Ricky realizes he can liberate himself from his father. He lies by saying he performed gay sex acts for money. His father again hits him, and Ricky knows his father will finally not search for him if he leaves. The rain is pouring outside, and Frank visits Lester in his garage. Lester admits that his wife is not around and is probably having sex with someone else. He says he doesn’t care about that, since his marriage is just for appearances sake, which Frank probably equates with his own marital situation. Frank is shivering form getting soaked, and Lester says he should get out of the clothes. Frank, misunderstanding Lester’s situation with Carolyn and Ricky, allows his homosexual feelings to emerge, and kisses Lester, who tells him that he has the wrong idea. After exposing himself this way, and having been rejected, Frank leaves in shame.
Ricky goes to ask Jane to run away with him, telling her he has enough money saved. She now realizes she can contribute her savings since she no longer sees the need to have cosmetic surgery to prove her worth. Angela is with her this night and is outraged, calling Ricky a freak. Jane now waves the nonconformist flag, telling Angela, “Then so am I. And we’ll always be freaks and we’ll never be like other people and you’ll never be a freak because you’re just too … perfect!” So, in their differentness, Jane and Ricky are special. Angela says at least she’s not “ugly.” But, Ricky forces a new perspective onto Angela. He tells her, “Yes you are. And you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.” He also tells her that Jane is not her friend, “She’s just someone you use to feel better about yourself.”

To think that someone can consider her “ordinary” feels like an assault on the image Angela has tried to project about herself. She runs out of the bedroom, crying. She runs into Lester, and seeks reassurance of her worth from him. She asks him if she is ordinary, and he tells her what she wants to hear: that she couldn’t be ordinary if she tried. They kiss, and Lester starts to undress Angela. She now appears vulnerable, telling him this is her first time. Her sexual bravado was just an illusion, a way of making her look more mature, and worldly successful. She now looks to Lester, and us, like what she is underneath the false surface, an insecure teenage girl. Lester now segues from sexual exploiter to paternal protector. He covers her up, and gives her a reassuring hug after she says she feels stupid for her actions. They talk about Jane, and Angela tells Lester that his daughter is in love, to which he says, “good for her.” Lester seems to have reached a level of peace with the world now, coming back to his proper age as an adult, but with more appreciation for life. He tells Angela that he feels “great,” as she goes off to use the bathroom. And, ironically, or appropriately, depending on your point of view, at this moment of tranquility, a gun appears at the back of Lester’s head, and he is shot in the head. We see the different characters react to the shot from their respective perspectives, but somehow, now all united in this one act, joined together for the first time. It is Frank who did the shooting, probably out of anger for being rejected, and maybe because the self-loathing of his sexuality erupted into violence to assure that his repressed identity will not be exposed.

Ricky looks at the dead Lester as he did the expired bird. Lester seems to have a smile on his face, and Ricky smiles, too, perceiving the beauty that Lester experienced before his demise. Lester reveals that just before he died, he was able to share Ricky’s view on life, telling us that he saw stars, and maple trees, and his grandmother’s hands, and Carolyn, having fun on a rollercoaster, enjoying life’s bumpy ride before she changed. He says, “there is so much beauty in the world … and I can’t feel nothing but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”

Perhaps the movie is simply trying to tell us that, if we look close enough, we can find beauty not only in a plant’s flowers, but also in its hidden roots.

The next film is Bigger Than Life.

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