American Beauty

American Beauty 1999

My alarm went off shortly after midnight. Hurriedly, I turned it off so that I didn’t wake up the rest of the house. I’d only had a few hours sleep, but I pulled myself out of bed. I crept downstairs. More than likely, I probably didn’t manage to avoid that one creaky floorboard right outside my parents’ bedroom. When I got downstairs, I turned on the TV, pulled up the couch, turned on the gas fire, and spread out my assorted junk food. Ready for the long haul.

It was March 27, 2000 and I was 16 years old. It was Oscar Night.

I’m not entirely sure that the 2000 ceremony (honoring the best of 1999’s films) was the first year I actually watched, but it’s definitely the first one I remember watching, and I enjoyed getting caught up in the excitement of it all. To this day, I can recite the lyrics to a number of Billy Crystal’s opening songs which riffed on the year’s best picture nominees (The Cider House Rules and Green Mile amongst them.) I remember vividly the shot of Kevin Spacey clapping along to a joke made at his expense and Michael Clark Duncan wiping a tear away from his eye in laughter.

I had a blast. I was only a recent convert to the religion of cinema and this was my church. Back then, Oscar Night to me was like Christmas, Diwali, Ramadan, and Passover all wrapped up into one. Although I was completely alone in a physical sense as I watched the glitzy awards bash unfold, I felt like I belonged. These were my people.

As we all know, the film that more or less swept the board that year – including the Best Picture Oscar – was American Beauty. In the years since, I’ve heard people joke that it’s the worst film to ever win Best Picture. If I’m honest, I’ve never really understood if they’re being sarcastic or genuine. Personally, I loved the film. I think it was one of the first DVDs I owned. I remember watching it on my parent’s old desktop PC for the first time, nine months after I’d watched it win the Oscar. It made a huge impression on me.

It wasn’t just my teenage hormones reacting to Mena Suvari, either (although there was undeniably a great deal of that.) Rather, I felt a genuine connection to the character of Lester Burnham. He was someone who was no longer in control of his own life, who was just a slave to a 9-to-5 job for the sake of a paycheck which allowed him to buy stuff he didn’t really need. His awakening was categorized by most film critics and other observers as a midlife crisis. I disagree. Somehow he – and his wife, Carolyn – had allowed themselves to fall into a suburban rut. They had lost sight of what truly made them happy. Instead, they had allowed themselves to be consumed by routine and a desire for material things.

Completely by coincidence another great film from 1999 also deals very much with the idea of rabid consumerism leading us all to live a life devoid of genuine human relations without all the bullshit. I’m talking about Fight Club. In my mind, American Beauty and Fight Club are kindred spirits of sort, and this becomes even more apparent after listening to the Fight Club DVD commentary which I highly recommend. The main difference between the two films is Fight Club is far more dystopic. It deals much more in absolutes – and a much more aggressive trajectory of its lead character – whereas American Beauty seems to acknowledge that even after Lester has his epiphany, escaping the sweetness of comfortable suburban life is as difficult as freeing yourself from a pool of molasses.

Nonetheless, although life is far from perfect, we get the impression that Lester has achieved happiness – or at least as much happiness as he is capable of. Certainly in comparison to Carolyn. Sure, he still lives in a very nice house, he hasn’t given up his worldly goods, but he has refocused on what is most genuine and real in life: his family. When his life flashes in front of his eyes after he is shot, sure, there is still some focus on the material (his cousin’s brand new firebird), but its clear that what he most considers most important is his wife and his daughter.

Carolyn, meanwhile, is still much more focused on material things and the perception that people have on her. She and Buddy decide to put the brakes on their affair (her newfound source of happiness) because they are afraid of public gossip now that they’ve been discovered – and, of course, because Carolyn “is facing a potentially expensive divorce.” Likewise, when Carolyn discovers that Lester has been shot and killed, her reaction is not to hug her dead husband’s body or even to hug her daughter and try to console her – no, it’s to hug a wardrobe full of Lester’s clothes. She remains unable to separate material things from actual things (people) of consequence.

This metaphor can certainly be extended way beyond these two characters. But it goes way beyond what at first glance is simply a story about unfulfilled lives in suburbia (a topic Mendes would later return to in Revolutionary Road.)

The other main aspect of the film I want to touch on is Ricky Fitts’ obsession with videoing seeming ugly – or at best mundane – images: a plastic bag blowing in the wind, a dead pigeon. He says that he does this because he thinks they’re beautiful. I can relate. There are often scenes I see in my everyday life – images that strike me as being beautiful, but that most people would walk past without a second glance. It’s a notion that David Lynch regularly plays with, and while it’s less of a focus here (Mendes and Conrad L. Hall are more focused on the theatricality available to tap into), one gets the impression that had Lester had more time with Ricky and come to more fully understand his philosophy, he might have evolved even further than he had before his untimely end.


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