American Beauty
film index

American Beauty was a critical and popular success, establishing Sam Mendes as a formidable new talent. It is a panoramic slice of American culture full of unstable, relative and refracted meanings between generations and the genders, and the individual and corporate society. Richly comic, it provides a satisfying experience of self-recognition, confirming your doubts about contemporary American society (leading the way for the West), and your personal dissatisfactions. Thoreau's concern about "quiet desperation" is reconfigured in a more complex form.

The thematic centre of American Beauty derives from the title and the plastic bag scene, where Ricky Fitts reflects on the poetic significance of wind-blown rubbish. It is an objective correlation for Ricky and Jane, who are ignored and misunderstood young people: victims, blown around by an uncaring world. Ricky's father incarcerated him in a mental hospital for two years, for emotional behaviour which may have been excessive, but which did not indicate mental illness. As with RP McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Ricky is subjected to authoritarian control not because he is ill, but because he is different. Like nurse Ratchett, Ricky's father seeks to control what he does not wish to understand.

Ricky finds a soul mate in girlfriend Jane, who complains that her father has not spoken to her for months. She adopts the contemporary chic of teenage gothic, and dreams of a breast augmentation to provide her with the bodily image and self esteem that she otherwise lacks. Best friend Angela appears to be worldly, experienced and fashionably sexy, and the two teenagers have a symbiotic, co-dependent friendship where they define themselves in relation to the other. In Jane's case, she compares herself against Angela's apparent sophistication and desirability.

Central character Lester Burnham is also implicated in the plastic bag scene. The film begins by depicting his frustrations - sexual and otherwise - as part of a corporate rat race and a marriage where his feelings and needs are ignored. After leaving his job and rediscovering the joys of marijuana, sports cars, rock music and a muscular body, he finally realises that you have to "let it flow". In other words, the quiet desperation of suburbia derives from a psychological attitude that we can both understand and transcend.

Lester has to assert himself against the demands of the exploitative work place, and a controlling and unmanning wife. He questions the way he and Carolyn have become asexual pawns in a work-based ethic where the rewards - like their Italian silk couch - are "just stuff". He discovers that the 60s counter culture is still alive although reconfigured in a more sophisticated form, represented by drug-dealing Ricky. Lester reverts to a more care-free era of his life, and wants a job with minimum responsibility. Ricky's character and personal history suggest that he will never become part of conventional society and, although in some respects a victim, in other respects he is an astute survivor with a $40,000 profit from drug sales. The innocent ethos of the 60s - Lester's time - is now 'turn on, tune in, drop out, and make money'. Ricky is more sane than his militaristic father and his gentle, obsessive mother who only says "wear a raincoat" when he declares that he is leaving a home they both understand is unsatisfying and dysfunctional.

It is these three characters - Ricky, Jane and Lester - who resonate with the poetic reverie of the plastic bag sequence. Of the three, Ricky is most implicated because he is the author. Lester discovers the importance of 'flowing' with life via his own route; he learns the same lessons not from video-exploration, but from the illusory nature of his adult circumstances. He is part of the same theme. Jane merely responds to the plastic bag sequence; the moment when Ricky shows her this footage and explains it's significance is when she discovers his poetic nature and his benign reasons for filming her. It is the moment of their first kiss. Unlike Michael Powell's vicious camera gaze (Peeping Tom), Soderbergh's damaged and impotent gaze (Sex, Lies and Videotape) or Lynch's malevolent video-surveillance (The Lost Highway), Ricky's gaze is child-like, explorative and innocent. In another scene, he ignores sex-kitten Angela preening herself in a window before his camera, and focuses on the barely visible face of Jane, reflected in a mirror. You have to look beyond multiple reflections and superficial posing to appreciate the hidden beauty of life. Jane smiles mysteriously, knowingly. She understands what is happening, even though she is not part of the exchange. She knows. Ricky and Jane understand each other.

It's easy to see why American Beauty was applauded. It references shallow consumer culture, corporate anomie, fractured romance, the generation gap, sexual frustration, victim relations, broken communication, military psychosis, gun culture, and the obsession with image and bodily appearance. Lester's 'mid-life crisis' is not a sad attempt to rediscover his youth, but an understandable reaction against recognisably insufferable circumstances. He speaks out in the way that many of us would like, blackmails $60,000 from a company about to fire him, and recovers his dignity within a marriage where he has become the silent and ignored figurehead with no feeling-life of his own. He is a psychological vigilante, protesting against suburban life.

I am particularly interested in the plastic bag epiphany, and the poetic/subversive interpretation of digital technology. The Ricky Fitts character is an intriguing study in how a video camera mediates and interprets reality. The plastic bag footage expresses the central philosophy of American Beauty, the discovery of Lester Burnham, and the more innate wisdom of unfettered youth. It inserts an unexpectedly poetic, digicam aesthetic into a glossy high budget movie. This sequence provides us with the underlying theme for the entire movie. I do not wish to eulogise it beyond its actual significance but I will argue that it has, or it can be profitably construed as having, unusual philosophical value.

This is a specialised analysis concerning the technological video-gaze, and its psychological value. American Beauty is composed of multiple refracted meanings, where interpretation depends on personal viewpoint rather than objective correlative. Contemporary life is so complex and multi-faceted, we no longer have a defining and omniscient perspective. Ricky's father watches him converse with Lester (Kevin Spacey), and from his perspective it looks like a sordid homosexual encounter. Like James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window, his voyeuristic gaze may or may not align with the truth of the situation. When confronted, Ricky decides he's had enough of his father's psychological fascism. If he wishes to live his life according to rigid militaristic platitudes, Ricky is not going to argue with him. People see what they want to see; what is the point in arguing with them? He represents a tradition which is disturbingly integrated into American culture, and regarded with suspicious respect: the military cultural code, where men introduce themselves to neighbours with a declaration of officer rank. The aggressive sub-text is, I am a disciplined all-American patriot (and a real man); what have you got to say for yourself?

Ricky decides to remove himself from the madness, by leaving home. He is a poetic soul who entrances gothic-Jane with his calm curiosity into the hidden life, ignored and underneath middle class appearances. He is interested in her true self, and his strange habit of filming her is innocuous and loving, his way of decoding and penetrating bewildering appearances. He is not "obsessing", he declares, just "curious". The scene where he ignores sex-kitten Angela and films Jane in the mirror illustrates the nature of his project: it is society that is mad, not him, and he wants to find meaning underneath the appearance we usually overlook.

The wind-swept plastic bag scene is more than a specialised interest; it is the thematic axis for the entire movie. Beauty is everywhere, if we pay attention to the surrounding mundane. Lester cares about his pretty but troubled and self-hating daughter, and the only way he can find out if she is happy or not is with a refracted enquiry to her friend. He is reconciled with his imperfect life and gazes warmly at a black and white photograph of wife and daughter. He is irretrievably estranged from both, and yet experiences an epiphanic realisation that 'holding on' is the source of insecurity and unhappiness. His final words, that you have to "let it flow", address the neuroses of materialist suburban America. 1960s counter-culture values are alive and well, and while the dope that Lester buys from Ricky is now sophisticated, genetically engineered (by the government) and hugely expensive, it provides the same chill-out release as it did several decades ago. A healthy and pleasure-based bodily life antidotes the corporate rat race, and you can still enjoy a gleaming red sports car at age 42. It may be Lester's 'mid-life crisis', but it makes a lot of sense. At the end of the film, wife Carolyn hugs the stylish contents of her wardrobe in agonised despair, still trying to hold on to the material trappings which supposedly give our lives meaning.

I can see why the US film-critic collective liked this movie. Mendes takes as his theme Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" and suggests that there is (still) life beneath the materially driven, manipulatively competitive superficiality of the American Dream. Men are wage slaves, disregarded and disrespected at home by vain and affected wives, forced to masturbate and fantasise because they are denied natural satisfactions. We can assume the US film-critic collective are mostly men - not as a cynical jibe, but a generous acknowledgment that men are also victims, in their own way, of corporate and patriarchal society.

In this paedophilia obsessed/concerned era, some aspects of social experience are sometimes inappropriately controversial. Mendes laughs at sexual tensions between father and daughter: Angela taunts Jane with the possibility of her "fucking" her father: "ooh! Gross!". We can relax; children - teenagers, at least - are more sophisticated and less vulnerable to predatory depravity than the media suggests. We can also relax about attractions between older men and young girls. It is a fact, Mendes says, and for 99.9% of the time no more than a tender and paternal affection. Phew, we can relax - even laugh about it. And as it turns out, Angela's sex kitten persona hides a frightened and inexperienced youngster that Lester realises needs a blanket, food, and a little comforting. Like everyone else - and at such an early age - Angela worries about being accepted and 'not being good enough', in an image-obsessed society.

Post-Colombine, Mendes further laughs at American gun culture. Carolyn discovers that firing a pistol gives her a new (rediscovered?) sense of her own power. Everyone is a victim, and only extreme measures redress this. She hates her job, which is based on the same pretence as Lester's former job: selling houses is an art of persuasion and manipulation rather than honest exchange. In one of the funniest scenes of the movie, she calls her estate-agent mentor a "King", when they share a motel-room bed. Women are turned on by fantasies of masculine power and Lester, presumably, has disappointed her in this respect. Phew again; it's OK to acknowledge a fact that subverts established and widespread feminist rhetoric, and dares to portray life beyond the circumscribed, politically correct.

And Mendes does not stop there. Having dealt playfully with lack of meaning and middle class angst, unspoken sexual attractions, repressive military conditioning and corporate dehumanisation, fractured parent-child relations, unmanned men and disappointed women, he continues with the fashionable subject of homosexuality and its acceptance. This is beyond the comprehension of Ricky's father, who supports his son's declaration that "those faggots make me want to puke my fucking guts out". The hippies are still here in our American midst, and so are the homosexuals (what about the communists?). But this is OK too: militaristic American patriotism has a secret, inner life. The image of brutal, patriotic masculinity is so extreme it is narcissistic - a denial of man-on-man tendencies. Yep, the militaristic father is a homosexual in denial.

American Beauty is a rich, ironic and intelligent movie, with beautiful and clever imagery and astute observation. It is deservedly popular.