American Beauty and Revisiting Old Friends

In December of 2010, I wrote what I thought would be my last piece on American Beauty (1999), calling it the film that won’t go away on this site. Brennan referenced it in “What to Watch and Read Before You Make Your First, or Next, Film,” “Must Watch: Drama,” and “Brennan’s Must Watch: Screenwriting.” I talked about it in “Personal Favorites: American Beauty,” My Watersheds: Sam Mendes,” and in the very first entry I did for this blog, “A Beautiful Example” (in June 2010). I vividly remember watching it five years ago, during a time in which my film-loving mind was particularly malleable and susceptible to being forever influenced. At the time I called it maybe the best film I’d ever seen, and it has consistently held a place in my top 5 of all time since then. A few days ago I realized it was time to pop it back into the DVD player. It had been a while since I had last seen it, and I wondered what my perspective would be years later. I’m also currently writing (read: struggling through) an article for school on the work of Sam Mendes, which has raised many more questions than exclamation points. I’ve never been able to really articulate why I feel so strongly about American Beauty, and even in those previous posts, you can see me clumsily trying to string thoughts together. So now I’m resurrecting the film on this site once more, although it’s for slightly different reasons this time.

As I read through some of my older posts, I realize how much I’ve changed as a film viewer, as a writer, and as an individual. Films that I love now would have put me to sleep four years ago, and films that I loved then don’t quite get my blood pumping the way they used to. Revisiting American Beauty (or any previous favorite) is like meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen in a long time. He or she is clearly the same person: her hair color might have shifted, his style of dress might have expanded, etc. But those eyes could never fool you. He or she basically sounds like the same person: her cadence might have discovered new pauses, his voice might have grown coarser, etc. But your ears would still perk up if you heard them in a crowd. You strike up a conversation and realize that this person is at once exactly the same and entirely different: the death of a relative has put up walls, a recent marriage has broken them down, school has made them idealistic, work has made them cynical, etc. Pick your scenarios and your adjectives. But then again maybe it’s you who has changed. Maybe both of you have. And even though you share many memories and a strong sense of nostalgia and you think very fondly of this person (regardless of whomever they might be now), you recognize that you probably would not be best friends at this time in your lives. You could have only been best friends at that perfect time when your trajectories temporarily lined up before distancing again. When revisiting an old filmic friend, it’s difficult to separate past nostalgia with present objectivity. A recent look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy didn’t quite entice me the way it once did. Subsequent looks at Requiem for a Dream still prick, but sometimes I find myself questioning certain artistic choices. Good Will Hunting still sings, but considering it as one of my top 10 films of all time now seems kind of vapid. Some films, like Goodfellas, have a strong nostalgic connection with me, but I continue to objectively find so much to praise. I’m reminded of a tweet by Incontention’s Kris Tapley. Kris was explaining his problems with a generally well-regarded film (I think it was Million Dollar Baby, but I could be wrong). A teenage cineaste tells him that it is his or her favorite movie. Kris responds with something along these lines: “The Usual Suspects used to be my favorite movie. Don’t worry. You’ll see more.”

Well, I’ve seen more films. The remarkable craft on display in American Beauty (the score, the costumes, the art direction, the cinematography, etc.) is still sublimely accomplished, but it doesn’t quite rock me the way it did five years ago, when I had seen less films. After being initially blown away in 2007 (much like many people were in 1999), I’m beginning to wrestle with American Beauty as a complete experience. Turns out, as the internet has informed me, this is not an atypical response. Audiences have historically relished that first-wave euphoria, only to critique and dismantle upon subsequent viewings. Let me say this, for the sake of clarity: I have no interest in attacking the film or calling it “overrated” or saying that it pales in comparison to Happiness or The Ice Storm or whatever. I’m not trying to indulge in hip contrarianism or blindly follow the critical or popular consciousness that now locates pleasure in claiming the film has aged poorly and that Academy members were duped. I don’t care what the blogosphere thinks. I care what I think. And there might be a reason that I could never articulate what was so amazing about American Beauty, even when I adored it so adamantly. Interestingly, when I look back over these posts, while I was gushing about suburban satire and the rot behind artifice and the ostensibly “inspiring,” “life-affirming” qualities of the work, Brennan was taking a more objective stance. He had this to say in his “Must Watch: Drama”: “Surely a film of great controversy, both for its content and mysterious message…perhaps mysterious isn’t the right term, maybe I should say instead pluralistic. Not that you couldn’t pick out one message mind you, but that you can pick out from a plethora and still receive impact is what makes it great.” This is a deeply accurate description of Alan Ball’s screenplay and Sam Mendes’s direction. “Pluralistic” is about as appropriate an adjective as any. But rather than associate its pluralism with a form of praise, I’ve now come to regard it as something less than, well, spectacular.

My problem isn’t exactly that is has a pluralistic message, although one can debate the merits of such an attribute. My problem is that it seems to have a pluralistic perspective…on everything. We’re meant to root Lester on as he quits his job, blackmails his boss, takes up “illegal psychotropic substances,” flips burgers, buys a Firebird, swells his muscles, and attempts to bed a blonde high-school cheerleader. But we’re also meant to cheer as he tells off his shrew of a wife with piercing passive-aggressiveness. Are we meant to cheer when he does the same to his confused and hapless daughter? I can’t tell. The film seems to be smitten by Lester’s infantile antics at the same time that it wishes to critique them. He’s a heroic staple of mid-life juvenile delinquency, but he’s also this angelic sage, looking down from the grave, telling us that life is filled with so much beauty. Lester has to die, because no one can really live like this. His daughter is about to fly to coop; his wife is about to ask him for a divorce at gunpoint; and Lester, meanwhile, gets to bask in adolescent joy without suffering consequences from the people he’s hurt the most. He turns from a negligent, distant husband and father to a mean, condescending one. Why is he martyred at the hands of a sexually repressed military man? The film seems to want to have it every which way, leaving it for the audience to decide whatever it wants to. No wonder it won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1999. It’s the ultimate Rorschach test. But when does ambiguous plurality give way to knot-tying wishy-washiness? The film’s tagline tells us to “look closer.” But what do we see behind Jane’s surface? Behind Carolyn’s? Why do Ball and Mendes indict Carolyn so intensely? When Lester puffs on a joint and wails on his pecks and croons to “American Woman,” he looks like a god. When Carolyn enjoys a romp in a hotel room and excitedly fires a gun, she looks like a cartoon. The film simply does not allow her much depth. She’s shrill, materialistic, and detested to the end.

I could go on and on about issues that I haven’t yet resolved. But as much as this concentrated pluralism frustrates me on a cerebral level, the film still stimulates me on a visceral one. It’s funny, well paced, and extremely entertaining. I still recognize it. I can still pick out its voice in a crowd, even if it’s a bit strained. But beneath American Beauty‘s own admittedly immaculate surface, I’m not sure if we have the masterpiece I once thought we did. Like that old friend in the coffee shop, I still think of her rather fondly, but I can’t pretend that we haven’t both changed. For the better or worse, that’s to be decided.

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