“For only that which we knew or practiced at fifteen will one day constitute our attraction.” Walter Benjamin
I first watched American Beauty when I was 17, two years older than what Benjamin proposes but still in the same era. I think this is why I still love this film and really think Sam Mendes’ masterpiece (till now) is American beauty. It has all the ingredients to make a mainstream movie distinct: a compelling and well-written story (by Alan Ball), brilliant acting (particularly those of Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening) and last but not least, a masterful direction by Mendes. The combination made American beauty a wonderful picture bringing home numerous awards and nominations.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. It is true but one day: THE DAY YOU DIE.
The film shows the last days of the life of Lester Burnham. Lester is going through the middle-age crisis and feels like his family is falling apart. His wife, Carolyn, a real estate agent, is not interested in him anymore and is involved in an affair with a successful real agent. His daughter, Jane, “is a pretty typical teenager, angry, insecure, confused”. As a typical teenager, she cannot communicate with her parents and has specifically grown a sort of hatred toward his father.
Lester’s career life is not better. He is getting fired from his job as a journalist because the company is about to make some cuts to its budgets. Lester is given a chance to save his job by writing out a job description telling how he contributes. However, instead of a job description exaggerating the importance of his role in the company, Lester hands in a satirical, critical review of his everyday work: “My job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge …”. Reading his description, his boss acts as expected and decides to fire him. But Lester blackmails him and gets one year salary with benefits. Later, he applies for a job at a fast-food restaurant because he is “looking for the least possible amount of responsibility”.
Meanwhile, after a basketball match in which Jane is a cheerleader, Lester meets a friend of hers, Angela, and grows a crush for her, dreams about her at night and masturbate in bed sleeping beside his wife. He begins working out in order to “look good naked” because he overhears Angela telling Jane that if he works out she would definitely fuck him. He starts smoking pot that he buys from Ricky, the only child of his new neighbour and a schoolmate of Jane. Ricky is a strange boy who loves filming and tries grasping beauties behind routine things. Throughout the movie, Ricky and Jane fall in love and decide to leave town and go live in New York. However, their plan is interrupted due to Lester’s death.
This isn’t life, it’s just stuff. And it’s become more important to you than living.
American Beauty can be seen as a requiem for “The Sixties” (or for Americans the 70’s), a decade which introduced to the world numerous giants, especially in (Rock) music and cinema. Some of the strongest social taboos, specifically those built around sex and race, were seriously challenged in the sixties and lost most of their influence afterwards. It is also famous for social activism opposing wars (particularly Vietnam war) and hippies movement. Because of the great rise of humanitarian and artistic values during the sixties, it has been referenced to in many films either directly (The Dreamers by Bernardo Bertolucci) or indirectly like American Beauty.
There are several direct indications of this fact. Based on Lester’s conversation with Ricky we understand that he used to listen to Pink Floyd. The year 1973 has a significant meaning for him. And he listens to Bob Dylan’s old songs when he works out and gets high. There are some indirect referencing to that era: the whole Lester’s evolution/revolution is towards grasping the values of The Sixties: Love, Freedom and Anti-Consumerism. His revolt against contemporary American values, such as wealth and success (in other words, American Dream), can be easily traced back to the 60s and hippies.
“American Dream vs. American Beauty”
The title of the film is intentionally chosen to remind one of American Dream. American Beauty seriously challenges the capability of American Dream, prosperity in career, wealth and possession, to provide happiness for people. That is why Carolin, obsessed with success in her career, has fell to the realm of pop-psychology.
American Beauty, with an eye on the values of the 60s, provides an alternative to American Dream for the people to enjoy life and be happy, and that is: American Beauty, to discover hidden beauties behind every single aspect of life, to enjoy the life and be rid of (artificial) responsibilities, and to reach to a moment when you can “feel nothing but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life”.
“American Beauty-Fight Club”
What is lost?
It’s not an accident that both American beauty and fight club are released in the same year. The success of these films in attracting both professional and regular audience proves that they are correctly addressing a basic need. There is something missing in the society that these movies provide or even just express. Contemplating their theme can better illustrate what that need is.
The theme of both American Beauty and Fight Club is revolting against conventional way of living. In both movies, characters are imprisoned in their materialistic consumerism. The protagonists are small parts of the corporate world; a world eating them from within and leaving them with only a sense of loss. Eventually, when they begin to gain consciousness about their condition, they revolt (interestingly, in both movies the protagonists blackmail their bosses). However, each movie follows a different path for emancipation. While Lester in American Beauty chooses a conservative, individualistic approach to free himself from his chains, Tyler starts the ‘Fight Club’, gathers followers and begins a radical, communal action (or reaction).
This fact shows that our society (the American society at the verge of the new millennium) yearns for a new way of life, in which people can create their own life and actually live it and cease to be just another brick in the wall.
And let us finish this article with what John Keats beautifully noted about beauty:
Beauty can only be comprehended in the moment before death, as beauty bows to destruction.