What's Wrong With This Picture?
Originally published in The American Prospect, December 6, 1999
I'd been waiting for "American Beauty" since one day last summer, in West Hollywood, when I first saw that now familiar woman's torso on a billboard dominating the Sunset "Strip." The adolescent hand intrigued me, and the single long-stemmed dewy dark red rose was like an arrow across that torso, with its keyhole-like navel in the shape of a question mark. "Look closer," the promotion said, along with the names of the film's two superstars—sophisticated, sexy, contemporary—Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning. By now, of course, the advertising is also able to invite "look closer at the best reviewed movie of the year." And I've come to see "American Beauty" in that other cultural capital of America, Harvard Square, where it's currently running, in two theaters, practically every hour on the hour. The full-house audience is clearly engaged, and the movie ends to the voluntary applause of hundreds of individuals—for this is still only a film, not live dramatic performance—but which in itself is a show of approval that is rare for Harvard Square.
Needless to say, the reviewers loved it first. The New Yorker's David Denby has proclaimed it "by far the strongest American film of the year," and he makes a sustained and passionate argument for the picture's "appreciation of the vagrant beauty hidden behind the surfaces." The movie's ads quote the New York Post's Rod Dreher ("A flat-out masterpiece one of the most artistically accomplished, truthful and altogether breathtaking motion pictures I have ever seen."), along with The Boston Globe's Jay Carr ("The first Hollywood movie of 1999 that deserves to be taken seriously. Dazzling."). Roger Ebert calls it "One of the strongest and most penetrating films of the year," while Gene Shalit goes one better by judging it "A triumph it ranks with the finest movies of the 90's."
So, as Paul Simon sings, "Who am I to blow against the wind?"
But, for "American Beauty" to even rank as a film of the 90's, I have to wonder why it so powerfully evokes the past fifty years without seeming to have evolved along the way. Early on, when Ricky (the boy-next-door/drug dealer) informs Lester Burnham (his girlfriend's father) that first-rate—"no paranoia"—marijuana goes for $2000 these days, Lester notes cheerfully that "things have changed since 1973." But no, the problem in this movie is that things really haven't changed since 1973, and not since 1953 either, judging by Lester's Esquire-throwback sexual fantasies of the doll-like cheerleader floating in syrups of deep red velvet rose petals. These strike me as unsophisticated, unsexy, uncomtemporary. Am I the only one who is uncharmed?
This picture reminds me instead of the 70's equal-opportunity joke series about how many whatevers it takes to screw in a light bulb, specifically the version about how many feminists it takes. Naturally, the punch line—"That's not funny."—was to prove that, as usual, feminists always ruin all the fun. But the reason I am reminded of these jokes is that in "American Beauty" there's full equal-opportunity offense. In other words it's not only the women, but everyone, reduced to mere caricature.
That's is, you could be a Colonel in the Marines and ask when that "Great Santini" sadistic child-berating brute stereotype will ever be decommissioned. Or you could be a homosexual and worry that your options still remain either to be a cute little Bobbsey Twin or a raving maniac. You could be Lester's wife, Carolyn Burnham, and wonder whether you'll ever stop being blamed for your husband's puerile, plagiarized fantasies—a blond girl and a red sportscar, neither of which make it out of the driveway—along with every other unrealized wish. More destructive yet, you could be any one of the three teenagers in this movie who—so what else is new?—always succeed in frightening the hell out of the grownups, who then give themselves that excuse for parental failings. You could be, even, Our Hero, and feel sorry for yourself for what you've been made out to be. Why aren't you?
Yes, for sure, Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning bring an absorbing and winning cleverness and heart to their roles, but what if their characters had actually been imagined in a way that had made them true-to-life? If characterization were a value in this film, for instance -as opposed to mere vivid caricature—there would be no pistol (Carolyn's "empowerment" out on the firing range but brought home, out-of-character, in her ladies purse) whose sole function, to move the plot, is to fool you into pretending she'll use it, even though, because of that other cliché (the self-hating closet killer whose fate is sealed with a kiss) "who done it" couldn't be more obvious. And this is a movie being hailed as a masterpiece of irony? Could someone please explain that to me?
For irony to be irony, something gets transformed—tilted, pivoted, reversed—in order to become, it is to be hoped, fresher. So, for instance, how about—for a change—a film where it's the guy who gets fed up with being controlled by those with power over him, and so he then decides to take his life into his own hands? "It's never too late to take it back," Lester deadpans, mocking, by imitating, every woman who ever claimed such freedom. Interesting idea? Absolutely. But then why not make it true by letting it seem real?
"Welcome to America's Weirdest Home Videos," says Ricky, who is also the film's teenaged kinky videographer, but in fact it's the very banality of his vision that impresses. Except for the fact that it is the plainer Jane he sees as beautiful, rather than Lester's more predictable ideal, his digitized images are as flat and derivative as the dialogue: "I refuse to be a victim," complains Lester, and "I'm sick and tired of your treating me like I don't exist," "like I'm this gigantic loser." Well?
"Please pass the asparagus," Lester is forced to ask a few times, until finally, fed up with being ignored, he walks around the table and gets it himself, and throws the plate against the wall, saying, "Don't in-ter-rupt-me, hon-ey." In particular he accuses Carolyn, "You haven't spoken to me for months," but his real criticism of his wife? "You're so joyless."
Not so. As a real estate agent Carolyn may not sell any houses, but—remember that 70's mega-hit book, The Joy of Sex, which came into our 60's-primed world as a culturally sanctioned sex manual?—with Carolyn's Barbie-legs flung back against the headboard as her hero gives her his "royal" treatment—"Who's king?" "You are! You are!"—she at least temporarily gets what passes for release, and relief. Still, however, because "American Beauty" is both the land of opposites and of utter predictability, it is all too clear that this king will reveal himself to be a coward, while then enabling Lester the meek to crown himself king—"I rule!"—for winning at the movie's shamelessly contrived Gotcha set-up. And yet, still, the crowd loves it.
What's worrisome about the power of re-glorified throwbacks like these, and especially if this were to be the very reason this movie is so popular, is that it invites the imagination to seek that extreme. Consider, in this context, for example, Philip Wylie's sensational (and sensationally successful) 1942 book Generation of Vipers, not because the point of view in "American Beauty" parallels Wylie's berserk theorizing, but because, oddly, this movie isn't different enough so as not to bring Vipers to mind. In particular, Wylie's rant against the disastrous "megaloid momworship" visited upon his generation of innocent men is hilarious, sort of, precisely because its shrill tone is so, well, hysterical. Whose fault is everything? "Mom got herself out of the nursery and the kitchen. She then got herself out of the house. No longer either hesitant or reverent, the damage she forthwith did to society was so enormous and so rapid that even the best men lost track of things. Mom's first gracious presence at the ballot-box was roughly concomitant with the start toward a new all-time low in political scurviness, hoodlumism, gangsterism, labor strife, monopolistic thuggery, moral degeneration, civic corruption, smuggling, bribery, theft, murder, homosexuality, drunkenness, financial depression, chaos and war. Note that."
And so Lester Burham thinks of himself as "just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose" because he too has already lost everything. "Could he be any more pathetic?" asks his daughter, Jane, as she suggests to Ricky—"But you know I'm not serious, right?"—that "someone should put him out of his misery." Jane's complaint against her mid-life dad is sparked by his adolescent courting of her friend Angela, who has the benefit, at least, of chronological adolescence. In flight from their overt flirtation, Jane complains with an educated smirk that her father is "doing massive psychological damage" to her. But it is with an all too matter-of-fact hurt that she says, "I need a role model."
Instead of a security provided by her father, Jane's future seems to hold an escape to New York with Ricky, whose own father has kicked him out of the house, but who has $40,000 in drug earnings. However, since we know that at least 10% of that amount—it could be more—has come from Lester's own pocket to fund his new "no paranoia" habit, is there not a problem, at least, here? Or, if perhaps the filmmaker does intend this moment to be a cautionary tale about parental narcissism—a new 90's form of "laundering" parental responsibility?—what could possibly then justify the movie's uplift ending?
It is fair to assume there's no problem here because Lester says as much. When Angela asks him, "How are you?" he answers, "It's been a long time since anybody asked me that. I'm great." Alone for a moment then, and seemingly, too, a bit sadder-but-wiser, he studies the framed photo at his elbow: of himself with Carolyn and their Jane as a little girl, on an amusement park ride, all three of them with exhilarated panicky grins. And he says? "Man-oh-man. Man-oh-man, oh-man."
And from there, after the messy interruption of his actual death which had been foretold by the voice overlay in the movie's opening shots, we return to that disembodied voice, which manages, after all, to have found in his life "so much" beauty. The beauty is in all the most obvious places, we are to learn, such as a sky full of falling stars, and yellow maple leaves—also falling—and the aged papery skin of a grandmother's hands. And—at last, yes, too late—"and Janie." And then finally, also, he's willing to admit, even Carolyn.
And now I'm the one who's feeling "man-oh-man," only it's as in "get me out of here!" Because this is what makes him feel great? "I feel like I've been in a coma for twenty years," he has said when he wakes up to enjoy his mid-life diversions of sex-drugs-and-rock & roll. But isn't he, still?
Is the power of the film, then, in its ability—by means of "Oscar-caliber" performance and consistently idiosyncratic image-making—to distract from its very content? And is this, finally, what characterizes—or, rather, caricatures—the 90s? There have been other films over the past twenty years which also take up the darkness at the core of American family life, and which also illuminate the consequences born of that scary rigid Mom made famous in all her fury by Philip Wylie. There is the honestly and truly ironic "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and the brittle but fluid "The Ice Storm," and "Ordinary People," where the subject is the revelation of character which, like the score (the melody of Pachelbel's "Canon in D") evolves in minute and illuminating variation. There is compelling surface beauty in each of these other films too, but, unlike "American Beauty," there is a human beauty that isn't only skin-deep.
Here in "American Beauty" there is a small empty white plastic bag which features at first as the aimless, random subject of Ricky's favorite video—as it twirls and dives in a restless wind on a day just before it will snow—and again at the end of the movie when it reappears as the filmmaker's own signature. This is a symbolic argument against the value of "structure and discipline," which has been exposed in "American Beauty" as cruel, at worst—by putting the Marine in charge of that mission—or, at best, mocked by the kids, as irrelevant. But what of the structure and discipline necessary to family life? To meaningful work? To all fully realized art?
To me, the "beautiful" plastic bag is a dispiriting image—so literally without grounding or purpose, just somebody else's trash, a weightless object manipulated by a breeze into what passes for acrobatics—but it represents all the more heartbreaking a belief: that in America in 1999, this should be as beautiful as it gets.