When I went to see American Beauty, winner of this year’s Golden Globe for drama, a young man seated behind me kept explaining the film to his companion in urgent whispers as he tried to follow its many twists and turns. At a particularly important moment in the film–the moment of what I take to be aesthetic revelation–he burst out, "That weirdo is actually enjoying looking at the dead guy." His reaction seems to be fairly common. Most critics and filmgoers apparently see American Beauty as a black-comic, ironic caricature of dysfunctional suburbia that culminates in a weirdo looking at a dead guy, and (apparently) enjoying it. Even at that level, the film has been a critical and popular success–although there are some whose moral sensibilities are so rankled they go away confused or repelled by the characters.
It’s easy to see how this movie could produce such reactions. The only "decent" people in it are a couple of gay men, a tax attorney and an anesthesiologist, who seem comfortably at home in their suburban identities. Virtually everyone else lacks a sense of authenticity and pretends to some quality–self-control, self-confidence, worldly sophistication–that he or she lacks. American Beauty unmasks all these pathological deceptions and exposes the hypocrisy of middle-class morality.
But there is more to American Beauty than meets the eye. Indeed, the movie suggests that if you look in unexpected places for beauty you may even see God looking back. In exploring the meaning and importance of beauty, the film in effect enacts the views about beauty and ethics advanced by Harvard literature professor Elaine Scarry in her recent book On Beauty and Being Just. I do not mean to suggest that the filmmakers attended her lectures, read her new book, or drew directly on Scarry’s ideas. But the resonances are so uncanny they suggest something more than mere coincidence. Perhaps, in parallel, Scarry and American Beauty have touched a chord of mass consciousness–a millennial search for spiritual meaning in beauty.
Scarry has two sets of ideas. One is about the felt experience of beauty: the "surfeit of aliveness," the "decentering of the self in consciousness" and the flicker from the mind to the body that validates the sentient moment. This is beauty as a "wake up call" to the plenitude of life. Here is Scarry, presenting an insight of Homer, Augustine, and Proust: "Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living." American Beauty presents a similar message. We hear it from Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), a teen-age "weirdo" who compulsively videotapes everything he sees. He is the spiritual catalyst of the film, and lives for beauty. And we hear it at the end of the film in a voice-over by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), who has died for it, thankfully not before he got his wake up call and enjoyed a few moments of moral enlightenment.
Scarry’s other set of ideas is about the connection between beauty and moral insight. Beauty, she says, "ignites one’s desire for truth," and is deeply connected to symmetry, fairness, and justice itself. American Beauty makes similar connections and goes further, suggesting that spiritual redemption begins with the experience of beauty.
Scarry writes about beauty as if she had to convince an audience of skeptics in literary theory. But a new spiritual call to beauty seems to have converts everywhere. How else can one explain the retreats outside San Francisco where a rabbi who is no longer sure he believes in God preaches to the throng that the Burning Bush is about the miracle of beauty; or the secular self-actualizing gurus who enthuse to their flocks about discovering beauty in unexpected places; or the hordes of elderly people who have descended on the museums of the world determined to witness beauty before they die? Seeing beauty is like seeing angels: both are divine messengers from a possible hereafter.
Scarry describes, as the centerpiece of her own "sentient" experience, discovering the beauty of a palm tree, a possibility she had mistakenly "ruled out" before. (A challenging example for me because it is a mistake I have been unable to correct.) She goes on, "I gradually realized it was looking back down at me." The careful reader knows she is now describing an illusion, almost an hallucination: "woven into" the fronds "was a large owl." Still the concept is unmistakable–look at beauty and something looks back: perhaps an owl, perhaps God Himself.
Stuart Hampshire, a philosopher who doubts that Scarry’s connections between beauty and justice are more than analogies, places Scarry’s aesthetic approach in the line of Ruskin, Pater, and Proust: all three found beauty in unexpected places. But this "finding" has as much to do with how they looked at things as with what they saw. Hampshire describes it aptly as the "arts of attending." Scarry believes that the human ability to respond to beauty suggests that the aesthetic experience is more than mere convention. Although she writes only about the particular experience of beauty, not some platonic ideal, she believes the experience is universal. American Beauty makes a further leap. It wants us to believe that a kind of Zen God cares about beauty, indeed that being open to beauty is a religious experience and the "arts of attending" reveal the sacred text of everyday life in which God is immanent.
American Beauty’s paradigm of beauty is neither the young girl who is the eponymous "American Beauty," nor anything else that is conventionally beautiful. It is, improbably enough, a plastic bag. Ricky has a videotape of a bit of trash and dead leaves caught in a wind dance, a miracle of nature–is it God’s hand?–that choreographs inanimate litter into beauty. Ricky tells us it is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. New York Times critic Steven Holden reports that American Beauty "borrows an image (and an entire esthetic of beauty) from Nathaniel Dorsky’s Variations in which the camera admired a plastic shopping bag being blown about by the wind." Variations is an avant-garde silent film about unconventional and unexpected glimpses of beauty. The central idea is that behind the ugly and the prosaic something else is happening that arrests our attention and draws us out of our mundane experiences. Scarry makes her case for beauty with moths and Matisse’s palm trees rather than plastic bags, but there is a common message.
Ricky Fitts is the prophet of this religion of beauty. He has survived two years in a mental hospital where he was incarcerated by his insane father, an ex-Marine colonel. Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) makes George Patton seem like a teddy bear. All his militaristic manliness is fueled by a repressed homosexuality that explodes and destroys. He is the most pathological example of an American conventional-type. His wife has been driven into catatonia and his son, Ricky, has escaped into the bliss of beauty.
Like many of his predecessors in film and literature, Ricky, the strange outsider, provides the glimmer of sanity that exposes the madness of normal life. Drugged into zombie-hood by psychiatrists, he now "parties" on the best marijuana and sells it to support his vocation–capturing the world and its unexpected beauty in his video camera. Ricky sees God’s eye looking back when he peers into the eye of a homeless woman who had frozen to death; he can see beauty in the dead bird that he captures in his camera; and he recognizes the beauty in Lester’s daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), who is unattractive by conventional standards. This beauty transcends the quotidian world, aesthetic conventions, the ugliness of the commonplace, and even the horror of death–if you have the art of attending. Beauty has driven fear out of Ricky’s world. He is "that weirdo" who looks into the eye of the murdered Lester Burnham, with a strange smile of pleasure signalling the "surfeit of aliveness" in the face of death, the validating flicker from the mind to the body as he saw God looking back. The film’s script carefully prepares us for this epiphanous moment. Ricky has told Jane, with whom he is in love, that beauty grounds the world and his own being. Sometimes, he tells her, when he is aware of all the beauty in the world he is overwhelmed and feels as though his heart will cave in. Jane loves him but his only real convert is Lester.
Lester’s conversion is the black comedy that foregrounds American Beauty. The film begins as it will end with a voice over by Lester’s spirit: "My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. In less than a year I’ll be dead. Of course I don’t know that yet. In a way I’m dead already." Lester is a man whose moral adventure in life seems to have been a failure. Neither in love nor in work can he find meaning. His wife Carolyn (Annette Bening) is a real estate agent desperately trying to climb the ladder of commercial success. Feeling inadequate and vulnerable she has become a control freak whose compulsions–to be prompt and self-disciplined, and to listen to "elevator music" at dinner–rule her family and make intimacy impossible. Jane, their only child, despises them both.
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If ever a man needed a strong dose of "aliveness," Lester Burnham does. Dragged by his wife to the high school basketball game to show support for Jane, who is one of the cheerleaders, he finds his "owl" in Angela (Mena Suvari), a traditional American Beauty and his daughter’s best friend. Lester’s reaction to this unbeautiful girl is as mysterious to me as Scarry’s response to her palm tree. But what happens is exactly as if Scarry blocked out the scene. She writes, "At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you–as though the object were designed to ‘fit’ your perception." Just so we enter Lester’s mind and watch as all the other cheerleaders disappear and a spotlight falls on Angela. And his "angel" seems to welcome him as rose petals pour out of her bosom toward Lester. This moment of course is less innocent than the beauty of a palm tree; it is more like Gustave von Aschenbach catching his first glimpse of Thadzio, or Humbert Humbert’s pedophile dream coming true, when he catches sight of Lolita. The middle-aged father smitten by his daughter’s high school friend is the nightmare of suburbia and the movie builds tension on the possibility of its consummation.
As a personality, the American Beauty is as dysfunctional as everyone else in the movie. Angela thinks that sophistication is conveyed by the ease with which you mouth foul language and speak about sexual experiences. Her coarse and cynical manner is meant to conceal her child-like immaturity and utter lack of self-confidence. She presents herself as an aspiring model, and feigns a worldly willingness to sleep her way to the top, but is terrified that her fate is to be plain and ordinary. Her friend Jane accepts all of Angela’s pretenses until Ricky comes into the picture and, with his discerning eye and his nonstop video taping, reveals the truth about which is the beauty. Jane becomes the swan, Angela the ugly duckling. Agreeing with Ricky’s judgment makes it even more difficult to understand Lester’s swoon.
Still, he is certainly decentered and he goes back in time to earlier moments of beauty and the plenitude of life. Beauty "ignites (his) desire for truth" and higher values. He quits his job, thumbs his nose at his wife’s compulsions and retreats to his last remembered time of happiness, even aliveness–adolescence, in the 1960s. Ricky helps him along by introducing him to the best weed on the planet. He gets high, works out to build muscles that will appeal to the American Beauty, buys a red Pontiac, finds a job in a fast food drive-through, and generally chills. All this animation outrages his wife, who goes off to have an affair charged with excitement but devoid of love or beauty. Lester finds out, ruins it for her, and now feels justified in his own attempts to hit on his daughter’s friend.
Her father’s behavior and her mother’s cynical advice–in life you can only count on yourself–drives Jane into the arms of Ricky Fitts. When Jane wishes her father dead Ricky offers to kill him. Is he bluffing? Meanwhile Lester’s wife Carolyn has learned the ecstasy of firing a gun from her partner in adultery and has mastered a motivational tape mantra, "I will not be a victim." She too is thinking of killing Lester. Can she make herself do it? Colonel Fitts has similar thoughts. Struggling against his repressed homosexuality he sees with his own eyes what he takes to be a homosexual encounter between Ricky and Lester (really, it is an "innocent" drug transaction). After battering his son in a homophobic rage the colonel succumbs to his own homosexual urges. The extraordinary moment when he embraces and kisses Lester on the lips is a scene that will be difficult to forget. When Lester, now as chilled out as a man can get, gently refuses his sexual advances the colonel suffers the kind of humiliation that engenders homicidal thoughts.
While everyone is thinking about killing him, Lester finally gets his chance with the American Beauty. He is in a kind of rose-petal ecstasy when the seduction begins. Then the girl of his dreams lets him know that she is in truth a virgin. If seeing her was a wake-up call, this is his moment of grace and moral enlightenment. He has an even more powerful decentering experience, as he becomes aware of his own instinctive goodness. He refuses to take the young girl’s virginity and this virtuous act opens another world to him. Suddenly he is alive to the beauty of life, to truth, to justice, and to his love of his own family. Beauty has not distracted him from the world, but made him more attentive to it. He reassures Angela that she is far from ordinary–that she is, in fact, beautiful–and allows her a moment of human intimacy when she sets aside her pretenses. He is now able to think about his daughter Jane as a real person and is delighted to learn she is in love with Ricky. He picks up a picture of his family and we see him enthusing about beauty and having that ecstatic flicker from the mind to the body.
In that instant, he is shot. As Ricky peers into the dead man’s eye, Lester’s conversion to the aesthetic of redemptive beauty is revealed to us. The moment before you die, Lester tells us in his spirit’s final voice over, is not an instant in which your whole life passes before you–the moment goes on and on. Out of this infinitude Lester speaks about the beauty of life, and with "the arts of attending" now at his command, he describes how every moment of his life was filled with beauty. Like Ricky he now speaks of seeing the beauty behind everything. He reprises Ricky’s version of the world’s overflowing beauty in a more hopeful way: there is so much beauty in the world he feels his heart will burst and then instead there is rain everywhere. As the ultimate proof of his conversion he shows us, as his own, Ricky’s paradigm of beauty–Dorsky’s litter caught in a wind dance choreographed by that Zen God.
• • •
Tolstoy said that unlike happy families, who are all the same, unhappy families are unhappy in different ways. That is the famous opening sentence of his Anna Karenina, a novel about failed love, a search for self fulfillment in adultery, and children caught in the cross-fire between vengeful parents. Tolstoy’s novel proves him wrong by giving us a formula for a lot of unhappy families whose unhappiness follows a common pattern. That formula applies just as well to millennial America as it did to nineteenth century Russia. It is played out in American Beauty as it has been in many great films of this century. What eludes filmmakers today, as it did Tolstoy, is the elusive formula for a believably happy family. American Beauty does not have a formula but it offers the possibility of something better if only for one redemptive moment that might go on forever in a possible hereafter.
Now a central problem for the film, or for my interpretation of it, is that most of the audience, like the noisy man behind me, does not see beauty in the miracle of the trash dance. Garbage is garbage, leaves are leaves, Angela is a wannabe-sophisticate, pretend-hot-to-trot cheerleader, and Ricky is a wacked-out drug-dealer. Most viewers cannot correct their aesthetic mistake, any more than I can correct mine about palm trees. Scarry tells us she rectified her error by realizing she was thinking about composite palm trees and not looking at a particular palm tree. Art and beauty have always been about finding the universal in the particular but sometimes it is not easily found. It seems to me no accident that Scarry is in the line of Ruskin, Pater, and Proust. They, she, and Ricky Fitts are artists in the arts of attending; in that sense beauty is in the praxis of the beholder. It takes an effort of the will, the heart, and the mind to experience the "wake up call" of American Beauty.
Although American Beauty enacts Scarry’s theories, it also contributes something to the question of the connections between beauty and moral enlightenment. Beauty can "ignite" all sorts of desires, but American Beauty suggests that Stuart Hampshire has a point: some other alchemy of human nature, something more than beauty itself, is needed to draw virtue from the flames.
American Beauty was directed by Sam Mendes, who has been on the fast track to success in England since graduating from Cambridge in 1987: The Chichester Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Donmar Warehouse, then the West End and Broadway. He has directed Judi Dench in Chekhov and Ralph Fiennes in Shakespeare, and he convinced Nicole Kidman to appear naked on the stage in Blue Room–a sell out in London and New York. Directing his first film, Mendes has managed to reach an American mass audience without dumbing down his British theatrical sophistication and substance. One is tempted to think of him as a modern day Tocqueville, the outsider who sees the American realities better than we natives can.
But much of the devastating insight of this film comes from the American playwright Alan Ball. This is also Ball’s first film; previously, he had written for Broadway theater and done television situation comedy. In fact, he wrote American Beauty on the side to maintain his sanity and his creative standards while being ground down by his television work, and he concedes that a lot of rage went into the writing. Although Ball sees himself in all the characters, he thinks his play transcends his own personality and reports that the actual experience of writing was as though he were "channeling." Channeling is the new age psychology description of what used to be described less superstitiously as those moments when the author’s muse was speaking and the creative impulse seemed centered outside his conscious self. One of Ball’s channels must have been broadcasting "L.A. Law" or "The Practice," because the original screenplay emphasized the whodunnit murder plot and framed the actions with a courthouse scene that Mendes filmed but in an editorial stroke of genius left on the cutting room floor. Stephen Spielberg, the favorite whipping boy of high-minded cineastes, seems to have his finger in every commercially successful pie. He was one of the people at DreamWorks who recognized Mendes’ potential as a film director after attending his Broadway remake of Cabaret. DreamWorks already had Ball’s script and they sent it to Mendes who rose to the bait.
There is no one secret to Mendes’ creative sensibility (his range is impressive, all the way from Richard the III to Little Voices), but his choice of Cabaret for a new production was fascinating and I think instructive. London’s West End and Broadway have seen a whole series of musical remakes filled with nostalgia for the good old days. But Cabaret summons up a Germany before Hitler where pleasure is desperate and perverse, cynicism reigns, and moral ambition seems impossible–it is a Doomsday celebration. There is something like Cabaret in the American millennial consciousness and raised against it a search for meaning. American Beauty holds a mirror up to that struggle. Francis Ford Coppola said his unachieved ambition was to make a film that would say something important to his contemporaries about their situation. He spoke of Fellini, and no doubt was also thinking of Bergman. Sam Mendes has made the kind of film that does what Coppola wanted to do and he has done it on his very first try. His 73-year-old cinematographer, Conrad Hall, says Mendes is the new Orson Welles. American Beauty is no Citizen Kane, but Mendes is off to a running start.