Academic journal article CineAction

Saying It with Flowers: (Movie American Beauty)

Academic journal article CineAction

Saying It with Flowers: (Movie American Beauty)

Article excerpt

What is American Beauty about?

It may seem an odd question to ask after the massive attention the film has received. The rapturous reviews, the huge and unexpected commercial success and the multiple Oscars--all of these would suggest that it's an easily accessible and transparent piece of work that requires little in the way of critical elucidation. In a sense that's true -- I wouldn't claim that in what follows I'm pulling a deconstructionist rabbit out of the hat. But I do find it remarkable that such little attention has been paid to the quite radical view that American Beauty offers of the subject that emerges as its central theme: male sexuality.

One reason for the inattention may be the film's indirect approach to that theme. An opening voice-over by the central character Lester Burnham tells us that in less than a year he'll be dead--in fact, he goes on to say, in a way he's already dead. Combined with the first few scenes, this implies that the film is going to concern itself with the theme of alienation in a quasi-Marxist sense: a disabling sense of sterility and lack of meaning in relationships at home and at work. When Lester is then told by his new boss that the company intends to create savings by enforced redundancies and that his own post is threatened, a familiar story are seems to be under construction--we can guess that after being fired Lester will be forced to create a different life for himself and his family and thus will discover a new and positive sense of identity.

This is the point, however, at which the film gets off the Hollywood rails and heads in another direction. It's true that Lester gets himself another job, at a local fast-food outlet. He does so by declaring his wish to have as little responsibility as possible--something that seems more than a little implausible, given the excessively positive corporate attitudes drilled into staff at such establishments.

But much more surprisingly, we see nothing of the relationships with fellow-workers which we might expect him to develop as a result; on the contrary, after he gets the job, we only see him there once, in the scene where his wife and her new lover arrive to order some food, giving Lester the chance to embarrass them greatly by his insistence on serving them. (More implausibility here, it has to be said, and one of several sit-com tropes which are used in the film and reflect, possibly, screenwriter Alan Bali's previous work in the genre; for the scene to be credible, Lester's wife must be unaware of his employment there, which seems unlikely--otherwise surely under these circumstances she would have avoided it?)

It's also true that thanks to an accidental encounter with Ricky, the son of the family newly arrived next door, Lester starts smoking dope and trades in his car for a 1970s Pontiac Firebird, in apparent fulfilment of an old dream. But neither of these acts of personal revolt leads anywhere in terms of plot development--the car is seen only once and never driven, and the dope-smoking remains a solitary, private experience. All that Lester actually does in the rest of the film, in effect, is to proceed to get himself into better physical shape, as a consequence of becoming secretly infatuated with Angela, his teenage daughter's schoolfriend. Losing his job and getting a new one never interacts with his desire for her--there's no scene, for example, where she stops at the fast food outlet and is intrigued/appalled/delighted to discover her best friend's father working there, thus leading to a new phase in their relationship.

Indeed, American Beauty soon turns out to be almost entirely uninterested in the socio-economic consequences of Lester's situation. Once he's lost his job, the film seals him off from society, denying him friends, colleagues, comparable job opportunities, interests, hobbies or indeed any connection with a world beyond the street where he lives. This is expressed visually by the very restricted number of exteriors, by the austere decor of the interior sets and by the creation of formal tableaux as emblematic as an Edward Hopper painting -- most obviously in the symmetrical Panavision framing of the dinner scenes. …

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