The Aesthetics of Materialism in Alan Bali's American Beauty

By Spector, Judith A.; Wills, Katherine V. Tsiopos | The Midwest Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Aesthetics of Materialism in Alan Bali's American Beauty


Spector, Judith A., Wills, Katherine V. Tsiopos, The Midwest Quarterly


ALAN BALL'S AMERICAN BEAUTY is a cultural signifier/marker for America's current quest for spiritual meaning in the midst of an overpowering materialism. Typified by such current media productions as Desperate Housewives, one of many texts which situates its characters squarely in an affluent suburban setting, the desperation is a uniquely American discomfort with material comfort in the absence of any compelling spirituality. This quest is widely misunderstood by critics of the film who would attempt to reduce its meaning to the portrayal of one, albeit representative, man's "mid-life" crisis," a grim satire of life in suburban America, or a sentimental New-Age statement about the importance of family. The critic David Smith comes closest to a comprehensive understanding of the film's profound incorporation of the spiritual-quest theme in his analysis of the film in the Journal of Religion and Film as he defines at least two frameworks of meaning in American Beauty, arguing that "One of these frameworks is social-psychological, the other broadly spiritual or religious."

Despite these designations, the powerful impact of this film remains something of an enigma in part because of the circumstances under which Alan Ball's original script became modified, the characters underwent transcendent reformulation, and fortuitous new meanings emerged. However, much of the misunderstandings of the film stem from an incomplete or superficial examination of the "religious," often mystical foundations of the film's core philosophy. What is clear is that the complexities and ambiguities of this film manage to create a unifying dynamic: in the perspectives inherent in the interplay between what we see, what we want, and what we are, we discover a consciousness of beauty. Here we rediscover the American Dream, but this time we perceive it through the lens of American mysticism, a ridiculously optimistic sentimentalism, and irony.

First of all, if we want to understand what American Beauty is all about, we have to deal with the element of the dynamic noted above as "what we see." It's helpful, in this film, to become a voyeur. The film is all about looking at people and things and about the destruction that desire can visit upon its object as well as upon the subject--the one who is doing the looking, the one who wants to be looked at. The film opens with us looking at a short piece of film which Ricky, a neighbor boy, has shot (and notice that films are "shot") of his girlfriend, Jane, Lester's daughter. The subject of the film is love and death. Jane looks into the camera and declares that someone should put her father "out of his misery" (AB, 1). When Ricky asks, "Want me to kill him for you?" Jane replies, "Yeah, would you?" Thus we are introduced to the theme that we kill for love.

Lester Burnham hasn't killed for love--yet--but he's died for it just the same. He's sold himself to the American dream to establish a family, all of whom could potentially kill him. Once again, we are voyeurs as the camera pans in on Lester's life as a voiceover of Lester speaking introduces us to his life and announces that "In less than a year, I'll be dead." The camera continues to descend from above, this time focusing on the sleeping Lester who explains that "in a way, I'm dead already." No sooner does Lester tell us that he's "dead already," than he gets into the shower and begins to masturbate. He tells us that this will be the "high point of [his] day" (AB, 2). Sex and death are inextricably linked with money as Lester prepares himself for the work he loathes. What we see is that what should be vital and beautiful and interactive is dead, full of pain, and lonely.

Lester has the misfortune to have a daughter who jokes about killing him and a wife who specializes in killing/harvesting the American Dream--or at least the American Beauty rose. Yet again, we become voyeurs as the camera allows us to see Carolyn in her garden--more accurately, we see her "gloved hand" as it appears with "clippers" and "snips" the flower off (AB, 2). …

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