American Beauty As ‘What A Good Film Looks Like’
Copyright © by Alex Sheremet, 4/27/15
Think back to middle school, for a moment, and the sort of things you thought defined you. Now, if you were a typical kid, you probably filled the time with friends, homework, sports, and the like, and didn’t muse too hard about your options. And, in a way, you really couldn’t, because the limits of your life -- a car (but not yours), a suburban home (not your parents’, but the bank’s), a dog, fence, and yard -- were also the limits of your cognizance, a fact that damns most people to be ruled by circumstance and luck. This is why, I guess, the suburbs are so hated, but, being a pre-teen, you don’t know this. You merely have an inkling of the adult world, and feel -- this is certain -- that you’ll do better when given the chance. You’ll move up, alright, but until then, every moment is mere puffery.
Of course, this kind of child has little chance to escape oblivion. For this reason, much of the world’s culture will never be open to him. So there’s another ‘type,’ one that, while still quite limited by his surrounds, nonetheless sees a bit more, overall, and understands what he sees a bit more deeply. Yet instead of taking this further, I am convinced that films like American Beauty are directed towards him. I mean, just think of the affinities. Here is a kid who is on the cusp of a few realizations about life -- no matter how solipsistic -- but might never quite get there, and here is a director who, while understanding about as much as a middle-schooler, had the luck (and nothing but the luck) to shoot a film. They do not, however, merely have an inkling of the adult world, but a whole system for it, a means of understanding things and the ability to engage them from what appears to be a mature perspective. In this way, American Beauty reveals a child’s conception of the world’s foibles yet passes it off as adult, all the while constructing a film that, while superficially symbolic, imagistic, ‘enigmatic,’ and what have you, is not REALLY those things, at all, but such qualities as they’re filtered through a mind -- two minds? -- that never quite grew up.
Prior to pursuing this line of inquiry, however, it might be helpful to recap the film’s many faults. Although initially heralded as a modern classic, it is barely discussed now, and was -- back when people still knew of it -- often parodied for its over-the-top, ham-fisted dialogue and narrative arcs before the critical backlash some years later. Practically every scene had symbolic import, every character a mechanical function. This is true of Kevin Spacey jerking off in the shower as the high point of his day (“in a way, I’m already dead”), to his cartoonish, career-driven wife ‘prepping’ herself for a real estate sale, and the predictable emotional breakdown when she fails to do so; the appearance of a supposedly ‘deep’ teenager with a video-camera (“sometimes, there’s just so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it; like my heart is going to cave in”); to lesser characters, like the teen’s overly macho, gay-hating father who (surprise, surprise) turns out to be a closeted homosexual; and, finally, to the film’s high school girlfriends who, while posited as good/bad foils, are in fact little better than one another, and equally selfish -- albeit in different ways -- and exist merely to hammer home a few ideas re: substance and identity that were already quite belabored prior to their intrusion. Rose petals occlude -- and collude with -- vaginas; a grisly murder brings on a smile from an ex-creep who ‘knows’ its deeper import more than others; a plastic bag floats upon tiers of wind, only to be riddled with cliches for those that might not ‘get it’. All has its place, it seems, orderly and neat and requiring little more than one spoon-fed interpretation of things that are never allowed to be more than they are.
Sure, the above scenes might be silly, but this is, nonetheless, the way kids see the grown-up world, even as children -- mostly of the adult variety -- are really the arbiters of short-term success in EVERYTHING of alleged value. This, in and of itself, is pretty much inevitable. The real problem is that this hierarchy is rarely understood, ensuring that few people of wisdom and talent can ever get into it. Of course, it is commonly held by counter-culture types that real value is off the radar, or in the past, or somewhere in the future, since everyone and everything else has long sold out. Yet how much of this stand is mere posturing and guesswork: the same dart-throwing that kids do when they latch on to as much as they possibly can in the hope that something might eventually stick? More likely, it seems that the world matures more slowly than we’d like to think, and that so many icons of our own adulthood -- that is, the stuff we’ve prized in the hope that others might prize it, too -- are little more than phantasms from an infancy that has not quite been shaken off. To some, this prospect is nothing to worry about. Others, however, will be vigilant, for they want to grow up and see what ‘that’ world is truly like, even though most will merely scratch their heads over what appears to be an invisible conflict.
I was in middle school when American Beauty first came out, and recall the sorts of things that my friends said -- and didn’t say -- about it. Most of them ignored the film, of course, for even its illusion of depth was a turn-off. Some giggled at the nudity, and a few even enjoyed it as a kind of glorified entertainment. Yet there was one boy who, at 12, raved about the film’s artistic greatness and sophistication. It was, he said, precisely what a good film looks like. This was not a point I was prepared to argue. Hell, a decade and a half later, I don’t think it’s a point that MOST are prepared to argue, for fifteen years, in human terms, might mean a whole lot of growing up, but to the rest of the world, to geologic time, it says nothing, and will mean nothing when its own decade passes, and levels everything that was never meant to stand. This is a genuine constant, but what’s it matter way back then, eh? At 12, you are the world’s standard, the time-keeper, and need quite a few things spelled out for you. And in a film like American Beauty, ALL things are belabored, really, because for a kid who’s not seen much, heard much, nor thought much, the hardest thing of all would be to see, hear, and think of genuine art. And that, we’re told, at a most impressionable age, is simply out of the question.
[Alex Sheremet is the author of Woody Allen: Reel To Real. He may be contacted at AlexSheremet.com.]
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