(American Beauty, 1999)
“My job consists of basically masking my contempt
for the assholes in charge , and, at least once a day,
retiring to the men’s room so I can jerk off while I
fantasize about a life that doesn’t so closely resemble Hell.”
Alan Ball, creator of the Six Feet Under TV Series which I frankly thought always too dark, loveless and unbalanced a drama/comedy to ever stand the test of time (may I be proven wrong by such an opinion) also came up with the utterly mesmerising American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes and written by , yes, Alan Ball – an idea that had been gestating inside him for eight to ten years prior. The idea for the play (it was originally written as a stage play, then shelved as Ball realized there was no way it would work, coming out of his offices one day during the Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco scandal, where one evening afer work he bought a comic where each of the characters (Fisher and Buttafuoco) were both drawn and depicted as respectable moral citizens and as bad guys. Ball read the comic and thought to himself that the truth about the scandal lay somewhere in between, that neither character were fully innocent or guilty, that innocence or guilt, was, in a sense perhaps the wrong way to look at such an event or sequence of events. So he started writing the script that eventually became American Beauty.
Lester Burnham is 42 years old. In less than a year, he will be dead. The thing that tickled me most about the movie was the method employed in telling the story. I loved the cleverness of approaching the entire story from the perspective of a dead person – Burnham speaks from Elysium. He starts telling the story from the perspective of the afterlife, telling the spectators of the move, the audience, that he knows he is looking at himself from the hereafter, and that this movie is a vision of another life, a life that Lester tells the audience is a kind of death in itself. He is comfortable, in a beautiful house in a beautiful area with a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter and this is the ideal, the vision of beauty, is as near as one gets to the supposed perfection of the American aesthetic. This supposedly is beauty, yet Lester is dead, or might as well be dead. Nothing is happening. He drifts from morning to evening, masturbating in the shower, not making love to his wife who endlessly disrespects and talks down to him, day after day drifting further away from his daughter, writing pointless advertising copy for a magazine for fifteen years, a job he deeply hates yet is trapped into because of his lifestyle. This loveless meaningless existence ends when he literally burns down his entire life the moment he sees this girl dancing before a football game. She is literally the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. The picture of erotic beauty and an icon for the youthful erotic desire, the life force he has lost in his middle aged living death he spoke about at the beginning of the movie. Burnham goes nuts. He starts smoking really good pot, working out, walks out of his job, falls insanely in love with a teenager and takes a job in a fast food restaurant.
This seeming quantum shift at a time in Lester’s life when half of his life is already over, when he is very married, when he realizes death is coming. In fact the horizon of his realization is that death, its proximity, the absolute closure that death brings. It is this that enables Lester Burnham to see through the shallow existence that has over a lifetime turned into empty time, meal after meal where no communication occurs, occasions of family intimacy that are without meaning, time after time where no love is exchanged, day after day in the office where no real meaningful creative work is done and money is the only goal of every days labour, not that money or its pursuit is in itself anything worth objecting over. Lester’s passion for Angela, a rather vacuous child, is his passion for a connection, for colour, for life. Its only when he gives up what was a pointless life that he finds peace, a peace on sees at the moment of his death. Except by all appearances what he did was insane behaviour. Was he right? Did he do the right thing? Certainly if he had any friends who cared about him (he seems to have not a lot of friends), they would be deeply distressed that Lester, whom they had known for so long and who seemed such a decent chap, has suddenly become victim to his intense fantasy life, the cliché middle aged existential crisis. Perhaps he is having some kind of breakdown, manic episode. It is so easy to pathologize non conformity. Clearly there is something wrong with Lester Burnham. But the fact that he is behaving in the way he is does not, in accordance with the story of the movie, directly imply that the cause of his pain is within him. It is caused by the world. The world is making him crazy. It is killing his soul. It is draining his life force, his manhood, cutting him off from his nature. This is a satire on the nature of love and meaning in the world of 1990’s US middle class existence: material, atomised, devoid of significance.
Is there a conclusion to this story? American Beauty leaves us – like all great stories beautifully told – in the circular world of the story. All the magic moments of funny, witty, tragic interplay are circling round in our heads afterwards. There are no neat answers and there are no clear questions. He is just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose. Aren’t we all? And don’t we all live for those transcendental moments of beauty and truth? Aren’t we all dead without them?