Saturday 5 February 2011

Revisiting Films... American Beauty

There's not a lot I can say about American Beauty that hasn't already been said, but I can have a go at telling you what it means to me. It was the first film that seemed to me to be almost like a book, in the way I wanted to savour it, and watch it extremely carefully so I could appreciate it's full impact. In doing so, I made some observations that made me feel really clever, but probably made me sound like a pretentious buffoon! But that doesn't mean I'm not going to grace you with them in this post.

My first exposure to the film was a five-minute extract in a Media Studies class (5 minutes because, whilst the other class got to watch and analyse whole films, we got to watch tiny extracts because that's what the exam was like. I'm pretty sure my class did better...) and I was immediately struck by all the tiny details all at once- the grey world Lester inhabits at work compared to the vivid brightness of Carolyn's roses, the colour of which perfectly matches their front door. I'm not going to lie, I thought (and still do) that Carolyn was completely insane- far more so than the clearly depressed Lester.

After a brief spell where I got confused between American Beauty and American Psycho (this actually did happen, but I think I realised my error very very early into the book), I finally saw the film in its entirety, and I was completely enamoured by the whole thing. I had very romantic allusions to falling in love and running away with a soulful, bullied drug dealer (I was pretty young), and to being as truly awesome as Janie becomes throughout the film.

 It's interesting how, when you re-read a book or re-watch a film, you have changed just enough to make the things you focus on different each time. This time, I felt far more focused on Carolyn than I ever have before (early viewings focusing almost entirely on Lester and what I at first perceived as his growing freedom, but now consider a mid-life crisis), and I didn't much like what I saw. I have always considered her a bit mental, but she also seems kind of cruel and extremely materialistic, and she has, as Lester points out, forgotten what is important in life. You have to wonder what motivates her, and what she is even trying to achieve anymore- whatever it is, she seems to try and get it at the expense of the feelings of her family.

My very favourite thing to point out about American Beauty is something that I have never actually seen written anywhere else before (although it may well have been, I'm not exactly a film reviewing expert) but it is this. Whenever Lester fantasises about Angela, Jane's friend, he sees her covered with rose petals (american beauty rose petals, at that) which I have always associated with Carolyn, so that, his desire for Angela is really a displaced desire for Carolyn, and the life he wishes they had together. Woo! Go me and my amazing analytical skills! Or not.

One thing that I have always noticed about the film is the sad desolation of Ricky Fitts' home. His mother is practically catatonic, and his father... well, his father is clearly insane, and it's hard to even feel sorry for him in his eleventh hour shocking gay confession, since we have already seen him beat his son up more than once. He's not a nice guy, although we can see some motivation for his actions in terms of trying to be as masculine as possible in order to conceal, even to himself, the dread and hatred he feels for who he actually is. This doesn't so much make me feel sorry for him as for Ricky though, who bears the worst of his father's self-hatred, and although he tries to see him as a damaged, vulnerable person, he eventually has to face the fact that he will never change, and that he has to get out, as soon as possible. The look on his face when he realises this is heartbreaking though, as are his parting words to his mother (Allison Janney!), "I wish things could have been better for you." I want to rescue that woman so badly.

I couldn't talk about American Beauty without mentioning the one thing that you can either find so pretentious or so beautiful about the film, potentially the moment that makes or breaks your opinion of it. The plastic bag. What I would say is that the plastic bag alone does not exactly fill my heart with joy, but Ricky's description of why he thinks it is so beautiful really does. His words, rather than the visual images make my heart soar with the consideration of how much beauty there truly is in the world, and also of how special Ricky truly is. He says that the images make him feel as though his heart is going to burst with how much beauty there is in the world, and he feels like he can't take it. This is how I feel about this film.


  1. I love this movie. There was a time when I was obsessed with it and would watch it several nights in a row.
    I think that both Lester and Carolyn are the same mid-life crisis but fixating on different types of people. I think they're trying to overcome their own mediocrity and while Lester fixates on a teenage girl, Carolyn fixates on an older man.
    I do feel sorry for the Ricky's father in a way, he finally steps outside his comfort zone and gets rejected, which leads to a further downward spiral. But overall, I really didn't like him. I felt so bad for his mother as well. She makes me the saddest of all. You really do want to rescue her.

  2. I love you for loving this movie! I can never feel too sorry for Colonel Fitz, because he's such a huge knob and I hate him, in a nutshell. But it's nice to be able to understand him that little bit more. I want to save Allison Janney so badly! Even though it was like 10 years ago, and she's fine in real life!