Saturday, May 16, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "AMERICAN BEAUTY"

AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)

Director: Sam Mendes
Screenplay: Alan Ball



There’s been a backlash in recent years towards “American Beauty,” one that’s simultaneously compounded on by both pop culture parody and by the film and filmmakers themselves. It was one of the earliest films released to not only win the Oscar but virtually sweep them, but it also came out the same year, 1999, that produced many of the most influential and creative films in recent years, including “Magnolia,” “Being John Malkovich,” “Three Kings,” and “Boys Don’t Cry,” but those films were either too controversial or unusual to draw mass appeal from the Academy. Alan Ball’s critique of Americann suburbia would be credited for creating a whole subgenre of films that looked inside the houses with white picket fences and found revealing human truths behind the facades. It might not have been possible for a “Desperate Housewives,” if not for “American Beauty,” although the film's critics will correctly note Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” and “Happiness,”  were earlier and I’d say on a different level, Atom Egoyan’s “Exotica,” and “The Sweet Hereafter,” could be looked at as films with similar themes. Yet, none of those films are both as sardonic as they are uplifting.  

Yet, they forget is how controversial this film was at the time. There hadn’t been a major studio release like it before, dealing with such subjects as marital infidelity, underage sex and nudity, drugs, homosexuality, human desires and human’s inability to control what they are. But more than that, it is a great film. This debut feature by British stage director Sam Mendes was not only a comedic satire on suburban life, but a dark and disturbing truth about the struggles of having to deal with the façade of adulthood and the repression of our deepest and truest desires, no matter how disgraceful, benevolent or superficial they might be. The film told us to look closer, and it taught us to do so, so well, that now we deconstruct the film too severely, and those who’ve grown up on it have now become immune to the shocking notions brought by this film, a film that once caused controversy from filmgoers that led all the way to the Supreme Court at one point. Part of this can be blamed on Alan Ball, the screenwriter who amazingly outdid himself on all of this subject matter by creating the HBO series “Six Feet Under,” and he’s even directed his own film “Towelhead.” Sam Mendes on top of more theatre would direct “Road to Perdition,” “Jarhead,” and his latest film critiquing suburbia, “Revolutionary Road” among others, most recently the James Bond film,  “Skyfall”. 

I’ve been debating with myself on whether or not to describe the plot or the story of “American Beauty,” here, but I don’t think I have to. It’s the quintessential mid-life rebellion, and Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning performance as Lester Burnham, along with all the characters from the film have been securely placed in our character archetypes. The career-driven wife and mother (Oscar-nominee Annette Bening) who values success in terms of money, the rebellious, insecure daughter, Jane (Thora Birch) with a better grasp on reality than the adults around her, her friend, the precocious wannabe (Mena Suvari) who desires attention more than love, the strange, artistic neighbor (Wes Bentley) who observes and records life and humanity without prejudice, and his career-military man father (Chris Cooper) who so sexually repressed, he’s unable to form legitimate contact with the outside world and must resort to natural instinct when his territory is threatened. At some moment, halfway through the film, and I’ve never quite been able to tell exactly when, legendary cinematographer Conrad L. Hall switches the color focus from dull grey to rose red, somewhere after Lester has made his choice to live his life the way he wants to, and stop being the desperate househusband in the greeting card image. But somehow, his death is one of the happiest in film history, bright red and bloody, he has achieved happiness in life, and remains happy in death, something the other characters might never fully understand, although Lester gladly tells us that someday we will.

In the meantime, “American Beauty,” is as perfect a film as ever, a debut as audacious as Mike Nichols’s  “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” or Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” while remaining as iconic, funny and heart-wrenchingingly truthful. Those critics need to heed to the film’s own advice, and look closer, with “American Beauty,” there’s always something more.  
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