In 1999, in the months before and after I retired after 30 years as a teacher and lecturer, the film American Beauty was released around the world. Kevin Spacey stared as Lester Burnham, a middle-aged office worker who has a midlife crisis when he becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter's best friend. The film has been described by academics as a satire of American middle class notions of beauty and personal satisfaction; analysis has focused on the film's explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, self-liberation and redemption.
In this prose-poem I want to make some comments on the film drawing on my own life experiences, my own values and beliefs as well as James S. Spiegel’s article “The Theological Aesthetic of American Beauty,” in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 4, Summer 2003.
Most of the photography for the film took place between December 1998 and February 1999 in the weeks I was preparing to make my exit from the teaching profession, from working with more than 100 students a week and putting-in an average of 60 hours weekly to keep up with the preparation, presentation and marking. By the age of 55 I had had enough of the workaday world as well as enough of what seemed like an endless stream of family, community and social responsibilities filling up the remaining hours of the 168 hour that existed in each week. If I was lucky I got my 56 hours of sleep. The concept of free time, duty-free time, was something I tucked into the few hours that remained. I could hear myself saying: “Stop the world! I want to get off!” And so I did stop the world; I got off and retired; I took a sea-change to a small old town where the world could not get at me and where I could write, take part in a very small Bahá'í community and get my bipolar head together.
I could comment on this film’s, this director’s deliberate and composed style, his extensive use of static shots, slow pans and zooms to generate tension. I could comment as well on the cinematography, the peaceful shot compositions to contrast with the turbulent on-screen events. In film, the story is only one part of the final mix. The film was the best-reviewed American film of the year and grossed over $350 million worldwide. Reviewers praised most aspects of the production; criticism tended to focus on the familiarity of the characters and setting. The film had much Academy Award success. At the 2000 ceremony the film won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The film was nominated for and won many other awards and honours, mainly for the direction, writing and acting.—Ron Price with thanks to Wikipedia, 4 April 2010.
You can’t tell me this film does not raise
the question of the meaning of life, eh??
The hollow existence of the suburbs in &
around the 200 countries of the world???
Is it a mystery story, a kaleidoscopic trip,
a journey through American suburbia or
a series of love stories or was it about an
imprisonment, loneliness-type of beauty?
It was funny; it was angry, sad. It resisted
any one interpretation: portrait of a beauty
that underlies American miseries and its....
misdeeds; perhaps the film's true controller
was the creative energy that 100s of people
put into production, agreeing & disagreeing,
inserting and cutting and endless analysing.
For me: Lester's journey is the story's centre.
His sexual reawakening is the first of several
turning points as he begins to throw off the
responsibilities of the comfortable life he has
come to despise. He questions his numbingly
banal materialist daily existence & as he does
the audience is asked to lead more meaningful
lives as the film argues against conformity, but
does not deny that people need and want their
American Beauty satirizes American middle class
notions of meaning, satisfaction and beauty.
Lester's transformation only comes about because
of the possibility of sex and he therefore remains a
willing devotee of popular media exultation of
pubescent male sexuality as a route to a personal
wholeness. Carolyn, his wife, is driven by conventional
views of happiness; from her belief in a house beautiful,
domestic bliss and gardening outfit....... Her domain is a
fetching American millennial vision of Pleasantville and
the Garden of Eden.
The Burnhams are unaware that they are materialists
philosophically and devout consumers ethically who
expect the rudiments of American beauty to give them
happiness. They are helpless in the face of prettified
economic and sexual stereotypes that their culture has
designated for their salvation. Ricky is the visionary, a
spiritual and mystical centre. He sees beauty the minutiae
of everyday life, videoing as much as he can for fear of
missing it. He considers that the most beautiful thing he
has filmed is a plastic bag, tossing in the wind in front of
a wall. He says that in capturing the moment he realized
that there was an entire life behind things; there's so much
beauty in the world he can't take it and his heart will cave in.
Lester looks at a picture of his family in happier times and he
dies having had an epiphany that infuses him with wonder,
joy, and soul-shaking gratitude: he has finally seen the world
as it is. The audience is unprepared when Lester is shot and
his blood spatters on the wall and all those watching the film.
American Beauty defines its characters through their sexuality.
Lester's attempts to relive his youth are a direct result of his lust
for Angela and the state of his relationship with Carolyn is shown
through their lack of sexual contact. Sexually frustrated, Carolyn
has an affair that takes her from--cold perfectionist--to a carefree
soul who sings happily along with the music in her car. Yes, sex
is one of life’s big definers and it kept me busy for years but I am
no Lester Burnham. I did get caught in the jungle but I was able
to work my way out of the trees and down onto dry land—safely!
If I did not have my value, belief and attitude system I would have
got tangled in those trees and been eaten alive by insects & snakes.
4 April 2010
Updated for: The Attraction Forums
On: 7 July 2011