Movie Review: American Beauty

     To understand American Beauty we have to pay particular attention to the film tag line: ". . . look closer," a clue that we must explore the film much more discerningly to get its real meaning.

      The two dozen reviews of the film that I read missed the whole significance of the film, assuming that it was just an ordinary film that could be reviewed in the usual way by speaking of the actors, director, producers, and screenwriter. No way.

     It's reassuring when a movie like American Beauty appears, because it contains an unmistakable mystical strain: become attuned to the underlying spiritual elements in human life. Look closer and you'll begin to see "the miraculous in the mundane." interviewer: "[T]he tag line is, '...look closer.'"

Alan Ball (screenplay writer): "And when you first see the title you think, "American Beauty + rose," and then you see the movie and you think that Angela's the American Beauty--the blond cheerleader that is the secretive object of lust. But it's not Angela-- it's that plastic bag. It's the way of looking at the world and seeing what incredible beauty there is in the world. And I think that's something that we're born with that gets ironed out of us by our culture and by experience and by conformity. I think there's a part of everybody that yearns to get that back." interviewer: "There's something so simple and poetic about Ricky's encounter with the plastic bag that just keeps whirling in the breeze. You're not sure what it means, but the simple beauty of it has a profound effect. How did that come about? "

Alan Ball: "I had an encounter with a plastic bag! And I didn't have a video camera, like Ricky does. I'm sure some people would look at that and go, 'What a psycho!' But it was a very intense and very real moment. There's a Buddhist notion of the miraculous within the mundane, and I think we certainly live in a culture that encourages us not to look for that. I do like, though, that Ricky says, 'Video's a poor excuse, but it helps me remember.' Because it's not the video he's focused on; it's the experience itself. He's very connected to the world around him." [italics added]

      DreamWorks SKG released a mass of pictures and video clips of the movie, but didn't include a single shot of the plastic bag scene.

"The appreciation of beauty, in the sense of a surrender to its influence rather than a critical analysis, is another example . . . of a simple spiritual contact. . . . Beauty is a great and quiet teacher. But what I am asking here is that in your response to beauty you notice the difference between the out-going expanded feel of you, and the in-drawn close-huddled concentration of ordinary affairs."

Betty and Stewart Edward White. The Betty Book

     With movies containing a mystical ingredient, we often get no clue as to how the higher spiritual content gets through to the writer and thence into the movie itself. This is certainly true of movies such as Resurrection, The French Lieutenant's Woman and Being There. With American Beauty we're fortunate to have the screenplay writer's own words explaining how the inspiration occurred.
  • First, he had an "encounter with a plastic bag." In other words he had an epiphany in which the mystery of beauty revealed a mystical dimension hidden within the physical world.

  • Then he tells us that the actual writing of the screenplay was an experience of extraordinary disclosure.
    "I was working full-time as a co-executive producer on a network sitcom, so I was coming home at one in the morning and writing for two hours and going to sleep. I just got in the zone, and it seemed to have its own life and the characters seemed so real, and it was like channeling". [italics added]

     Because Ball was "receiving" the material from a higher source--which he refers to as channeling--even he is still discovering meanings in the screenplay.

". . . You have to have a deep and fundamental acceptance of mortality to really be able to see what's beautiful in life, because beauty and truth are inextricably connected. That's not a particularly original thought, but a lot of stuff in the script is really instinctive. I didn't think about what the purpose of it was, or that kind of thing. And now I find myself trying to second-guess what is symbolic of what, and what it means."

     Alan Ball's deep understanding of the movie's mystical meaning is heartwarming, especially coming as it does from the world of "cinematic entertainment" where we most often get screenwriters or directors telling us that they have no idea what the movie means, that we'll have to put in whatever meaning appeals to us. Ball says quite clearly that "the whole heart of the movie" is "Lester's journey and his realization."

"If there's any theme to this movie, it's that nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. That there is a life behind things and it's much more interesting and real than the veneer of reality that we all sort of tacitly agree to accept."

     I think it's necessary to see this film at least twice to experience the full impact of the screenplay. After seeing the movie the first time and beginning this review, some questions came into my mind:
  • Was the movie as multi-dimensional as I remembered it?      
  • Was I projecting something onto the film that wasn't there?

         The second viewing comfirmed that the movie was, indeed, as multi- dimensional as I had remembered and contained even more spiritual content than I had recalled.

         On the second viewing, you'll probably see lots of things you missed, such as the sign, "Look Closer" on Lester's desk.

         Also, when you first see the movie, you allow yourself to create a suspicion of Ricky, because all the usual clues are present:
    • he doesn't wear the mod style clothes that other high school students do--he dresses, as Angela say, "like a Bible salesman"

    • he doesn't have an ingratiating smile on his face all the time, trying to impress people

    • he admits to videotaping a dead woman and Jane and Angela find him videotaping a dead bird

    • he speaks with Jane about her desire to have her dad killed

    • he doesn't go for Angela, the classic Hollywood "American beauty," but for Jane

         With all these cues, we almost automatically put Ricky in the same category as the two whacked out brothers in Bob Roberts. We misinterpet Ricky as a kid psychologically damaged by a rigid, fascist Marine Corps dad.

         The second time we see the film we can (not necessarily will) see an entirely different film. Lester Burnham's journey and his realization are still the focal points.

    But now Ricky becomes Lester's "guide."
    • He turns Lester on to some primo mind-altering marijuana which brings about Lester's awakening.
  • He provides an example of how to come at life; Lester calls Ricky his "hero," when Ricky unemotionally tells his catering boss, "Then don't pay me." Talking with Lester was more important to Ricky than a paying job. This showed Lester how to view his own horrible job and the next day Lester turns in a devastatingly honest job description which results in his forcing his corrupt boss to pay him a sizeable termination bonus.

  • Lester begins to lead a life of his own choice.

    Lester: "I feel like I've been in a coma for about twenty years. And I'm just now waking up."

         Ricky now becomes a major focus of the film during our second viewing. interviewer: "Ricky is a drug dealer, but of all the characters he seems to be the most levelheaded and the most sure of who he is."

    Alan Ball: "He's certainly the most, I think, evolved. You look at Ricky and you look at what he's grown up in, the environment of repression and brutality, and it's amazing. What is it that kept him from becoming one of those kids who goes to school with a gun and just starts shooting? Something.... His ability to see the beauty in life is what kept him from just shutting down and becoming twisted and brutal. I think everybody has that ability, and we all make choices."
        Ricky : "So much beauty I can't take it. Like my heart's
        going to cave in."

         We'll be able to experience even more of the mystical strain of the movie when it comes out in video, for we can then play sections--such as the dancing plastic bag--by themselves as we meditate on their revelatory significance.

    Movies With Mystical Content

         The mystical content of a movie is embodied in the screenplay, in the direction and editing, or in the performances. At times, the screenplay is so demanding that the key parts must be played by exceptional actors for the spiritual dimensions to be disclosed. With American Beauty, Resurrection, and The French Lieutenant's Woman, the screenplay embodies the mystical content so thoroughly that it makes little difference which actors play the parts. Other accomplished actresses than Ellen Burstyn or Meryl Streep could have played the female parts of Edna McCauley and Sarah Woodruff/Anna to equal effect. And in American Beauty many actors other than Kevin Spacey or Annette Bening could have played the parts with fine results.

          In Being There, the screenplay is so demanding that very few actors could play the part of Chance the Gardener (Chauncy Gardner). Peter Sellers certainly got some of the meaning of the part, but Sellers was too ego-obsessed to uncover all the nuances of the character. The only contemporary actor who could reveal all the dimensions of the character--and make it believable--is Anthony Hopkins.

         The mystical last scene in Being There, with Chance walking on water, was entirely the creation of Hal Ashby, the director. He built a platform in the water and shot the scene in secret, so that the studio wouldn't shut him down.

          The mystical content of The French Lieutenant's Woman resides almost exclusively in the screenplay, but the script is so demanding that it requires a consumate actress to make the key scenes work effectively. When we plummet from the nineteenth century scarlet woman stumbling into her soon-to-be lover's arms into the twentieth century with the actress stumbling into her actor-lover's arms, it requires something more than ordinary acting to pull that off.

          In the case of Resurrection we have the opportunity to see firsthand that the mystical content resides in the original screenplay. The recent TV movie remake of the script revealed that writers and actors out of touch with the original spiritual dimension of the screenplay can produce nothing but a still-born perversion. The same kind of disfigurement took place when Marlo Thomas tried to produce a remake of the deeply mystical movie: It's A Wonderful Life.

    American Beauty, the Ending

         Lester's closing line of the movie is right on target in saying that many viewers of the film won't understand it. But it ends on the same mystical note in assuring us that someday we will understand the hidden dimensions the movie illustrates.

    ". . . All earth experiences are like the coloring used on the slides of a microscope to make you conscious of invisible things."

    Betty and Stewart Edward White. With Folded Wings

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