never in my life have i seen a movie that has left me with more to say while still not knowing if i the movie was worth seeing or to be avoided, yet that is exactly how i felt watching 'american beauty'.
i was in japan when it was released and winning all the oscars, so i didn't hear a lot about it for a while. in fact, i didn't know much, other than it was best picture, kevin spacey won for it, as did the great conrad hall, and that when i mentioned i wanted to see it, a friend of mine who is less scrutinous about movies than i am, said 'no, you don't want to see it; it's not a good movie.'
it was on tbs one night, and that's what the dvr is for.
but before i get into the complicated matter, let me rave about that which there is no debate: conrad hall is truly amazing. arguably the most talented and respected cinematographer in cinema history, i have often wondered how a movie that's about a suburban family would be so expertly photographed. as i write this, i notice a sort of personal irony, as his work in 'searching for bobby fischer' is one of my four most beautifully shot movies, and that work is enhanced by the movie's outwardly mundane story of a little boy playing chess. just a michelangelo reportedly was told that nothing good could be carved from the oddly-shaped block of marble that would produce 'david', constraints of our working environment often push us to excellence beyond what seems to be possible. in 'american beauty', nearly every scene, from start to finish, is wrapped in light and shadow in a way that does not distractingly draw attention to itself, but strengthens the whole of which it is a part. gymnasiums, living rooms, front yards and bedrooms, corportate offices and fast food drive-thrus, the back alley outside of a dinner party, all look like works of art created without effort, as if they were always beautiful but no one took time to notice them until the camera came. visually, suburban disfunctionality has never held more artistry.
that's the easy part.
but what about the movie itself?
watching it, i kept thinking to myself, 'turn it off.' it was unhappy, with no admirable characters. everyone seemed to be destroying their lives, often willingly and without any notable remorse. yes, there is a form of storytelling known as 'naturalism', based upon the supposition that a portrayal and exposure of evil will cause the viewer to inspect their own lives and erradicate the similar traits in their own lives. but the question should soon follow, 'does it work' and 'how much is too much?' has 'in the company of men' made us kinder to those around? did 'salo' solve all of the world's problems? is your family better now that you've seen 'american beauty'? this is a question for the individual, but from my observations on society, i do not subscribe to the theory of naturalism. one of 1999's other 'best actor' noms, richard farnsworth in 'the straight story', was more inspiring to change [and yes, i am aware of the ironic and tragic choices me made a few months later].
throughout much of the movie, i was asking myself what the director was trying to show. was i being encouraged to throw off the chains of corporate america, throw my anger in my boss's face, and buy a corvette? will i also 'rule' then? or was lester's [kevin spacey] irresponsibility of working at the fast food joint a morality lesson of what not to do? certainly, he seemed happy then. his wife, his daughter, her stalker-turned boyfriend, angela, the real estate king, none of them seemed to hold more than an ounce of decency. and we were here to watch almost everything.
i didn't really like being there.
everything was coming to a horrifying collision, with bad choices reacting with misunderstandings and indifference for responsibility. then, in the last 15 minutes, angela's confession to lester changed everything. everything.
suddenly, our protagonist's became clear again. in a manner very true to life, a quick realization can cause the illusionary phantoms of sin and tempation to disappear and we can see reality once again in clarity. the muddled gray lies disolve into bold contrast, and the wrong path and its consequences are exposed without glamor.
the lies and mists that he had been following were gone, and he saw again what was real, what was important, and what was actually happiness. and the movie had the strength and the boldness to say that 'family' is matters most.
in the fashion of a david lean epic, this should have been the intermission of the movie. there should have been another two hours of movie, or an 'american beauty vol. 2'. instead, the story gives us a tinge of hope then irreparably ends the story, and timidly bows out with a mediocre monologue.
yes, lester's closing monologue leaves us with a certain amount of hope and perhaps even resolution to appreciate what we have, but for all the gradiose skill of the movie, the story ends because no one knows how to tell the next half. we are very good at showing humanity decending to the depths of hell as we understand them; we can show misery, sorrow, pain, and agony very well and very honestly. but to show the redemption of a marriage is a story that hollywood genuinely does not know how to tell.
'american beauty' is about family, and the core of the family is lester and his wife. there are several movies about the fall and redemption of parent and child, or between siblings, but any story that primarily deals with boy+girl either ends with them getting together or them starting together and falling apart. no one knows how to tell the story of creating a strong and happy marriage. countless sports movies have told the stories of starting at the bottom and reaching the top, and we never seem to grow tired of them [and that's a good thing], thus showing that an interesting story does not have to glean conflict solely from denegration.
to my knowledge, the only movie that has successfully addressed this is 1927's 'sunrise'. 'jerry maguire' attempted but found he didn't really know what to say in the end.
would i recommend 'american beauty', or would i watch it again?
the technique and artistry of the movie are quite amazing, and there are websites that bring all sorts of insights [i didn't know that 'american beauty' was the kind of scentless rose displayed throughout the movie], and the movie has a good lesson at the end. but it was a lesson i already knew, and the filth and mess to wade through to get there is not worth it.