Hello, loyal readers, and welcome back to the movie theatre concession stand of the Internet, where you can hear brief plot recaps of and under informed opinions about movies that you can’t believe people paid money to see while experiencing the feeling that you’re wasting precious time between the good parts of life in exchange for something that is sometimes, slightly enjoyable but completely without substance. In this tortured metaphor my ramblings about movies are both the conversations you overhear from annoyingly loud talkers in the line who are on bad dates and the junk food; my writing gets to be two things because I have an overblown opinion of myself, as conveyed in the previous, loving description of my blog. This week, we are not going to talk about a John Hughes movie (if you have a problem with that you can go start your own blog; me, I don’t enjoy them), but we are going to have a discussion that is inspired by John Hughes movies…if that makes any sense.
For those of you who don’t know, John Hughes was a film writer/director who was most prominent in the 1980s (in the US, I should clarify) and whose aesthetic and thematic choices, for many people, defined a generation of cinema. He is probably best known for the movies Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club; nobody seems to know that he was also behind the Home Alone series, but maybe that’s for the best. While his movies have pretty wildly different plots, they do seem to share certain subject matter and concepts (like that they’re all garbage; hey-yo!). John Hughes movies are typically about teenagers and tackle things that would be important to teenagers in a way that somewhat implies that they should be important to everyone else as well; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about a high school student feigning illness so as to cut class (I’m sure many of us can remember similar episodes from our youth), but what he does instead of going to school can only be described as a wacky adventure that has him leading a choreographed dance in the streets of Chicago to a really mediocre rendition of Twist and Shout while narrowly evading his principle at every turn, and then his friend Cameron’s dramatic arc climaxes on a very serious note when he destroys his father’s 1961 Ferrari out of pent up frustration. The angst of feeling that your parents prize certain possessions over you can certainly be painful and the rush of getting away with something can, to a child, provide a dizzying high, but in this film those things are almost hyperbolic. The Breakfast Club is the story of a misfit group of teenagers who come together during their Saturday morning detention and become surprisingly close while working through their issues; again, being given detention is treated as the same experience as that of a political prisoner under a brutal dictator rather than, you know, kind of annoying.
Pretty in Pink is the story of…how Molly Ringwald likes to wear pink, I guess; I didn’t see that one, but I imagine she is attractive in many colors. The point is that these are all movies about teenagers presented in an overly dramatic, overly dignified way; when Ferris Bueller cuts class, he doesn’t do it the way that Bart Simpson might, the comedy doesn’t come from how childish and scamp-like he is, his methods for doing so are incredibly elaborate and well engineered and his plans for his day off are huge. The comedy, and furthermore the drama in each of these films is drawn from how real and how important these events seem to each of the characters, it’s almost as though John Hughes is reliving moments from his youth blown up to the scale of a major Hollywood production, and in doing so he grants himself and, by proxy, other young people a dignity and a strength in their struggles. I think the movie we’re going to discuss this week is the antithesis of a John Hughes movies, that it says to young people “there is not a strength or a dignity in your position and things are not going to be ok, but that’s mostly because you are going to grow up to be an adult who has overcome neither these inner and outer obstacles nor these flaws that you are currently facing.” That film, incidentally is American Beauty, a 1999 drama written by Alan Ball and starring Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a suburban husband and father going through a mid-life crisis around which all of the rest of the story threads revolve. It’s been called a critique of the American, suburban middle class, it’s been called a critique of materialism, those are all fine (I occasionally permit others to have their own opinions, but strongly discourage it as it leads to thoughtcrime), but I rather view it as a rebuttal to the notion that we grow out of our flaws or even grow up much at all.
I guess it’s time for a recap, but this week’s recap will be EXTREMELY abbreviated; there is a lot of shit going on in this motherfucking classic masterpiece of cinema and I don’t want to get bogged down in the details because this movie balances an incredible number of complex characters, arcs and plot points and how can I, a mere mortal be expected to adequately recap two hours of such thick script in a concise paragraph? And furthermore, WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS HOLDING ME TO THE STANDARD OF GENIUS FILMMAKERS?!?! Wah!!!! Alright, enough of that: the Burnhams are a suburban, middle class family in 1990s America (back when movies could ask probing, troubling questions about whether or not we could ever be personally happy even as our surroundings became nearly idyllic, before 9/11 came and fucked that all up by forcing us to ask probing, troubling questions about the overreach of government and the justness of war; fucking terrorists) made up of two horribly flawed parents (Lester and Carolyn, for those keeping track at home) in a dysfunctional marriage and one awkward, teenaged daughter Jane. Lester develops a really unhealthy but surprisingly consuming crush on Jane’s friend, Angela that serves as a catalytic spark triggering his midlife crisis, which leads him to quit his job, seek out another job with no responsibility and spend his days working out and smoking weed that he buys from his teenaged neighbor, Ricky (played by Wes Bentley in what has to be the defining role of Wes Bentley’s career; he’s so motherfucking compelling in this). Again, being very concise: Ricky’s father (played by Chris Cooper, not to be confused with the evil lawyer from Puncture), here just called “The Colonel”, finds out that Ricky has been selling drugs to Lester buuuuuuuuuut that’s not what he thinks he’s found out. No, because this movie could serve as an argument about the process of film making (we’ll get to that in a future installment, there’s no time now), The Colonel thinks that he’s discovered that his son is in a gay relationship with Lester, which leads him to (again, being CONCISE) kill Lester and thus end the movie.
I feel like I’ve just absolutely butchered the story of this film to fit it into the allotted space, but if you want to know 100% of the plot details you should go and watch the movie yourself. Actually, I highly recommend that everybody reading this go and watch it right now, it will help with the ensuing discussion and even if it wouldn’t, the film is quite excellent. This time that’s not just my opinion, it won five oscars including Best Picture. But back to the discussion at hand: American Beauty does rather the opposite of a John Hughes movie; where the latter might glorify a teenaged perspective on the world for the purposes of a gratifying a younger audience, the former tears down the characteristics of youth so as to poke uncomfortably at an adult audience. There are two major ways the movie accomplishes this: first, by attacking romantic relationships as we understand and portray them, and secondly by attacking the notion of rebellion as brought to us in movies.
There are three romantic relationships the film follows, well four if you count those that are emotionally dead and hollow :-). Up front there is the Burnham’s marriage (that is, the relationship between Lester and Carolyn), which we are invited to discount from a romantic perspective because it’s in a state of utter ruin as the curtain opens, but it does draw interesting comparisons to the interactions between an overbearing mother and a troubled teenager that we’ll come back to later. For now, suffice it to say they pretty much to hate each other and move on to the more uncomfortable examples; as a result of the sorry (and mutually antagonistic) state of their marriage, Carolyn has an affair with a fellow real estate agent (did I mention that Carolyn’s a real estate agent? No, I didn’t, because this movie has so much plot and Tommy Wiseau doesn’t write this blog!) who is played by the bad guy from Mr. Deeds and is thus an utterly repulsive human being. Why then, does a woman as fine as Annette Bening stoop to his level? Let’s rewind the clock a little bit to high school (ok, a lotta bit for some of us; gosh I’m old): it’s a common trope at least in movies (and I think in real life, but I don’t know much about teenaged girls if I’m honest and I knew even less about them in high school) for young girls to be attracted to boys with some social status or other marking of success; boys who have cars, maybe boys who are good at sports, hell if the The Simpsons is anything to by (and for media tropes it most certainly is) even boys who are really good at debate club (for girls who are in debate club and thus value that), these are all indicators of social value that girls might respond to (possibly due to social conditioning, but fuck there isn’t time to really dig into this).
Ok, how does that relate to American Beauty? Well, the thing that Carolyn seems to find so attractive about the man whose eyebrows are about to crawl off of his face and come over and chew your eyeballs out (the actor’s name is Peter Gallagher, go look him up) is that he’s really good at real estate (the “real estate ki”–kkkglrk, sorry, I threw up in the middle of thinking about what this fucker calls himself, let’s try that again…the “real estate ki…deep breaths…king”), which is a thing that she clearly values, not only because she does it for a living but also thanks to some psychological damage that we’re shown early on during a montage of her failing to sell a house that clues us into the fact that she judges her self-worth by her ability to sell real estate. So he’s got some highly subjective, highly personalized measure of social value according to Carolyn’s incredibly specific and poorly judged metric for men, and this is sufficient to lead to their affair. It’s kind of pathetic, but that’s kind of the point: she has a romantic leaning left over from her youth, a childish taste that she never quite grew out of, strong enough to compromise her marriage. She is still making decisions about who to have sex with the way she did when she was an uneducated, unworldly high schooler, and it’s exactly as dumb now as it was then.
Lester also pursues an affair, but his is more of a slow burn and thus consumes more of the movie’s running time (largely because it drives more of the plot), but his is with a high school cheerleader roughly his daughter’s age. Trying to sleep with someone your daughter’s age is ALWAYS creepy, doing that when your daughter is a minor, on the other hand, is illegal to boot! Alright, I want to address something here: a lot of people took this subplot, combined with Lester being a somewhat sympathetic antihero to mean that the movie condones pedophilia, or at least asks us to empathize with and understand a pedophile. I disagree, I think the point is actually that we’re supposed to be disgusted, we’re supposed to think Lester is pathetic, I think we’re even supposed to think the movie is calling us dirty names. The film doesn’t condone pedophilia, it’s about pedophilia. A little bit. So, Lester falls kind of hard for Angela, and it leads him to have these elaborate fantasy sequences that befit a much more serious, much more aspirational romance; but it’s not serious, it’s not aspirational, it’s pathetic and gross at best and at worst is something that starts with “statutory”, so what gives? Well, remember how we rolled back the clock on Carolyn and speculated about what kind of boy she might have found attractive in high school? Let’s give Lester the same treatment, only it isn’t as sophisticated to come to a conclusion: a 17 year old boy is (at least in media, but also sometimes in real life) attracted to blond 16, 17 and 18 year old girls (I don’t want to discount gay people and the movie certainly doesn’t either but we’re talking about Lester right now) whose bodies follow a particular pattern of curves if you follow me.
It logically follows that grown up Lester would, as we’ve discussed, by and large not have grown out of that, and to some extent (as Lester is standing in for the everyman in this film) neither has the rest of adult, 90s society; the film seems to say “you, yes you, the 20 to 60 year old men in the audience watching this film; as far as we have observed you seem to like this kind of woman: slender, blonde, curvy, flirtatious, long haired….and 16! You creepy bastard!” And we in the audience snap awake and go “what? No! You got it all wrong! I mean the other stuff, yeah, but I’m not into children!” Then the movie would go “oh really? There isn’t an entire industry selling products to women to make their skin softer like it was when they were 16? Or dying their hair to be more vibrantly colored, like it was when they were 16? There isn’t an ocean of pornographic material featuring women cosplaying high school students? Hmmmm?” And we went “uhhhh, can we get back to you?” Anyway, shifting from the movie calling the audience on its creepy bullshit and back to something slightly less uncomfortable: the character, Lester, just like his wife, finds the same things attractive now as he did when he was in high school…the EXACT same things…et-hem. I genuinely felt that Carolyn’s torrid affair was off-putting and pathetic, but I have to admit that it absolutely pales in comparison to Lester’s. Holy shit this made me squirm around in my theater seat…which is what I call my couch. So that’s point two in this movie’s scathing review of adult romance, but you’ll be happy to hear that while the third point is no less childish it is less awful, destructive and distressing.
See the third relationship is actually between two children, so it can be forgiven for being childish and with that in mind the whole thing comes across as kind of heart-warming. However, great care is taken that this romance is never not seen as naive. What am I on about? Right, Jane and Ricky, two unlikely yet obvious lovebirds. This relationship is built less on people making dumb choices and more on two people whose damage each complements the other. Jane has low self esteem; early in the movie we learn that she’s saving up for a breast enhancement, she’s less conventionally attractive than Angela but the two have developed a friendship that seems to exist solely to make the former feel worse about herself while the latter feels better. She is down on herself in a very classic sense. Ricky is…awkward to say the least; he’s new in the school district, doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t seem to have ever had any, rumors swirl immediately that he was previously hospitalized for his insanity and that he is dangerous. All of this means that Ricky is alone most of the time, a sad fact from which he chooses to distract himself with the aid of a camcorder that he takes absolutely everywhere; see, he’s got a rather unique visual sense of the world (one of the many reasons that this movie could be about movies, but I digress) and he makes a habit of seeing a kind of beauty in absolutely everything. Are you starting to see how these two awkward teenagers fall together yet? What Jane needs is someone to see her as genuinely beautiful, and to communicate that to her as clearly as possible. This, Ricky is uniquely equipped to do.
What Ricky needs is a little less Saturday-morning-children’s-show, but it’s still pretty straightforward; see, just as Ricky can see the beauty in other things that other people can’t, he needs somebody to see the…him in him. He’s a bit closed up due to years of emotional neglect and physical abuse, and he’s been narrowed down until he can only experience the world in this one very specific way, but it scares others away. He needs someone who can see through the weirdness of his camera and understand that there is a person behind it trying desperately to connect, and to reach back in turn into his world. After spending some time with him, especially a very particular, now famous scene in which he describes a 15 minute recording of a trash bag blowing in the wind as beautiful using this really poetic language and comes to tears over it, Jane figures it out; by the way, that speech that Wes Bentley delivers (which he does with the utmost sincerity and gusto because he’s a great actor) is just ninth-grade-poetry-by-an-angsty-teen awful, but it works because it’s supposed to seem so childish and stupid even though it’s very important that Ricky means every word of it. Anyway, Jane cracks the code of the neighbor boy, figures out what she needs to do to reach him and does it in a really touching but kind of odd scene wherein she stands at her bedroom window, opposite his, and strips for him as he records it with his camera. Ok, it’s a really stupid thing, especially in the digital age where the internet exists, and all of this is technically illegal, and Ricky’s inability to interact with the world normally is ultimately unhealthy and childish, but…dammit, it’s just so unironically beautiful. Jane has determined what it takes to really get into Ricky’s world, and it’s silly but she’s willing to do it anyway and (as the movie seems to be shouting at you) what is that if not real love?
So that’s point three in the movie’s thesis that romantic love in the modern, adult world is somewhat fucked: it lays down this third romance next to the other two and says “yeah, it’s stupid and it’s childish, but what makes it any less meaningful or real than the other two? What is grown up about two affairs based on bad judgement and poor impulse control? They’re all dumb and ugly, at least this one has heart!” Damn right it does, movie! Et-hem. Moving swiftly onto the second major bullet point in this movie’s thesis: similarly to the romantic arcs, American Beauty also presents two “fight the power” narrative arcs and it does basically the same thing with them as it did with the love stories. Firstly, remember how I said it was important that Carolyn’s relationship to Lester is less “devoted lover” and more “ball busting mother from Malcom In The Middle”? See, they’re going somewhere with that (they damned well better be, because it gets old real fast); when Lester starts his mid-life crisis, its beginning is marked with simple acts of rebellion that eventually balloon into larger acts of rebellion. At first, they are reasonably cathartic and we can kind of get on Lester’s side (so as to be lured into a trap): his wife scolds him for masturbating, to which he replies, basically, that he can jerk if it he wants to! Ok, probably not going to end up on any picket signs in the near future, but sure, the freedom to masturbate is basically step number one on the road to owning your own sexuality and yourself. Fine.
Next, Lester quits his awful job and blackmails his boss out of a year’s salary in the process, which feels really good both for him and the audience because of an earlier scene wherein we learn that Lester’s bosses are assholes and his job is degrading. Ok, I’m still on board. Then comes an overt stand against his wife: at dinner, during a heated argument, Lester stands up and throws his plate against the wall, shattering it to pieces and shocking his horrible wife into blissful silence. In any other movie, this would be a stand-up-and-cheer kind of moment, marking the beginning of Lester’s victory over himself and his oppressors…but this isn’t other movies, now is it? In fact, it quickly occurs to the viewer that if we tilted our perspective a little bit this would cease to look like a moment of empowerment and begin to look like an angry child throwing a temper tantrums; ok, so the camera doesn’t zoom out, tilt and shift perspectives to illuminate that point for us, so maybe we’re supposed to still be on board with Lester thus far, but they at least crack the foundation of our support for our thus-far-hero by holding the shocked silence for a few seconds before resuming the angry shouting emanating from Carolyn as if to say “Nope! That’s not how that works in real life!” The rest of Lester’s rebellion comes in the form of his taking a low-paying job so as to shrug off responsibility and spending his large amount of free time working out and smoking weed in the garage. Not exactly a Malcolm X style vision of post rebellion enlightenment but whatever, the man is living out his nostalgic ideal…oh wait, that might have been the point, mightn’t it? Alright, let’s segue into Carolyn’s arc.
See Carolyn, as previously mentioned, is indulging in a…et-hem…steamy romance (oh god, it’s still the guy from Mr. Deeds, right? Do that guy’s eyebrows bother anybody else?) outside of her marriage and while we’re never led to hold her feet to the fire too much for cheating on a husband who doesn’t really seem to care much when he does find out, she is objectively doing a bad thing. When Lester does discover the two, he takes the whole thing gracefully and his major conclusion from it is that he doesn’t have to listen to his wife anymore, but Carolyn’s…hot piece on the side…ugh…decides he can’t risk their affair becoming public knowledge and breaks it off. She’s heartbroken but if you’re having trouble feeling bad for her, that’s kind of the point: she’s not entitled to shit, here, she did a bad thing, she got caught, and now as a consequence she can’t continue to cheat on her husband. Boo-fucking-hoo, right? Well she convinces herself that she deserved that relationship and that Lester ruined it for her, that he has wronged her and now she has to seek justice. She psychs herself up with some self-help tapes, chanting something about taking control of her life, and resolves to go shoot and kill her husband. This is, as far as I can tell, the film’s way of replaying the earlier plate-breaking scene but with the camera pulled back and watching from a different perspective and thus the curtain is pulled back to reveal, *dramatic drumroll*, Lester is not an empowered rebel, he is a naive, spoiled child who is lashing out in an inglorious, unsophisticated temper tantrum that threatens to destroy his family and their livelihood. He has, as we the audience might have, confused that for taking control of his life, just as his wife is now making a similar bad, naive decision out of entitled frustration that threatens to destroy their family.
It’s hard to do with this what I did with Lester’s attraction to children and tie it back to a larger, disgusting, social trend, but there is something to be said (for the 50th time on this blog) about how many large and small social movements of the 80s and 90s seem to have revolved around traditional American power structures seeking to “take back” some implicit birthright to run society, and how they usually seem to boil down to “I’m sick of having to share mainstream consideration with people of color, feminists and the LGBT community, I want it all to myself again.” But I may be stretching to connect American Beauty to groups like the Reagan administration or the Tea Party; I accept that I do that sometimes. Nonetheless, there does seem to be some degree of thought in this film that wants you, the next time you see a group in the throes of what they perceive to be a righteous revolution of some sort, to consider that Lester Burnham probably thought of himself in the same way as he destroyed his family on his quest to sleep with a 16 year old. Man, I hate to end on such a downer; I guess I can emphasize what I said earlier: this movie rocks and you should go and watch it immediately if you have not done so already. I can also say that, despite all of the heavy handed social criticism this movie has to offer, it has moments of real, undeniable beauty in it and its ending (which I won’t spoil no matter how much it would add to this discussion) is still one of my favorite, unironically hopeful endings in movie history. Goodnight, friends!