Look Closer
September 9, 2014 7:24 AM   Subscribe

A lot of the world’s most powerful people look like Lester Burnham: white, male, middle-aged, well off, and bored to death. There are Lester Burnhams in public office, in the Supreme Court, at billion dollar corporations, at record labels and movie studios. These people in power aren’t happy, and this movie gives them what must be a very comforting message: let go of your responsibility, but not your power. Don’t worry about what the world will look like after you die. You’ll be happy if you help yourself — not the people who need you.
Fifteen Years Later, 'American Beauty' is Just a Bad, Pretty Movie
posted by almostmanda (222 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
Actually, it was a bad movie fifteen years ago, too.
posted by entropicamericana at 7:31 AM on September 9, 2014 [68 favorites]


Cool, now I don't have to watch the movie. I'd probably hate it. Thanks!
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:34 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember liking the movie a lot when I saw it. But then again, this author doesn't like Forrest Gump, either, so I don't really respect that.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:35 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]




Kevin Spacey has the same sort of gift that Bill Macy does where he can play either pathetic or completely dominant in equal measure, and have it make sense, the major differences being that Macy is simply a much better actor than Spacey (and better than almost everyone, really) and that Spacey's upper-hand portrayals are all the same smug bullshit, while his pathetic performances actually get into some interesting depth. Too bad he's pretty much all smug ever since American Beauty.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:36 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


This is a nice find, thank you for posting it.

Heh:

"Lester is the same exploitative, violent, manipulative abuser as his namesake, but he comes in a different package. This time, Humbert Humbert is an idealistic baby boomer."

Annette Bening is incredible in it - and there are other good things that the writer acknowledges:

"Sam Mendes’ direction is exquisite, the cinematography is elegant and ingenious, and it’s filled with strong performances from some of the best actors of our time. There are plenty of worse movies than American Beauty in the world. But I could not have picked a worse film to fall in love with as a 16-year-old girl."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:37 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I'l save the thread some time: A lot of people also don't like Crash.
posted by belarius at 7:37 AM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


Hated, hated, hated that movie.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


Wow, I don't think I've ever read Kevin Spacey compared to Bill Macy before. Nor Bill Macy given the better part of the comparison.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:40 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Just because you don't like the message or worldview or context of a piece of art doesn't mean it's bad art.

Wild Wild West is a bad movie. American Beauty is a great movie that says some things that don't sound all that complimentary from today's perspective.
posted by Naberius at 7:41 AM on September 9, 2014 [39 favorites]


The "better written movie" that the author imagines, in which everyone is a suspect, is, in fact, the last act of the original script. From what I hear.
posted by maxsparber at 7:45 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't quite understand this. It's been some time since I've seen the movie, but it was certainly not my impression that the viewer was intended to sympathize with Lester in any way. If there's a lesson to take from the movie, in my mind, it's Lester admiring the picture of his family in happier times right before he's shot--his ludicrous, childish behavior has been gratifying to him to in the short term, but it's alienated him from his wife and daughter, who he realizes far, far too late that he actually loves. Really, he's a little like Walt from Breaking Bad. You start out cheering for his misbehavior because you only see his point of view. But the more you understand about the character and his world, the more his deep and utter villainy becomes apparent.
posted by kjh at 7:49 AM on September 9, 2014 [72 favorites]


roomthreeseventeen: "But then again, this author doesn't like Forrest Gump, either, so I don't really respect that."

Forrest Gump was a good book. Lousy movie.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:50 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


A lot of Breaking Bad fans didn't get the memo on Walt, either.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:51 AM on September 9, 2014 [42 favorites]


...Wild Wild West is a bad movie...

No the hell.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:52 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


One of my favorite entries in Videogum's (RIP) late, great The Hunt for the Worst Movie of All Time series was on American Beauty. I especially like the immediate characterization of the film as manfestly pre-9/11.
posted by youarenothere at 7:52 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


roomthreeseventeen: "But then again, this author doesn't like Forrest Gump, either, so I don't really respect that."

I was going to point out this MetaFilter thread where everyone and their brother points out all of that movie's flaws, and then I realized that you were already in there defending it, so ...

... so anyway this article is by Sarah Fonder and that Gump article is by Lindy West. I thought you were intimating they'd been written by the same person. Did I miss where Fonder bashes Gump? I'd like to read that.
posted by komara at 7:53 AM on September 9, 2014


A lot of the world’s most powerful people look like Lester Burnham: white, male, middle-aged, well off, and bored to death. There are Lester Burnhams in public office, in the Supreme Court, at billion dollar corporations, at record labels and movie studios. These people in power aren’t happy, and this movie gives them what must be a very comforting message: let go of your responsibility, but not your power. Don’t worry about what the world will look like after you die. You’ll be happy if you help yourself — not the people who need you.

I recall right wing columnists offering precisely that criticism while it was still in the theaters.
posted by ocschwar at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I loved "American Beauty". I saw it 3 times in theaters, and a couple of times on DVD. Chris Cooper is stellar, and the rest of the supporting cast does a damn good job. Lester isn't good, and that's part of the point. Does he redeem himself by the end? Is it enough? Would it have stuck if he had survived? It may not be the deepest movie ever, but it does at least have some interesting questions to ask.
posted by Ambient Echo at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


Wild Wild West is a bad movie.

No...
posted by deathmaven at 7:54 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Whups, shoulda read the article before posting; sorry for the repeat info!)
posted by youarenothere at 7:55 AM on September 9, 2014


You know honestly I would rather watch Wild Wild West again than American Beauty. I will admit the latter is a better constructed film. But wild wild west has a mecha spider!

But anyway, American Beauty is caught up in the common late 20th century delusion that the ennui of the white male is the world's most interesting drama. It does seem a tiny bit unfair to single it out as the last hurrah of this phenomenon.
posted by selfnoise at 7:55 AM on September 9, 2014 [29 favorites]


Naberius: "Wild Wild West is a bad movie"

them's fightin' words
posted by chavenet at 7:56 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


I was only able to watch the film in the theater once. I have the DVD but have not been able to bring myself to watch it again, not out of dislike, but out of the strong emotions it aroused.

When I drove home from the film, I didn't take a message with me like "seduce Thora Birch if she's around," but rather "you've spent a lot of time being an obedient little robot and doing what you've been told, by people who give no shits about how you feel. Precisely how happy has this made you?"

Lester chooses to do something, anything, even something which isn't all that helpful to his predicament, rather than simply grind along until he wears out, having a very convenient heart attack at age fifty-five or the like. Put him in a box and everyone's done. That's that. Who's for coffee?

Life can be somewhat dreadful even if you're a good little do-bee and follow the rules. What happens then is still up to you.
posted by adipocere at 7:56 AM on September 9, 2014 [23 favorites]


them's fightin' words

Some matters are best resolved tarantula-a-tarantula.
posted by ocschwar at 7:57 AM on September 9, 2014


Breaking Bad is also childish wish-fulfillment by powerless-feeling white men.
>>>>>>>BOOYA! Truth bomb dropped WITH BADASS CHEMISTRY NOWLEDGE I walk out of the thread in slomo + put on my black hat/stunner shades like WHOA IM THE COOL DUDE WHO KNOCKS ACTUALLY

(i'm just joshing, WW is often portrayed as ridiculous or outright malicious in his anti-heroism on BB, but some people's reactions to the show do miss that.) (I don't think there's anything like that in American Beauty--Lester is utterly supposed to be the hero and you are supposed to sympathize with his plight and cheer his cool dude transformation.)(But both the TV show and this movie are fantasies. BB just examines the fantasy and explores whether its worth it--AB mostly just cries at its own overwrought passionface)
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:59 AM on September 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


Well it depends on what you think the purpose of art is. If the purpose of art is to be technically competent at achieving any massage at all, then sure, the message is irrelevant. If the skill involved in art is ABOUT supporting a message that does something valuable for humanity, than no not all technically competent art has succeeded. Art that entertains but reinforces harmful social messages could take us backwards in human welfare and experience all the while we celebrate it's doing because it seduced us into enjoying the ride.

I watched this movie when I was also about 16. And I was with a really creepy older guy who had given me a cracker... a special cracker. We brought another cracker to our friend in some cellophane, telling her it was a special cracker, and she ate it. Then I walked up to her paused TV and stuck my face a few inches from it, stared at it in awe and said, "wooooaaah".

Our friend then said.... "Oh... are you guys... OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHH". So then watching that movie, in a similarly creepy situation where I was being exploited, I just wished the outcome of my situation had been the same.

I think it's probably quite necessary for this article to have been written for those us who watched this at an impressionable age and did not see the villainy involved at all. I thought, well of course all guys want to violate young vulnerable people, he's such a hero for not doing it! The very idea that people could actually cultivate a relationship with their sexuality and desires that involves building respect and love for human beings beyond the vulnerability and beauty of youth had not occurred to me at the time, and despite that I long for a world where such values take over-- it does not seem clear to me that most people would see this Lester character as a villain or predator at all. Many in our culture seem to think barely legal porn, the sexualizing of youth for adult entertainment in many other ways- is a perfectly understandable activity for middle aged or older adults.

I think the movie brought up problems, it brought up concepts worth exploring, but it didn't bring any real ideas on moving forward, other than, yeah the whole ending which to me sounds a lot like "let go of this reality because who cares, just move beyond it and like die or something! Don't be so attached to the material world" and I would like to see the social response carry that line of thinking forward beyond the conclusion the movie seemed to carry to me (though I know it seems to have generated a different feel to others). It seemed like the movie brought up all this stuff that could have been chewed on and processed and turned into fuel to increase empathy and understanding of ourselves and each other but then sort of copped out with "death isn't so bad so who cares about this world!" Which is a crummy bullshit out. If there's no afterlife then death is no solution, and if their is an after life, it still matters what sort of suffering you put people through in this life.
posted by xarnop at 7:59 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Metafilter: Hated, hated, hated that movie.
posted by vapidave at 8:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


I never did get the point of the plastic bag in that movie, although I did love the line "There's a whole subculture of people who collect this Nazi shit."
posted by Nevin at 8:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


I like that thing people do on the Internet where they take something generally liked 20 years ago and tell us how bad it was.

I look forward to the article in 2033 entitled "You liked Breaking Bad and The Wire? Haha you are so very very stupid. let me tell you whey they are the dumbest things ever."
posted by bondcliff at 8:02 AM on September 9, 2014 [53 favorites]


Well it depends on what you think the purpose of art is.

Why does art have to have a "purpose?" Can't it just be?
posted by dersins at 8:03 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Even at the tender age at which I saw this movie I thought "I think a lot of the humor that should be inherit in this story is being drained away in favor of portentousness and shockingly obvious visual metaphors."

Oddly I feel the same way about House Of Cards (US)
posted by The Whelk at 8:03 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was 17 or 18 when this movie came out, and I really enjoyed it when I saw it. I remember it left me feeling justified in my cynical view of the trappings of suburban life, including materialism, and maybe the fallibility of adults in general. I definitely did not see Lester as a sympathetic character. It was clear to me that he was portrayed as selfish, immature, and manipulative. Further, the film is definitely not an instruction manual for how to successfully cope with the sudden realization of mortality or the feeling of being trapped in your situation. Since it came out within a year of Fight Club (another fun film to regard 16 years later), I kind of tie the two in my head as helping form my world view at the time, for what it's worth. But neither movie has a character I want to emulate, or with whom I totally agree. They're just movies.
posted by onehalfjunco at 8:05 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


Man, she should never see Happiness, a critically acclaimed (if divisive) film that came a year before and one I consider one of the absolute best of the 1990s which follows some similar themes.
posted by tittergrrl at 8:06 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


Not sure who Lester is, but 15 years later the "plastic bag caught in the wind" was so stupidly saccharine, I still keel over in embarrassment thinking about it.

The whole movie is pretty middle-brow, made even worse by beating you over and over in an attempt to convince you what's unfolding/undressing is somehow immersed in art. No, really, look - here's a plastic bag. With meaning. Look at it!
posted by four panels at 8:07 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Of course art can "just be" but when people are defining something as good or not good, it would matter on what criteria they define good. I define good as encompassing the spirit of compassion for all sensing beings, particularly those with higher levels of consciousness or awareness and that advance the welfare and connectedness and understanding between us. It's a flexible definition, but art that is "good" would have something to do with that, so again, it depends on how to define "good" art.
posted by xarnop at 8:08 AM on September 9, 2014


I was a teenager when the movie came out and remember thinking it was self-congratulatory, masturbatory crap about how hard it was to be rich and white and live a comfortable suburban life when all you want to do is bang hot jailbait. It seemed like the same self-congratulatory, masturbatory nonsense Hollywood had been churning out regularly since the late 60's.

As an adult, I can appreciate how very right I was in that assessment.
posted by bgal81 at 8:08 AM on September 9, 2014 [16 favorites]


I have never understood either the hate or the love for this movie. It said a few true things that had been said better elsewhere, put an artistic gloss on a gross pedophilic situation, and attempted an ironic ending that was really just meaningless and contradicted the weirdly feel-goody narration by the protagonist's ghost.

"Artsy" but not "art." I guess I just shrug in the face of it, rather than feel offense.

I mean, 90% of all movies, books and music deal with the angst of white dudes, often wealthy, often-middle-aged and obsessed with younger women. Nothing new to see here.
posted by emjaybee at 8:08 AM on September 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


I never did get the point of the plastic bag in that movie

That scene is the only scene in the entire movie that's worthwhile. It made me cry. But then again, I had done ecstasy the night before seeing the movie..
posted by empath at 8:10 AM on September 9, 2014 [18 favorites]


I don't actually hate the movie myself, I think it provided an interesting prompt potentially for itself to be dissected and it's conclusions refuted but allowing us to vocalize and look at our rebuttal of something awful in the world in the process.

So, there can be gain in that, even if part of the gain itself is in dissecting and disliking some of the (subjective) messages or conclusions about life that some see in the movie.
posted by xarnop at 8:12 AM on September 9, 2014


I was a teenager when the movie came out and remember thinking it was self-congratulatory, masturbatory crap about how hard it was to be rich and white and live a comfortable suburban life when all you want to do is bang hot jailbait.

Given the rest of Alan Ball's creative output, it seems like this has to have been more from Sam Mendes. Here's the original script if anyone wants to tease out the differences.
posted by empath at 8:13 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Thanks empath! Yeah Mendes is not...subtle. Or very funny. I kept thinking this was meant to be more mocking than it was.
posted by The Whelk at 8:15 AM on September 9, 2014


I'm a bit stunned that the Lolita comparison is anything less than transparent. Lester is cut from the same cloth as Humbert, even using the same pattern. He's somewhat sympathetic and manipulative, but his defining feature is the self-justification of his self-indulgence. It's a "tragicomedy" the same way the novel is.

The interesting parts of of AB include showing how badly Carolyn is damaged by Lester, and the echo of their dysfunction in that of Ricky and Jane.
posted by bonehead at 8:18 AM on September 9, 2014


I LOVED this movie when I saw it in the theaters at the age of 19. I was drawn to the teenage characters, only a couple years younger than me.

I rewatched it recently. Spacey looked so young - I had to IMDB the movie, where I discovered Kevin Spacey was 40 when he made the film. My husband is 37. I am 35. Lester is now our age cohort.

I also learned Seth Green was in the running for the role of Ricky, the neighbor boy.

IMDB told me Green is now 40. Once again, the same age Spacey was playing Lester.

Basically we're all old and someday going to die.
posted by Windigo at 8:20 AM on September 9, 2014 [18 favorites]


I don't hate or love the movie, but I won't be watching it again any time soon. It's a terrible mess with a few great performances1 and a few great scenes2. Part of the way it is a mess is intentional, I think, and exciting, and that discomfort is good. Part of the way it is a mess is unintentional, and that discomfort is bad. Mix it all up, and the whole thing is just, for me, unwatchable. Not unwatchably bad, exactly, but just patently not enjoyable.

ALSO: I feel like a similarly flawed, but ultimately much better movie, is Bliss (1985). I remember feeling like American Beauty owed Bliss a few rounds and a heartfelt apology, because if it didn't steal from it, it certainly borrowed without asking. Bliss was on instant view for a while. Again, flawed, but definitely worth checking out.

1) Annette Benning, Chris Cooper
2) Carolyn and Buddy's tryst, everything at the fast food place, everything with Chris Cooper.

posted by dirtdirt at 8:24 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


You could make a case that Lester's entire "liberation" is actually satire. What exactly does he do that's so liberating?

*Fixates on his appearance (lifts weights and works out a lot)
*Listens to music and gets high
*Works at fast food
*Cars
*Tells his boss to shove it
*Has obsessive, inappropriate crush on a cheerleader

Regressing to adolescence is liberating? He's acting like a teenager. This could have been an extraordinarily effective satirical point if it's what the filmmakers had originally intended (but as far as I know they didn't).
posted by Ndwright at 8:28 AM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


That movie was so shitty I can't even read this article.
posted by latkes at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


American Beauty was a very very pretty and well-acted film that made me feel deeply unclean afterwards. It also had a philosophy that, upon mature reflection, is less deep than murky. Neither of these are uncommon things in award-winning films.

On another note, guys, drop the gifs, OK? If you want me to read your words, spewing moving images all over the page makes that much much harder. I really had to resist the urge to just close the tab.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Also I am happy the movie exists solely for the line 'You want to have 10 BILLION of his babies' which for some reason I still randomly quote.
posted by Windigo at 8:30 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Wow, I don't think I've ever read Kevin Spacey compared to Bill Macy before. Nor Bill Macy given the better part of the comparison.

I don't know when, exactly, but at some point I just had an emperor's-new-clothes moment with Spacey and haven't been able to take anything from him seriously since. I still like him in The Usual Suspects, and The Ref, and Seven, but it says something that he took the creepy, detatched, alien John Doe performance and at some point decided that was all he really needed to do ever again, when his earlier performances were actually worthwhile and showed humanity.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:31 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


What the hell is a 16 year old girl watching this movie on repeat for anyway?
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content
Now, I'm not saying it's inappropriate for a teenager to watch this, I am saying it's perhaps not a healthy movie to fixate on.

I love American Beauty, and I think the lessons she's taking away are the wrong ones.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:32 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


(Oh, and for the record, there's a lot of great stuff about American Beauty, and even if Spacey's performance is kind of maddening to me in retrospect, it is still basically right for the film. Everybody forgets about Allison Janney in this one, when she is maybe the most chilling aspect of the whole.)
posted by Navelgazer at 8:33 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ah, here's more about the original script:

The original script for American Beauty was markedly different from the finished product (the shooting script). The script that Alan Ball, the screenwriter, sent to Sam Mendes, the director, began with Jane and Ricky being put on trial for the murder of Lester Burnham. In the original script, Angela testifies against Jane in court, and Colonel Fitts brings in the tape he finds of Jane offering Ricky three thousand dollars to kill her father. The viewers learn that the tape was a joke immediately after Ricky turns off the camera - but one second too late for the defense. Also, the extended shot over the town with Lester's voice-over in the background that begins the shooting script originally included Lester in his pajamas, flying Superman-like over the town and landing in his own bed. Mendes filmed the script almost as written, but afterwards he and editor Tariq Anwar made substantial changes, to the surprise of most of the cast and crew. Mendes cut the trial out entirely, and also eliminated the "Lester-flying" fantasy. He preserved Ricky and Jane's impact on the film by increasing their on-camera time throughout the movie.
posted by maxsparber at 8:36 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I thought it was interesting that American Beauty and Fight Club came out at basically the same time, and are basically the same film, aimed at slightly different age groups of angst-ridden ennui-stricken middle-class men.
posted by dng at 8:36 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Now, I'm not saying it's inappropriate for a teenager to watch this, I am saying it's perhaps not a healthy movie to fixate on.

I think one can generally count on sixteen-year-olds in love with problematic art to make the worst of all possible choices at all possible times (which I say as a once-teen who'd been obsessed with Clerks). Youth is hilarious that way!
posted by Greg Nog at 8:37 AM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


I remember liking the cinematography and some of the performances but thinking the story itself was unremarkable.

I felt like the plastic bag belonged to a different film than most of the rest of it. A plastic bag caught in a dervish--this is beauty? I thought it was ugly and mildly interesting at best. The character's view of it as something ineffable struck me as so earnest and naive that I expected cutting satire to follow, and mostly what I saw was lightweight parody, more Weird Al than Joseph Heller. There's nothing wrong with Weird Al, but it's not what I expected.

I guess generally I just thought the entire movie was a missed opportunity.
posted by johnofjack at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


What the hell is a 16 year old girl watching this movie on repeat for anyway?
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content


I fixated on this film at around that age, as well. Thora Birch's character is the most sympathetic in the film. From Jane's perspective, her parents are selfish assholes. But unlike most teenagers in media, she is 100% correct in that assessment.

It was very validating.
posted by almostmanda at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


I loved the movie when it came out because it resonated with me as someone who had spent time in a (perceived) futureless suburban malaise. It is essentially a meditation on nihilism dressed up as a weird, warped version of the summer of love. These days it seems a little over-stylized, but I particularly appreciate the plastic bag scene because there absolutely is beauty to be found in the banality of objects.
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Man, she should never see Happiness, a critically acclaimed (if divisive) film that came a year before and one I consider one of the absolute best of the 1990s which follows some similar themes.

Ooh, is this where we discuss massively superior skewerings-of-the-middle-class American Dream? Jon Moritsugu's Terminal USA is a brilliant and hilarious take on Asian-American identity and aspirations, and it's also really, really, really weird.

I love you Jon Moritsugu.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wow, I don't think I've ever read Kevin Spacey compared to Bill Macy before. Nor Bill Macy given the better part of the comparison.

Technically you still haven't (at least not here). This is Bill Macy, best known as Maude's husband. William H. is William H. to avoid confusion with him.
/sag pedant
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [9 favorites]


a once-teen who'd been obsessed with Clerks

if teens loving Clerks is wrong I'm not even supposed to be here today
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:39 AM on September 9, 2014 [51 favorites]


Regressing to adolescence is liberating? He's acting like a teenager. This could have been an extraordinarily effective satirical point if it's what the filmmakers had originally intended (but as far as I know they didn't).

It makes it pretty easy to like it as a teenager -- it tells you that your worldview is basically right, that everything beyond the horizon of the teenage universe is bullshit.

The movie's kind of pro-authenticity message is usually waved off as self-indulgent garbage these days; values have changed.
posted by grobstein at 8:40 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


For other films of the same era with very similar themes, Ang Lee's The Ice Storm is crazy-underrated.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:41 AM on September 9, 2014 [22 favorites]


When I was a teenager I was obsessed with the writings of Yukio Mishima. Dunno how I first stumbled on his stuff.

So, yeah, suicidal fascist? Maybe not the best thing in the world to like as a teen. That being said, Black Lizard, which he stars in, is an amazing movie.
posted by maxsparber at 8:43 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes if you want icy suburbian dread the ice storm is your better bet plus it's the horrible horrible 70s
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Yes, yes, some of the movies I also loved as a teenager had a very fucked uped message, in retrospective.

Why were Kirk and Spock so close?! Why couldn't Spock see that McCoy yearned for his touch?!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:46 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


Man, I remember really disliking this movie when it came out but don't remember many specifics. I should rewatch it to see if that was just 18-year-old me being 18 years old and wanting to hate the movie that everybody else loved. The only beef I specifically remember is that the narration spelled out stuff that was already present in the movie, and you could remove all or most of it without affecting the rest of the film very much, so it felt really dumbed down.
posted by brundlefly at 8:46 AM on September 9, 2014


I loved this movie, but mostly for the soundtrack. I'll take all the Thomas Newman forever please.
posted by LizBoBiz at 8:47 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


The only beef I specifically remember is that the narration spelled out stuff that was already present in the movie, and you could remove all or most of it without affecting the rest of the film very much, so it felt really dumbed down.

Imagine if they'd left in the trial and all that shit from the original script, omg.
posted by grobstein at 8:50 AM on September 9, 2014


It's very important to like the right stuff and hate the right stuff. If, by mistake, you like something you are supposed to hate, you can always change your mind and confess your foolish past.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:51 AM on September 9, 2014 [16 favorites]


I think one can generally count on sixteen-year-olds in love with problematic art to make the worst of all possible choices at all possible times (which I say as a once-teen who'd been obsessed with Clerks). Youth is hilarious that way!

Dude, I once watched Mallrats more or less continously for a weekend; you were making the best possible choices.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:52 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


American Beauty is basically Joe, another shitty movie that people defended at the time because it was "about how we live now".
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:57 AM on September 9, 2014


I got into a huge fight with my ex about this movie because I liked it while watching it but kept coming back to it during the next week bringing up inconsistencies and things that in retrospect seemed terrible actually. "There certainly was a lot of telling rather than showing...particularly when it came to crying fits." "That bag...it looked really dumb and cheesy rather than attractively grimy or real in any way...was that just clumsy filmmaking?" "How did a 1950s bigot end up living in an affluent suburb of a Northern city?"

Finally she got really mad at me for changing my mind. She thought it showed a lack of character. I should have realized the only thing I really liked about it was how honestly it portrayed being in a shitty relationship.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:58 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


That being said, Black Lizard, which he stars in, is an amazing movie.

I admit that this is a total derail, but I have to jump on this bandwagon. You all need to see Black Lizard, although make sure you watch the Kinji Fukasaku (1968) version. It is tremendous. That being said, Mishima, although he wrote the creenplay, doesn't really star in it as appear as a sailor suffering an... unusual fate. For a starring role, you could try the 1960 Afraid to Die, a gangster film that Mishima agreed to once the studio met his stringent demands of SPOILER ALERT










a) playing a gangster, b) wearing a black leather jacket, and c) dying by the end of the film.

OK, back to American Beauty (as opposed to Japanese Beautiful Death).
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:59 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


"The Ice Storm" is my go-to example of a film better than the novel it was adapted from
posted by thelonius at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I love Mishima! Okay, fine, bad role model, but those books are good. Are the movies actually good or is it more like amazement that they made them?
posted by grobstein at 9:02 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


It will always be close to a great film for me, though I don't argue that points of the story are flawed with hindsight. It was a big media event and I saw it with a new gf and it was cynical and funny and well directed and well acted and looked impressive. I was impressed. It moved me and made me think and it was a fairly big marker of that period in my life. I was mesmerized and captivated for a while, despite its faults: I was happily entertained. Sometimes - most times - that's all I want from a film. I'm not saying it's the greatest, but it served me well. I've seen it 4 or 5 times and there are definitely parts that I'd skip through on rewatchings.
posted by peacay at 9:02 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I loved American Beauty then, and i love it now. This writer is entitled to her regret, of course, but she really is reaching hard when she speaks glowingly of Carolyn Burnham's affair with Buddy Kane the King of Real Estate. WTF? Carolyn is essentially hoodwinked by a rich, pompous, probable-serial-philanderer who wanted some free sex from an easy target, and then drops her as soon as it might cost him money? Leaving her weeping and broken in a parking lot? Yeah.... real inspiring.

We're not supposed to root for Lester all the way, but his actions are hardly villainous. To see things from his point of view -- which this writer refuses to -- is to gather that he's honestly miserable because his wife, who used to be a happier person, has slowly transformed into a bitter, controlling killjoy who slavishly worships the trappings of success, chasing after money and Italian silk couches because she thinks they'll bring value to their lives. And his beloved daughter turned into a sullen teen overnight. Not her fault, of course, it happened to most of us, but it's still weighing on him. To Lester, THEY broke some sort of unspoken contract with HIM -- that if he slaved away at his job, he'd get to come home to two people who didn't act as if living in a nice house in the suburbs is the worst possible thing. Hell, he probably just wants his family to go camping or watch "The Wizard of Oz" or whatever it is they used to do together, but no one else is game. So he throws a tantrum and says "ha, ha, look at me, i'm gonna be stupidly happy no matter what you grumps are doing!" And as the couch scene indicates, he genuinely thinks his behavior will shake things up around the household and break the monotony that they've been drawn into.

Also, what the hell is with this pre-9-11 meme? It's the stupidest thing i've ever heard. If i said that i can't like Citizen Kane or Casablanca because they're "pre-Internet movies" that can no longer be appreciated in the Internet age, you'd think i was 'tarded or something.
posted by ELF Radio at 9:03 AM on September 9, 2014 [31 favorites]


Are the movies actually good or is it more like amazement that they made them?

Black Lizard sort of like the 60s Batman if Batman seemed like it was made by sexual fetishists.

In other words, it's like the movie made the subtext of 60s Batman explicit.

The only film I have seen directly adapted from Mishima's work is The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea, starring Kris Kristofferson. I think it would be possible for teenagers to become obsessed with that film. I have always wanted to write a book called "Cult Films That Never Found Their Cult," about movies like "Starstruck" and "Bliss" that seem like they would have developed an obsessive following but never did. Now that I think about it, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea could easily be part of that collection.
posted by maxsparber at 9:10 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Wow. That didn't read like a review to a bad movie at all.
posted by The Deej at 9:10 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


"The Ice Storm" is my go-to example of a film better than the novel it was adapted from

Mine is Big Fish (although "novel" is a stretch); haven't read the novel of Ice Storm but yeah, the movie was a corker.
posted by psoas at 9:11 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember seeing this in the theater at, like, age 18 and thinking it was really pretentious and overwrought. I mentioned this to a friend at the time who told me to watch Office Space (which was not yet the cult favorite it would later become). He said it covered some of the same themes but was funny and didn't take itself so seriously.

My friend was right and I'm happy to see that history has vindicated us. Sort of.
posted by seymourScagnetti at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


why must every teen that is attractive be likened to Lolita?
posted by Postroad at 9:12 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think re-watching the movie 20 years later you don't get the same effect as when it was a new movie. It was very well shot, very well acted. I think it really stood out in comparison to the movies that were getting major theatrical release at the time. But now re-watching it on Netflix or wherever, I really see the story front and center, which is okay, with some problems.

Also, just like Breaking Bad, there is an issue with how much credit should I be giving the film? Is Lester supposed to be entirely sympathetic? I hope not, I hope we're supposed to think he's a sad guy with some shitty characteristics doing a shitty job of having a mid-life crisis. Are we supposed to think that Ricky is really deep, a great guy who is above it all? I hope not, I hope we're supposed to see his obsession with the camera as a silly affectation. I hope we're supposed to see his criticism of Mena Suvari's character as shallow, childish and just as mean-spirited as she is (he basically says she's boring and inauthentic so is therefore worthless). But maybe we're supposed to think all those things are great. How much credit should I be giving the movie? I don't know, but I assumed they meant all those things to be at least considered, so I thought it was a pretty good movie.
posted by skewed at 9:13 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


You all need to see Black Lizard, although make sure you watch the Kinji Fukasaku (1968) version. It is tremendous.


Well crap. Just when I thought I'd gotten over my Yakuza movie binges.


*wakes up three days later, wearing wrinkled yukata, on floor of tatami room, in front of shoji doors lit from behind by magenta lighting*
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:15 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


I was so annoyed with the praise this movie received when it came out. In a questionable year for American films, perhaps American Beauty had to stand out. But for my money, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2 or The Straight Story are the kinds of films that define the year for me. American Beauty just struck me as too hyped up. Of course, I was 19, and already a budding film snob. I always used to say that American Beauty was the idiots "smart film."
posted by ReeMonster at 9:18 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I watched American Beauty again about a month ago and, honestly, it's still a pretty great film. I mean the filmmaker's art, the cinematography and direction and set design and pacing. It's very well done. When it was a new movie I remember thinking it was this enormous breath of fresh air, a new kind of filmmaking. That sparkle has worn off now that the techniques used in American Beauty have found their way into other films and, particularly, HBO TV series. But it's still very well done, as the article says.

But I also agree with the article that the story is monstrous. I almost had to turn it off in the section where Spacey is about to decide to have sex with the underage vulnerable girl. Scary rapey. But he does come to his senses, and on a second watching I think the filmmaker wanted that scene to look rapey. There's definitely a second reading of the film where Lester is the villain, a contemptuous man. I don't think the film as a whole supports that, Lester is too much the sympathetic protagonist and Spacey too likeable. But it'd be interesting to try to watch the film through that lens.
posted by Nelson at 9:22 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


why must every teen that is attractive be likened to Lolita?

Because Lolita's main Thing is that there is inherent immorality in the power dynamic of a grown man lusting after a young girl, in part because of the tricks a human mind will play on itself to assure itself that psychological explanations suffice as moral justifications. And that's still really resonant, and will likely to continue to be really resonant.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:24 AM on September 9, 2014 [15 favorites]


kjh: I don't quite understand this. It's been some time since I've seen the movie, but it was certainly not my impression that the viewer was intended to sympathize with Lester in any way.

Like Fight Club, you are supposed to agree with what the main character doesn't like about society, but you are supposed to disagree with their solutions.
posted by spaltavian at 9:24 AM on September 9, 2014 [14 favorites]


I've always seen American Beauty as sort of a companion piece to The Graduate.

It reflects on a lot of the same themes of male disaffection with the responsibilities expected of a grown-up man in our culture, only it does it long enough later that Benjamin has grown up and never did get that job in plastics, Elaine feels trapped by her impulsive choice at the wedding altar, and Mrs. Robinson's impulses are now present in the formerly younger generation.
posted by hippybear at 9:27 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I didn't see American Beauty until a couple years ago, even though it was in my "must watch" list since it was released. So I only saw it from the perspective of my 50-year-old self, with nothing to compare it to.

I thought it was very good. True, it seemed "of its time" but didn't age as badly as many other movies.

Regarding Lester: Although I could sympathize with some of his angst (having been through a bad marriage and a divorce) I didn't feel the movie was trying to make me "like" him, especially in creepy and irresponsible traits.

Regarding the plastic bag: This had a couple layers to it. First of all, the "beauty" of the plastic bag floating was being expressed by a KID. It's exactly what an "artsy" kid would do and think, and I remember doing and thinking very similar things. So it's not necessarily meant to be ACTUALLY profound, just seemingly profound in the mind of a teenager. The other level though is: yeah, it's kind of beautiful. As an avid photographer, I can't help but see beauty in the mundane things around me.

Having said all that... I am in no hurry to watch it again. There are movies I have watched literally dozens of times, and will continue to watch (Adaptation, Memento, 2001, Alien, Apocalypse Now...) American Beauty is not in that category.
posted by The Deej at 9:28 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Wild Wild West is a bad movie. American Beauty is a great movie that says some things that don't sound all that complimentary from today's perspective.

Actually, they're both bad movies, but for different reasons!
posted by kenko at 9:28 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


There may be things to criticize about the movie and what it chooses to not explicitly condemn. And it is very reasonable to comment about how the movie's lasting relevance may be limited as it likely was a movie for that time and place. But whatever one can say negatively about that movie, the linked "review" is far worse.

Seriously:
A lot of the world’s most powerful people look like Lester Burnham: white, male, middle-aged, well off, and bored to death. There are Lester Burnhams in public office, in the Supreme Court, at billion dollar corporations, at record labels and movie studios.

At the Supreme Court? Which of the Justices are "white, male, middle-aged, well off and bored to death"? Sure, maybe there are some Lester Burnham's at record labels and movie studios, but "a lot of the world's most powerful people" are like him? How could one even know that? It's just nonsense on the writer's part to further the point she wants to make.

And if she is reading Lester as bored or that his wealth is important in any real way to the story, then she really misreads the movie. Her read on this as a romanticization of the Lolita angle seems similarly offbase. I agree with Roger Eberg's review from back then:
"The movie is about a man who fears growing older, losing the hope of true love and not being respected by those who know him best... Lester Burnham, the hero of "American Beauty," is played by Kevin Spacey as a man who is unloved by his daughter, ignored by his wife and unnecessary at work. "I'll be dead in a year," he tells us in almost the first words of the movie. "In a way, I'm dead already." The movie is the story of his rebellion..."American Beauty" is not about a Lolita relationship, anyway. It's about yearning after youth, respect, power and, of course, beauty.
What I take from the article is a tacit admission from the writer that is something like 'when I was a know-it-all coming of age young adult I tried to show how deep I was by finding meaning in things that cannot support the 'pseudo-profound' depths I attributed to them.' In other words, she's like pretty much every high school graduate going to college who latches on to some thing to show how they 'are an adult now' and 'understand deep things.' She could be forgiven for the youthful foolishness if she didn't just replicate it: "after years of contemplation, maturation, overall life experience, and one certificate in Women’s Studies, I’m here to tell you a potentially shocking revelation..." Oh, so she is no longer a know-it-all high schooler. Now she is a know-it-all recent graduate who is going to apply all that book-learning, critical studies and contemplation. I could do without such things.
posted by dios at 9:29 AM on September 9, 2014 [22 favorites]


American Beauty is caught up in the common late 20th century delusion that the ennui of the white male is the world's most interesting drama.

Well, it is a pretty interesting drama if you happen to be a middle aged white male.

Which reminds me, I need to get back on my workout plan.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:30 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


Whether you like this movie or not, this review is some of the most arrogant and contrived borderline sexist bullshit I've read in a long time.

God forbid it had a target audience 15-20 years ago and it wasn't you, 20-something feminist.
posted by GreyboxHero at 9:33 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Can we just have a sub-site for FanFare where people can go and bitch about all the movies that we were such suckers for liking? Or maybe we can just start a Film Club for this? Because I'd sure love a rousing discussion of why I'm such a jerk for enjoying films like Crash, Garden State, Forrest Gump, etc. when I saw them a decade or two ago.

Okay for real, I hated Garden State and anyone who liked it is a douche, I just threw that in there to see if you were paying attention.
posted by MoonOrb at 9:41 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Whenever someone argues that something that isn't a steaming pile is actually bad, someone comes along to point out that it isn't a steaming pile and is, therefore, actually good. As if standards for quality had to be that low.
posted by kenko at 9:45 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


American Beauty was a very very pretty and well-acted film that made me feel deeply unclean afterwards.

I think that was the point. Like Lester himself, it's superficially pretty with some real sewage under the surface.

The worst part of it, I think, is the (forced) inevitability. Lester tells us he's going to die, which is part of it. The subtext I took from it is Lester's coaching and encouragement of Ricky's own selfish nihilism (masquing as his "art"---the bag is a symbol of his emptiness), and the inevitability that his daughter, Jane, by choosing Ricky condemns herself to Carolyn's cycle all over again. The movie's vision is that this is life, an endless repetition of dysfunction driven by inevitable male selfishness.
posted by bonehead at 9:45 AM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


It feels like a damn re-education camp in here. I'm going over the wire.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:45 AM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


I saw that movie in the theater and I got what is was trying to do but it wasn't really all that.
posted by zzazazz at 9:47 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I remember watching it when it came out, as a teenager. I thought the self-conscious artiness was hilariously empty and pretentious, but the struggle to find not just love but a certain experience of love, something transformative -- all of the characters are trying to do that, really, and I didn't like the film because it seemed impossible for any of them to find that in a way that felt real or interesting. That seemed really tragic in an unintentional way. I identified strongly with that impulse and I felt sad that there was all this overwrought, histrionic "ART!" for these characters but no real love.
posted by clockzero at 9:48 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


why I'm such a jerk for enjoying films like Crash

Well, that all depends on which Crash.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:50 AM on September 9, 2014 [20 favorites]


In a questionable year for American films, perhaps American Beauty had to stand out. But for my money, Eyes Wide Shut, Toy Story 2 or The Straight Story are the kinds of films that define the year for me.

Could not disagree more. Lots of good stuff from 1999. (Including the three you listed.)
posted by dogwalker at 9:52 AM on September 9, 2014


This film had about as much to do with any form of reality as The Wizard of Oz. Perhaps less. That's why Hollywood types liked it so much.
posted by colie at 9:53 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


At the Supreme Court? Which of the Justices are "white, male, middle-aged, well off and bored to death"? Sure, maybe there are some Lester Burnham's at record labels and movie studios, but "a lot of the world's most powerful people" are like him? How could one even know that? It's just nonsense on the writer's part to further the point she wants to make.

It's just a lazy way of expressing the currently popular dismissal of boomerish concerns, because we have real ones now (see also inclusion of 9/11). And surely whatever makes Justice Roberts or the CEO of BP unhappy about his life must be ridiculous, because they are men on top of the world. Therefore, simply pretend that Justice Roberts and the CEO of BP see themselves as middle-aged losers, and voila there is no reason to indulge the concerns of middle-aged losers.
posted by grobstein at 9:55 AM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


and remember thinking it was self-congratulatory, masturbatory crap about how hard it was to be rich and white and live a comfortable suburban life when all you want to do is bang hot jailbait.

Aha! You see, the point of the film is trying to figure out *why* he wants to "bang hot jail bait."

Anyway, the movie is not my cup of tea. Then again, I find watching "My Name is Joe" to be light entertainment.
posted by Nevin at 10:00 AM on September 9, 2014


If you want to imagine something insufferable, I saw this movie at 18 years old, during my first week of my first semester of film school at NYU.

Before you ask whether Fight Club and Magnolia were also that same semester, you're damn right they were.

(And in the case of all three, I still think they have their strengths but I laugh my ass off at my sophmorically devoted reactions to them at the time.)
posted by Navelgazer at 10:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Seldom have I read anything that so misses its target.
posted by 3.2.3 at 10:01 AM on September 9, 2014


That's not a great essay, but American Beauty is high on my list of most-hated films, primarily because every character is a shallow cipher, and every statement is a lazy trope. It epitomizes the very worst of Hollywood, with platitude after platitude dressed up in cinematic gloss. It is the Thomas Kinkade collector's plate of cinema, yet it's presented - and received in some circles - as a thoughtful masterpiece. I mean, I expect shitfests from Hollywood, but this was somehow much worse for all the seriousness, all the evidence that the creators had bought into and eaten their own shit-meal (off the collector's plate, one assumes).
posted by fleetmouse at 10:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


the creators had bought into and eaten their own shit-meal.

That'll be Hollywood then.
posted by colie at 10:03 AM on September 9, 2014


I was perplexed, the year American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture…it just wasn’t that good…the only explanation I could think of, was that everything else sucked, even worse.

It did have one funny bit, that sticks with me: The part where the kid next door charges Spacey’s character $2000/ounce for weed...
posted by littlejohnnyjewel at 10:17 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


"Oh Carolyn Metafilter, when did you become so... joyless?"
posted by Hairy Lobster at 10:17 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


That scene is the only scene in the entire movie that's worthwhile. It made me cry. But then again, I had done ecstasy the night before seeing the movie..

The plastic bag scene, for better or worse, is a rip-off of a scene from Lost Book Found, a movie by Jem Cohen.
posted by OmieWise at 10:19 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I feel like I should say something about the plastic bag bit.

Possibly one of the most profound memories of my childhood, somewhere around age five, went unnoticed by all of the adults around me. I was left to entertain myself at an adult party, as was my parents' wont. I gravitated towards a small inground heated pool, the sort with the jets and the lights. Shadows were cast against the side as depressive little whorls were drawn counter-clockwise in a slow orbit of the pool.

I realized that the shadows were merely distortions of the light passing through water, that the molecules of water passed in and out of the whorls due to the rush of energy from the jets, and that there were no fixed bits of matter which defined the whorl. The whorl was activity. It would spin around and merge with other whorls or split off, but eventually they would flatten and the shadows would vanish.

At the time, I was a little science nerd, and I thought that the shadows cast by the whorls, you see, are very like people's minds. People are the whorls themselves, matter going in and out, so little constant, life itself inconstant, a whorl inevitably fading away even if it is lucky enough to bud off another. This metaphor has, as far as I know, never really strayed from my mind.

It's facile, it's cliche, yes, but ... you can appreciate the plastic bag dancing, for as long as it dances, but eventually the whorl animating it goes away and the bag falls to the ground, just a discarded bit of trash. Life has a painful fragility which may not be mended by even the most artful kintsugi, and in that — perhaps that thing alone in my darker moments — it is precious. Is it pretentious to notice this or only very, very painful to acknowledge?

One day, you too will drop to the ground as whatever motivating sparks disperse into ambient heat energy, your aimless circular dance complete, to be disposed of and buried in some out of the way patch of ground. Certainly, Lester did and he acknowledges he would in the opening moments of the film.

But for the duration: look at him dance.
posted by adipocere at 10:24 AM on September 9, 2014 [29 favorites]


Thank you, OmieWise - I am now going to check out that film!
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:25 AM on September 9, 2014


why must every teen that is attractive be likened to Lolita?
posted by Postroad at 9:12 AM on September 9 [+] [!]


Well so Kevin Spacey's character's name, Lester Burnham, is an anagram for "Humbert Learns."

though really his middle name should be something like Nohedoesn't.

re: the movie in general: on the one hand? I totally get the backlash. And I really, really want to participate in the backlash. I've considered pretending that I didn't love the shit out of this movie as a kid, but what's the point? I loved the shit out of this movie as a kid.

But on the other hand, I do think there's space in the world for movies that show how the weird, vicious power dynamics in American society makes everything fucked up and bullshit1 even for the powerful, and shows that they, like us, are hopelessly trapped under it. "Man smothered by bullshit (his own bullshit and the bullshit of others) engages in bullshit rebellion that hurts everyone" is in fact a story worth telling.

But on the little-known third hand2, American Beauty is a crashingly superficial movie and probably there's a reason why, on the whole, teenagers rather than grownups cathected onto it. The thing that probably I would spot now on a rewatch-as-a-grownup is how the movie maybe really does present Lester Burnham as a Humbert who learns3 rather than as a guy buried so far under bullshit that his rebellion from bullshit is itself bullshit crafted entirely out of bullshit that results in nothing but the propagation of bullshit.

1: And, look, bullshit is a powerfully sad thing, everyone relentlessly lying to themselves and others in order to maintain a thing that's not even remotely adequate for anyone, everyone doing this solely because the only thing that's worse than being at the top of a system of disgusting power imbalances is being at the bottom of it, and failing to help keep up the nasty thing is how people nearer the top can get demoted to the bottom.
2: The gripping hand?
3: (no he doesn't)

posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:28 AM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


i saw in it the futile cycle of how consumer culture sells us the solutions to the very problems it creates. everything that lester embraces in his quest for liberation--the sportscar, the fuck-you-to-the-boss fantasy, the sexual availability of teen girls (teased in the pr for the film itself), the music, the weed, the perfect body--were the products and promises of the very same materialist culture that trapped him in the first place.

maybe it's so painfully obvious that it wasn't worth mentioning, but within it i don't see how one comes to think the story or its outcome implied endorsement of any of it.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 10:37 AM on September 9, 2014 [8 favorites]


FanFare:

Crash (2005) WhingeWatch
American Beauty (1999) WhingeWatch
Forrest Gump (1994) [Movie Only] WhingeWatch
Agreed on the bag scenes - pretty and I could watch them all day some times. :)
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 10:40 AM on September 9, 2014


I think what I most hated about American Beauty was how hard it worked to make sure you GOT THE POINT, which was that Lester's desires were bad and wrong. But judging from this article, for all my indignation about its heavy-handedness, it wasn't heavy-handed enough. As the saying goes, no one ever went broke underestimating the public's intelligence.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:41 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's a tricky thing, since on the one hand Lester was totally absolutely right to want the hell out of all of it, but completely totally wrong about how one goes about getting the hell out of it.

man okay I don't wanna be one of them post-post-post-ironic anti-backlash types, and I'm trying so hard to distance myself from this movie that I loved when I was a kid, but maybe the possibility that post-9-11 us can be having a semi-serious conversation about American Beauty indicates that it is, well, not so bad. Certainly there's a lot of better movies, but nevertheless I can't imagine a similar serious conversation happening about an objectively terrible movie (the not-Cronenberg Crash, for example).
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 10:49 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing that really impressed me about the movie was that it was good in an "effortless" way - there weren't exotic locations, or hundreds of millions of dollars in SFX, or an all-star cast, or require recruiting lots of extras, or closing off downtown for a car chase, and the result wasn't yet-another-shitty-drama, it was "hey - you don't need all those things or a huge budget to make a good movie. Don't screw up the writing, don't screw up the acting, don't screw up the camera, why can't every movie be this good?"

The cynic in me suspects that it takes a confluence of real (and probably expensive) talent to do something simple and well, but my impression after watching it was still very much "Why isn't it normal for movies to be this good?!"
posted by anonymisc at 10:56 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Basically we're all old and someday going to die.

We are now farther away from Nevermind than it was from Abbey Road.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:57 AM on September 9, 2014


We are now farther away from Nevermind than it was from Abbey Road.

Only if you think time is linear, which The Beatles did not.
posted by colie at 11:01 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


U Know Ur A 90s Kid If: This Sentence Structure Annoys U
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:02 AM on September 9, 2014


After the movie, my roommate left the theater shaken. "Oh my god," he said. "Annette Bening... she was...that character was my mother."

This explained a great many things.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 11:04 AM on September 9, 2014


THE POINT, which was that Lester's desires were bad and wrong.

I don't think that's true. Lester is clearly set up as the moral center of the movie, the only one with depth and character development, and it goes a long way towards ennobling his choices, which are portrayed as misguided but ultimately in the service of a thwarted and noble drive towards self-actualization. None of the other adult characters are fleshed out any better than hats on sticks - the harpy wife who takes up with the gun guy, the closeted gay naziphile gun guy next door, "Brad", etc.... this was one of the major sore points for me when I first saw the movie. I suspect a lot of the judgment people see the movie as passing on Lester is their own projected judgment.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:04 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Am I among the only people who hated this movie as a kid, but has come to appreciate it as an adult?

I watched this movie as a 14 year old and re-watched it this summer as a 29 year old. Whereas before I saw Lester Burnham as an unsympathetic character from beginning to end-- a stupid man going through a midlife crisis who was only remembering the magic of youth throuh rosey-colored glasses, I now see him as someone who 1) Saw the inherent bullshit of his existence and then 2)Tried to break that cycle by indulging every fantasy. Ultimately as he faced fulfilling his biggest fantasy of all, he realized the illusory nature of desire and chose not to eat desire's metaphorical fruit. If it sounds a bit like Buddhism, I think that's valid, as writer Alan Ball himself is an avowed Buddhist. It clearly informs his writing in American Beauty and Six Feet Under, although I've yet to find much Buddhism in True Blood.
posted by Perko at 11:10 AM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


going back and rewatching the plastic bag scene, yeah there's the 'beauty in the mundane' thing, but also with the words being spoken:

And this bag was just... dancing with me... Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.

the plastic bag is the product of the consumer culture--designed to be filled with its products, filmed with its camera, projected on its television (emphasized by the lines of the television as it is viewed in closeup)--luring his generation toward a vision they think is their own, the way its materialist values (plus, for lester, the commodification of rebellion in reaction to them) tempted the generation before.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 11:12 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


To me 1999 also feels like roughly the point at which the wave of white flight broke and the idea that living in the suburbs was sort of a tacky and déclassé thing for the upper-middle class to do, as opposed to living in the city, started to become mainstream. Perhaps part of why it seemed so resonant at the time but not now is because it was such an on-the-nose criticism of how empty and unfulfilling the suburban life was - it seemed very of-the-moment then, but now it's just sort of a trite piece of conventional wisdom.

I remember watching it when it came out with some fellow college freshmen who were really into film (and had pretty much all grown up in boring suburbs and were excited to be free of them), and there were people so moved by it that they were literally weeping as the credits rolled. I can't imagine the movie having that effect on any of them now.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 11:13 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


For someone who loved this movie and was supposedly obsessed with it, the author of this blog post seems to be pretty deaf to its nuances. Well, it's worse than that, because some of the things she missed weren't nuanced at all.

Carolyn is a very successful woman with her own real estate company, Burnham & Associates.

What? She's not successful at all. The movie pounds the viewer over the head with her lack of success, especially in comparison to Buddy Kane, the real estate guy with whom she winds up having an affair. In fact, it's largely hero-worship and a desire for Kane's success to "rub off" (lol) on her that she has the affair. The author's reading of Carolyn is bizarre.

There is no imagery of the excruciating toil of minimum-wage service work, save for the dumbfounded faces of his coworkers when he asks to apply for a job. Lester has the experience and pedigree to do whatever he wants, but he’d rather do nothing, especially because his wife will pay for it.

And why would there be? Does every movie that mentions fast food in any way need to contain a mini-documentary about the struggles of working in the industry? The idea that Lester "has the experience and pedigree to do whatever he wants," seems to mistake white maleness for godhood (more on that in a moment). And he received a significant severance package from his job, so his wife's not paying Lester's way during the movie.

In a better-written movie, this tape would end up in evidence after Lester’s murder.

In fact, that's exactly what happened in the original script. Again, for someone who was supposedly so obsessed with the movie...

A lot of the world’s most powerful people look like Lester Burnham: white, male, middle-aged, well off, and bored to death. There are Lester Burnhams in public office, in the Supreme Court, at billion dollar corporations, at record labels and movie studios.

Yes, a lot of the world's most powerful people look like Lester Burnham, a headset-wearing cubicle drone who works for a no-name trade magazine and lives in a cookie-cutter suburb in a house he can probably ill afford. Like the "has the experience and pedigree to do whatever he wants" comment, this pretends that Lester is just a heartbeat away from our society's centers of power by virtue of the fact that he's white and male.

And so forth. Whether you like or dislike the movie (I stopped caring for it in my 20s and gave away my copy), this blog post (I hesitate to call it an article) is garbage. It would be super if we could stop shitting up the blue with whiny screeds that have fuck-all to say but get posted because they make the right noises about feminism and race and how privileged white males are.
posted by jingzuo at 11:13 AM on September 9, 2014 [23 favorites]


It's just a lazy way of expressing the currently popular dismissal of boomerish concerns, because we have real ones now (see also inclusion of 9/11).

I see no reason to assume her mention of 9/11 was anything but a signpost for the timing of a certain type of critique.

As to the rest of your comment, the concerns of white, rich, powerful men are important. A good working definition of power is "the ability to make your concerns important to other people". That doesn't make the subset those concerns that are frequently related in public less dull and cliched. Rather the opposite. The insistence that stating as much is unjustified or unfair is rather whiny given the overall share of time and attention they receive.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:14 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Did I watch this wrong? I totally saw this as well-off, white, privileged male is unable/unwilling to accept he is responsible for his own unhappiness, has mid-life crisis of sorts and consciously or otherwise decides that adolescence (which he remembers only as sex, drugs, cars, etc.) was when he was truly happy and mistakes that as freedom/happiness and realizes too late that what he truly loved (and had lost sight of) was there all along, followed by an overkill (pun!) of consequences catching up with him. My apologies for the run on sentence, but that's sort of how the movie felt to me.

In fairness, this movie did give the Guy household the oft-used line, "You need a lot more than that my little hombre!"
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 11:16 AM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Also, I found the movie sexist; I also rather liked it, possibly because of the frequency with which middle aged men creeped on me as a teenager.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:16 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]



Why is this kid's term paper on the internet?

 
posted by Herodios at 11:17 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


ouch
posted by colie at 11:18 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


pssst... Nabokov's Lolita isn't a teen-ager, she's pre-pubescent.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:34 AM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


To add to what jingzuo said:

He took the fast food job as a cover and a recapturing of youth. He'd blackmailed his boss into paying him the equivalent of what,year's salary? This way he has money he doesn't have to explain, from his "job". I don't remember him explaining the payout to his wife.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 11:38 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


It’s a beautifully directed movie that romanticizes some of our country’s biggest problems: disregard for class struggle, the commoditization of female bodies, and an exploitative obsession with youth.

I liked the movie when I first saw it, probably thought at the time that it was more profound than it really was. The "My name is Lester Burnham ..... In a way I'm dead already" bit at the start is about as direct a ripoff of Sunset Blvd. as you can get without having Kevin Spacey floating on his stomach in a swimming pool. The film would be beautiful cinematically (not necessarily directorially) because it was in the hands of Conrad Hall. How wouldn't it have been beautifully filmed? Mendes said that he modeled Spacey's performance after Jack Lemmon in The Apartment, and Spacey is known to have idolized Lemmon.

So -- you have a film that's a pastiche of a lot of what came before it, but then so are many if not most films. And the quote up there about what American Beauty romanticizes -- what mainstream American film of the last 30 years hasn't romanticized those things, in one way or another? You can hate American Beauty all you want, but this writer doesn't really seem to me to make a case for hating it.

Janet Maslin wrote at the time that the film was full of "corrosive novelty." It may simply be that the corrosiveness and the novelty don't seem so corrosive or novel anymore.
posted by blucevalo at 11:43 AM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I was 29 when this movie came out and I loved it. I think I identified with Jane most. I re-watched it just in the last month or so and didn't love it nearly as much. Like a lot of movies that were innovative in their time, it looks stale now that it's been imitated to death. Like, I remember finding the bag scene pretty magical then, but it was very unspectacular now. Being in my 40s, I identified with the adults way more than 15 years ago (which, was I a super immature 29 year old that I felt like the teenagers were most like me?), which gave it a different, creepy dimension. The scene where Lester is undressing Angela was particularly awful--now that I've got a kid, now that I'm so much older than that character. The full depth of how monstrous it was didn't really grab me in my 20s.

I'm super glad I didn't watch and love it as a teenager, though! I think that would have warped me in some not good ways.
posted by looli at 11:48 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder if George W. Bush had never happened if people would have realized just how bad this movie is.
posted by cell divide at 11:51 AM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Nabokov's Lolita is also not a bombshell. It's worth mentioning because Nabokov doesn't give Humbert that excuse.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:53 AM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


"as writer Alan Ball himself is an avowed Buddhist."

Ooooh, well no wonder it reeks of narcissistic asceticism where not only does one leap into spiritual self absorption and material destruction for the sake of enlightenment, but also forces others to suffer because their material needs are too mundane to care about. Enlightened people are beyond feeding kids and supporting their family and being emotionally available because no one HAS any needs, this world is like, an illusion man! If we all just stopped eating and doing all the stupid stuff we do to eat and have houses and stuff, we would be enlightened! (I did stop eating! And I entered the netherworld only to be spit back with stern admonishment from the divine that this is not the path, and people promoting asceticism at the expense of people around them are crappy and avoiding their duties of service to others and deep respect for the material AND spiritual needs of human beings- which are real, and exist and deserve to be respected not neglected.)

Like when Siddhartha impregnated some lady and left her there to raise a kid alone, because he had more important enlighteny things to do by the sparkly river and stuff.

PROFOUND!
posted by xarnop at 12:01 PM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


Ironically, the fact that Sarah Fonder can write such a good essay exploring the themes and characters of American Beauty is evidence that is, in fact, a great movie.
posted by kanewai at 12:08 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


"well no wonder it reeks of narcissistic asceticism where not only does one leap into spiritual self absorption and material destruction for the sake of enlightenment, but also forces others to suffer because their material needs are too mundane to care about."

Thank you for providing us with a yuppie's understanding of Buddhism.
posted by Perko at 12:09 PM on September 9, 2014 [12 favorites]


How do you know my creds or how seriously I've pursued buddhism?
posted by xarnop at 12:13 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Ironically, the fact that Sarah Fonder can write such a good essay exploring the themes and characters of American Beauty is evidence that is, in fact, a great movie.

If we can talk this much about this plate of beans it is a mighty mighty plate of beans indeed!
posted by OmieWise at 12:14 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


How do you know my creds or how seriously I've pursued buddhism?

It's obvious you've had a bad experience with it, but man was that a completely off-topic slice of vitriol directed at a religion practiced by half a billion people.
posted by empath at 12:16 PM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


How do you know my creds or how seriously I've pursued buddhism?

Honestly this response is totally ludicrous given your immediately prior post.
posted by neuromodulator at 12:17 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


"How do you know my creds or how seriously I've pursued buddhism?"

I can accurately infer them by the fact that Buddhism clearly teaches material needs are not too mundane to care about; it doesn't advocate strict asceticism, and would instead profess a "middle path." That's just the one that comes to mind most readily.
posted by Perko at 12:17 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't know that I would classify it as "yuppie", but it seems like a really insane version of Buddhism that bears little resemblance to the millions of adherents in the world who do not refuse to feed their children.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:17 PM on September 9, 2014 [7 favorites]


Oh by the way, I'm not sure if you mean to say I am a yuppie or if you mean that is a common way that "yuppies" (middle class white people of any age group) practice buddhism, because you're right that it is all too common, and many buddhist teachers who grew up in generational buddhist communities have spoken about it, including the Dalai Llama talking about the difficulty of taking ona religion from a culture not your own, and (the controversial to me and not entirely inspiring) trungpa rinpoche discussing spiritual materialism he witnessed in the americans who tended to come to his school.
posted by xarnop at 12:17 PM on September 9, 2014


man i totally liked american beauty when i was an ignorant youngster. i doubt it would hold up now for all the reasons elucidated upthread.

i liked the plastic bag thing though. drinking wine outdoors and watching a plastic bag caught on some barb wire is a worthwhile occasional pursuit imo though i have not been motivated to be a suburban dad ghost as result of watching.

also, wow, seconding empath.
posted by beefetish at 12:26 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


And yes I have had to deal with all too man white man philosophy majors who "identify with buddhism" and magically feel that sex is a "biological need" and love is an "attachment disorder". So I've dealt with such sentiments in a variety of settings that have negatively effected me personally- and that I think the movie itself reflects as well in terms of failing to choose to live in service to the self and others and instead to spend the whole movie neglecting their needs and then be delighted about dying. According to Mendes at the wikipedia page:

"His final turning point comes when he and Angela almost have sex; after she confesses her virginity, he no longer thinks of her as a sex object, but as a daughter. He holds her close and "wraps her up". Mendes called it "the most satisfying end to [Lester's] journey there could possibly have been". With these final scenes, Mendes intended to show Lester at the conclusion of a "mythical quest". After Lester gets a beer from the refrigerator, the camera pushes toward him, then stops facing a hallway down which he walks "to meet his fate". Having begun to act his age again, Lester achieves closure. As he smiles at a family photo, the camera pans slowly from Lester to the kitchen wall, onto which blood spatters as a gunshot rings out; the slow pan reflects the peace of Lester's death."

So the entire goal is death and enlightenment is achieved simply by accepting death. I'm just saying I disagree with the kind of spirituality this movie espouses, the movie seems to imply there is an afterlife and that hurrying up and dying is the best way to live a spiritual life and the people caught up in choosing to value life are just living an illusion. If that weren't the conclusion why would be be so happy about dying? I'm sure here, we can all infer what we want about the movie, but I'm not convinced the intention behind the film is particularly profound but I suppose you could super impose your own profound meaning onto it, which is totally fine.
posted by xarnop at 12:27 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


I guess if the goal was to talk about finding a deeper meaning in life, through buddhist values of service and empathy, this movie did not teach those buddhist values very well.
posted by xarnop at 12:28 PM on September 9, 2014


Yeah, you're right, xarnop. American movies generally have trouble with endings, death and the afterwards of spiritual transformation. As you suggest, they tend to conflate these three things. All the same, this movie was good because it justifies spiritual transformation. Viewers can go ahead and live the afterward of their own transformation as they please.
posted by No Robots at 12:43 PM on September 9, 2014


This reminds me - similar era, I rewatched Pleasantville the other day - curious to hear how other folks feel that one has held up...
posted by stenseng at 12:44 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Am I the only one that didn't miss this plot point or did I imagine this because I have some need to identify with the pre-enlightened Lester? To wit, if I recall, he negotiated a severance package that was basically a year's salary. This being the case, he had the means and ostensibly continued to contribute to the family household while taking what we could euphemistically label a sabbatical.

My perception was the primary fuel for Carolyn's anger is the fact that he found a way to make his nut, as it were, without having to suffer the indignities of the responsible adult work-a-day world.
posted by Fezboy! at 12:45 PM on September 9, 2014


I thought it was interesting that American Beauty and Fight Club came out at basically the same time, and are basically the same film, aimed at slightly different age groups of angst-ridden ennui-stricken middle-class men.

I remember noting this at the time. And The Matrix is a sci-fi twist on this. (You know, Mr. Anderson isn't really a lonely, slovenly coder, he's a superhero named Neo.) It was a late '90s thing. Part of a cultural moment colored by the Dot Com boom and the post-Berlin Wall/pre-September-11th sense of victory. Good times like that are made for savoring ennui.

My own feeling about American Beauty at the time was that it was a pretty, pompous, mess of a movie with a few fine performances and a couple of hilarious scenes which never became more than the sum of it's parts. It didn't deserve to win Best Picture, but it was exactly the kind of movie that wins a Best Picture. (Wikipedia's entry on American Beauty's campaign to win Best Picture is interesting.)

OTOH, I, too, throw my support behind Black Lizard which is awesome, stars Akihiro Miwa and has a score by Tomita fer chrissakes.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:04 PM on September 9, 2014 [6 favorites]


I like that thing people do on the Internet where they take something generally liked 20 years ago and tell us how bad it was.

You should get into gaming. Here, things that were generally liked only months ago is now the Worst Thing Ever. (Bioshock series is one of the most prominent ones where you see this phenomenon)
posted by ymgve at 1:05 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Man I need to see Pleasantville again. My hunch is that it would mostly hold up - aside from the beginning it's not cemented in the era in which it was made, and the high-concept archness gives it enough wiggle-room to play around with what I recall as actually being a pretty cool theme of spinning that mythological "loss of America's innocence" into something beautiful and worth celebrating. I should check that one out again.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:06 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


A year or few ago here on Metafilter there was a discussion of Good Will Hunting and I brought up how poorly American Beauty had aged. It's dated, but I don't think 9/11 played as big a role as the economy tanking. I agree the linked article misses some areas where the movie was successfully nuanced or ambiguous, so it's not the devastating put-down the movie really does deserve for its evocation of depth it doesn't provide.

The movie's values seem wrong now partly because it was in another world: when jobs were easier to come by, quitting one for mid-life crisis "personal growth" wasn't such a slap to everyone living paycheck to paycheck.

One area though where the cultural criticisms though seem to miss the mark to me is that in many cases, being a "responsible adult" and submerging oneself to the machinery of institutions is, as in the era of the Kevin Spacey character's Nixon-protesting youth, not in fact ultimately in the service of one's fellow humans. Consumerism is not just shallow, but it is warming the planet and gas consumption continues to warp volatile Middle-Eastern societies. As with Keynes's successful businessman who fails but only in the conventional ways others fail, all the myriad conventional decisions made by middle-class drones like the Spacey character have a way of concealing or providing justification for systematic injustices of those with less privilege (not of course that the movie makes this point within its closed suburban environment). From excess military gear given to local police forces to baroque algorithms to grade teachers, there is a bias in favor of management, of order imposed to justify the imposition of order (in that way the Spacey character's rebellion against Bening's character's overly pruned and managed garden speaks to a shutting out of the unpredictable that can add life.)

One can hope to reform from within, or one can drop out and hope that the demonstrations of viable alternate ways of life themselves can be of value.
posted by Schmucko at 1:14 PM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


American Beauty is a crashingly superficial movie

Note the title of the movie itself.
posted by rhizome at 1:19 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


This reminds me - similar era, I rewatched Pleasantville the other day - curious to hear how other folks feel that one has held up...

I saw it recentrly! It does hold up mostly as the little parable/fable it is. I still like how they don't get to go "home" really and it seemed more like an attack on nostalgia for a pre-packaged, simplified TV version of the past that falls apart the instant you look at it too closely.

Also Don Knotts is totally Satan in that movie.

(I'm realizing now that another issue I had with AB is that you could've released it in 1972 without changing much, which was also one of my issues with the early seasons of Six Feet Under, everyone seemed like they where inhabiting a decade or two younger than they should be.)
posted by The Whelk at 1:21 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


(I do remember exactly one actual clever joke from AB, the gay neighbors John & John in identical jogging outfits cause that totally happens )
posted by The Whelk at 1:22 PM on September 9, 2014


Adam Cadre's got a worthwhile take on Pleasantville:
When I was in college I studied pop culture and one of the most memorable lectures I heard was on Back to the Future, a film to which Pleasantville has often been compared. In Back to the Future, a contemporary (though in BttF's case "contemporary" is 1985 instead of 1998) high school kid finds himself in the 1950s. But in BttF, all this really means is that they haven't heard of Pepsi Free (now there's a dated reference) or Calvin Klein. The differences are purely cosmetic. The principal is the same, the same bullies are harassing the same wimps... 1955 and 1985 form a seamless continuity. The Reaganites' dream come true! A view of history that just SKIPS OVER the massive societal transformations of the 1960s and 70s!

This is what the Pleasantville Chamber of Commerce, worked up into a lather over the unsettling introduction of color to the town, calls "the non-changeist view of history, emphasizing continuity over alteration." Much of the movie's portrayal of the America of 1950s television is broad satire, but this bit if anything underplays the outlook of a frighteningly large segment of our society.

A while ago someone I was talking to expressed confusion as to the meaning of "reactionary" — not just what policies tended to fall under that heading, but what the word meant, what outlook it reflected. Reactionary doesn't just mean "really conservative." Conservative means wanting to stop progress, freeze time. Reactionary means wanting to go back in time. Wanting to, say, retreat to a mythical 1958. (Remember, the real 1950s weren't like Leave It to Beaver. They are often dismissed today as ten years of white-bread conformism, but a closer look at the period reveals that at the time many thought they were drowning in a wave of civil strife and juvenile delinquency.) Reactionary is Trent Lott waxing nostalgic for the Jim Crow South in those rare moments that he's not waxing nostalgic for the Confederate States of America. Reactionary is Bob Dole, responding to Bill Clinton's endless repetition of his "bridge to the 21st century" line, telling the 1996 Republican National Convention that he wanted to be a bridge to, oh, 1949 or so: "Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action. And to those who say it was never so, that America's not been better, I say you're wrong. And I know because I was there."

Reactionary is movie screening sites like Capalert lamenting what happens to "clean, honest, wholesome" Pleasantville. I wasn't expecting Pleasantville itself to be reactionary when I saw it the first time, though. I was expecting it to be conservative, the way Back to the Future is conservative: yeah, maybe the 90s kids introduce the 50s kids to skateboards and the macarena, but learn that really Pleasantville isn't so bad and isn't even so different... something like that. Instead, we get the sexual revolution, a downswing in censorship, a dismantling of traditional family roles... and though the town patriarchs grumble and scheme, among the characters we care about, these changes are greeted as joyous liberation. This is a movie that has the courage to remind our Fox-News-watching, Rush-Limbaugh-listening, Republican-electing society that the social changes of the 60s ought not be elided, or denigrated, or dismissed as a fashion statement, but celebrated for making life much better.
posted by Iridic at 1:23 PM on September 9, 2014 [11 favorites]


The movie's values seem wrong now partly because it was in another world: when jobs were easier to come by, quitting one for mid-life crisis "personal growth" wasn't such a slap to everyone living paycheck to paycheck.

People keep describing Lester's values and the movie's values as if they are one and the same thing. I don't understand why that is. Even at the time, I thought he was being a selfish asshole, and making everyone around him suffer. Were there people watching it at the time yelling 'attaboy'? His only redemption in the movie is when he realizes that other people have their own shit going on, and then he dies.
posted by empath at 1:24 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


There's a thread over on Datalounge discussing "Movies that Don't Hold Up" and an anonymous poster made this comment a couple of days ago, which I basically agree with:

"American Beauty really is shit but then I always thought it was. It seemed edgier and more clever to some at the time because it was 1999, the end of the Clinton era, the approaching millennium, etc. There had been previous films like Todd Solondz's Happiness that illustrated the deadliness of surburban life and what Alan Ball did was mainstream that and make it palatable - he wasn't saying anything new, he just put a bow on it.

Spacey takes the easy way out, he seems completely gay in it. Coming off of the cult favourite The Usual Suspects, his performance seemed more substantial than it is. He's not a convincing partner for Annette Bening (who throughout the film seems like the frustrated wife of a gay man) and he's so sexually inert that viewers didn't even take offence to his paedo yearnings for his daughter's friend. He is completely non-threatening in the role, telling us from the very beginning that he's going to die, this negating his behaviour if not exactly illiciting sympathy. Ball's script is full of such blatant, mechanical manipulation including the cartoon Nazi lover next-door who would never live in such a community (and is more likely to be a hillbilly).

One of the weakest Best Picture winners ever, a film that seemed to capture the zeitgeist but was really just a watered down version of other films that actually did."
posted by Auden at 1:29 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I agree with the sentiment in some ways, but it's not a very good argument at all.

I mostly stopped reading here:

We eventually find out that Jane and Ricky are joking, but not before he turns off the camera. In a better-written movie, this tape would end up in evidence after Lester’s murder.

No.

I was perplexed, the year American Beauty won the Academy Award for Best Picture

Take a look at the other years. The Best Picture nominees are not that good either. They are the movies "everyone" agrees on, which basically means pablum.

The movie's vision is that this is life, an endless repetition of dysfunction driven by inevitable male selfishness.

Hey, someone got it! Also see: Growing Up Absurd. The movie is not about how hard it is to be a rich, white dude--it's about how ridiculous it is to be a rich, white dude and still be unhappy. And that is life.

On preview:

"Man smothered by bullshit (his own bullshit and the bullshit of others) engages in bullshit rebellion that hurts everyone" is in fact a story worth telling.

Somebody else got it.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:29 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


oh, gosh, this is funny and kind of sad - one day, nearly 10 years ago, i and a friend were both recently divorced middle aged men in our 40s - having a daughter, i was pretty much mr responsibility, keeping my nose to the grindstone - still am - he didn't have any responsibilities or kids so it was time to party and relive his early 20s

one day he invited me over to someone's house - and then said, you have got to watch THIS - i was kind of rolling my eyes because i'm not a movie or tv watcher anymore and wasn't sure i wanted to, but he insisted with fervor - it's so beautiful and meaningful - and so, i was confronted with that plastic bag and all that ponderous symbolism about it, which i couldn't exactly deny, but having read a shitload of romantic poetry and the beats, wasn't exactly impressed by either

it was rather nicely photographed though

and so here we are, the burbs - a frustrated man child who is married to a horribly materialistic wife and has a shitty office job and a justifiably angsty daughter who decides to say screw it and relives his teenaged years the way they should have been lived with plenty of fair observations about beauty mixed with stoner banality and lust

alright, it was a fairly well done movie with some flashes of insight, much better than the usual hollywood crap, but i had some mental reservations - the guy's a bit of a jerk and seems to enjoy being dead more than he ever enjoyed living - and after having gone through a divorce and somehow managing to keep things together for me and my daughter and still creating music and poetry, it really didn't seem like this was a life lesson that was intended for me, because i was doubling down on the job and my daughter's needs, not running away from them

but it seemed to be some kind of big deal for my friend

well, years have passed - he's gone through another marriage and divorce, he hasn't done anything but do odd jobs and collect unemployment and has done what he wants - i'm 57 and my daughter turned 18 this year - my ex got tired of being mom to an autistic kid and dumped her suddenly at an assisted living facility when i was working lots of overtime and couldn't arrange anything else - by june, she was actively not getting along, her mother hadn't had any contact with her since february and so she's living with me now, probably for a few years

and you know, i think life's a lot better and more beautiful for me now than it was before and i'm still looking at beauty and creating stuff

i'm afraid that movie just isn't MY movie

also, my teenaged years seriously sucked and i sure as hell wouldn't ever go back to them
posted by pyramid termite at 1:34 PM on September 9, 2014 [10 favorites]


I wonder how much differently the movie might have gone if they pitted Lester as an unhappy unconcious closet case envying the relationship of his neighbors and then attempting to destroy it?

wait let me fire up Scrivener it could be like The Servant in suburbia.
posted by The Whelk at 1:35 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'd really like to see a detailed comparison between Nate on Six Feet Under and Lester in American Beauty. Someone either find that for me or write it.
posted by empath at 1:36 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


As I may have said on the blue before, American Beauty is a cartoon about suburbia made by people who've never really lived in one and possibly never visited one either.

it reminded me of the Growing Pains episode where Mike falls in with the downtown "artsy" crowd and they deride him for eating a 'hot dog...on a stick!?" as if it was something Martians do.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:37 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


People keep describing Lester's values and the movie's values as if they are one and the same thing. I don't understand why that is. Even at the time, I thought he was being a selfish asshole, and making everyone around him suffer. Were there people watching it at the time yelling 'attaboy'

Sure, the same way Tyler Durden's group of merry pranksters seems fun until it escalates into Project Mayhem. You're not supposed to think what Lester is doing is all that great, but you're also supposed to sympathize with his predicament. "Look at this selfish asshole" was not the point of the movie, if that was your takeaway.

Are upper middle class people supposed to be thrilled to be in loveless marriages or something?
posted by spaltavian at 1:41 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


This movie is a cardboard cutout of an impossibly trite cliche, delivered with the hamfists of a 15 year old that just read catcher in the rye and suddenly feels that he/she is "real deep".

And don't tell me a missed some point that the director deftly wove into his artistic master work; the themes of this film were far from subtle.

"Man smothered by bullshit (his own bullshit and the bullshit of others) engages in bullshit rebellion that hurts everyone" is in fact a story worth telling.

watch Schizopolis
posted by Colby_Longhorn at 1:41 PM on September 9, 2014 [5 favorites]


Well Nate is openly pathetic, right? Every single character comments on his flash-frozen/refuse to take responsibility/it's not 1994 grow up already problem and he manages to screw up almost thing he's put in charge of and maintains his hostile relationship with Brenda cause they're both childish narcissistic dramaholics who deserve each other.

Okay granted I may have been sayig "yes Nate cry your tears are like wine" at more than a few points.

(the show will forever be good to me for Ruth: You want me to complain? Alright then, Fuck this. Fuck you; fuck all of you and your sniveling self pity, and fuck all your lousy parents. Fuck my lousy parents while we're at it. Fuck my selfish, bohemian sister and her fucking bliss. Fuck my legless grandmother. Fuck my dead husband, and my lousy children with their nasty little secrets. And fuck you Robby for dragging me to this terrible place and not letting me have a snickers bar. I'm going to get something to eat! )
posted by The Whelk at 1:42 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


Well Nate is openly pathetic, right? Every single character comments on his flash-frozen/refuse to take responsibility/it's not 1994 grow up already problem and he manages to screw up almost thing he's put in charge of and maintains his hostile relationship with Brenda cause they're both childish narcissistic dramaholics who deserve each other.

Yeah, but I think Lester is also openly pathetic, and it's only the director's choices that make him seem not to be. I can easily imagine a version of American Beauty shot from an identical script that makes it obvious that Lester is a complete shit-heel.
posted by empath at 1:44 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh here's a slice of the ol' fin de siècle: looking at grosses, American Beauty grossed less than The World Is Not Enough and more than The Spy Who Shagged Me. Yeah, baby!
posted by octobersurprise at 1:45 PM on September 9, 2014


If the purpose of art is to be technically competent at achieving any massage at all, then sure...

What about accupuncture?
posted by snofoam at 1:47 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


delivered with the hamfists

When you care enough to send the very beast.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:48 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


(I'm realizing now that another issue I had with AB is that you could've released it in 1972 without changing much, which was also one of my issues with the early seasons of Six Feet Under, everyone seemed like they where inhabiting a decade or two younger than they should be.)

I have a suspicion that this may be because "write what you know", and those experiences are going to be 10-20 years in the past by the time you've gained the perspective and expertise to turn them into whatever opus.

(I was recently playing with writing the kind of YA fiction that I would have loved at that age, and quickly discovered that having a relevant modern setting pretty much rules out the kind of childhood that I wanted to write about. So I'm trying to shoehorn elements of an 80s childhood onto 21st century characters and hoping The Whelk (etc) won't notice... :-) )
posted by anonymisc at 1:58 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Spacey takes the easy way out, he seems completely gay in it. [blah blah blah snip] Ball's script is full of such blatant, mechanical manipulation including the cartoon Nazi lover next-door who would never live in such a community (and is more likely to be a hillbilly).

I never read Lester as gay, or at least not as unambiguously gay. And I don't think that Chris Cooper/Frank Fitts would have been automatically a "hillbilly," or someone "who would never live in such a community," either; whoever that Datalounge writer was seems to have never lived or been anywhere near the South, or Arizona, or the Inland Empire, for that matter.
posted by blucevalo at 2:01 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


When Orson Scott Card was doing those things, it reminded me so much of Colonel Frank Fitts. That may or may not be accurate, but with me being a sheltered type, the movie was the first time I saw that trope shown in a way that made sense to me.
posted by anonymisc at 2:11 PM on September 9, 2014


including the cartoon Nazi lover next-door who would never live in such a community (and is more likely to be a hillbilly).

Yeah, um, no.
posted by rhizome at 2:14 PM on September 9, 2014


I never read Lester as gay

... this post inspired me to re-watch the film after probably a decade (currently on pause at the 'Spacey watches slack-jawed as Mena Sulvari performs her dance routine' scene). Spacey reads as so so so gay
posted by Auden at 2:18 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Nazi plate is one of my favorite touches in the movie, for a number of reasons. 1.) I found it totally believable that this guy would have this thing. 2.) The way it plays out isn't like Col. Fitts sees himself as a nazi or anything, just a collector of memorabilia (remember that when he's beating Ricky for the cabinet being unlocked, Ricky says, "I just wanted to show my girlfriend your nazi plate," and that calms Frank down. He's not at all ashamed of this interest, disturbing and telling though it is to the audience. 3.) That the moment Jane turns it over is probably the most shocking and tense few seconds of the movie, as you just know she's going to drop it in shock, and then when she doesn't the disgust over it just sort of settles on everything. And 4.) because in a movie all about, from the poster to the narration to everything else, "looking closer" at suburbia, that little thing - turning over a dinner plate and finding a swastika - could have been so overblown symbolic but somehow doesn't play off that way.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:22 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well, it is Spacey. I don't actually know if he's gay or not, and he ain't saying, but he's never played a role that hasn't seemed coded gay to me.
posted by maxsparber at 2:27 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


American Beauty is one of those movies that seems profound while you're watching it, but the minute after it ends and you submit it to even the minutest scrutiny you're like Fat Tony out in the alley behind Moe's going "Heyyyy, wait a minute!"
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:29 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


It could be coded into the film ( hey now wouldn't that ave been better? Eh?) or it could be the fact that Spacey has never believably given a performance as a heterosexual man in love.
posted by The Whelk at 2:30 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


I absolutely hated Frank Fitts in this movie. Not Chris Cooper, who is a great actor doing his best with some shitty material. But the writing is like the most cardboard stupid 2d portrayal of the character. I know a fair number of closeted gay men, some who went through very angry macho periods like Fitts'. Seeing them reduced to a cartoon is offensive. Then again all the characters are cartoonish, so I guess it's in keeping with the movie, and I like the movie. But the Fitts stuff just reads terribly fake to me. Except for the couple of bits where Cooper gives the character a little vulnerability, a little view inside the scared, out of place man. I like to think the actor added that.

BTW if you like Chris Cooper, Breach is phenomenal. And a rare film where he gets to play the lead role. It also proves he can give a lot of nuance to a man living life in a closet, something he didn't get to do in American Beauty.
posted by Nelson at 2:37 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


Spacey (the man) reads as neither gay nor un-gay to me. I think, were he allowed to or cared enough to make it his thing, he'd be one of the first openly bi A-listers.
posted by bonehead at 2:38 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]




Oh, I don't think Ball, Mendes, or Spacey meant to imply that Lester was in any way gay. But boy, from his performance, he sure seems gay.
posted by Auden at 2:40 PM on September 9, 2014


I'd argue that American Beauty is a bad movie but only if you try to see Lester as the hero, or even a hero. At best Lester is an anti-hero, and at worst he's somewhere between villain and cautionary example.

I've done a 360 on the movie. When I first saw it the cinematography and the score and the acting pulled me in and I took it at face value: as a movie of brave rebellion, of speaking truth to power, of triumph against the system even in death, and as a sort of Hemingway-esque tale of a person who achieves true happiness at the moment of their death.

Later I came, as the author of this piece does, to see it as a bad movie. Because I was seeing Lester through the lens of hero, and he isn't. I won't go into detail about my time of thinking poorly of American Beauty because the linked review rather perfectly encapsulates that.

But today, I think the movie is good when viewed from a lens that is radically different from how I originally saw it, and perhaps even radically different from what the director, actors, etc intended.

I agree, to an extent, with ELFRadio. When we see things from Lester's POV he's the victim rising heroically to fight the system, mainly as embodied by his wife. That's the main POV of the film, and that's why it's so easy to see the film as having a bad message by embracing that point of view.

But if we, properly, view Lester as an unreliable narrator things are quite different.

His wife has indeed become bitter, distant, and apparently disinterested in sex (at least with him). But WHY? The only time Lester gives Carolyn much thought is when he resents her. But apparently he's too self absorbed to see that she is as deeply unhappy as he is, and is expressing it in an almost identical, if somewhat quieter and less physically violent, way.

Lester is a bit more open in his resentment of his family, and the world, than Carolyn is, but not much. And they are both, equally, materialistic and self absorbed. Look at the couch scene for the perfect example. He almost has a moment of revelation, he recognizes that Carolyn is unhappy. But then, through the utter lack of empathy and perception that might be said to be his defining characteristic, he misses the moment entirely. Carolyn is indeed tied to her possessions, she worries about the couch. This enrages Lester who manages to (falsely) equate her concern for the couch with a lack of concern for him (or their relationship, or her happiness which he believes shouldn't include couches). He imagines himself to be above such petty bourgeoisie concerns as material possessions, and on the surface the movie expects us to agree with Lester's assessment of himself as freed from concern about material things.

But imagine for a moment if the scene had been reversed and she had a glass of red wine in Lester's beloved 1970 Pontiac Firebird. He would have been at least as protective of it as she was of the couch, possibly moreso. Because he is exactly as materialistic as she. He doesn't see this, he can't see this because it utterly conflicts with his self image as being above material possessions. And so he lashes out in a rage and has a screaming temper tantrum.

Think too of what it implies about the character of Lester that he feels betrayed by his wife because she became unhappy, self loathing in fact. But he never asks why. He never wonders if the collapse of their marriage was their mutual responsibility, instead he blames it entirely on her becoming "joyless". Does he know that she engages in physical and mental self abuse because she fails at the impossible goals she sets herself ("I will sell this house **today**, I will sell this house **today**", emphasis mine)? Of course not. Lester sees the world as intractably opposed to him and his happiness, and he sees his alienated wife and daughter not as fellow travelers, not as people to empathize with, people who share with, people to stand against the tide of tears with, but as enemies, as agents of the world he believes hates him. He feels betrayed because he wants them to be his allies, but he wants them to be his allies without effort on his part, by having them side with him, by having them take interest in his interests and problems and life; not by siding with them, not by taking an interest in their problems and life.

If we try to see Lester as the hero of the movie, or a hero at all, then it is indeed a bad movie. A movie that has deceived us into siding with a bad person because he did a successful sad puppy impression and had hurt feelings.

Lester is no more the hero of American Beauty than Rick Deckard is the hero of Blade Runner. We're just so used to associating "protagonist" with "hero" we often fail to notice that a movie is going out of its way to get us to sympathize with the, or at least a, bad guy. Lester is a man who never looked closer in his life, in a way we could see constant, subtle, appearance of those words a sort of cosmic warning that he overlooks due to his absolute self absorption. Had he looked closer, at his life, at Carolyn's life, at Jane's life, he would have found allies to stand with. But he didn't, and so he turned them into enemies.

If we see the movie as the portrait of a painfully narcissistic man who has pushed away those he loved, and those who loved him, and lashed out at the world by reverting to a quasi-adolescence, a man who lives in a hell of his own devising because he is too lazy, too self absorbed, too unimaginative and unable to break free from his own confining viewpoint, then it is an excellent movie, and beautiful.
posted by sotonohito at 2:40 PM on September 9, 2014 [26 favorites]


But for the duration: look at him dance.

Interesting how we see the plastic bag almost completely oppositely. To me this is a piece with the last scene in About Schmidt---another one of the millennial nihilism movies.
posted by bonehead at 2:44 PM on September 9, 2014


@nelson: I never read Frank Fitts as a deeply closeted gay man. I saw him as a straight man (or at least as straight as anyone else), who had his world collapse and tried to understand how and why that happened. A man who, in his own twisted way, loved Ricky, and after seeing Ricky finally leave his control and (so he thinks) become something he hates he needed to understand the appeal, and needed someone to reach out to for human contact.

I could be reading way too much into it, but his kiss with Lester seemed less like a closeted gay man finally coming out, but as a very confused man in a seriously messed up mental place trying desperately to understand what he thought his son did and liked. And also as a man seeking any sort of closeness he could find to help him through is time of trouble. He's a man who lived his whole life suppressing every emotion but rage, and for the first time rage wasn't enough. The other things he felt but kept denying, the loss, the confusion, the sadness, the whole stew of a lifetime of suppressed emotion, finally boiled over and left him like a drowning man grasping at anything he could that might help him get through the night. Anything that could help him make sense of the world, his son.

Perhaps, he thought, there really was something to this gay stuff. Maybe it really is so amazing and that's why my son did it, let's find out. And then Lester rejects him, not from Frank's point of view as a gay man, but as a symbol for humanity at large, and what little self control he had vanished, and the rage that he had cultivated his whole life came back.
posted by sotonohito at 2:48 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


sotonohito: that's a great alternate reading of Fitts, and a lot more sympathetic than I saw in the film. Thanks for sharing it, makes me feel a lot better about the movie character.

Auden (!): But boy, from his performance, [Lester] sure seems gay.

Which part about Lester seemed gay to you? The way he complains about not having sex with his wife any more? The way he interacts with the hot teenage boy neighbor without a hint of eroticism? Or was it his sexual fantasies about a 15 year old girl?

Seriously, there's nothing about Lester that's gay in the movie. He's comfortable enough in his masculinity to not freak out when Fitts kisses him. And he's a little metrosexual, to use an anachronistic term, in that he's working out and he talks softly. But nothing homosexual at all that I see.

(Kevin Spacey does read gay-ish to me in many of his acting roles. I've never met the man in person and have no opinion on the actor's sexuality other than if you know he happens to be gay, could you give him my phone number please?)
posted by Nelson at 3:04 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


In the author's attempt to make Lester in to the bad guy, she completely overlooks his $60k severance package and completely self-sufficient financial getup.

She claims to be obsessed with this movie, but doesn't realize that Lester is able to afford his wank-off lifestyle?

I'm almost wondering if this is some sort of weak attempt at meta-trolling, aka "it's a troll post if you like it...do you?"

Also, I always interpreted Fitts as a guy so torn at his son turning to the side of the devil that he had to somehow "understand it" - could be wrong.
posted by GreyboxHero at 3:24 PM on September 9, 2014


The Nostalgia Critic covered the same thing last week. Does American Beauty Still Hold Up? Is there an anniversary BluRay coming out or something?

That cinematography doesn't deserve 3 frame gifs. Bad article! No cookie!
posted by WhackyparseThis at 3:39 PM on September 9, 2014


Hum. 1999. What was I watching again? Oh yeah. Well, I suppose if I was going to watch any "Adults Making Bad Life Choices" stories in '99,, I'm glad I was busy watching Cowboy Bebop.

If I was in college I could do a freshman Film Studies paper comparing Cowboy Bebop and American Beauty, one that would garner me an 'A'. And American Beauty would come off badly in comparison.

Bebop totally had better music, too.
posted by happyroach at 3:52 PM on September 9, 2014


Nah, it's set up pretty early on that Ricky knows his dad is, if not gay, at least protesting too much.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:59 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


This reminds me - similar era, I rewatched Pleasantville the other day - curious to hear how other folks feel that one has held up

Pleasantville is a movie, that when I'm browsing the TV and it pops up, I HAVE to watch it.

If anything I think it's gained traction over time.
posted by Windigo at 5:03 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Man, if nothing else, this is making me think over stuff I like about a movie that I agree hasn't aged very well, but is still a collection of great elements if nothing else (though there are terrible elements as well, such as the Austin Powers view Col. Fitts gets of Lester and Ricky that sets off the ending, but anyway...)

Thinking about the Nazi plate again, with Col. Fitts, we know that he's confused, and an abuser, and a total control freak. We know that he's bullied his wife into catatonia and that his son justifiably despises him. We know that when the gay couple comes to bring a welcome basket, he's immediately cagey even before he's put two and two together about them.

We never get any sense that Col. Fitts has any friends at all or would know what to do with one if he had one.

So when Ricky says, "There's an entire subculture of people who collect this Nazi shit, but my dad only has this one thing," it speaks volumes to me that I'd never considered. I've never priced out Nazi memorabilia, but my guess would be that there's a lot of it, and a lot for sale at WWII conventions and whatnot. We know that the Fitts family has just bought a nice house in a nice suburban neighborhood and don't appear to be hurting financially at all. So why, indeed, does he only have this one thing?

I think he tried to connect with an army "buddy" and got sucked into the subculture for a very short amount of time before failing to connect with anyone there either. I think we're supposed to take away that this is a desperately lonely and confused man who has never connected with another human being in a meaningful, healthy way, mostly through his own actions, and it makes what he does at the end, from approaching Lester in about the most off-putting way possible (to which Lester, to his credit, tries to actually be cool about) to then feeling more embarrassment and rejection and self-hatred and fear in a night than he can possibly deal with in any other way than lashing out and murdering the guy who might have actually been open to listening to him right then.

I'm not pretty certain that's what we're supposed to get from that. I think the movie's biggest flaw - for it is certainly flawed in some ways - is in giving Lester that voiceover. In an ensemble piece it puts the audience squarely in his corner from the get-go, which encourages us to cheer on his horrible behavior while removing the VO would help us cringe as he does some things and feel more sympathy as he does others. He's a character who needs a more objective treatment to work properly.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:31 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


If we see the movie as the portrait of a painfully narcissistic man who has pushed away those he loved ... then it is an excellent movie, and beautiful.

With the caveat that I haven't watched it in 15 years, I think what keeps American Beauty from being a Graduate or Death of a Salesman level depiction of spiritual emptiness is that the movie itself can't decide if Lester is admirable or contemptible for trying to drop out of the rat race. It wants Lester to be both (as I recall) but, being too eager to paint with broad strokes, doesn't know what it would do if that were true.

Re Lester's sexuality, I don't recall anything that suggests that Lester isn't as confident in his heterosexuality as the next straight man. To the extent that seems incredible, I think the problem is A) Spacey's own difficulty and B) the insubstantiality of Lester as a character.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:40 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


A little hot Lester on Fitts action could have only improved the movie, tho.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:47 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


In the screenplay we have a short scene where Col. Fitts looks at an old photograph of himself and another man from back in his army days. They're both shirtless and have a comradely arm about the other's neck, and the way the scene has his gaze lingering on the photo strongly implies a relationship.

I'm surprised that they got rid of that (as far as I remember they got rid of that, it's been a decade since I've seen the movie), but I think the ambiguity of removing that bit ends up working better than explicitly identifying him as closeted gay.
posted by Ndwright at 5:58 PM on September 9, 2014


In contrast, take Trainspotting and Renton. Now, in a lot of ways, Trainspotting has the opposite BRIGHT FLASHING message from American Beauty, Fight Club, The Matrix and Office Space, because it takes a protagonist utterly bent on nihilistic self-destruction and abdication of responsibility and has them grow up into somebody actually excited to join the ranks of responsible adults.

Now, those other films actually start with characters in mind-numbing ennui, have them reject it, and then when the consequences of their rejection go too far, they either fight back to reclaim a responsible life of their own making, or in the case of Lester, die. (Even in The Matrix, the Oracle tells Neo he's not The One so that when he takes responsibility, it will be of his own choosing rather than as an assignment.) Still, in every one of these movies the hook is in the rejection of Society. They are all a middle finger pointed at corporate culture.

But in American Beauty, Lester's VO is serenely content from the start. We know from the outset that he will die, but more than that we know that he's happy about it. That colors his arc like crazy. When he blackmails his boss as he's about to get laid off, we cheer him on, which makes sense. When he pisses and moans about going to his wife's business event, and then proceeds to ignore her, get drunk and get high, we cheer him on, which, yeah, it seemed like a dull event. When he berates his wife in front of their distant daughter over music choices at dinner (in what clearly feels like his way of trying to bond with Jane), we cheer him on. When he pisses and moans about going to his daughter's dance routine, only to leer at Angela, it's presented as magical and breaking him from his rut, and we cheer him on. WHen he again berates Carolyn for trying to get him to not spill beer on their nice couch while they're about to actually have an intimate moment, we cheer him on, despite how fucking crazy that is. And when he seduces an underage teenager, a lot of people cheer him on (the MTV Movie awards nominated it for "Best Kiss," which SPacey thankfully put the kibosh on.) Whatever message we're supposed to come away with gets muddled, because "in the end doesn't fuck the teenager" doesn't speak to a lot of personal growth, really.

In Trainspotting, however, Renton does tons of awful stuff as well, but his voiceover tracks us through his actual arc of self-awareness and turn towards responsibility (which in his case means ditching his friends in the harshest way possible, but they were also the biggest impediment to him ever getting out of his hole.) The film adaptation loses a lot, and the more memorable things it loses are horrible Renton actions (like fucking his brother's pregnant widow in the bathroom at his brother's funeral) but also smaller moments that show his gradual maturity (like laughing at a sexist prank call to a female bartender and then realizing how shitty it made her feel.) Still, the the voiceover always (1) keeps us in the present moment rather than a serene future where everything turns out weirdly fine, and (2) takes us on an actual arc rather than a predetermined one. I think it works much better, myself.
posted by Navelgazer at 6:15 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


There are different ways to read Fitts, but I think I'd describe him not as closeted gay (which could simply mean knowing he's gay and keeping it secret), but repressed and in denial. His worldview seemed to be that part of a man's life means resisting (gay) temptation and that's just the way the world is - a binary world of those who give in to the temptation (perverts and the weak) and those who struggle and stay on the straight and narrow. He doesn't seem to see a third category and its ramifications; people who are on the straight and narrow not because of discipline, but because they genuinely lack the attraction and face no temptation. When I saw it, it seems like at some level he was in denial that being straight was something other than choices and actions and discipline.
posted by anonymisc at 6:33 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]


There are Lester Burnhams in public office, in the Supreme Court, at billion dollar corporations, at record labels and movie studios. These people in power aren’t happy, and this movie gives them what must be a very comforting message: let go of your responsibility, but not your power. Don’t worry about what the world will look like after you die. You’ll be happy if you help yourself — not the people who need you.

Seriously? WOW.
posted by uraniumwilly at 8:34 PM on September 9, 2014


Navelglazer, I agree with you. I really never got the impression that we're supposed to interpret Fitts as a closeted gay; rather, a lonely guy with no ability to relate to anyone.

He's as gay as he is a Nazi, and came across as somebody who has to consider any extreme social group because of the fringe's more accepting/"welcoming" culture.
posted by GreyboxHero at 8:43 PM on September 9, 2014


I liked American Beauty just fine as a teen. I think the reason I watched it was because it had Thora Birch in it, who I had a crush on, and also because it had Kevin Spacey, who I used to enjoy.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:57 PM on September 9, 2014


This reminds me - similar era, I rewatched Pleasantville the other day - curious to hear how other folks feel that one has held up...

I do petulantly enquire "Where's my dinner?" quite frequently.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:05 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


Why in the world are there small infinitely looped gifs throughout this article? Can we all call a moratorium on this please?
posted by koavf at 11:48 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]


I love American Beauty and for some reason this article made me like it even more. I like reading into it the way the author does, it makes the movie a lot more interesting to me.
posted by gucci mane at 11:56 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


Just re-watched Pleasantville, and it totally holds up. Possibly because it didn't have heaps of acclaim slathered on it at the time, I don't know. For all of the ways in which it is not, you know, at all subtle, when I saw it as a teenager I didn't understand it as an outline of how fascism develops. I like that, even in the nineties, Jennifer's sexual assertiveness is never really slut-shamed, but she does come into herself not by becoming a prude, but by exploring other things as well.

And holy god, this was a PG-13 comedy aimed at families which has a central scene where a "daughter" teaches her mother how to masturbate, and the mother then has such a self-initiated orgasm that it sets a tree on fire, and that is treated not salaciously, nor comedically, but as a triumph. That is awesome.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:27 PM on September 10, 2014 [4 favorites]


I'm a sucker for American Beauty, and pretty much any movie that starts off by telling me the story is going to end, badly. It's the time between the declaration and the actual event, if the movie (or book, or show, or play) that, if it's good enough, draws me in, and, in spite of my knowledge that I shouldn't care because caring is going to end up hurting, makes me desperately want everything to turn out okay. American Beauty does it on a film length scale. 25th Hour does it in one magical scene, where Brian Cox tells a wonderful story that can't happen. It happens in Heisei Tanuki Pompoko. There are tons of others out there, moments or characters that grab me, make me hope, even though I know I shouldn't get involved, and leave me devastated.

I haven't seen it in a while, but the way I remember it, at least to me, is that Lester, right before his death, has some sort of realization, some understanding that he's been a pretty awful person, and that he's aware of how his actions have damaged the family. It's a moment that could have happened about an hour into a different movie, where the dad suddenly realizes how wrong he's been, and tries to fix everything. If the dad is Adam Sandler, it works, and everyone is happy. If the dad is Nicolas Cage, well... eww.

That instead of the moment of realization bringing about reconciliation and happiness, that it's wiped out, so suddenly, and that no one in his family will ever have any idea of it, is such a stunning moment to me.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:26 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing that got me was the binary choice that was presented. As in, the choices were accept the society or walk away. But not to free the child. None of the people who walk away take the child with them. Which means, no matter where they go, they're STILL as complicit in the evil as the people still in the city. So while I can see the metaphor there, I can't accept it. I can't see any moral choice in the story.

There are all kinds of people who become vegetarian but don't break into animal testing facilities. And there are many, many situations in life that are awful, but you can't really do anything to stop it -- you can only choose to not benefit from it.
posted by empath at 8:29 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


"I remember watching it when it came out, as a teenager. I thought the self-conscious artiness was hilariously empty and pretentious"

Yeah, that was my experience. It felt like just an incredibly pandering movie right when I was wanting to be challenged, not pandered to. And I remember it being hyped up so much that it couldn't really deliver. It certainly wasn't the '99 movie that I obsessed over — that'd be Being John Malkovitch. Three Kings, The Matrix, even Iron Giant and Princess Mononoke made bigger impressions, and Election should be right up there (though I only saw that a couple years later) for skewering the suburbs.

I will say that American Beauty was nowhere near as bad as Magnolia, a bombastic, turgid faux-Altman adventure that was also hyped to shit by my social group.
posted by klangklangston at 11:29 AM on September 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Magnolia is a beautiful masterpiece, and I can only assume you have unexamined issued with either Amy Mann or frogs.
posted by maxsparber at 12:12 PM on September 11, 2014


I can't believe it's 15 years ago me and mr. glasseyes went on date night and saw American Beauty. I thought it was a great film and the plastic bag made me cry. Sitting in the car afterwards I cried again.

I just happened to watch it last month and was surprised it just wasn't as ...plausible as remembered. Spacey's performance looked camp and a little smug to me, and it didn't feel as if the other characters were given space to be believable. They were just wallpaper, in front of which was a performance with layers but not a lot of depth, somehow. I mean, never mind about how, with the passage of time Lester's behaviour now seemed nothing but childish and stupid; that didn't bother me as much as feeling I just couldn't get hold of who the other characters were supposed to be. I could either not believe in the characters or suspect the film had purposefully withheld relevant info about them. Because, yeah, how do you get a guy like Fitts living in that neighbourhood with that particular son that he had? How would you get a guy so easily triggered to violence and anger who wasn't in jail or dead already, instead of materially well off and respected?

So I suppose in the passage of time the film has lost a bit of that willing suspension of disbelief stories need to carry them over into our - I'm reaching how to express this - personal archive of stories that make sense of things. Maybe this is what makes a classic film and takes hindsight to know that it's there.

Anyhow, thinking critically about the film I would never use middlebrow as a judgemental term. It's a neutral descriptive term. Film is and has to be a popular art form. Like Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre it's funded from the profit it makes.

At another tangent, every time I see (the beautiful) Wes Bentley I wonder why he's not been in more stuff. Turns out he has had problems. Good luck to him.
posted by glasseyes at 12:52 PM on September 11, 2014


Because, yeah, how do you get a guy like Fitts living in that neighbourhood with that particular son that he had? How would you get a guy so easily triggered to violence and anger who wasn't in jail or dead already, instead of materially well off and respected?

It's all very plausible to me. In my heavily suburban hometown, my mom still lives in the house I grew up in. The couple across the street, for whom I babysat decades ago, are spitting images of the Burnhams (real estate agent wife and soulless corporate husband), and next door to them is a family whose father is quite close enough to Col. Frank Fitts, USMC.

Now I'm thinking of "Ghost World" as an "American Beauty" sequel.
posted by rhizome at 2:29 PM on September 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


So we're hating American Beauty now?

No way.

I think this is just the desire to zig while everyone else zags. I will continue to zag, thank you very much. I will stick with the unremarkable assertion that American Beauty is a remarkable film.

SPOILER....................................

The story manages to have us rooting for a man who wants to bang a teenager, and then recoil in horror as he does. The film echoes that theme, among others, throughout. Rose petals bring a girl who's between childhood and adulthood into adulthood prematurely aesthetically. As the fall up and away (toward us), they reveal a body that should remain covered to us. Finally, as we cross over, leave the humour behind, and the endearing and disarming father finally engages with the child, we understand what the rose petals had hidden.

The child is wrapped in a blanket, at ease and unharmed. In the end, the man did not do what of course, he was incapable of doing. The child understood that he couldn't however close to the edge he had put her. In death, the man's eyes are clear, unconflicted, and alive.

American Beauty is a devastatingly beautiful and daring film that somehow (!) takes us on a journey we would properly refuse to take. Astonishing.
posted by huron at 8:05 PM on September 12, 2014


Examining 'American Beauty' at 15: A masterpiece, or a farce?

“So now I’m thinking,” Boyar concluded, “that American Beauty might be remembered for something else: The movie that caused a lot of movie critics to lose what was left of their minds.”
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:24 PM on September 18, 2014


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