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American Beauty

Reviewed By Thom
Posted 10/03/99 09:22:58

"My heart dropped out of my chest."
5 stars (Awesome)

This film is reminder that even in a voyeuristic society, we don't see much beyond the surface. Our inner eye and our outer eye fight for dominance and we don't have the opportunity to pursue the middle path without upsetting the delicate balance between being true to ourselves and sacrificing ourself for the apparent benefit of the world's rather than the heart's riches.

Which is Freud's theory of the construction of the ego. The Id (instinctual impulses, sexuality) and the superego (rules of social order, either necessary or arbitrary) fighting it out becomes the ego, or the expressed personality. In "Civilization and Its Discontents", Freud goes into great detail about the cause of neuroses and psychoses because of the Id completely repressed by the superego or the superego completely absent. A healthy ego is one that is neither too indulgent nor too imprisoned. The Superego wants to control psychic energy, the Id wants to spray it wherever the hell it wants to go. If you allow one or the other be dominant, the imbalance manifests as neurotic behavior.

We have this vague notion that the ideal adult is one who has managed to willfully direct his or psychic energy so that he or she is able to live within themselves and in the world without either system being disintegrated. What usually happens in American society, is that the outer system is the important system and its disintegration is viewed as more catastrophic than internal disintegration. After all, we have drugs to control moods. There is no drug that you can give the social order becuase they are patterns imposed upon the chaos of humanity. You drug the individuals to drug society, whether that drug is money, or alchohol or a trite public sensibility. America is necessarily anti-intellectual to preserve the sanctity of its inherent sickness. Don't ask questions, and you won't find the answers. The American Ego has not been prepared to deal with reality. American Beauty is lesson one of the catechism of humanism.

American Beauty is about trying to find the balance. It is an existentialist drama on par with "Nausea" by Sartre or "The Stranger" by Camus that deals with the heady question of "what does it all mean?". The answer they provide is, "Whatever you make it mean".

Ricky (Wes Bently) likes to pay close attention to the details of his surroundings. After being abandoned in a mental institute for two years because his parents thought he was a danger to society, he perfected a mask to reflect his military father's demands but developed a keen eye for making meaning out of the details. He comes as off as intense and detached but we discover that he is sensitive and observant and records the poetry of life as a record of the beauty that can exist in the most unlikely of places.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) wants out of the coma of his life. He goes a little too far but eventually the responsible side of him wakes up. However, we may be mere playthings at the hands of the god's because no soooner does he rediscover the adult to balance out the child that fate placed him right inside the more pitiful, repressed and completely locked down personal tragedy of Ricky's father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper).

Lesters marriage to Carolyn (Annette Bening) has been as devoid of passion as their lives. Carolyn skates through life thinking that image is all and substance something to be literally slapped out of you. We must wear masks, and believe the masks to be our true face, in order to participate in the world and have its four thousand dollar silk couches and designer clothes and the esteem of your professional colleagues. Carolyn makes her slow crawl out of her illusions and back into the self she was when she was younger and felt like there was less at stake. But tragedy is in her future. She is forced to start over again at a time when she had learned how to transform her staid relationship into something vibrant and living.

The only people in this movie who aren't being tossed about by their internal struggles are the gay couple who live next door. Who knows why they have it so together, but they are happy, healthy and harmonious among themselves and in the world. Finally, a movie with incidentally gay characters that are not the object of scrutiny or the characters that are trying to be assimilated or understood, but simply are there. Their presence becomes important as a theme later in the film when we are shown the dark side of repressed sexuality and the implication of certain institutions and ways of thinking in American society as a destructive, anti-human force that favors, because of history and tradition, a certain image when the substance of the image has never and will never equal 0. We just keep fluctuating wildly from negative to positive and positive to negative, sliding up and down the scales of action and reaction trying to live.


Everyone in this movie is either trying to escape the prison they have built around themselves or to strengthen its walls. Someone once said that you create your own hell. By extension, we should be able to create a heaven. American Beauty is about turning Hell into Heaven. But what a great question that is with all its conundrums and complexities and paradoxes. Where is the middle path of balance and creativity? How can we learn to take it as it comes, make it the best we can and continue learning how to make it even better?

Nothing in this movie is as it seems and the grey areas are explored deeply and emotionally in this film. In American Beauty, we see the painful side of repression. Mendes explores the question "What would my life be like if it was personally meaningful?" We like to think we are satisfying ourselves, but are we? Who and what do we live for and is happiness within our reach and if so, at what cost?

Rights and responsibilities, freedom and repression, self-exploration and self-centeredness all act as foils to each other to tease out a beautiful and moving portrait of what really matters in life. This film is heavily influenced by existentialism and it comes down to being a treatise on how and why to create a meaningful life. How each and every person, if they so chose, can have an extraordinary, large and meaningful life. The answers, as always, are somewhere between whats inside of you and what is outside of you.

Stunning performances by the entire cast. This film wants to reach into you and wake up your interior life. Sometimes we all need a kickstart and this film alternately screams in your face and gently nudges your mind out of bed.

American society may be "one big commercial to show how happy we are", but the stories hidden inside everyone reveal the truth of life and the heart of living. We may have chosen to anaesthetize ourselves and if we do decide to wake up and really live our lives, we may be tempted to throw caution to the wind and look out for number one at the expense of others, but this is just a step away from dancing somewhere between freedom and responsibility, self-centeredness and self-expression and exploration. The categories of inner and outer in American culture are strictly delineated and we are asked to sacrifice inner for outer and then we prescribe drugs to keep the inner subdued while the outer becomes more detached, more abstract and more meaningless.

This is not an American film. This is an American Film.
If the Beats helped crack open American Consciousness enough to allow for the slightests suggestion of new ways of living that embrace the whole person, then this film may help crack open American cinema to shuffle off its generic storylines, its appalling phoniness and its condescension to the intelligence of the American public.

We may finally see the last vestiges of post-war suburban consciousness thrown out the window to make room for a new social consciousness, one that is truly inclusive of the truth of humanity rather than the bleached and starched, patently inoffensive drone of American culture that we have been subject to for the past 50 years.

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