American Beauty (1999)
Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is suffering a mid-life crisis that affects the lives of his family which is made up of his less than pleasant wife Carolyn and rebelling daughter Jane who hates him. Carolyn, a real estate agent that is a little too wrapped up in her job, takes on an affair with business rival Buddy Kane. Meanwhile Jane seems to fall in love with Ricky Fitts, the strange boy next door who is a drug dealer of sorts and who lives in a broken kind of home governed by a very strict marine father and a speechless mother. Lester’s mid-life crisis causes him to drastically change his life around when he quits his job and works at a fast food restaurant. He starts working out to gain the attention of Angela, a friend of Jane’s who brags about her sexual exploits every weekend. Lives change and not for the best.
Rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content.
Runtime: 122 min
Company: DreamWorks SKG
FAITH REVIEW: AMERICAN BEAUTY
by John C. Elam, March 16, 2010
Film Title: American Beauty
Year: American Beauty was made in 1999. The official United States release date was October 1, 1999.
Director: Sam Mendes. American Beauty was his first film released in theatres. He had directed two movies for television previously. He followed American Beauty with Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005) and Revolutionary Road (2008). Mendes deals with relationships in a blunt, no-holds-barred fashion. Viewing certain scenes from American Beauty and Revolutionary Road makes one feel as if he is a voyeur and should excuse himself to rush out. It has the same effect as the awkward feeling one experiences when a couple argues loudly during a dinner party at their house. It is real. It is uncomfortable.
Original Release Form: The film was originally released for theatrical viewing.
Current Availability: The film is available in DVD format at most DVD sales outlets and department stores. In addition, many libraries carry the film for checkout. It is readily available through internet ordering on sites such as amazon.com. Selected scenes are available for viewing on youtube.
Genre: Drama, yet, I must opine, with splashes of dark humor.
Story Elements: Characters seem to drive this movie. Lester (Kevin Spacey) is an interesting, if cynical, middle-aged man who loses his job and happily embraces a “middle-aged crisis.” He begins smoking dope, lusting for his daughter’s friend, working out and, well, copping out. His wife, Carolyn (Annette Benning), is a high-strung, driven, Gucci wearing, Power-of-the-self worshipping real estate agent who is at wit’s end with Lester’s turn on/tune out mentality. Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), the abused son of an overbearing homophobic former Marine father and a nearly catatonic-personalitied mother, spends his time selling pot and videotaping life, in all its forms. He forms a friendship with the seemingly always pissed-off daughter of Lester and Carolyn, Jane (Thora Burch). Mendes allows the characters to be developed in the film. That is, he does not employ the cutesy-clever staccato tony Neil Simon-like dialogue, punctuated by lightening-quick cuts from face to face with hand-held camera so as to wow and woo the M-TV & me-me me generation. His characters articulate their thoughts and express their feelings. Where humor demands then, yes, the dialogue becomes (naturally) quicker and livelier. But merriment never intrudes on character development.
Which leads to pacing: When developing character, the pace slows, so as to allow the audience time to thoughtfully address who the character is, and the defining issues in his/her life. When the camera takes in action, the pace quickens… but never to the point of being frenetic.
Film Language Elements: (These elements are found in scene 16, which seems to have overwhelming hints of Christology.)
• Lighting: The use of lighting in scene 16 is brilliant (no pun intended). The scene opens with Ricky’s mother, Barbara Fitts, seated alone at the dining room table. The lifeless, slate gray walls seem to press in upon her. The room seems dark, though the afternoon sun is shining outside. One vertical light ray shines upon the left side of her hollow, prison-camp like face. Her affect is flat; her voice a monotone. She evokes thoughts of a beaten and starved dog, with tail
between legs, hiding from the light. The ray of sunlight is wholly ineffective in adding any degree of radiance, of life, to her face. In fact, it seems to intrude upon her cheek. The effect is, at once, dramatic and depressing. The scene shifts to Ricky’s father’s study. Again, though not dark, there is a sense of light lacking. Faces are lit, again from the side, by a limited amount of sunlight… its source unseen. Finally, the scene shifts to Ricky’s room, where Ricky shows Jane his wonderfully poetic trash bag video. Shot from behind the two, venetian blinds allow a shaft of sunlight, horizontal this time, to cross (warm?) Ricky’s right shoulder. The effect is measured magnificence.
• Eyes: Barbara Fitts hears Ricky’s introduction of Jane, then looks to her left, up at Jane’s face. The camera catches two hauntingly hollow eyes, looking to the extreme left, as if only the whites of the eyes existed. This is as near to the “eyes rolled back in the head” death shot as any two living eyes can come. We see this woman at once as a dead soul in a barely alive body. She apologizes for not cleaning the clean and antiseptic room… clearly a disconnect. Jane looks at the room, face still. Her eyes trace the opposite wall, from side to side. No expression, just eyes moving within head, never lighting upon décor: there is none, either in the room, or in Barbara. In the study, Ricky’s eyes flash white, as in, well, perhaps embarrassed horror, he shows Jane the Nazi platter. This is in great contrast with the love evident in his deep and dark eyes, as he views the video and describes how creation’s beauty nearly overwhelms his heart. I realize this is not a listed element. It could, possibly, be deemed “prop,” but then, eyes aren’t re-stored in the prop room when the scene is shot. Yet, the eyes in this scene seem too important to be a part of any other element (staging, framing, etc.), and, hence, I would argue their inclusion as a separate element, at least in this instance.
• Framing: In the dining room, the camera shoots the three with Barbara seated, Ricky on her right, and Jane on her left, both standing. It captures the shrunken nature of Barbara’s defeated persona. In the bedroom, as Jane and Ricky view the video, the framing changes. At the outset, we see the video from behind the two; the camera shot is between them. Once Ricky begins speaking of a higher power and the beauty of creation, a beauty that is emotionally overwhelming, the video is all we see. It is a movement of subtle brilliance, for at this time, we are beholding the wonder of creation with Ricky, not over his shoulder. The effect is quite moving to the viewer.
Audience/Cultural Context Elements: We are a jaded society. So many of our institutions are corrupted, and we are cynical. To many, the thought of a God who loves us is, well, quaint, thank you very much. My sense is that the audience thoroughly enjoys Lester’s antics, and even cheers for him as he gets stoned and lusts for a 17 year old cheerleader. This film would resonate with college aged and older adults… those longing for the hope of the gospel, but too tony to let on… Theology is Found: …In scene 16… brought into the conversation with thoughtful questions about Christ, forgiveness and creation.
Theological Themes for Conversation: Oh my!
• Forgiveness: By now, we know that Ricky has been the subject of much abuse at the hands of his father. His mother is defeated, she is no advocate. Nonetheless, Ricky’s love for his twisted father is unconditional, and evident in his comments about the Nazi platter. “There’s a whole subculture of people who collect this Nazi shit but my dad just has this one thing.”
• Christ’s atoning love: From the hand on his mother’s shoulder (which seems to bring a hint of life into her eyes), to the offering of the platter for Jane to hold (drop it and Ricky’s dead),4 Ricky emanates a wealth of nonjudgmental love and acceptance of the created.
• God’s providential love: Here, within the confines of this miserable existence, Ricky sees the beauty of creation better than others. The bag dances, and fills Ricky with unbearable love for its creator… We, like the Jews of old, want magnificence! Where they expected a messiah to rival a Roman war god, we expect our miracles to be big, really big! Yet here is a miracle, both within the film and without: God uses a bag, the wind, bricks and dead leaves to display the beauty of his creation. Ricky cries, and we sob too, perhaps aware of the inadequacy of our ability to give in response.
Recommended Amount to View: It would be best if the group viewed the whole film, prior to the discussion, then viewed scene 16 as a group. That way, the context is presented and we all understand the matrix of character relationship. I would present the scene, offer discussion questions (example: What of Christ’s nature do we see in Ricky? Explain), then I would show it again, and open discussion.
Concluding Remarks: Might I have 40 more pages? This scene is one that moves the depths of the heart. Like Holden Caulfield, Ricky will emerge as one we view differently as we age. To the teen, he might be cool… his sarcasm, his dope smoking, his seeming to use the square old man (Lester)… kids like that., much in the way we howled when 4 This act has deeper overtones of grace. In offering the platter, as if to feed, one could infer notes of Christ’s eating with the tax collector, who was clearly the “enemy” of the people. Here, Ricky is aware of the platter’s beauty, and its use… two things which transcend the stamp upon its backside. Holden told of Ackley’s pimply face. Then, our kids grow up and go to college. Suddenly, Ricky is a poignant character, and we desperately wish we were available to listen to his cries… to tell him he is a beautiful child, and yes, to try and make things better. It reminds of Holden’s beholding the beauty of the rainbow colors in the gasoline and water puddle. But the scene’s culmination, the dancing bag, surely is one of the most beautiful scenes in movie history. We have all seen the bag, dancing in the wind. But, have we stopped? We have all known the love of our neighbor, but have we stopped? And what is it? Is it that we are so a part of this jaded world that sarcasm trumps intimacy? Is it that pausing to behold the glory of creation and human, and the love thereof, isn’t, well, a productive use of our time? Is it that if we stop, if we open our hearts to God’s beauty, both in creation and friend, we will be so moved that we might cry and cry and cry… in utter gratitude and joy?