When you can’t talk to the person you usually do about certain things, what do you do? For me, I seem to be turning rather more to writing of one form or another (cold turkey is hard). So, in that vein, I’d like to offer some thoughts on American Beauty, just to pander to a certain segment of my viewing audience. As a warning for those who haven’t seen the film, there are spoilers. [I also apologise in advance if it seems a little disjointed. I haven’t the patience to edit it, and I wrote it over the course of four nights. That’s bound to have an effect.]
It’s been a few days, now, since I watched the movie, so my thoughts have had time to simmer and collate into something approaching a reasonable whole. The problem is that there’s so much going on in the movie, a single viewing is unlikely to reveal everything. I’ll point out first, though, that this is not my normal viewing choice for vegging out in front of the TV. I tend to prefer actioners of one sort or another and watch bad guys get the shit blown or kicked out of them, or satire/comedies. But, I have enjoyed movies of this type from time to time.
There are several key premises in the movie, and I’ll attempt to deconstruct a few of them, in terms of how I saw and interpreted the events in the script.
The first main premise is the archetypal mid-life crisis that Lester (Kevin Spacey) experiences. There isn’t really anything new here, I don’t think, but the events of the film revolve around this crisis, and so it becomes more than “just” a mid-life crisis film, because that would be boring. In short, Lester hates his job, has fallen out of love with his wife, is estranged from his daughter, and generally unhappy with the state of his life. And these relationships spider out into the world, causing cascading effects. Each set of issues is different, but it is ultimately Lester’s changes that drive the film.
The second premise of the film that I’ll look at is authenticity, or its lack thereof. There are several examples of a fake cover on a real person, that it’s sometimes hard to keep them all straight. And there are different flavours of it, as well, including the mantra, “To be successful, you must look successful.”
The third premise I’ll examine is feeding off of others. There are a small number of ways in which this is implemented within the film, but the most dramatic belongs to the character of Angela (Mena Suvari), in both an incoming and outgoing direction.
The fourth key premise to the film I’ll look at is encapsulated in this post’s title. This concept comes from the character of Ricky (Wes Bentley), who spends much of his free time making videos of almost anything, and it is he who makes the statement. I personally think this was perhaps an attempt by the director or writer to perhaps be clever, but it’s certainly true.
The final premise I’ll examine is one of happiness–or at least contentment. All of the key premises in the film, I think, have the presence, absence, or pursuit of happiness as a key component, and in some ways, it seems to me to be the central theme of the movie, but that may change as I think through things with my keyboard.
Lester is an advertising copywriter married to a real-estate broker (Carolyn, played by Annette Bening). Neither is happy. Neither is the same as they were when they fell in love. Neither has a clue about what their daughter (Jane, played by Thora Birch) is up to or in to. And neither really knows how to fix it, even if they were inclined to do so. There is so much routine in their lives that it’s stifling. Lester’s crisis begins to manifest when he sees Angela for the first time–Angela, who is a friend of his daughter’s in high school. He starts out infatuated and becomes obsessed. So he is in a receptive frame of mind when he subsequently encounters Ricky, also in high school, but slightly older. He shares with and then sells pot to Lester, but it is just quitting his catering job out of the blue that impresses Lester the most. Ricky becomes his new “personal hero”, who inspires him to action. With the impetuses given by Ricky and Angela, he quits his job in spectacular fashion, stands up to his wife for the first time in years, attempts to heal the breach with his daughter (but failing), begins working out, smokes pot, buys the car he always wanted, and gets a minimum-wage job with no responsibility. Ultimately, he becomes a much happier person, letting go of a fairly sizable amount of of emotional baggage.
All of the actions that Lester takes have a fallout of sorts among the other characters. Angela takes an interest in Lester, not-so-subtly encouraging him. This seems like part a game to her, and part a genuine quest for love/affection/happiness, something that seems to be implied is absent in her personal life. Through him, she begins to become more honest…less fake. She seems more vulnerable.
Jane, seeing what is happening between Angela and her father, responds strongly to the interest that Ricky shows in her, even if it was initially “creepy”. She finds someone interested in her real self–not, as with Angela, cast in the “groupie” role, so to speak–and begins to consider getting out of the emotional-basket-case environment that is her family life.
Carolyn has her sedate, regular, suburban lifestyle upset, which causes her to react in a much stronger way to her professional failures, including having an affair with a competitor and consider killing what she sees as the source of her problems and unhappiness–Lester.
Ricky, other than being the “outsider” acting to cause change, doesn’t really feed off of Lester, except in that it provides a scenario he can use to escape his abusive home life; interconnected with the events, however, it does cause him to call out Angela for her using/fake behaviour. The source of that abuse is his father, the Colonel (played by Chris Cooper).
Lester’s mid-life crisis behaviour reaches out to touch even him, who directly interacted with Lester but twice. This behaviour caused him to face his suppressed homosexuality in a test he failed in spectacular fashion; it also caused him to finally drive his son from is house, labouring under the mistaken belief (encouraged by Ricky as an exit strategy) that his son was earning money as a gay prostitute (rather than as the drug dealer he really was).
So it’s fairly easy to see how one person’s mid-life crisis reaches out to touch all the other major players in his life, and beyond. Ultimately, its unrestrained nature ends in his destruction, but that’s almost a side-effect. I relate fairly well to four of the five themes in the film. This one is perhaps the most logical, give my age matches Lester’s in the film, and I’m undergoing some significant mid-life changes myself. So I have to try to keep in mind that my choices in this time can have effects beyond me. I just have to make sure not to flirt unintentionally with any Marine colonels.
Another central theme to the film revolves around honesty…primarily to oneself, but also to others. A great many of the characters’ problems visible in the film come from this lack of honesty. The most catastrophic result of self-dishonesty resides in the actions of the Colonel, who, when his advances are rebuffed by Lester in a case of mistaken understanding, can’t abide someone living who knows his “dark secret” but doesn’t share it. He kills Lester to protect his secret, possibly preventing Carolyn from doing the same thing out of a false sense of victimhood. I find it slightly ironic that his name is Frank Fitts, since he is anything but frank, and certainly doesn’t fit properly. Whether this is intentional, I don’t know.
Carolyn epitomises a conundrum. She is an adherent to the belief that if she looks successful, she will be successful (and, by extension, happy). However, despite all her attempts to appear successful, she is not–at least, not in any way she admits to herself. She has completely bought into the concept that she sells an image, and she carries the fake image with her into her personal life. There are a couple of set-pieces within the film to demonstrate how she is not a professional success, and the entire film is laced with her personal failures. She convinces herself that none of it is her fault…she blames either Lester or Jane or Buddy Kane, “the King of Real Estate” (played by Peter Gallagher), and so she develops the belief that she is a victim. This self-delusion leads her to have an affair with Buddy (under the initial guise of “picking his brain” to become more successful), and as a result of this affair, she becomes a handgun shooter, which provides her with a means of “empowerment”, which appears towards the end of the film to be leading to her killing Lester as a means of asserting that she “will not be a victim”. Had the Colonel not beaten her to it, at any rate. Her self-delusion led her away from what she refused to see, and it was only after Lester’s murder that she allowed herself to realise that she actually loved Lester and also to realise the many mistakes she had made, now that she no longer had the ability to correct them.
Jane had very little in the way of self-delusion. Her problem seemed largely to be that she believed that her problems could be solved by a boob job–or perhaps by killing her father. And perhaps that she pretended to be offended by Ricky’s interest in her earlier on in the film. Or that she really did love her parents. However, when she realised that Ricky didn’t care about such things (or believe that there was anything wrong with her), she was willing to forgo this desire and be more accepting of who she was. At least, this is what I can get out of it, since she offered her boob-job money to Ricky to help them leave their respective situations, not knowing of his financial solvency. She did, also, try to suggest to Angela that she tone down her “bragging”, but couldn’t quite come out and really call her out on it, perhaps out of fear of losing her friend.
Angela was possibly the other biggest faker in the film. I haven’t quite decided. My view is that nothing she did in the film was truly honest, with the possible exception of her interest in Lester, until the abortive seduction, when their dance around each other came to its climax. During this sequence, she started to speak honestly, possibly for the first time. When asked what she wanted, she said, “I don’t know.” She volunteered that she was a virgin, despite us seeing repeated “brag” evidence to the contrary. She said she felt stupid. And in her dénouement in the kitchen with Lester, she finally seemed like a normal girl.
Ricky was never really dishonest in the film, except with his father. He was honest almost to a fault otherwise, including letting Angela know in no uncertain terms what he thought of her, and taking every chance he got to indicate his preference for Jane over her. He could sense that she was unauthentic in every way that mattered to him, and in making that value judgement, gave Jane more of a sense of self-worth than she had previously had. I don’t think he ever harboured any self-delusion, though, and it enabled him to be more honest with others (except where it was required for self-preservation), and to see the truth through his camera.
Lester is the character in the film that runs counter to everyone else, really. He starts out being perhaps the most self-delusional, but that’s arguable. However, it is his trip to self-knowledge and self-honesty–despite his obsession with Angela–that affects everyone else. It seems as the movie progresses, more of these delusions–built up over the length of his marriage–are peeled gradually away, and he reverts to how he was prior to marrying Carolyn, which is a more-authentic Lester. And it is his ultimate honesty with the Colonel that dooms him, as he admits with no rancour that he no longer loves his wife, leading the Colonel to confirm his belief that Lester is gay, and the sequence of events that follows from that.
So, it’s easy to see, I think, that allowing yourself to be honest with yourself and with others is the best way to both external and internal happiness, especially as it seems that arguably the most honest–and happiest–character in the film is the one around which it revolved, even though it ultimately got him killed. He was happy and at peace with himself and the world. It also seemed as though other characters that grew did so by means of external honesty or self-honesty, whereas those who continued to suffer/deteriorate did so be continued falseness. Ricky is an odd exception, wherein he gained freedom from his prison by being completely dishonest, an interesting paradox.
Feeding off Others (aka, Using People)
All of the major characters feed off of others in one way or another, and to varying degrees and purposes, and one of the key scenes in the film focuses on this concept. But I’ll quickly run through what I see for each character.
Lester feeds off Angela, but in a fairly base way. The unhappiness in his life let him attach his emotions and motivations to a teenaged girl in a way that pushed him to better himself (leaving the drugs aside as a question), and not solely to impress her, although that formed part of his motivation. His was not, strictly speaking, a parasitic feeding, but it had symbiotic elements.
Carolyn fed off of both Jane and Buddy, and Lester to a lesser extent. Her own unhappiness pushed her into a self-defeating spiral, where she had some vicarious living through her offspring (or belittling her), but most of her feeding was off of Buddy: her competitive push, her desire to suck knowledge from him, and her strangely-awakened sexuality that she had been denying her husband. I think she also fed from Lester in the sense that she needed him to be “normal” or to assert some control over her life by controlling him (and Jane) in their routines; as well, her treatment of Lester in general seems to have stemmed from some need to raise herself up at his expense (and yet, she “felt” a victim–an interesting pathology).
Jane fed possibly the least of all the characters, in that it was Ricky’s interest in her that helped her grow somewhat. There was some minor feeding from Angela, but Ricky mostly displaced that.
The Colonel seemed to feed much darker sides of his personality. Latently (and potentially psychotically) homosexual, he abused his family (the abuse of his wife is implied, not seen), and tried his best to control his son’s life and behaviour (delusionally thinking it was possible), all in the name of hiding and perhaps punishing his hidden secret. He fed off the violence against his son, which can be seen by his desire for Ricky to fight back against his assaults. He fed off his own self-disgust and fear of his son being just like him. He feeds off his anger and disgust for the neighbourhood gay couple. His authoritarian stances and regimented lifestyle were perhaps his guards against his inner nature coming to the surface. It is almost as though the things he feeds off of helped him stay in control…until his nature actually surfaced.
Ricky fed off several, I think, but all in different ways. His role is primarily as the agent of change, but he also feeds. He feeds off is dad’s anger and rage, partly using it as a focus and partly to fight against it. He feeds off of Lester, although it is primarily an economic relationship until the end, when he uses Lester as the means to break away from his father. He feeds primarily off of Jane, both for personal and creative reasons. I think that it is also in feeding from Jane that he is able to finally break the cycle of abuse in his family and walk away from it.
Angela really only feeds off of two people: Lester and Jane, and in both cases the relationship is more symbiotic than parasitic. Lester she feeds off of, because he shows sexual interest in her, but the feeding is strongly bi-directional. I infer that she has portrayed herself publicly in such a harsh manner for so long, that only two people really seem to relate to her, and only one in a completely honest fashion, if circumspect (mostly). It is in “using” Lester that she finally grows and admits to him and to herself things which she had previously denied. Her use of Lester ultimately becomes a good. Her use of Jane is more venal. Her confrontational scene with Ricky near the film’s end encapsulates it pretty well, in which he accuses her of being so ordinary and ugly that she has to use Jane in order to feel better about herself. Being so fake a person up to this point and finally getting called on it–and opening a rift with her only “friend”–shocks her to her core, stripping away the pretense that she had been hiding behind. In my view this is the point at which she finally starts to shed her delusions and lies and become an “honest woman”, so to speak.
The amount of “feeding”, as I call it, that goes on is indicative to me that it’s not really possible not to do it. There is, however, a fine line between just using someone (as Angela does) versus more positive aspects of it. The optimal case is a couple in love (and possibly by extension family units), wherein two people feed off each other in symbiosis, but it’s not a selfish thing at all. The energy (or love or inspiration or what have you) that one person might siphon from the other is generally given freely, if it’s even noticed, and it’s nearly always reciprocated. Lester’s “relationship” with Angela approaches this sort of behaviour, even though it’s pretty one-sided. Jane and Ricky share this sort of symbiosis. But the dark, negative behaviours are also shown, and sliding into this sort of usage of others is very easy and can have catastrophic results. Leaving aside the positive aspects of feeding off of others, this is the theme/premise I associate with the least out of the five.
Everything Has a Story
I actually find this to be the most intriguing theme within the movie, believe it or not, despite my earlier remarks about being in a bit of a mid-life crisis myself. Maybe it comes from being a sort of storyteller, but there it is. As I said earlier, I’m still undecided if this was the story-within-a-story, where the director/writer tries to be a little clever and make a grand pronouncement hidden in the movie. There are enough layers, though, that I tend to doubt this, and it’s just a theme.
The most obvious example of this is through Ricky. He is the one that espouses the premise as he shows Jane a video of a swirling plastic bag. “Everything” encapsulated in something so simple, plus the stories of the dead pigeon and dead homeless person. Additionally, his shelving full of video tapes and equipment –but mostly the tapes–obviously cries out that these are his stories of everything. But it goes far beyond that, and it’s a lesson that storytellers are advised to heed.
If you look at the Colonel’s collection of memorabilia, you can see another obvious example of how everything has a story. The Colonel’s study holds two significant items: the Reichschancellerei plate and the later murder weapon. Each has a story unto itself, but the plate bears at least two: the story of the Colonel’s past life and interests, plus the plate’s own history. It also serves as an inciting incident for more abuse by the Colonel later in the film. But the Colonel himself hints at stories, of his suppressed sexuality, of the likely course of events for his wife and son, and so on.
Within Lester and Carolyn’s house and property, there are many stories. The film opens with Lester commenting on Carolyn’s gardening accessorising. A story is hinted at, but not immediately explained. There is the over-arching symbolism of the American Beauty roses, which is apparently a pretty flower prone to rot at the roots. Carolyn tries at one point to tell the story of a couch, while Lester tries to tell the story of their romance. The couch wins. Carolyn also creates stories with her open houses, but sometimes people don’t read the same story as she wrote. Her self-help books and tapes tell their own stories, sometimes divorced from reality. Carolyn creates the story of her life, entirely fictional. Lester has the story of the 1970 Camaro. He has the story of his boss’s peculation and how he negotiates a golden parachute of sorts out of his company.
Angela creates the story of her modelling career and active sex life. She also creates the story of a sexual relationship with Lester, which he overhears and uses as his excuse for self-improvement. Jane creates the story of breast augmentation as a means to a happy ending to what she sees as her problems. She watches the story of her parents’ estrangement and bizarre behaviour. She is an active observer of Angela’s stories.
But this all elides that there are simpler ways to look at all things having stories. As a geologist, it’s easy to pick up a rock off the street–gravel from winter roads–and see a story within the rock that can only be touched upon, but never fully known. Without seeing the rock, I can speak of it’s glacial past, but nothing before that without analysis. A blade of grass can have a story, though one “simpler”. The life of an immobile weed is that of seeing the world pass by it–and pass it by. Perhaps it is a story of being repeatedly chopped up by a lawnmower blade or a pair of shears. Perhaps the story is that of a dog pissing on it. And consider a water glass: What stories might it tell, of the fluids it has held, the hands that have held it, the lips it has touched? And with a blade of grass or a rock or a water glass having stories of depth and time and interactions, how much simpler is it to conceive of the story of anything–or anyone–you see?
And that is where the resonance comes from as a storyteller, and why I chose this premise as the post title. The stories are all there, and if you can’t see them, you can always make them up.
The final element I will discuss is that of happiness. I have perhaps a somewhat pessimistic view of the film in that regard, but yet there is a message of hope to it. It’s easy to see that there really isn’t anyone in the film who is happy, depending on how you describe such a state. The reasons are varied, and in large part already discussed above. But everyone in some way or another is actively trying to pursue happiness. Initially, I think Ricky was possibly the only person with some measure of happiness, in that as long as he was able to keep his father at bay, he was left to his own devices, which included taking films of anything that caught his fancy, plus smoking pot.
For Angela and Jane, neither was happy, but they had their friendship. A potential irony is that they had the same personal issues, but each dealt with it differently: Angela lashed out, and Jane sought physical improvement via surgery, but both were highly insecure. Carolyn pretended to be happy, but was so unhappy; I believe that she hoped the power of suggestion and “looking” happy (i.e., successful) would make her that way. The Colonel projected his discipline and control as happiness, but he was deeply unhappy, as he was at war with himself, but took it out on his family. Lester was obviously unhappy and knew it, but occasionally faked happiness in the name of getting along.
However, for the most part, no one in the film achieved any sort of happiness, with the exception of Lester, and possibly Ricky/Jane. Angela I think was on the way to being happy, or at least, not so intensely unhappy, more at peace with herself, more honest with herself. Ricky/Jane were possibly on the course to being happy, but they were both running away from their problems. With that in mind it is unlikely that they would find actual happiness, but it is possible once they removed themselves from their unhappy environments. Carolyn, she threw away her happiness in pursuit of an ephemeral–and potentially unachievable–goal. She remained unhappy, and was the only person to openly cry in the film (that I recall). The Colonel was unhappy at revealing himself and unhappy at having to hide his secret again. He killed to protect it (or out of rage for being “led on”?), but he will remain unhappy.
Lester, however, I think attained happiness. One by one, he removed elements from his personal and professional lives that made him unhappy, and acquired things that were more of an expression of his true self, long suppressed. He discovered what is being presented (I think) as the secret to finding happiness: being yourself, and being content/at peace with yourself. As he stripped away what was not himself, he was able to get closer to the goal of being happy–or, at least, more happy. He prepared himself physically to make himself more attractive to Angela (it is telling, in fact, that he did not put the effort in for his wife, who would not have appreciated it). He became a regular smoker of pot and a regular exerciser. And at the end of the film, he was able to pull back from the precipice of sex with a willing Angela, and instead converted her to a sort of proxy for his indifferent/estranged daughter. And he was, at the end of the film, happy, dwelling on the happy memory encapsulated in an old photograph. Just before his brain splattered on the kitchen wall. The rather surreal voice-over that follows his murder serves to echo that point, I think. He’s in some sort of afterlife full of happiness and beauty where he cannot hold on to his anger over his murder.
I question that such a place could exist (see my earlier posts involving religion), but I also think that his physical death is a metaphor for a different type of personal death that someone might have to go through in order to shed negativity that prevents various types of emotional healing and progression. It is the final severing that must happen (for example, through cognitive therapy or Kübler-Ross acceptance), when a person is working through emotional issues. At some point, there is enough talk, and the client (or just a regular person figuring things out on his own) learns to let go of the painful past, but not in a suppressive way. The Colonel is the antithesis of this, violently burying his past once more, but Lester moves past the anger and bitterness and is able to find a measure of happiness that eludes everyone else. And the metaphor has him passing on to some sort of “higher plane”, where such pain is no longer in control of his life.
I’m not sure I can wrap this all up into a nice, neat, little package, so I’m not going to try. I’ll have one read-through for obvious mistakes, but there’s rather a lot of stream-of-consciousness writing going on in this 4800-word piece, and that’s hard to fix after the fact.
So, there you have it. My rough interpretation of what I saw in American Beauty. Have fun with it, because now that it’s done, I’m going into honey-badger mode.