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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

American Beauty (review)

Look Closer

Was American Beauty the single best film of 1999? I can’t decide. The second time I watched the film, on a widescreen video screener after it won the Oscar for Best Picture, I thought with horror: I named this sitcom one of my best films of the year? On a third viewing, also on the small screen, I saw once again all the brilliance that I saw the first time around, and more.

What is it about American Beauty that thrilled me, then infuriated me, and then turned around and thrilled me again? I think it has to do with ironies that become obvious watching this film on a television screen, ironies that were not so obvious on the big screen.
Cops and America’s Funniest Home Videos. The Real World and Survivor and JenniCam. Entertainment today is rife with so-called “reality” — video voyeurism that pretends to show us how things really are but never offers any insight and leaves me wondering why an audience interested in real life isn’t going out and experiencing it instead of watching TV or surfing the Net. And then along comes American Beauty, which reminds us that rote, ordinary, day-to-day life around us isn’t really real… and uses a character who observes the world from behind a videocamera as its greatest advocate of taking notice of and joy in the actualness of nature and beauty and even death.

This angered me at first. I never understand people who spend their entire vacations with their eyes glued to a camcorder. Yes, they’ll have a permanent memory of a beautiful place, but they’ll never have really seen that place to start with. And it seemed to me that this was Ricky’s (Wes Bentley) approach to life as well: he sees the world through a filter, through a lens. His bedroom is full of video memories of the world, but what has he actually seen with his own eyes?

And then I realized that for almost every character in American Beauty, the way things look is paramount. Carolyn Burnham’s (Annette Bening) job as a real-estate agent is selling and living an image of cheerful suburbia, never mind that it does not conform to her life; happy photos of the Burnhams litter their house, never mind that their dinner table invariably hosts miserable family gatherings. Ricky’s homophobic father (Chris Cooper) is annoyed that his gay neighbors dare not to hide their relationship. Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) obsesses over her looks, unaware of how lovely she truly is, while her friend Angela (Mena Suvari) obsesses over herself, aware of her own physical beauty but unaware of her ugly personality. Ricky himself must “pretend to be an upstanding young citizen with a respectable job” when he is in fact a drug dealer.

But if in Ricky’s world, appearance is all, and such a focus hides reality, then perhaps one cannot look straight on at things to divine their true nature. Perhaps Ricky’s videocamera offers him a way of glancing sidelong at the world, of disarming people (like Jane) enough to let their facades crack, of framing objects (like a dead bird) to remove them from their surroundings so that their intrinsic beauty comes into sharp focus.

The layers of seeing American Beauty uses to reveal the stark splendor of real reality become glaringly clear when viewed on a television screen than they did on a movie screen. In one remarkable scene, Ricky and Jane have an intimate conversation about the pain of their lives while they play with his camcorder. We can watch not only Ricky and Jane, but their images on his giant television (to which the camera is connected) and their images through the viewfinder of the camcorder… often all at once. And suddenly, I realized that watching this film on a TV made me recognize yet another level of remove from reality — I was reminded that film, too, while representative of reality, is not reality… and yet can reveal truths that merely looking head on at the world cannot.

That’s not to say that I now think that Cops and vacation videos are necessarily good things. But I do like how American Beauty used the dominant video form of the past decade to condemn itself.

But now I’m going to turn the computer off and go outside, even if it is raining. There’s only so much thinking about real fake reality I can stand before I need the, er, real thing.

Best Picture 1999
unforgettable movie moment:
Ricky shows Jane a hauntingly mesmerizing video of the most beautiful thing he has ever seen: a plastic bag lifted by a breeze to dance in a whirlwind of autumn leaves.

previous review:
“An Icon Is Born,” 10.03.99

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previous Best Picture:
1998: Shakespeare in Love
next Best Picture:
2000: Gladiator


MPAA: rated R for strong sexuality, language, violence and drug content

viewed at home on a small screen

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