Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Was American Beauty a Classic?

There are classics like The Godfather (or Godfather 2). "Dad, that was awesome but why did Sonny get out of the car?" There are great films that age horribly like Philadelphia. "Dad, people went to see a film about a gay guy who died from AIDS and was discriminated against?" I like to think about the movies I will want to show or recommend to my kids as classics. Where does American Beauty fall on the spectrum? A classic? You probably liked it, as it did well in theaters and received awards. It's Wikipedia page is lengthy with citations of the academic analysis of it. Have those academics or reviewers watched it recently? Time has not been kind to the movie. American Beauty is a clinic for acting but is not a classic.

Beauty was released September 8th, 1999 to critical praise and enjoyed commercial success. In Beauty, Lester Burnham has a midlife crisis or awakening, his wife cheats on him, his daughter falls in love, he blackmails his employer, retreats emotionally to his teen years even getting his teen job and teen dream car, he nearly sleeps with his daughter's hot friend and then is shot by his next door retired Marine neighbor who had kissed him minutes earlier. Watch the film, and if possible, watch it with the director and writer commentary on for a followup.

The film is beautifully shot with a score that was ripped off in other film previews and commercials. remember that stretch of time when every other commercial had a xylophone. The script is clichéd, bitter, cynical and shallow. There is little joy to it. It is not a "the suburbs might have somethong dark present" film like Blue Velvet. It is a "suburbs are full of perverts" product that Hollywood cranks out annually. The kid who went to the institution is the deep, balanced one. The hot girl is a catty liar. The Marine is a gung-ho macho guy. The only normal-ish people are the two gay guys who welcome in the new Marine family and give fitness advice to Lester. It was written by a *gasp* gay man. The stereotypes make sense now.

The thing that carries the film is the acting. Spacey fully fleshes out the normal dad who is mad he wasn't a rock star or even the star in his family. This is a role that he first tried out in The Ref. He is tremendous embodying the devoted family man who is marginalzed by his wife and considered lame and an annoyance by his daughter. Listen to her criticism of her father in contrast to his behavior in front of her cute friend; it's a gross exaggeration. His cubicle drone, wearing a mask, is wonderful with deliveries like "for you Brad, I got five". Look at his dead eyes as he states what should be a cheery line. Everyone works with one guy like this. The "divorce" threat serve and volley is great as it is an argument the growing number of breadwinner women may soon face. What happens when a man has nothing to lose... and possibly something to gain? Spacey's Burnham references the nothing to lose idea multiple times in the movie. He is actually declaring his wife, his job and family have no value. They don't need or want him, so screw it. The other side to it is a man told when younger he'd reach a certain spot, and it would be a dream life, only to wake up and recognize the nightmare that it is. Did Boomers cry in the theater when they watched this?

As for women, Annette Benning should have won an Oscar for her role as materialistic and obsessed with the perfect image mom Carolyn Burnham. She's gardening in perfect clothing before work and looking peak-MILF. She'd love social media to show everyone the perfect life she wanted others to think she had. She even has the perfect empty, moneymaking job: realtor. The sequence of pre-sale ritual ("I will sell this house today"), bad showings and then face slapping meltdown pulled me in because it was not just Lester's biased narration saying she is a bitch. She revealed she was a bit loony. Nowadays, she'd be a pill popper. Here she pulled it together, no drinking, no drugs, just her. Benning was playing the true product of our competitive economic with feminism. How many moms did you know like this? Not many, but probably one or two. Benning brought that mom to the big screen. Looking back on it, was Benning just playing Martha Stewart? She lost the Oscar to Hillary Swank's performance in Boys Don't Cry as the girl who posed as a guy to get girls, facing intolerance from hicks (wow, Wikipedia's entry is trans-ed out). In other words, Benning stood no chance.

Other actors perform their roles well. Chris Cooper, a fantastic supporting actor in many flicks, plays a cookie cutter Marine. The boy next door filming everything feels totally forced now but the injection of the digital cam footage was already okay for audiences that just saw The Blair Witch Project. In 2014, we would expect young women to pose for his camera and everyone else to yell at him to shut it off. In hall of fame bad casting, the daughter with D cups wanted to save up for breast implants. Who cast her? The actress had porn star parents (seriously), so you can search and see where she got her talents. The rest are stock, cliche characters but complete a strong ensemble. The catty hot chick still has moments where she sounds like a little girl (how did Mena Suvari's career die?). The medicated, imprisoned mom (an unrecognizable Alison Janney). The married, real estate king (Peter Gallagher and his eyebrows) who makes Benning take the hypergamous jump into bed.

To date myself, I first saw the film after downloading it off Scour Media Exchange. It was a bootleg that stopped right when Spacey gets shot. We then HAD to download another version. We waited an hour to download it, and in that hour guessed who did it. A friend thought Jane (overhearing or seeing her friend with her dad), another the Marine neighbor. I predicted wife Carolyn as so much pointed to her. Was not their tension the chief conflict of the movie? Neither was happy with their perfectly cultivated family. Deep down, at the actor level, while the story is about Lester's journey, Benning stands out so strongly that she can make the film hers. Had I known the screenwriter was gay, I would've changed my answer because ding ding ding it's the antigay Marine, that just beat his kid on suspicions of homo-activity and kissed Spacey. Ah yes, every red state male is a closet case but also hates gays.

Does anyone learn anything? Sure, Lester doesn't sleep with his daughter's friend but when she asks him how he feels, he doesn't just answer but he stops to complain about no one asking him that in a long time. He still needs to bitch to a near stranger about his family. His post-death acceptance of life feels phony even with that. His wife? She hugs his clothes after seeing him shot. Hugs his clothes. Jane was running away with a teenage drug dealer that spent time in an institution because "love". The real secret: these jerks all have great lives that they could enjoy yet life is empty. Material success is not enough. Their situation as upper-middle class is a great baseline for life yet it is not enough. Married to a nice family man with a job or a sexy wife is not enough. Life is oh so bad for these unlikeable shits (okay, Lester is likeable). There is no lesson, which hurts the movie. There is no emotional core. It is hollow.

Beauty swept through the Academy Awards, but it is not a classic in a year with memorable movies. The Matrix is the classic "what is real" genre that was everywhere for a period. I have written already about American Piece and Blair Witch influencing their genres and film in general as well as marking film and cultural turns. Fight Club is more of a classic than Beauty and has aged better; this is despite containing many similarities to Beauty. Is the movie rewatchable? Yes, to see Spacey and Benning at top form. Is it dated? Yes. Ball came up with the script in '92 probably looking to smear '80s Reaganite America. By release in '99, this felt real or believable but with each year it looks more cartoonish. The movie will continue to age poorly as it has done so far just fifteen years later. It won't stop people cruising channels. It's not a "hey American Beauty is on" type of movie. Not many are like that, but that is why this is not a classic. Yet, it is still a great watch that has some beautiful shots and great performances. If the right scene is on and Benning and Spacey are trading barbs, you should stop just to see two skilled craftsmen rising to best one another and make it their film.


Anonymous said...

Cool analysis. I feel the same way about the movie but never came up with a coherent rational as to why.

I'd love to hear your opinion about some Mike Leigh movies if you ever feel like writing them up. He's a favorite of mine

eah said...

I enjoyed the film, but never had the urge to see it again.

Maybe per that definition, it is not a "classic".

Whereas other movies you mention -- eg 'The Godfather -- I have seen more than a few times. An entirely different type of film of course. But I have also seen 'The Apartment' -- which I definitely consider a "classic" -- many times, but that is not a different type of film in the same sense 'The Godfather' is.

nikcrit said...

RE. "American Beauty," the line I always come back to is, (perhaps paraphrasing), to his boss or supervisor, re: his amended job duties:

"I just want to have as little responsibility as possible."


O.T., re: a alt-right perennial issue: holocaust denial.

Check this piece out:

take particular note of this passage of the article by its author:

Ms. Stangneth uncovered hundreds of pages of previously unknown transcripts in mislabeled files. She also found evidence that the Sassen circle included more people than scholars had previously recognized, among them Ludolf von Alvensleben, former adjutant to Heinrich Himmler, whose participation in some of the interviews, she said, had gone undetected.

Together, in Ms. Stangneth’s depiction, these men formed a kind of perverse book club, meeting almost weekly at Sassen’s home to work through the emerging public narrative of the Holocaust, discussing every volume and article they could get their hands on, including ones by “enemy” authors. Their goal was to provide material for a book that would expose the Holocaust as a Jewish exaggeration — “the lie of the six million,” as one postwar Nazi publication in Argentina put it. But Eichmann had another, contradictory goal: to claim his place in history.

The facts and figures confirming the scale of the slaughter piled up as Eichmann recounted the rigors of what he called (without irony, Ms. Stangneth notes) his “killer of a job.” Ms. Stangneth quotes a long Eichmann tirade on his “duty to our blood” — “If 10.3 million of these enemies had been killed,” he declared of the Jews, “then we would have fulfilled our duty” — that left his sympathetic listeners unnerved.

“I cannot tell you anything else, for it is the truth!” Eichmann said. “Why should I deny it?”

peterike said...

Funny, I was coming here to post this before I saw Nikcrit's OT, but my OT fits right in.

I haven't read it yet, but The New Yorker has just published a piece on the Frankfurt School, which is apparently coming back into vogue.

I'm sure their take on it will be different than many around here, but you never know.

peterike said...

I always found "American Beauty" to be a creepy, nasty, detestable film. It packs in every Progressive cliche you can imagine, scoring cheap points all along the way. The most eye-rolling being the Marine as the homophobic-yet-secretly-gay character (of course! why? because the gay writer has the hots for guys in uniform and wants to imagine that all the buff Marines are closeted homos).

Was there not more concern for the sexual exploitation of the young girl at the time? I guess we hadn't gotten there yet. I wonder if this came out now if it would cause a dust-up.

Anyway, James Bowman did a good takedown of this sad piece of trash.

PA said...

"what is real" genre

Two other movies in that genre include "Jacob's Ladder" and Spanish film "Abre tus ojos" (open your eyes). Though while The Matrix made it pretty clear to both the audience and the main characters what is real and what is illusion, those two movies, not so much. In the case of Jacobs Ladder, it's not clear which portions of the story are hallucination, unless you accept that the character died in Vietnam and the entire story was a dying man's vision -- as was revealed at the end. (Note: spoiler alerts are not required past one year after original release). There'd normally be no problem with such a story structure, except for the whole subplot about an experimental drug causing GIs to start killing each other, because the dying character would have had no knowledge of such a government program; absent such knowledge, the subplot was an unnecessary complication.

Abre tus Ojos also left you hanging. There were too many back-n-forths between reality, dream state, reality again, virtual reality, and an inconclusive ending (as far as I recall), that it is not clear that even the script writers knew, or even cared, what is real.

That was a bit frustrating, because the film built you up for a resolution, which as far as I recall was never provided. Nonetheless, the movie is visually a gem. It features a young Penelope Cruz, including nude scenes. The main male protagonist is extremely good looking -- that's significant, because the movie is in part a greek-like tragedy, with the protagonist's handsomeness as a central premise.

Son of Brock Landers said...

Jacobs ladder is a creepy and disturbing film. Great performance by tim robbins. Robbins is an underrated actor. Great in a lot of different things.

I was forced to watch abre tus ojos and then vanilla sky back to back just to hear a college fling rip vanilla sky apart. That is an examppe where a smaller budget, no us market pressure and no cameron crowe make a huge difference.

nikcrit said...

Robbins is an underrated actor. Great in a lot of different things.

I'm not familiar with his entire ouevre, but I liked his sort-of laconic sports reporter role in prete-porte (sp?) "Ready to Wear," the Altman flick in which he plays a sports reporter in some Euro fashion capital covering a soccer tournament or something; while there and wrapping up his assignment, his paper's fashion critic gets caught up in some massive air-traffic problem and flight cancellations, so the paper requests Robbins' character to stay put and cover the fashion shows that week.
From there, there's this great scene where he shags some sightly model or other industry insider in his hotel room; he then dutifully files his fashion copy for back home by reciting line-by-line the local closed-captioned news coverage of events for his clerk back home, who's typing up his words for tomorrow's sunrise edition.... funny-ass shite.

nikcrit said...

Ever so slightly off-topic:

FWIW, that New Yorker link that peterike offered is easily the best general-interest-mag cultural essay i've read in years. (As a music critic, Alex Ross is an absolute monster; it's almost inconceivable how much knowledge that guy has, readily at his fingertips and whim, in how he can so easily go from scholarly to casual-anecdotal mode in his writing. When he was free-lancing at the ny times, I had just started and used to read his stuff thinking he was some vet-critic in his '50s ------ I couldn't believe it when i learned that he was still in his late-20s/early-30s in the mid 90s).

Anyhow, re. 'The Frankfurt School,' PA's favorite culprit and frequent scapegoat, he should keep-in-mind Ross's reminder in the following paragraph. :-)

"Marx adapted Hegel’s dialectic to the economic sphere, seeing it as an engine of progress. By the early twenties, a Marxist-Leninist state had ostensibly emerged in Russia, but the early members of the Frankfurt School—notably, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Friedrich Pollock, Erich Fromm, Franz Neumann, and Leo Lowenthal—were far from starry-eyed about it. Although Marx was central to their thought, they were nearly as skeptical of Communist ideology as they were of the bourgeois mind-set that Communism was intended to supplant..."

klejdys said...

Thora Birch was cast in the role of Tammy in the excellent "Election", but due to "creative differences" with the director, she left the film. She peaked w/ the good "Ghost World", but I don't think she ever escaped the crazy from her folks.

Of course, when your dad crashes your sex scene in a movie and they have to do the scene 14 times, well, that's probably a pretty good reason.

nikcrit said...

"Anyway, James Bowman did a good takedown of this sad piece of trash."

Actually, I agree with peterike's assessment as well as Bowman's diatribe ---- yet, I also agree with the blog host that this is worthy of 'classic' consideration.

My logic on this is similar to what we discussed in the recent thread that tangented into the "throw-out-your-television!" debate: I can recognize solid artistry in film and tv drama via developed humor, caricaturization and dead-on characterization and nimble thematics, yet that very same film could boast the most hackneyed and overused cultural pieties and sanctomonies, a la "American Beauty."

I mean, Spacey was brilliant in that movie, in how he portrayed the psychically exhausted middle-age, middle-class, mid-American schlub who finally breaks through the looking glass; in fact, his character sort-of flips out and goes beserk precisely BECAUSE of the pressures and postures of p.c. America, albeit counter-weighted by the 'oppresive' more of old-school bourgeous Americana.
The movie sort-of ends siding with bourgeois culture, as Spacey remains chaste during the culmination of the tease between he and Suvari; likewise, his view and denouement toward his wife and other more 'non-p.c.' characters in the film are similarly sympathetic and even loving toward a few.

Jonny Vincent said...

"these jerks all have great lives that they could enjoy yet life is empty. Material success is not enough. Their situation as upper-middle class is a great baseline for life yet it is not enough. There is no lesson, which hurts the movie."

Don't look now but there's a rather profound lesson right there.

Something is wrong with the "great" baseline for life. Perhaps people aren't supposed to be trapped in toxic, thankless marriages. Perhaps men who've allowed themselves to be bullied into marital slavery by prostitutes have owned their own faces with positive thinking (conflated with delusion, denial, fantasy, psychosis).

So positive. What could go wrong.

Jonny Vincent said...

Peterike: "Was there not more concern for the sexual exploitation of the young girl at the time?"

You can't make the blind see truth if you wrap it up in Hollywood blockbuster fiction and present it to them for two hours in a cinema. You know exploitation when you see it, if only because you can't see the reality where you're the pathetic victim of female predation. In your mind, you're the predator who knows better, you're in control of your immoral desire to exploit helpless, underage girls who - at 16 and 17 - are legally incapable (and therefore incapable) of feeling desire or having agency. In lieu of ever being in the position to manipulate a virtuous maiden, you taken the holier-than-thou position and revealed your degeneracy.

"Girls hate sex. Women pleasure men with sex. Or else why would men have to marry them? Women hate sex. Castrate that pervert for doing what all men want to do but GOOD men like me know how to resist temptation]. Free will is for grownups who Know Best that young women are too young to have feelings."

If you weren't blinded by your perverted desire, you would:
a) not creep jailbait out
b) not perceive children as jailbait
c) not perceive sex-obsessed predators as prey or perceive the victims of professional manipulators as evil, manipulative creeps stealing innocent maidens' precious virtue
d) not feel indebted to your mother and wife for raping your life.

You want to be their predator. That's why you're their (unfavored) prey. If you weren't interested, they'd be interested (presuming you have something going for you, which might be a stretch when you're this disassociated from reality).

"Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo."
- HG Wells

Anonymous said...

Meh. I wonder how old you are (I say this, because I sense I agree with you politically and socially/morally). When it came out, I saw it for the politically correct Hollywood nonsense that it is.

Was it that the movie hasn't dated well, or you have gotten older and wiser? (In 1999, I was 35. If you were younger at the time, perhaps you hadn't achieved wisdom yet-still impressed with 'idea movies' simply because there were ideas in them. I'm not insulting you-I was the same in my twenties, too).