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Reevaluating American Beauty: profound and empowering, or hollow and oppressive?

Bruce Springsteen once said of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that hearing the first snare hit felt like someone had “kicked open the door to your mind”. That’s almost exactly how I felt, back in 1999, when I first watched Sam Mendes’ American Beauty. I was of a highly impressionable age, having just started high school, and was having a difficult time acclimatising to the transition. It was also around this time that my fascination for cinema began to blossom, an obsession that has more than carried over into my adult years. Suffice to say that American Beauty arrived at my doorstep at the perfect time in my life and went on to kick the door right off its hinges.

I wasn’t the only one in 1999 having a moment with American Beauty; the film was a critical and commercial success and ended up taking home numerous awards including Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year. This was all, of course, validation for my fragile mind, and at a time when the outside world defined my self through its reflective surfaces, American Beauty also had the contrarian effect of bestowing upon me the tools to look inwards, to confront new concepts and ideas for dealing with the immensely daunting complexities of life.

Its contemplative, moody yet detached qualities intoxicated me and through Lester Burnham’s self-inflicted unshackling from a suffocating contemporary American existence my own sense of antiestablishment blossomed forth. It was my very own version of punk rock in a sense, yet instead of rebellion I yearned for profundity, something that American Beauty appeared desperate to impart upon me. Lester’s hedonism, his headfirst dive into “immorality”, was liberating for me. It was the ultimate suburban dream; a purposeful attempt to penetrate and expose the façade of contemporary living, something I still struggle with today.

The fervent desire for escapism each of the characters display mirrored my own, although not as potently, and combined with the film’s inquisitive and open nature American Beauty widened my scope. Sure, it was easy to palm the film off as Hollywood’s attempt to be artful and label it as pretentious (the sheer number of parodies of the wonderful “bag sequence” can attest to that), but to me, American Beauty was, well, beautiful.

Since that moment I’ve consumed many more films and an incalculable amount of information that has come to alter my perspective and worldview in an overwhelming number of ways. I always maintained that American Beauty would reign supreme in my own personal film canon; I mean how could it not? It’s essentially the genesis of my contemporary emotional and spiritual life, and as strange as it is to even type that, I must affirm that statement’s validity. Yet now, almost 15 years after I originally saw the film, I can’t help but say that where I once saw liberation I now only see imprisonment.

On a surface level American Beauty absolutely makes the case for an American pastoral perfection masquerading as repression, and does so more than admirably. The depiction of a handful of American families going through the motions in an immensely dissatisfying way still represents many contemporary lives today, although I doubt the ideology of the post-War American nuclear family still pins down as strongly as it once did. The malaise that results from the rigmarole of keeping up a perfect representation of contentment is still as effective as ever in American Beauty, and most of that has to be attributed to the wonderful performances of the cast involved. The pressure cooker that is each of their daily lives is delivered through the simplest gestures and the most awkward interactions, and, of course, through Lester’s guiding monologue which slowly but surely becomes more enlightened as the film carries on.

Where the film’s excited vision of emancipation stops dead in its tracks, however, is its final moments, particularly the death of Lester Burnham. Of all the choices made through the film, this is perhaps the most claustrophobic. Back in 1999 I experienced awe and wonder during these moments, particularly in the ones that followed his demise; beautifully framed images of Lester’s life that attempt to soften the blow of his death.

Today, however, I can’t help but see Lester’s death as punishment for his transgressions, resulting in a hopeless worldview in which the dominant American ideologies that Lester fights so hard against are far too entrenched to ever allow escape. Lester’s death is a way for the social boundaries to maintain homeostasis, a fact that negates his experiences before the moment of his death. This is a fairly oppressive reading of a film that seems so desperate to build and maintain an opposing worldview to the one outlined here, but in a way my revelation is somewhat spurred by American Beauty itself.

I still think American Beauty is a beautiful film, and is perhaps an important experience for burgeoning and fertile minds such as my own a short 15 years ago. However, my alternation in how I see the film today when compared with when it first entered my life is, in many ways, a testament to the subversive qualities of signs and signifiers and their ultimate power in cinema. The great irony of all of this is that in some ways I was encouraged to "look closer", and when I did I found something else. I guess I only have American Beauty to thank for that.

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