The aesthetics of materialism in Alan Bali's American Beauty

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The aesthetics of materialism in Alan Bali's American Beauty

The Midwest Quarterly , Winter 2007

ALAN BALL'S AMERICAN BEAUTY is a cultural signifier/marker for America's current quest for spiritual meaning in the midst of an overpowering materialism. Typified by such current media productions as Desperate Housewives, one of many texts which situates its characters squarely in an affluent suburban setting, the desperation is a uniquelyAmerican discomfort with material comfort in the absence of any compelling spirituality. This quest is widely misunderstood by critics of the film who would attempt to reduce its meaning to the portrayal of one, albeit representative, man's "mid-life" crisis," a grim satire of life in suburban America, or a sentimental New-Age statement about the importance of family. The critic David Smith comes closest to a comprehensive understanding of the film's profound incorporation of the spiritual-quest theme in his analysis of the film in the Journal of Religion and Film as he defines at least two frameworks of meaning in American Beauty, arguing that "One of these frameworks is social-psychological, the other broadly spiritual or religious."

Despite these designations, the powerful impact of this film remains something of an enigma in part because of the circumstances under which Alan Ball's original script became modified, the characters underwent transcendent reformulation, and fortuitous new meanings emerged. However, much of the misunderstandings of the film stem from an incomplete or superficial examination of the "religious," often mystical foundations of the film's core philosophy. What is clear is that the complexities and ambiguities of this film manage to create a unifying dynamic: in the perspectives inherent in the interplay between what we see, what we want, and what we are, we discover a consciousness of beauty. Here we rediscover the American Dream, but this time we perceive it through the lens of American mysticism, a ridiculously optimistic sentimentalism, and irony.

First of all, if we want to understand what American Beauty is all about, we have to deal with the element of the dynamic noted above as "what we see." It's helpful, in this film, to become a voyeur. The film is all about looking at people and things and about the destruction that desire can visit upon its object as well as upon the subject--the one who is doing the looking, the one who wants to be looked at. The film opens with us looking at a short piece of film which Ricky, a neighbor boy, has shot (and notice that films are "shot") of his girlfriend, Jane, Lester's daughter. The subject of the film is love and death. Jane looks into the camera and declares that someone should put her father "out of his misery" (AB, 1). When Ricky asks, "Want me to kill him for you?" Jane replies, "Yeah, would you?" Thus we are introduced to the theme that we kill for love.

Lester Burnham hasn't killed for love--yet--but he's died for it just the same. He's sold himself to the American dream to establish a family, all of whom could potentially kill him. Once again, we are voyeurs as the camera pans in on Lester's life as a voiceover of Lester speaking introduces us to his life and announces that "In less than a year, I'll be dead." The camera continues to descend from above, this time focusing on the sleeping Lester who explains that "in a way, I'm dead already." No sooner does Lester tell us that he's "dead already," than he gets into the shower and begins to masturbate. He tells us that this will be the "high point of [his] day" (AB, 2). Sex and death are inextricably linked with money as Lester prepares himself for the work he loathes. What we see is that what should be vital and beautiful and interactive is dead, full of pain, and lonely.

Lester has the misfortune to have a daughter who jokes about killing him and a wife who specializes in killing/harvesting the American Dream--or at least the American Beauty rose. Yet again, we become voyeurs as the camera allows us to see Carolyn in her garden--more accurately, we see her "gloved hand" as it appears with "clippers" and "snips" the flower off (AB, 2). This is not just any flower, however; it is an American Beauty rose. Carolyn is attempting to harvest theAmerican Dream. We are joined in this act of voyeurism by Lester, who also looks at her through a window. He comments, "She wasn't always like this. She used to be happy" (AB, 4). He adds, sadly, "'We used to be happy" (AB, 4). Thus the themes of love and death and the American Dream become intertwined and remain so until the film's conclusion and the literal death of Lester Burnham.

As Carolyn "kills" the rose with her clippers, we see that her entire focus is on acquisition--ownership--control-profit--and power, "cutting things down," as she says (AB, 8). The object of everyone's desire is beauty. Harvesting rather than allowing the rose to live kills it. In short, Carolyn's dominant philosophy represents theAmerican Dream poisoned by the worst aspects of consumerism. The desire to possess absolutely is the desire to kill. One other image is so closely related to "killing the rose" that it bears mentioning here. This image comes about in an argument between Lester and Carolyn about why the former neighbors didn't allow her to represent them as their real estate agent. Once again, buying, selling, greed, and harvesting come into play. Lester says that their former neighbors didn't give the sale of the house to Carolyn because "they were still mad at [her] for cutting down their sycamore." Carolyn's retort is significantly aggressive and possessive: "Their sycamore? C'mon! A substantial portion of the root structure was on our property. You know that. How can you call it their sycamore?" She states, "I wouldn't have the heart to just cut down something if it wasn't partially mine, which of course it was" (AB, 8). Evidently, we have the "heart" to cut down what is ours.

Later on in the film Angela, the teen-aged friend of Jane, becomes the American beauty upon whom Lester casts his voyeuristic gaze. He doesn't ultimately have the "heart" to cut her down, but it's kill or be killed in the world of this vision of American society. Angela herself wholeheartedly subscribes to making herself the object of everyone's gaze. She feels that this is good policy for her business--the business of selling herself--or, more precisely, her beauty.

Angela explains to Jane that she [Angela] enjoys being the object of desire. She likes it when men look at her since "If people I don't even know look at me and want to luck me, it means I really have a shot at being a model" (AB, 20). Not even our hero Lester is immune to wanting to look desirable, as he takes up body building in his garage. This activity, unfortunately, is observed by Colonel Fitts whose passions are inflamed by what he thinks he has seen. Beauty--"love" (desire)--death, the invariable sequence is invoked again. And Lester himself has been a self-confessed "whore for the advertising industry" for "fourteen years" (AB, 49) with a serious consequence--spiritual death.

Even Jane, Lester's daughter, is obsessed with changing her image. She is at first alarmed that the neighbor boy keeps filming her, but, nevertheless, she wants bigger breasts and has saved money for a "boob job." In terms of "what we see" and "what we want," most of the characters fall into this trap. Carolyn wants to look irresistible so that she can sell her houses, and Lester, of course, wants to be the object of Angela's desire just as she is the fantasy object of his desire. Lester, in fact, says of his entire marriage that it's "just for show. A commercial, for how normal we are. When we are anything but" (AB, 89).

Being the object of a commercial proves deadly to Lester. As he works out in his garage in order to be attractive to Angela, he is observed by Colonel Fitts instead. (Angela does appreciate the results of Lester's workouts: "ANGELA 'Wow. Look at you. Have you been working out?'" [AB, 89.]). Fitts, true to the core meaning of this film, observes a business transaction between Lester and Ricky, but misinterprets the transaction as sexual. Can death be far behind, especially given the connection between the camera as a kind of "gun" and the connection between sex and guns?

Guided Reading Questions:

  1. Explain and break down this theory on Americans and their proposed purpose. “ALAN BALL'S AMERICAN BEAUTY is a cultural signifier/marker for America's current quest for spiritual meaning in the midst of an overpowering materialism. Typified by such current media productions as Desperate Housewives, one of many texts which situates its characters squarely in an affluent suburban setting, the desperation is a uniquelyAmerican discomfort with material comfort in the absence of any compelling spirituality.”

  1. What is a voyeur and how does the author of this article explain that becoming a voyeur will help in the understanding of the film’s purpose?

  2. How can desire for something/anything be destructive?

  1. The article discusses how sex, money, and love should be considered to be “vital and beautiful” but for Lester those things are what?

  1. Discuss what you believe to be one of the themes of the film as outlined in the article.

  1. What do you believe to be the American Dream?

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