Friday, July 28, 2006
AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999, USA, Sam Mendes, Alan Ball screenplay)
That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in.
In a letter Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, he gives some good advice: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things." So it's easy to see why many Christians, recognizing the wisdom of those words, avoid AMERICAN BEAUTY. An angry, self-preoccupied man sneers at his wife, blackmails his employers and lusts after his daughter's girlfriend. His wife commits noisy, gymnastic adultery in a motel room. Parents subject their children to physical and verbal violence, profanity proliferates and breasts are bared. And when the film offers us transcendent wisdom, it is in the person of a drug dealer.
Why, then, does this film mean so much to so many people of faith? Could it be that AMERICAN BEAUTY is just the sort of movie Saint Paul is advising us to see? And not only to see but, just as importantly, to think on? For this is a richly detailed film that yields much through conversation and close, thoughtful viewing.
Paul's list begins, of course, with truth – though that is often overlooked in our eagerness to get to the spiritual stuff – and this film has a lot of truth to tell. About our culture of consumption. About our families, and the terrible distance that can grow between parents and children, husbands and wives. About parents and children who love one another, however tragically they fail one another. About the things that can imprison us, and the damage we can do when we struggle to break free. These may not be new truths, but they continue to need telling, and AMERICAN BEAUTY tells them with tremendous energy, humour and style – and it does so from a deeply moral and compassionate perspective, leading us constantly to reconsider the true nature of characters we would judge by the faces they present to the world.
The film wonders what honour might look like in a man who has traded any he might once have had for a lazy, passive-aggressive surliness. Justice is served – deliciously, shamefully, at a drive-through window. The film is about sex, but ultimately I believe it is about sexual purity: Lester lusts for a vision of a girl covered in red rose petals, but to what degree is his true desire for the woman we first see tending roses? Words of grace are spoken by characters who have the power to do otherwise, who have every reason to judge, to act out of fear and paranoia, but choose not to.
Centrally, though, AMERICAN BEAUTY asks us to think on one thing in particular: what is lovely? What is the most beautiful thing we see in this film: Angela's extraordinary appearance, or an ordinary plastic bag? An image of female beauty on the internet, or the reality of female beauty viewed through Ricky's sacrilizing eye? There are constant, unexpected moments of beauty: in snapshots, in Carolyn's face during an unguarded moment, in the undeniable love between a father and a son, in youth, in age, in death.
AMERICAN BEAUTY gives us conventional images of beauty – beautiful homes, beautiful bodies, beautiful people, beautiful stuff – and then subverts them. Ricky's camera looks past the angelic Angela to the utterly plain Jane. People, and things, become truly beautiful when they are seen to be beautiful – or when they stop trying appear beautiful and simply be what they are.
The tension between appearance and reality is brilliantly played out in an array of phenomenal performances, where our expectations – derived from faces, surfaces, perceptions – are constantly undermined. Annette Bening gives a fearless, unchecked performance as a woman whose great beauty is defaced by terrible grief and pain – which is in turn hidden under a clenched Martha Stewart veneer of success. Kevin Spacey's brilliantly realized Lester Birnham is the middle-aged version of Edward Norton's numb twenty-something character in FIGHT CLUB, which played on movie screens at precisely the same time – both mask the terror of spiritual disorientation with self-indulgence, lies and aggression – however passive. Chris Cooper embodies a man whose controlling hostility springs from a hidden agony of self-loathing. At essential moments, Mena Suvari makes the subtlest character shifts to give fleeting glimpses of a desperately ordinary (beautifully ordinary) little girl hiding beneath layers of sexualized bravado. Thora Birch is note-perfect as the almost-adult whose heart-broken disappointment in her parents (and her world) is disguised as unmitigated contempt, and the under-celebrated Wes Bentley gives us the most complex web of disarming honesty and manipulative prevarication imaginable – the impenetrable, inexplicable amalgam of love and malice he holds toward his father is played out in astonishing changes of emotion and in breathtaking subtlety.
I would suggest that the character of Ricky Fitts may present us with the most important way this film subverts our expectations, and puts us in a position to perceive fresh truths. Ricky is a pusher: his lucrative drug business liberates him to do as he pleases, living out the kind of freedom and self-fulfillment that makes him Lester Birnham's personal hero. He is also the character who speaks truth without counting the cost (except, confoundingly, to his father), who values only things of true value, a true seeker whose digital camera and pure heart give him eyes to see beyond the ordinary to the sublime – "it's like God is looking right at you, just for a moment. And if you're careful, you can look right back."
One problem: in the real world – or should I say, in my own preconceptions – you don't deal that much dope without being an addict, and addicts don't liberate people, they use people. Ricky mocks his father's tactic of denial, but the fact is, denial is the number one strategy of the user – far from seeing reality clearly, they obfuscate it with the mismanaged thought processes of addiction.
But AMERICAN BEAUTY doesn't allow me to hold on to my carefully constructed preconceptions, here – any more than Jesus' parable about the good Samaritan allowed his Jewish audience to cling to their certainty that Samaritans were enemies, heretics and idolators. If they truly wanted to learn who their neighbour was, they needed to set aside their certainties and learn practical theology from an infidel. Screenwriter Alan Ball demands the same of me – if I want a glimpse of true beauty, if I want to enter into the world he has built to show me the grandeur of God, I will have to willingly suspend not my unbelief, but my Beliefs. I will have to set aside the riches of my hard-earned knowledge of The Way Things Really Are in order to squeeze, camel-like, through the eye of the needle of this confounding, improbable, world-inverting little parable.
Make no mistake: Ricky is the possessor, the purveyor, of the deepest truth that Art can reveal. Gerard Manley Hopkins' truth, that "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things." That, even over this bent world, the Holy Ghost broods. That, even (and especially) from things that buckle and break, things that are crushed, God's fire will break, His grandeur "will flame out, like shining from shook foil."
I'm prepared to hear that from a priest, in sublime poetry: I didn't expect – or want – to hear it from a drug dealer in a commercial Hollywood movie. AMERICAN BEAUTY uses the voice of one I deem unworthy, to speak the heart of God. And when I think on these things, I find them excellent and worthy of praise.
Available at Videomatica
Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "God's Grandeur" can be found here, and "The Windhover" here