Continuing our series of cinema classics (in no particular order), we tonight watched American Beauty, now eleven years old but, a chunky mobile phone aside, with no signs of showing its age. Although it defies a single interpretation – even by the director, Sam Mendes – the film is quite clearly a satire of American middle-class suburban life and of the tensions – sexual and other – that lie just below the surface of such apparently still waters (green lawns, white picket fences, etc). The characters are archetypes and Kevin Spacey’s Lester is a sort of everyman, trapped by consumerist and materialist visions of beauty which, through epiphany, he feels he has escaped, although the viewer knows he has simply given up one cliché for another. Redeemed by his abandonment of puerile lust and beautified by death, Lester finally finds a more eternal appreciation of beauty summed up in these closing words, from a remarkable script by Alan Ball.:
‘I suppose I could be pissed off about what happened to me. But it’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry, you will someday.’
The huge success of American Beauty, made from a script plucked out of relative obscurity by a first-time film director, is surely an encouragement for all budding screenwriters and directors: it can be done!