Revisiting favorite films is one of my most cherished simple pleasures. I delight in analyzing a film’s minute details: the bits of dialogue, the arrangements and sequences of scenes. There’s something incredibly gratifying about breaking down a work of art and seeing how it works.
This week reexamined 1999 drama American Beauty. Director Sam Mendes mercilessly satirizes the Burnhams, a “normal” American family who possesses every middle class luxury but lacks a meaningful sense of themselves and each other. The film opens on Lester, a pathetic advertising executive who describes “jerking off” as the high point of his day. The next 24 hours consist of his much younger and recently promoted boss telling him, in the most pseudo-kindhearted way, that he must fill out a detailed job description so the company (in typical corporatist fashion) can decide “who’s valuable and who’s dispensable.”
Life at home isn’t much better. His high-strung real estate agent wife, Carolyn, uses her job as a convenient excuse to ignore him while their daughter, Jane, couldn’t despise either of them more.
From a Marxist perspective, American Beauty reveals itself an outright condemnation of the American bourgeois. Though the Burnhams have attained all the outward signposts of success-pruning shears with tastefully matching gardening clogs, a gorgeous two-story home with the quintessentially American white picket fence- both Lester and Carolyn find themselves trapped by the hopeless banality of their suburbia. For them, conventional, consumeristic notions of affluence have failed to bring any sort of lasting satisfaction. In fact, the accumulation of more and more things seems to demolish the possibility for genuine happiness and human connection all together. In a poignant scene, we realize that Lester and Carolyn’s marriage is too far gone to be recovered.
“Uh, who’s car is that out front?” Carolyn asks irritated, pristinely manicured fingertips tapping on the door frame.
“Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. It’s the car I always wanted and now I have it. I rule!” Lester replies matter-of-factly.
“Where’s the Camry?”
“I traded it in.”
“Shouldn’t you have consulted me first?”
“Hm, let me think. No, you never drove it.”
Soon the marital bickering becomes an invitation to intimacy: “Where’s Jane?” Carolyn asks, her distracted tone implying she’s only asking out of a sense of parental obligation rather than genuine concern.
“Jane not home,” Lester replies in a caveman manner indicative of his return to a baser, more visceral need for sexual attention. Carolyn looks confused, alarmed even (clearly they haven’t had any kind of physical contact, let alone flirtation, in a long time).
“We have the house all to ourselves,” Lester says, alluringly lingering over every word as he moves besides her on the coach. Carolyn, again, looks fearful. “Christ Carolyn. When did you become so…joyless?” (the negation of the suffix rendering the absence of joy, the total lack of delight in their hollow, cardboard cut-out lives, all the more poignant).
Her eyes widen in a sad blend of shock and hurt. “Joyless? I’m not joyless. There happens to be a lot about me that you don’t know, Mr. Smarty Man.” (that she’s fucking the Real Estate King whose cheesy face is plastered on bus stops all over town, for instance.)
“Whatever happened to that girl who used to fake seizures at frat parties when she got bored? Who used to run up to the roof of our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters? Have you completely forgotten about her? Because I haven’t…” he leans in seductively.
Recalling these past versions of herself, Carolyn chuckles as she leans against the coach. Lester begins kissing her neck and, for a brief moment, we think there might be hope for this estranged couple. But as Lester slowly caresses her neck, Carolyn turns her head: “Lester, you’re about to spill beer on the coach!”
Always brilliant Annette Bening so precisely captures the complexity of Carolyn’s emotions at this moment: the terror at seeing her $4,000 pin-striped, Italian upholstered silk coach nearly ruined by a drop of beer; the disgust she feels with herself for caring so little for her husband and so much for a coach; and the aching regret she must live with knowing she spoiled their one chance at reconciliation forever.
“It’s just a couch!” Lester screams, outraged at his wife’s acquisitiveness.
The fact that Carolyn is willing to tarnish such a rare moment of intimacy with her husband for something as superficial as a coach proves the distressing extent of her materialism: so completely preoccupied is she with objects that she forgets to contemplate the transcendent and spiritual. All in all, this single exchange calls into question our idolization of the American dream. Though we glorify wealth and stature as the foundational pillars of our national credo, their attainment leaves this couple desperate, unsatisfied, and deeply alone. As professor Roy M. Anker so penetratingly observes, the Burnhams’s single-minded pursuit of material prosperity has kept them from beholding the “exquisite beauty” of the ordinary human world.
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