Let’s take a deeper look at American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes, and the winner of my contemporary translucent cinema poll. On its surface, the film addresses such common contemporary themes as meaninglessness, infidelity, ambition, and family dysfunction. But, as the movie poster urged before we even bought our tickets, “Look closer.” Everything in this suburban movie may be familiar, but as with life, nothing is as it appears.
I talked to the film’s writer, Alan Ball:
We have this idea, especially in American society, that we know everything, and we’re in control of everything. And we don’t.
There’s so much we don’t know, so much mystery and wonder in existence and being alive in the world. Children have that but it gets ironed out of us; it doesn’t go away, it just goes to sleep. Those of us who are lucky enough to have a certain kind of experience can have that part of us reawaken. The legacy of the Judeo-Christian ethic in our country teaches us to deny all the parts of ourselves, the desires that don’t fit into what is universally agreed upon as being good. That is what keeps us from being whole. The notion that the road to what the Christians would call salvation, and what the Buddhists call enlightenment, is a very clean road, a very straight and narrow road, may work for some people, but it hasn’t worked for me.’
The film is about the awakening of Lester Burnham, a middle-aged man who has lost his passion.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” he says early in the film, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for about twenty years, and I’m just now waking up.”
Says Ball: “He knows he needs to find his passion, and Angela (Lester’s daughter’s Lolita-like best friend) is the initial catalyst for that. But he thinks she is the goal, and she’s really just the knock on the door. He needs to get back in touch with his spiritual connection to living.”
The film evokes the Iago trance with visceral force and biting humor. We see ourselves and our own trance in every frame. We see ourselves in Caroline, Lester’s wife, and her failing attempts to contain her life gone out of control. We see ourselves in Buddy King, the real estate magnate who projects “an image of success at all times,” in Colonel Frank Fritz, the retired marine who embodies the values of the far right, and in his wife, whose state of total submission has left her in the realm of the walking dead.
Lester’s awakening is catalyzed by meeting the colonel’s son, Ricky Fritz. Ricky embodies translucence. “He’s certainly the most evolved character,” says Alan Ball. “You look at what he’s grown up in, the environment of repression and brutality, and it’s amazing. His ability to see the beauty in life is what kept him from just shutting down and becoming twisted and brutal. I think everybody has that ability, and we all make choices.”
Ricky is awake, conscious, watching, attuned to the present moment.
His penetrating, unwavering eyes are invariably looking directly into the camera whenever he is on screen. Ricky’s ability to see the world, to see the hidden beauty in things, is accentuated by his video camera, which is almost always zooming in on something. Ricky invites us to “look closer.” He can see the beauty underneath the appearance of things. A conversation between Ricky and Lester’s daughter, Jane, expresses the essence of the film’s gift. Jane has asked him why he would capture a homeless woman, frozen to death, on video. “Because it was amazing,” he replies. “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you. If you are careful you can look right back.”
“And what do you see?” asks Jane. “Beauty,” says Ricky. The “Beauty” celebrated by the film is the beauty Ricky sees everywhere, the beauty Lester comes to discover, as his eyes are opened during the film, the beauty of a plastic bag dancing in the wind on an icy cold day. Ricky describes this moment of beauty as he shows Jane the image: “It’s a minute away from snowing, there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, and this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it for fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized 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. Video is a poor excuse, I know, but it helps me remember. I need to remember, I need to remember. Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”
The scene in the film is based on a real incident in Ball’s life: I had an encounter with a plastic bag! And I didn’t have a video camera, like Ricky does. I’m sure some people would look at that and go, “What a psycho!” But it was a very intense and very real moment. There’s a Buddhist notion of the miraculous within the mundane, and I think we certainly live in a culture that encourages us not to look for that. I do like, though, that Ricky says, “Video’s a poor excuse, but it helps me remember.” Because it’s not the video he’s focused on; it’s the experience itself. He’s very connected to the world around him.
This is an excerpt from my book, The Translucent Revolution. Order your own copy here: