I want to make it clear that despite the title, this new series isn’t about trolling anybody. I like to think we’ve matured beyond disliking something just because it’s popular (although I’ll admit I’ve never given the Dave Matthews Band a fair shake). Also, don’t think of this as an attempt to convince you that you shouldn’t like your favorite movie. Rather, this is another way to tackle OTI’s core mission of making you see pop culture in a new way. Even if you don’t agree with me about American Beauty, maybe this will give you a new perspective, or make you consider why something works or doesn’t work.
Consider the comment thread not only an opportunity to discuss American Beauty, but also any secret pop culture opinions you’ve been afraid to share. We will try really hard not to judge.
I find it instructive that I like American Beauty for almost all the reasons you profess to dislike it for—or at least find it slightly frustrating. Perhaps this is a function of my outsider’s (non-US) fascination with movies that critique or play with the *American Dream*?
Regarding the feelings of triteness and cliche, I’d argue both of those work in it’s favor, as this movie is remembered as the source of several of these cliches and explores them in an interesting—if rather on-the-nose—way. I’m also happy to go along with the triteness as it feels entirely appropriate for this movie, it’s characters, and their struggles. The floating bag scene is one such example that has stuck in the popular culture, but not for the reasons—I suspect, although I’m quite possibly very very wrong, he’s probably said something about it—Mendes intended (i.e. sincerity and natural beauty/wonder amongst the mundane).
As for the Fight Club parallels: I think the two would make an amazing (albeit quite draining) double feature. While AB sets out to critique, satirise, and explore, achieving its goals with flying colours (to my mind), FC sets out to do the same in an entirely different manner and is in turns too successful, and a complete failure. While you could argue that it’s the audience / culture-at-large’s fault for misinterpreting (arguably)—or at least being carried away by—the slick, seductive film making of Fincher, there’s also a line of thinking that it’s the film makers failure to deliver his message—assuming he has a particular interpretation in mind. There is a similar discourse around Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Wall Street (1987) along the lines of it being impossible to make an anti-war war movie. Then again, despite it’s ‘failure’ to communicate, it still occupies a far larger cultural mind share, and (as far as I know) is still discussed and debated with both greater fervor and detail. Perhaps the strong mis-readings, visual seduction, and ambiguity of Fight Club was simply Fincher’s way of playing the long game.
So, I guess what I’m left wondering is if American Beauty created a cultural discourse around the Masculinity and The American Dream the same way that—or at least on a similar level to—Fight Club? AB’s sincerity seems to have done it a disservice in the long run, where as FC’s ambiguity and viscerally have kept it in the public imagination.
Matt, I initially saw American Beauty by sneaking out of my parents house when the family was asleep to rent it from Hollywood Video so I could see boobs in a world ruled by dial-up. (I did the same thing to see Die Hard for the first time, not for the boobs but the blood.)What I found intrigued me. My young teenage self was impressed and awed by the pretension (which I mistook for artsy/elevated social commentary) on display. I admit to my own pretentiousness as a teenager who believed himself to be the literal center of the universe. In that state, I found that I really loved the tragic story of the man who hates his life and in the end finds peace right before that peace becomes eternal.
As a more mature (read 10 years older) person, I must say that on re-watch I agree with most of your critiques. I actually find that I really only like the movie for Kevin Spacey’s performance and a few moments which I love.
Moment #1 – When Carolyn is trying to sell the house. All her work, her motivational self-talk, the lies she tells to over-sell the house, and her ending defeat. I think that moment plays as the perfect counterpoint to Lester. She is so deluded and obsessed with appearances that I hate her character because I see her all around me in middle-class-white-conservative suburbia. Lester feels enlightened when compared to her.
Moment #2 – When Carolyn confronts Lester about masturbating. As a man, this scene speaks to me. Lester is interested in addressing and working on his relationship problems and Carolyn is just so fixated on the problems and bothered by them that she is unwilling to work on them. He is trying to teach her and she just won’t.
Moment #3 – When Carolyn comes home and finds Lester in the chair. This moment feels to me like a statement of purpose/life philosophy worth espousing. She says don’t spill beer on the couch, and he says who cares! It’s just a couch! Her response is a beautiful and heartbreaking character moment. She is more interested in stuff/appearances than in fixing the problems in their relationship. He seems open to fixing things and she does not. I know that there are a lot more impediments to repairing their marriage than just making out on a couch, but the moment seems to do such great character work that I cannot help loving it.
Aside from these three moments, the characters and plot are pretty cliched and terrible. I would watch a cut where there is no Ricky, or Angela, or Colonel Fitts, or gay neighbors as proper characters with feelings and motivations and intentions, only as extras.
One comment on a minor thing: the “lame” pre-title scene makes much more sense in the screenplay, where Lester’s daughter & Ricky get charged with Lester’s murder. The tape we see is evidence in the trial and the beginning of the film would also have included a scene of Ricky sitting in a jail cell.
Without that context — yes, the scene is sorta pointless.
For me, it’s interesting that you would start this series with American Beauty, because it is the first movie I remember loving and then, a few years later, absolutely hating.
I saw it in theaters when I was 16. And that was right around the age I was discovering movies as an art form rather than an entertainment. It was also when I was burgeoning into an insufferable ‘deep thought’-spewing pseudo-intellectual. I was probably much like Ricky (I carried around a leather bound little book to write poetry in instead of filming stuff, so really I was worse). And at that age, this movie delivers easily, everything I thought I wanted form an ‘artsy’ movies. And it didn’t make me have to work for any of the subtext, or interesting themes, it spoon fed them to me. Also, for whatever reason, when I was 16-18 Thora Birch was the angsty nerdy girl of my dreams. A couple of years later, in college, I bought the dvd.
A couple of years after that, I couldn’t understand why the hell I had bought that dvd. Or liked that movie.
I had a similar reaction to you about ‘why would people like this?” but in my case, it was ‘ why did *I* love this movie?”
It turns out that figuring out why I liked, then loathed this movie helped me understand myself as a viewer, and appreciator of movies and art.
It made me realize that the pretentiousness I saw so easily at 20 was something that I had learned to see. I learned that sometimes things seem smart at first, and only fall apart once you move past the shiny surface. But that that shiny surface is still hard to resist. It taught me that if a movie panders to me, no matter how blatantly, I’m likely to get sucked into the flattery. It taught me that figuring out the difference between seeming to be a smart movie, and actually being a smart movie takes a lot of thinking. And that kind of thinking is something that teenagers aren’t great at, and not something everyone wants to do. It also made me learn how to judge art based on what that art is trying to accomplish, or be, or say rather than what I want it to be or what people tell me it is. (American Beauty still fails by this metric, but it was an important thing to learn).
Thanks to all of these lessons, I made peace with American Beauty. In my late teens/early 20’s I was angry with it for having ‘tricked’ me into loving it. Now, I realize it has some decent-ish elements. The performances by most of the actors except the kids are solid. The cinematography is great.
Do I think it’s a good movie? No. It’s mediocre at best. But at least now I’m not ashamed to say that when I was a teenager, full of feelings and opinions I can remember but not understand, I absolutely loved it.
It’s also interesting you mention Fight Club, because I had the same love then hate then just not like relationship with Chuck Palahniuk’s books (not the movie Fight Club, though, that’s still actually good).
By the way, A.O. Scott and the late David Carr had a short video series on the NY Times website and one of the episodes was devoted precisely to the theme of this series.
And American Beauty is one of the movies they talk about.
I’m attaching the link:
@DeanMoriarty I like and agree with your comments and feel an internet kinship.
However I would like to challenge you on this point. You said, ” It also made me learn how to judge art based on what that art is trying to accomplish, or be, or say rather than what I want it to be or what people tell me it is.”
I don’t think I agree with you. I believe there is no categorical way that you or I or even the artist/creator could know “what the art is trying to accomplish.”
It goes back to “death of the author,” so I think that the only way to understand artistic creations is from a personal perspective, or from a popular cultural perspective, or in the context of its historical place in an ongoing artistic conversation.
Thanks for the reply.
I am going to stick by my point, though. I’m not sure each of these lessons was learned entirely or discretely from this one experience with this one movie, but rather with similar experience to various movies and works of art. I say all this, because I don’t think I can argue my point using only this movie as a specific support.
My argument to your objection is that the the choice you present for experiencing a work, between purely personal and purely contextual is a false dichotomy. I would argue that art, especially narrative forms that exist along a dimension of time, tell/show/hint to their audience what they are trying to do. Let’s take American Beauty. The first shot and the voice over set up a murder mystery. The way the movie is shot though, make sure to let us know that this isn’t some kind of gritty noir, or action movie or any other kind of movie where murder might be present. Furthermore, the subject and tone of Spacey’s voice over, Ricky’s bullshit ponderings about death and beauty tell the audience that this movie is interested in ‘Big Questions.’ This is what I mean when I say “what the art is trying to accomplish.”
I may have worded it poorly, but what I was trying to say was that I had to learn how to judge a piece of art on the merits it sets out for itself. American Beauty mostly fails on this. But when I watched it the first time, I bought that it was a serious, quality movie because that’s what the movie told me it was. Even though I didn’t know who Sam Mendes or Alan Ball. Even though my knowledge of Spacey’s work was cursory at best and I only knew Benning from The American President. What I learned was to stop taking movies simply at their word, so to speak, and see if the work was doing what it was saying it was doing.
American Beauty at the end is telling me that Spacey’s character has grown and changed. At 16, trusting the movie, I am impressed, gratified, and appreciative of this piece of wonderful character writing. As an adult I think about whether or not the movie has had his character change in a believable, and interesting way. And I realize that, no not really. It has the markers of that arc, it talks about it, but it never shows it, it never goes further than surface level with it. So, the movie tells me to be impressed with this element, but has not actually impressed me. It tells me to feel something, expects me to feel something, but never actually achieves a way to make me feel that thing.
As an immature or non-critical watcher it’s easier to just buy into these ‘arguments.’ With me and American Beauty there was also the fact that I wanted a serious important movie. So the movie was in effect telling me what I wanted to hear and therefore not thinking about it very deeply.
As a way of trying to explain this view let me use an example of a movie I think succeeded at what it was trying to achieve: Mad Max: Fury Road. In the first few shots, and throughout the movie, it establishes that this movie is trying to give you, first and foremost, a thrill ride in a strange, fantastical world. And it does so extremely well. Whatever one may have to say a movie, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t have some amazing action. This movie, however, has a lot of other things going on though. It has a great character arc in Furiosa, it explores issues of gender, what survival entails, whether that’s worth it, etc. But, the reason these things can work is because the movie delivers on what it’s made the audience expect ( especially in its first few scenes). It’s the success to its own coherence, to what the movie owes not just the audience, but itself that let’s it transcend to something more than just being about truck chases in the desert.
I’m not sure if this makes any sense. I hope it does. And please feel free to pick apart my argument. It’s something I’ve tried to articulate for a while now and I’m happy to have help refining/honing that view.
Thank you for keeping this going!
I like your comment, and I do believe I better understand what you are arguing.
I am going to ask some questions, so don’t think me rude, but I do wonder about some of your ideas.
I also love Mad Max Fury Road. It is fantastic! I do believe that you are right in that Mad Max sets itself up as an action movie and it delivers at being an action movie.
There have been some great articles on this site about how to judge a movie/popular artifact ( https://www.overthinkingit.com/2012/01/31/death-author-katy-perry/ , https://www.overthinkingit.com/2015/02/11/bad-movies/ ). So it seems there are a few ways to get at whether or not a film is good or bad or so-bad-its-good.
First of all I want to consider your claim that you had to learn “how to judge a piece of art on the merits it sets out for itself.” The way this sounds to me is like the argument is that the art has intentions. I know that that is not what you mean, but that is the way I am reading it. Since art is inanimate and cannot have intentions, maybe you refer to the intentions of the creators of the art. But according to Barthes, you or I are no more qualified than the artist to speak about what the art means. The artist’s intentions do not need to play into our interpretation.
So from here we jump off into the nebulous and dangerous field of genre studies. In the little I have read on the subject, Daniel Chandler says, “Conventional definitions of genres tend to be
based on the notion that they constitute particular
conventions of content (such as themes or settings)
and/or form (including structure and style) which
are shared by the texts which are regarded as belonging
to them.” Later he brings up that the idea that as one tries to pin down what it means for a piece of art to be in a certain genre, one finds that genre’s are fluid concepts, that involve breaking conventions as much as adhering to them.
In the same paper by Chandler he says, “David Buckingham argues that ‘genre is not… simply “given” by the culture: rather, it is in a constant process of negotiation and change'” In other words there is no monolith defining what makes a drama or a comedy or an action movie. We use these convenient symbols to short-hand what we believe about the film/story/art.
To make this personal, when I watch a film, the only way to judge it is based on my own current understanding of what art and genre can be, and whether or not a particular piece lives up to that.
In other words I had a valid opinion in 2002 when I decided I liked American Beauty because my understanding of what art could be was limited. Now in 2016, I like American Beauty a lot less not because it has changed, but because I have.
There is no intention in the inanimate art, and the intentions of the artist do not matter, so there is no “trying to be something” from that end. There is only what the art is and how well it meshes into my understanding of what art is and can be. So here I will reframe what you said in your post Dean. You initially saw American Beauty at a time when your sensibilities and understanding led you to read it as a deep movie with powerful storytelling because of overt and clear messages from the composition. After time and with greater experience you found the messages grew haranguing in their overtness and the composition to be hollow and flat.
Ok, I have to pause because I had a mini-epiphany. American Beauty is fundamentally about the hollowness of modern suburban life. How better to convey that message than pretension. The shots, colors, music, characters all are full of symbols which lead people like young Dean and young me to see the movie as deep, but on reflection is actually hollow. It is kind of like how at the end of Fight Club they splice in a giant dong, because as much as the movie is a critique of capitalism it is also a product of said capitalism (I stole that one from Earthling cinema https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqI6jgTUGmc). Sorry I just couldn’t not say that. Its own pretensiousness and on-the-nose-ness is the real critique.
There is a great episode of a show called Chef’s Table on Netflix. In the first episode of season 1 it features the chef Massimo Bottura. He is incredible, the art of his food is powerful. But for the first years of his restaurant, the people that critiqued his food did not have the understanding or experience or taste or inclination to enjoy it. They called his art poor and it almost closed his restaurant. Then an international critic came accidentally to Massimo’s restaurant and did have the breadth of understanding to appreciate the artistry of the food. Now the restaurant is hailed as one of the best in the world.
Now I imagine that you could counter argue that if I view art this way then there is no way to tell what is art and what is not. I would say in response, that one need look no further than Axe Cop, Kid History, or the songs by Jordan Bijan to see that all production can be art. There is no objective criteria to define what art is or is not.
There is a whole other post I need to write about the glory of unintentional art (see The Transporter Refueled and Jurassic World) but that will have to wait for another time.
Again, thank you Dean for keeping the responses coming. If I am off base then
So I finished writing my first response and then went with my friend and watched “The Nice Guys.” It is great in a few ways, I highly recommend it.
It made me think about your point some more because “The Nice Guys” is a black comedy.
I really do not like the moniker black comedy because I personally find that there are very few of them that are actually funny. I love the Coen brothers but many of their movies are labeled as black comedies and they do not usually make me laugh.
In my view, this is an example of what you are talking about. If a movie is a black comedy that is not funny then either it is not a comedy or it fails at delivering the comedy.
I guess what I am saying in my first post is that I have the capacity to make either claim because if the film in question is labeled a black comedy and I don’t laugh, then either it was poorly crafted or else I am not sufficently schooled in the ways of comedy to understand the jokes.
This is such a weird and complicated problem, Dean. As with the above, I agree that there are definitely some ground rules that we as the audience accept about media we consume, like comedies should make us laugh, but when they fail, it is really difficult to say whether the film is broken, or is our understanding broken.
This situation may be why things like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are popular, because if lots of people say the movie is broken then me not laughing is not my fault, but the films.
Who knows??? What do you think Dean?
I tried to answer as thoroughly as I want and that your thoughts deserve. But I’m writing this over the course of a week while at work, so I might not be able to and it might be a little disjointed and sloppy. My apologies.
At heart, I think the most important part of my point is that I do think art, all art, all attempt at art, no matter its medium or genre has intentions. Art is a way to communicate. When I talk about the intentions of a piece of art, I’m speaking about what the art intends to communicate, and whether that’s what it achieves communicating. It could be a message, an emotion, a mood, or something even more abstract, but in that all art, all use of media, is used to convey things to other people, it is a form of communication.
Can we look to the author as a way of intuiting what it is trying to communicate? Absolutely. Can we use the framework of genre to do the same? again, of course we can. (you’ll have to forgive me, it’s been some years since my study of genre theory and I’ve forgotten most of it). I posit that the if we learn to parse what a piece of art is communicating, we will also be able to know what it was created to communicate, without needing to rely on context or genre ( a kind of context in a way). That is what I’m trying to say by ‘’judging the art on its own terms’
What I’m trying to get at, what my theory — a theory influenced greatly by my experience with AB — is that if you can learn to only ‘listen’ to what the art itself is trying to say, you’ll have a more rewarding experience when you engage in that work.
You bring up the idea of genre and its conventions, etc. I would dig a layer down and say that it’ more a matter of medium than genre. An action movie or black comedy (since you mention Nice Guys) is still a narrative film. So, the way we need to read it is through the frame of the medium. We have to use the conventions, the limitations, the opportunities of the medium. We can add genre if we want a finer reading, but my point, and my belief, is that we need to learn to read an art medium the way we need to learn to read an alphabet. Or perhaps a better analogy is that it is more rewarding to read a book in one’s fluent language than one in a language one is merely proficient in. It will be understandable, and perhaps the enjoyment won’t suffer buy you will get a deeper experience if you understand the subtle shades and nuances of word choice and combinations. I also believe that engaging with art this way can be a much more satisfying experience than trying to look for clues outside the work — author, context, genre, etc..
Finally, I think there is an argument to be made that I’m placing too much weight on this value of art. It’s entirely possible for movies to still be good and/or enjoyable without achieving what they are intending. One can enjoy a movie without having a clear idea of what it’s trying to communicate. (I’m currently trying to get through a Pynchon novel and enjoying it even though sometimes I can barely understand what the hell it’s trying to say, let alone what deeper themes it’s trying to communicate). And, to your point about the bad movie article (which I commented on), sometimes completely failing to achieve its goals is what makes a movie great.
Is this really all that contrarian? I’m not sure I’ve seen any praise for this movie in the twentieth century — whatever critical halo it had has faded quickly.
I think the real double feature here would be American Beauty back-to-back with The Graduate. Baby Boomers at two ends of their lives, or at least their careers, boning Mrs Robinson and then becoming her, or something. I haven’t seen The Graduate so I don’t know if this is profound or just silly.
That is beautiful. Very nice!
Slightly off topic – when I first saw American Beauty, I loved it (but this was several years ago and I haven’t rewatched it recently, so I can’t speak to whether I, too, have fallen off the loving AB train like most of the other commenters on this thread). But when I bought it, it was packaged as a DVD double-feature with the Virgin Suicides – which I utterly despised when I watched it. I could never figure out what the similarity was between the movies that made the DVD manufacturer think these two would make good complimentary movies. Perhaps similarities in the poster design?
Anyway, carry on with the odd double-feature suggestions.
Oh man, Virgin Suicides: I only watched it once, but it haunted me for months afterward. Casting the guy from 100 Girls was a huge mistake, but Kirsten Dunst was in Oscar-Bait training for Melancholia and her angel-in-mid-fall quality brought the whole thing to life. With that ending I still have no idea what it was actually about or what Sophia Coppola was trying to say (it was Sophia, wasn’t it? Am I remembering that right?). It’s every bit as pretentious as American Beauty and, being set in the 70’s, it’s probably aimed square at Boomers too, so maybe they really are a set. I’ll have to find it and watch it again now to come up with a more informed opinion.
Okay, having actually watched the video this time (internet reset for this month, yay!), I think this movie did well financially because it touched a nerve with Baby Boomers arriving at their mid-life crisis, whereas Fight Club is more of a Gen-X movie. If American Beauty follows on from The Graduate, Fight Club is a spiritual descendent of The Crow. American Beauty tapped into the anxiety of middle-aged Boomers feeling trapped by their lives, but then sidestepped any difficult questions, and Kevin Spacey’s performance was good enough that we overlooked the sheer narcissism of his character. He’s just ruined his wife and child, but HE’S okay – the real him on the inside, that dangerous idea that who I am is somehow separate from what I’m doing so prevalent in Evangelical Christianity.
Also, it didn’t pretend it wasn’t pretentious. Let’s be honest, lots of movies are pretentious but feel like they have to hide it under fake humility. Like Ricky, American Beauty had the nads to stand naked and just go with its pretension. That might not have been a good decision, but at least it was a decision, and it’s as least as pretentious as imagining not liking American Beauty is the unpopular opinion.
Oh also, visual style: this movie had some great visuals. The image of Mena Suvari pinned to the ceiling by rose petals is iconic, and it’s also (as far as I know, which isn’t far) one of the earliest examples of hyperrealism in art. The saturated colours, the whole frame in pinpoint focus (it was released right on the crest of the DVD boom so we noticed), it was like something out of DeviantArt (more pretension!) and it looked like nothing else I can think of from that era. Since then the style’s shown up in the early scenes of Melancholia, and I’d like to see it more, because I like it.
It also got a little wink: in American Beauty Chris Cooper played a former Marine colonel; he went on to have a cameo in Jarhead as a Marine colonel responds to a hoo-ah! from his troops with, “All right, I think I felt my dick move!” Possibly worth exploring.