Musing on Sam Mende’s American Beauty
Today I taught to Korean students Sam Mende’s American Beauty, one of those films whose popularity was only really rivaled by the backlash against it a few years later. In many ways, I think the films beauty was in the way it undermines the bourgeois romantic trappings it gives itself. Obviously, the movie for all its gloss and hyper-exact sensibilities has a sloppy middle class family message with Lester’s monologue on at the end trying to wring the sentimental family gloss to an otherwise nihilistic tail with some only thinly veiled cliches. This film cries out for the a Lacanian (phallic mother, oedipal sublimation) and vulgar Marxist (Lester and Caroline as alienated from each other through tedious production of capital as well as alienated from human relationships themselves) readings. Those rubrics won’t be particularly illuminating because a college junior with either an introduction to philosophy or an introduction to critical theory course could write them. Hell, a blogger for the Village Voice could probably write a hip less jargon-laden version of exactly that.
No, what I want to focus on is the film’s own almost dialectical undercutting of its own romanticism, because in lesser’s supposed enlightenment after his brains are splattered against the white wall, he still sees himself as fundamentally concerned with his relationships fulfillment to him. His last vision is one of narcissistic and self-indulgent interiority leaving his family in the ruins that they did not entirely make. It is the picture whose romanticism also shows romanticism nihilism because it literally offers no way out. The moment Lester realizes his dream–his roses–was in his house the entire time, he is shot in the head. This absolves him of the responsibility of cleaning up the mess. Furthermore, his alienation and the implicit violence in his family remained unresolved.
In many ways, American Beauty is an excellent movie despite its impulses–it is hard to say where Mende’s intended this dialectical undercutting–this negative dialectic–into his film deliberately. If the sentimental films he made after it are any indication–with the notable exception of Jarhead–Mende’s aesthetic is problematically middle brow. Yet, perhaps like Balzac and Dickens (or the science fiction writer Gene Wolfe) it is often a conservative or middle-brow disposition that allows enough of the contradictions of its own position into it to truly illuminate the social and cultural problems of a given moment. In this way American Beauty succeeds precisely because of its failure.