Monday, October 20, 2008

Currently Watching: American Beauty (1999)

There are few things better than the sublimely beautiful, tragicomic "American Beauty."  Of all the times I've watched it (which has probably gotten somewhere near two dozen at this point), it never ceases to overwhelm me.  It's currently sitting happily at 132 on my Personal Canon, although I could probably stand to shove it even higher if I could figure out how to rearrange 101-125 adequately :).
But why American Beauty, which is essentially a film about an outraged male who overturns the lives of those around him in a bizarre quest of self-fulfillment?  It's a very, VERY rare thing for American cinema to find that elusive, eloquent balance between literary and cinematic art.  "American Beauty" is one of a handful of films from the last 10 years (among them Gosford Park, Mystic River, and Sideways) that takes a simple story and elevates its ideas into a kind of self-aware critique.  "American Beauty" is as much about masculine identity as it is about the deconstruction of idealized suburbia, about double identities, closed doors, passion, desire...

As I watched it again, I tried to watch Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening interact.  I always marvel at how Spacey uses his body in this film; he's so willing to degrade himself and yet at the same time uses the arc of the film to sculpt himself into an "idealized" male figure.  Mendes accentuates throughout the film the rough distance between husband Lester and wife Carolyn, perhaps never more explicitly than the much-cited dinner sequence where the two are poised at opposing ends.  In the amazingly-framed shot (courtesy of the late Conrad Hall), the entire mise-en-scene of the room is fram
ed like a mirror: the camera pushes in from the frame of the door way to incorporate mirrors, furniture, candles, and food to balance both sides of the frame.  The dramatic conflict of the narrative is carried out through Lester and Carolyn's argument about Lester quitting his job.  To visually show the conflict and to reiterate the sequence's critique of conventional gender spheres, Lester walks across the frame to Carolyn's side of the table to steal the plate of asparagus, disrupting the entire balance of the composition - he further disrupts it when he throws the entire plate into the wall.  This sequence is always used to show what a great job Bening and Spacey do to undermine the superficialities of their characters, but it strikes me as a wonderful sequence for the ways Mendes willingly undoes the balancing act he achieves so well in his set-up.

And then I noticed it across the entire film: perfect, balanced compositions, usually in long shots and usually serving as establishing shots for many sequences.  Mendes finds door frames, lamps, couches, and then positions his actors in ways that comment on their crumbling relationships within this polished, almost artificial landscape (and as a side note, the lighting is KEY here and even more beautiful than these balanced shots).  As the film goes on, Mendes willingly engages in escalating UNbalances, letting Spacey, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch visually cross their spheres, engage physically with other characters.  Every character's behavior in this film is questionable, escalating of course to the violent murder of the protagonist, but Mendes manages to find a simple and yet very profound way to articulate these ruptures.
Further, I still reveled in the deceptively simple use of reds and blues throughout: reds indicating passions, life, lust, and (in the end) blood disrupt the otherwise pervasive blues.  The blues, which pervasively line the Burnham home, are terrific indicators for the kind of complacent life Lester and his family lead.  The red that starts with the doorway and then gradually builds its way into the roses, the Thunderbird, Lester's begins to take over the film (probably the most obvious is when the blood from the gunshot explodes over the pale white kitchen walls at film's end).

What I love about "American Beauty" more than anything is how every time I watch it I come to love it even more.  Thomas Newman's score seems more complex, Conrad Hall's visual ideas more stunning, and the acting even more overwhelming.  There is so much about this film that works perfectly, on both a narrative and artistic level.  Perhaps most of all is Mendes's ability (along with Alan Ball's screenplay) to take us so far into peoples' darkest secrets only to pull us out with a bizarrely uplifting ending.  We sacrifice Lester so that he can understand his life.  Despite all the crap that the film puts its characters and audience through, it still manages to come out with the simplest message of all: "Relax, and stop trying to hold on to it."

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