It would be foolish and unperceptive to say that the chief role of films in society is to please their audiences. One need only glance at a list of winners for Best Picture over the years to drive home the point that the best films – those that are hailed as masterpieces years after their releases and top every ‘Best of’ list – are rarely simply ‘pleasing’. In fact, many are dark and disturbing, but powerful and moving at the same time because of their relevant themes. With this in mind, one can argue that the mere entertainment factor of films is less important than the poignancy of their directors’ purposes and how effectively these are communicated. Sam Mendes’ 1999 debut American Beauty is not a relaxing film: yes, it is studded with moments of humour, but in places, it is unsettling and challenging. However, its themes – those of the true nature of beauty and the fallacy of the American Dream – are such that it is applicable for its viewers, and ensure that it is arresting, rather than frivolous.
Mendes puts across the theme of the true nature of beauty – that it can be found anywhere, especially in the places you least expect – through his character Ricky Fitts, who records the “beauty in the world” on his handheld video camera. Among his subjects are a frozen vagrant and a dead bird. This, coupled with his unblinking stare, eerie confidence and invasive behaviour (for example, burning his neighbour’s name into her lawn), make the audience feel uncomfortable at first: he is an unusual, almost sinister, character and hard to pigeonhole into a category. However, the viewer soon realises that Ricky is the lone voice of honesty in the film, and that compared to the other characters, his integrity and self-knowledge are admirable. The audience comes to accept his perception of beauty, even if they don’t share it themselves, and this is Mendes’ goal: to encourage rejection of conventional ideas and measures of society. The way he goes about it, through the character of Ricky, is not necessarily pleasing, but it makes his point clear, and translates to the audience well.
The fallacy of the American Dream, another one of the film’s key themes, is depicted through the character of Carolyn. Her neurotic nature and obsession with materialism and image dictates her life to the extent that her relationships with her husband Lester and daughter Jane will never recover. It is exhausting to watch her struggle to “project an image of success at all times”, and emotionally and physically punish herself when she lets her professional mask slip and shows some ‘weakness’. This scene, where she screams at and slaps herself for “failing” to sell a house, is one of the most unsettling for the audience to watch, and yet, it is also one of the most powerful. Carolyn is testament to the clash of priorities the concept of the American Dream seems to support: in favour of running in the rat race by focusing on her job and possessions, she has become (in the words of her husband) a “bloodless, money-grubbing freak”. Her relationships with her family have suffered for it and seem to be damaged beyond repair – and there is no evidence of any friendships in the film outside of casual acquaintances. The fond memories Lester has of her as a vibrant, fun young woman make her emotional demise especially tragic (“What happened to the girl that used to fake seizures at parties when she got bored?”). And yet, Mendes is aware that Carolyn plays an important role in the film’s meaning and even has a message for her audience, perhaps best described as a cautionary tale: don’t sweat the small stuff, don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, and know what counts in life. It may not be enjoyable to watch her on screen – she may not even be a very likable character – but she is relevant, and her contribution to the film is vital to its significance.
Without doubt, American Beauty is not a comfortable, lighthearted ‘flick’ to watch: its dark material and emotionally damaged characters set it apart from any trite blockbuster and, by that token, onto another level of audience involvement. Through its challenging nature, its viewers understand and take into consideration its themes, and this engagement is worthwhile for them and implies that the director has achieved his goals.
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