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From Under A Rock: American Beauty

November 21, 2015 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: American Beauty  

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There’s a first time for everything in a person’s life: your first time getting high with the kid next door, your first time focusing on working out for your daughter’s hot friend’s sake, your first time blackmailing your employer for a sweet severance package, and your first time catching your wife cheating on you with her professional rival. Sometimes, all these firsts come late in life, but that’s okay.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show (determined at the discretion of my writing partner, Aaron Hubbard and I in alternation). This column is a companion piece to my podcast of the same premise, which you can check out here.

Last week Aaron alienated everyone he loves to show Michael The Godfather: Part II. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock by covering him in rose petals and watching American Beauty.

American Beauty

Michael Ornelas: I haven’t watched this movie in a long time – probably six or seven years – but it always stood out in my mind as one of my favorite and best movies I’ve ever seen. But you make a lot of snap judgments as a 21 year-old, so I wanted to see if it stood the test of time for me, and it passed that test with flying colors. The tale of Lester Burnham is one of my favorite character arcs I’ve ever seen, and honestly, it’s one that has inspired me to not settle for being anyone other than who I want to be.

Aaron Hubbard: My overall reaction to American Beauty is extremely positive. I’ve seen this movie called overrated in some circles, and I don’t see it. Maybe because I got into movies long after people were talking about this one. But two things stand out; Sam Mendes really excels at visual storytelling, and I need to quit underestimating Kevin Spacey as an actor. He’s an extremely likable hero in this movie, and it’s really easy to root for him. Maybe not for him to get with Angela, but I think it’s obvious that’s not really what’s motivating Lester as a character. There were many other great qualities to this film but those are the two that stand out immediately.
Being Born at 42
Michael: So without Lester, I’d argue that American Beauty still has plenty of interesting stories going on…but the movie lives and dies by this one guy. For a quick rundown, Lester is an extreme pushover who has no respect from his daughter, his wife, or his employer. We start the film with him having already activated his desire to change all that, but the remnants are there in the way they all respond to him. There’s something to be said about how we, as a society, expect those who have established themselves as one way to stay that way so as not to “rock the boat.” Well, Lester chooses to rock the boat in pretty epic fashion, by not taking shit anymore and pursuing several things he’s always wanted to do. And like you said, Aaron, it seems like it’s for Angela, but I believe we already see some moments of growth before he even meets her.

Aaron: I think one of the most important aspects to understanding Lester’s character is in the visuals of the film. One of the first scenes shows him watching his wife through a window; he’s in the background and boxed in. Trapped. A similar visual occurs at work when his head is reflected in the computer screen. Lester feels unable to change his situation and is essentially on the inside looking out at a world that he wants to be a part of. The dialogue reinforces this, obviously. But I love how Sam Mendes shows us how Lester feels instead of just relying on the narration of the movie to get it across. As the movie progresses, we see Lester become the focus of shots and presented in a much more dominant fashion. It’s exceptional film-making and I think it all worked to make the movie stronger. And perhaps the most important visual are the rose petals and what they mean for Lester.

Michael: We’ll be getting to the roses down further in the column. But now I want to talk about Lester’s end-product. Don’t you want to be like this guy? He proves you’re still able to be macho/masculine, and still show respect for women. Of course he treats his wife like crap because that’s her comeuppance for years of holding him down under her thumb. He snaps at his daughter for similar reasons, but we can immediately see his regret for doing that. But the relationship that shows Lester’s true colors is the one with Angela – the girl who the weak version of Lester put on a pedestal and viewed as a prize to be won (also a quality of a weaker man). When he becomes what I will from hereon out refer to as “Baller Lester,” he actually “wins” this prize, and instead of using her and throwing her to the side, he listens to her only to realize she’s not who he assumed she was (a major theme of the movie – I mean, Lester even has a bumper sticker on his cubicle at work that says “Look Closer” on it), and he simply takes care of her in a vulnerable moment. It shows that despite his obsession, he cared for this girl, who conveniently has “angel” in her name, as though she guided Lester to heaven (being a metaphor for his happiness and new-found honesty with himself) in time for his death. He also finally communicates with his family – through Angela – as he gets to have a conversation with her about his daughter Jane, and tragically, learns who she is through a friend since his own daughter has written him off and doesn’t seem interested in communicating anything to him herself. There’s so much about who Baller Lester is as a man before his death that makes me so happy.

Aaron: I loved the direction that scene with Angela went. I remember seeing the dance scene at the start of the movie and thinking that this movie was going to make me want to take a shower afterwards. Thankfully, it doesn’t end up with Lester sleeping with Angela; there are more important things in his life. I also think it’s worth noting that despite his fantasies, he never makes a serious attempt at acting on them until after he finds out his wife is cheating on him. She is the one obsessed with giving the illusion of success, but is the first one to throw away things that should actually matter, like her marriage. Lester is authentic; whether he’s being a doormat at the beginning or becoming the man he wants to be at the end, we almost always know what he’s really feeling. And often laughing at it.

Lester & Jane
Speaking to Two Demographics
Aaron: Another thing that sticks out to me about American Beauty is that it almost perfectly balances the adult characters and the teenage characters. Most movies will focus their attention on one group or the other to try and speak to that demographic. This movie targets both, and I think it hits both pretty well. Though, since I’m kind of past that teenage demographic and not yet in the “mid-life crisis” demographic, I may not be as in tune with what those demographics would feel watching this movie today. But I admire the movie for trying to speak to two generations and analyze their differences and their similarities.

Michael: The film has a lot to offer in terms of bridging the gap between the two generations, and I think there are several different relationship dynamics in the film that highlight its awareness in that capacity. There’s Lester and Ricky, who form a relationship largely centered around Ricky’s ability to put Lester in touch with his younger self (in other words, give him pot to get high, but there is still a friendship between the two), and this is contrasted with the relationship between Ricky and his father Frank, which shows two people from two generations who could not be worse at understanding one another. There’s also Carolyn (Lester’s wife), and pretty much everyone, as she’s the least relatable character (relative to the others) since she’s so phony. The generational gap is the saddest for Col. Frank Fitz though, as he comes from a time and a place where he has no idea how to be a homosexual, and has pent up all this anger from that repression, and takes it out on Ricky and ultimately Lester when he actually goes to make a move on him and gets rejected. There’s no evidence that Frank has feelings for Lester, even in the moment of vulnerability, but rather the knowledge of “This is a gay man, so I must be able to kiss him.” Lester, however, is not gay, but there are plenty of suggestions that he is through Frank’s eyes. And then lastly, there’s Jane, Lester and Carolyn’s daughter, who represents the younger generation’s version of Carolyn, and she seemingly has shown an ability to really communicate with the older generation, although her disposition is one of hostility, which still distinguishes her from her mother. And then the one we already mentioned between Lester and Angela. There’s so much going on in this film in both age brackets that it’s not hard to see why this took home the statue for Best Picture.

Aaron: Well that basically covers everything on that. One thought that did occur to me as I was watching was that the film feels very set in its time. Lester and his wife come from the first generation that couldn’t really do better than their parents; there was a huge glass ceiling of success. But also the expectation that you succeed. The Burnhams are meant to represent the “average” American family and address the problems these families have, this feeling of never living up to your potential. I don’t think the average American family comes close to having this kind of long-lasting dissatisfaction and confusion; our economy has taken a turn for the worse since 1999 and most of us are too busy trying to make ends meet to worry about whether our lives are being lived to their full potential. But hopefully the movie will still speak to people years from now, and they can appreciate what it has to say.

Flowers
Look at the Flowers
Michael: Our last discussion point for the week is the symbolism in the flowers. There are a lot of themes in this movie, and we’re not diving into all of them, but the flowers represent the “fantasy vs. reality” theme very vividly in this movie, and I love looking out for their placement and how they add to a scene to help understand its deeper meaning. We hear at the beginning when Carolyn’s is tending to her flowers and her neighbors comment on them, that they are achieved unnaturally. “Egg shells and miracle grow.” They represent this fantasy of appearance that is so important to Carolyn. You add what you need to add in order to appear as though you flourish. Once you know that, the flowers are the key to deciphering the more artsy part of the movie.

Aaron: It’s unsurprising to me that roses were chosen as the big symbol for this movie. Roses have a romantic connotation, they are visually striking, but they also convey a message of being beautiful but painful. They have thorns, they aren’t as amazing as we imagine them to be, and they’re more of a hassle than they are really worth. The rose petals are hardly subtle symbolism; I caught on right away that they were significant since they are connected both to Carolyn and to Angela. I assumed that Lester was attracted to Angela because she reminded him of what Carolyn was like when he fell in love with her. But I remember discussing this with you and I think that you have it right when you say it’s a more generalized fantasy of what Lester wants his life to be like. Because he doesn’t want Angela so much as he wants the feeling that she reminds him of.

Michael: The last instance of roses that I want to talk about is the very final appearance of them – strategically placed behind a photo of the Burnhams moments before Lester is shot in the back of the head. He picked up the photo and was admiring it, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Is it saying that the idea of a happy American family is a fantasy? Or does it mean he was finally coming around to put his family ahead of his family, completing his character arc? I feel there’s a case for both interpretations, but I personally feel that it’s the latter. He mentions his life flashing before his eyes before he dies…but with it being a shot from behind, I don’t know if I believe he meant it in that way. I think it’s all the reminiscing he was doing while admiring the photo. I think he put in all this work to become the man he wants to be, but that man didn’t have consideration for the man he needed to be for his family. I think his final moments were spent making the decision that that was his next priority. And seeing how well he accomplished his personal growth, I have no doubt that Baller Lester could have achieved this happy family life and pulled everyone together and helped them along with their growth.

Aaron: Sadly, we’ll never know.

Ratings:
Michael: This movie is so dense with themes and content, and it’s barely over an hour-and-a-half in running time. That, to me, is one of the ultimate achievements in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece. No moment is wasted, everything has significance, and it builds to one of the more powerful moments in recent cinematic history (if 1999 is “recent”). I honestly can’t find anything about which to criticize this movie, so, for the second week in a row, I’m giving a perfect score.

A+

Aaron: Michael’s spot on in calling this dense; there’s a whole extra set of characters that are worth analyzing and we barely touched on them. Ricky and his plastic bag are probably the most famous scene in the movie; some find it pretentious and corny, others find it really meaningful. I fall in the second category; I think the bag moving around in the air is beautiful and captures the spirit of the movie. Aside from that, this movie does the most important thing a movie can do for me; give me an emotional connection with the characters and the story. I think I pitied every character in this movie by the end of it, even Carolyn. I think the movie feels a bit direct in its delivery, but there’s too much good here to hold that against it.

A+

Michael: I feel that with Angela’s insistence that “There’s nothing worse than being ordinary,” the plastic bag is there to show us something ordinary become beautiful, much like Lester throughout the film. It really all ties together so wonderfully.

What ordinary thing do you find beauty in?

Next week:

Aaron: Next week has a couple of new releases I’m excited to see; one of them is Creed, starting Michael B. Jordan. While a spinoff of the Rocky franchise is not something I expected to have much interest in, the trailer looks fantastic and it’ll be fun to see.

However, I’ve never actually seen Rocky before, outside of some footage that’s just entered public consciousness. So I sat down and watched it on Netflix this week, and I’d like to invite Michael to revisit it with me for next week’s pick.

Rocky

Michael: Sweet! I’ve really wanted to see this. I’ll watch it….with my eye…of the tig–

Aaron: Stop. Trust me. Just stop.

Michael: …ger.

Aaron: Feel good about that?

Michael: …no.

Aaron: Consider this a learning experience.

Is the original your favorite Rocky movie? If not, tell us which one below!

E-mail us at FUARock@gmail.com
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And follow Michael on Twitter because he’s actually pretty funny! @TouchButtPro

10
The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
Sam Mendes' Best Picture winner is yet another all-time classic that we've reviewed here, and the third or fourth movie to score a perfect rating. The cinematography, the acting (most notably Kevin Spacey's award-winning performance), the themes...there is so much to this film that will ensure that it stands the test of time. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and go check it out! Life's too short not to.
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