Recently ‘Rogue Cinema’ took a foray into the dark world of David Lynch’s films, to explore his disturbing presentations of the decay of the body and inherited contortions of the mind. For all of you who joined me on that journey: thanks. It was a wild ride. Now, please join me to explore a counterpart and – in some ways – opposite interpretation to Lynch’s version of suburban America. These investigations, to my mind, really matter: for Suburbia has – to our parents’ generation and ours- become a cultural condition.
Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999) is about nuclear families, squeezed to breaking. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is sick of his job, and tired of his cold relationship with his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), who is herself struggling to achieve success in the Real Estate business. After seeing his daughter’s cheerleader friend dance at a basketball game, he engages in a series of fantasies that offer a way out of his frustrated reality. As if inspired by this series of epiphanies, he begins to remake his life: he blackmails his work for a huge sum of money, and takes a new job ‘with the least amount of responsibility’ at a fast food drive-thru. At a networking party with his wife, he meets his new neighbour Ricky, who supplies him with high-grade cannabis, which he smokes while working out in his garage. He runs, and lifts weight: physical and spiritual. Following formerly-repressed and forgotten desires has rekindled a fire within him: from the cold, dead landscape he once inhabited, Lester has found life, and happiness. Beauty has re-entered his world.
Meanwhile, Ricky meets Lester’s daughter Jane, after she spots him filming her from next door. Ricky often carries a handheld video camera, and his room is filled with tapes, all with footage of the fragments of beauty he has observed. A dead bird, or a bag whipped up into a dance by the eddying wind… Later he films Jane as they share time together in his room, talking about their parents, and the pressure that they feel already closing in on their own lives. Ricky’s filming draws attention to the object, in all its wonder and interaction with the forces of nature. To be a worthless, weightless scrap of polythene, is to be the most beautiful thing ever seen.
Horrified by catching Lester masturbating in bed, Carolyn decides to have an affair with Buddy Kane, ‘The King of Real Estate’. After sex, the two of them go to the shooting range to enjoy the experience of firing a handgun. Carolyn experiences empowerment in a very different way to Lester: she enjoys the thrill of using a weapon, an object designed to turn a human being into dead material. As two people practised in how to sell property, they treat sex with each other as a way to relieve the stress of their lives. Automatic, just like shooting a gun.
The culmination of the film finds Lester caught – on multiple levels – between these tensions of the object and the human. Through the exercise of his moral agency, and forces out of his control, he becomes resolved to these dynamics.
We feel the horror of becoming an object in coldness or death, and
the desire to be part of the solid things of the world: to both regenerate and remain.
Our bodies will teach us what is true. The atoms of our bodies were not arranged this way by chance. Conscious or not, our bodies have learned how to survive in this world. To me, ‘faith’ means that peace and beauty are part of our arrangements, too.
Listen to the forces of nature.
We may learn something for the very first time: something that we always knew.