Sean K. Cureton

Ball’s Balls

In My Favorite Movies on March 7, 2015 at 4:22 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

American Beauty
Directed by Sam Mendes
Commercial Release: October 1, 1999

Written by Alan Ball, social provocateur of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame, and directed by critical darling Sam Mendes, currently resuscitating the James Bond franchise, 1999’s American Beauty is a film that garnered a lot of attention upon release, and took home a total of five Oscars at the 72nd Academy Awards, bolstering its slight repute as commentary on the American nuclear family to that of political critique, its destabilizing commentary on the lethargic largesse of suburban America crudely unsettling. While Ball’s characters in American Beauty never prove to be quiet as succinctly cohesive as the Fisher clan of Six Feet Under, another creation born out of capricious cynicism wrapped up in an intelligence and depth of wit that serves to make up for Ball’s rather overt dramaturgical manipulations, Kevin Spacey’s Oscar winning performance compliments Ball’s self-importance, making the film soar on its own self-aggrandizing thematic tone. Likewise, Mendes imbues the film’s script with a visual style suggestive of majestic beauty, the Award winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall lending poeticism to detritus in the wind. And yet, for all of its immediate likability, American Beauty is perhaps a satire that does its job a little too well; its ability to denigrate, lampoon, and uplift the drudgery of its pastoral landscape too meticulously well constructed and conceived to maintain any palpably felt content. For all of its satirical menace and sharply thrown accusations against the complacency of suburbia, American Beauty is a poor man’s Best Picture, its attempts at toppling the capitalistic monument that is the American middle class redundant and unnecessary; the film’s dissatisfactions pale in comparison to our own more intimately felt short comings, making Mendes’ film trite in the pall of a post-9/11 national landscape.

At the time of its initial release, American Beauty was no doubt shocking. Its determination to remain largely non-conformist is admirably well achieved, if a little too obviously executed; its satire, perhaps more necessary to the national innocence of the Clinton era, has since become routine and self-evident in a political climate increasingly liberal in regards to social policies. Perhaps most notably, Alan Ball’s hard line stance against the repression and degradation of homosexuals is the most glaring flaw in the film’s rhetorical flourishes, Ball’s ballsiness in the face of conservative morality simultaneously charming and arrogantly repugnant. It would be one thing if all of the film’s culture commentary and social critique were particularly well articulated or individually felt, but much of the film’s script feels artificial, the style of American Beauty’s artifice integral to its very character, and ironically making it feel thematically characterless. While Mendes is able to make Ball’s script into a visually appealing and highly aesthetic experience, the lack of content renders the film atonally tasteless, less beautiful than it is noticeably attractive.

There is still plenty to admire about American Beauty over a decade after its initial release, but much of that admiration stems from a nostalgia for an innocence that the film is dependent on the viewer still possessing, intellectual and emotional maturity detrimental to being profoundly effected by the film’s intended volatility. Watching Mendes’ film now, with the interceding moral deflowering that is the Bush era at the forefront of one’s mind, it’s hard to feel shocked or insulted by any of the film’s accusations, Ball’s in-your-face confrontation of you the viewer more obnoxious than it is personally challenging. Gay rights and conservative conformity have long since been accepted and criticized accordingly, the agenda of the film rendered an afterthought to whatever entertainment value American Beauty still possesses, its quaintly stated familial situations funny in the same way that re-runs of an old sitcom are, laughter an automatic response of behavioral conditioning. What’s more, its hard to imagine this film gaining as much critical reaction now is it did then, its relatively safe stance amid moral ambiguity a little too comfortable, last year’s The Interview alone more shocking and lurid in its sophomoric bro-mance than American Beauty is in all of its conscientious lecturing. Ball’s script may still be angry, but in an American culture drastically dissimilar and more mature than that of 1999, the anger feels less justified, Ball’s ire accordingly shrill.

American Beauty’s resonance has certainly not waned in the proceeding decade since its initial release, but it has grown less vitalizing of any future socio-cultural restructuring, its provocations aimed at a political climate non-existent. And yet, for all of its theoretical posturing nullified by the temporal progression of the world surrounding its potential consumers, American Beauty is perhaps most coherent as a snapshot of the Clinton era, optimism and economic security masking deep seated prejudices and self-loathing. In this light, Kevin Spacey’s Oscar winning turn as the emasculated cuckold takes on a new melancholy and menace, the façade of suburban living a thinly veiled disguise of a sexually deviant anger, bursting forth at the seams. Likewise, Chris Cooper’s Nazi-like demeanor and morality ensures the destruction of a man hiding himself away from himself, personal politics labeling him a pervert with a brutally self-lacerating effect. Much of Mendes film feels like affected detachment, and yet Ball’s anger is still lurid and invigorating, lending unease to a satire that has become a period drama with the passage of time.

Supported by Sam Mendes’ Award worthy, and winning, sense of visual and theatric direction, Alan Ball’s American Beauty maintains its humor and menace, even if a lot of its cultural resonance has faded in the intervening years. American Beauty is remarkable, then, not just for the Best Picture title that it still holds, but for its distillation of an era now surpassed, though the contemporary political landscape owes much to Ball’s Clintonian nightmare, no matter how far we’ve come in regards to social issues and civil rights. While Gay marriage is certainly becoming increasingly more accepted on a moral level, with a number of states declaring the action legal in the eyes of the law, Ball’s depiction of the personal deformations engendered by conservative culture still feels relevant, gays on TV and on film still beset by stereotypes and assumptions of character individually damaging and socially regressive. Like last year’s Gone Girl, American Beauty is a darkly imaginative comedy of errors, its criticisms aimed at a society largely apathetic towards the issues which are raised, validating the anger still held in Ball’s Oscar winning script. The film may have become a period piece due to the maturation of the national consciousness since 1999, but Ball’s honesty is still possesses bravery in the face of opposition and oppression, American Beauty an antiquated fable of an America imbued with the nostalgia of innocence.

American Beauty is available to own on Blu-Ray and DVD, and is the latest feature to be included as one of My Favorite Movies.

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