*** SPOILER ALERT ***
*** SPOILER ALERT ***


Much has been said regarding the relative merits of "American Beauty" from a cinematic perspective. "American Beauty" was a polarizing film in my social circle. The first level of polarization was "loved it" vs. "hated it." This was not surprising as, the movie was definitely pushing buttons left and right.

What was more interesting was the wide variety of emotional states described by the "loved it" crowd (which includes myself) after Lester's execution. The "This is Your Life" post-mortem segment seemed to engender very different feelings among my friends.

One camp felt that the juxtaposition of the heartwarming (please note that the customary sarcasm that attends this word is not intended here) review of the joys of Lester's life with his untimely death was too much of a taunting jibe reminding us and him of the paradise that was lost.

The other camp felt that Lester's realization that his life was already redolent of rose petals and other precious flowers was an experience that transcended the tragedy of his death.

There were a few ambivalent squatters between the two camps that couldn't decide if the key were major or minor, feeling tugs in both directions.

This dichotomy has, for us, spawned more discussion of "American Beauty" than any plot point or character development alone.


I saw this movie this afternoon, finally, and I just knew you were waiting to hear what this stodgy old fart thought of it. Well, I've got to say, it wasn't as bad as these conservative rags had been telling me. It wasn't Brazil, Eraserhead or The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but it was pretty well put together.

However, there are a couple of things that I found absolutely bizarre in the whole concept.

First of all, the Spacey character: He doesn't have one friend in the whole movie? There's not a relative or a friend anywhere that he can talk to about this insanity of bedding his daughter's friend? No one who will tell him that, "Hey, you know, this is just fucking stupid!"

When he leaves his job, he doesn’t say "bye" to anyone? Who is that big of a goof? Of course, since he's become one of Richard Gephardt's big campaign buddies, who can say how deep he really goes. Had it been me playing that part, I think I would have asked the writers, "Hey, don't I have a buddy anywhere? Am I that big of a loser?"

Second, this idea of Hollywood doing, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "a dark essaying of suburban desperation in full, bitter bloom." Man, it's been at least, what, two weeks, since we saw something with that theme, eh? Sinclair Lewis must be really happy that Hollywood has finally come around!

I was really impressed with the kids in the movie. I know the radical right wants to play up the idea that the kid next door is a drug dealer, but he is pretty cool, and it's very believable that the disgruntled daughter would fall for him. And he is just selling pot, not crack or heroin. Who hasn't?

The biggest political problems I have with the "film" is the portrayal of the two gay guys as the perfect couple and the idea that any ex-marine is a psycho.

There was a little kid named Jessie Dirkshank who was murdered recently in Arkansas by a couple of gay guys. He was hog tied to a bed (thirteen years old) and had his underwear stuffed in his mouth for hours, until he suffocated. During that time, the two guys had their ways with him. Do you think we'll see a movie about that? Hell, it's got all the elements, doesn't it? Gay people. Murder. Romance. But I guess Hollywood will pass on that one*.

As for the ex-marine (a homophobe, of course), all I can say is that you wouldn't be playing games on the internet right now if it weren't for the US Marines. But Hollywood hates the military, and it's really ironic, since there are so many of our Jewish friends out there. But I guess irony and Hollywood go hand in hand.

Finally, all I can say is, if you do not talk to your kids, and talk to them as if they have something to say, you are going to be very unhappy as life winds its way down that road.


*Addendum: It has been brought to my attention that Alfred Hitchcock's Rope is a film which was made in Hollywood which belies my theory above. However, in my defense, I must say that when I saw this film many years ago, it did not occur to me that the two characters were, in fact, gay. I realize now that this was due to the fact that I wasn't able to pick up on the subtext at the time. But I do recant that remark, somewhat, and thank user zoeb for pointing this out to me, many years after this writeup was posted.

This movie is not for the literal-minded, but it's been haunting my dreams for several months running.

Lady Macbeth would drive a Mercedes SUV, I know it. She would not be a victim. And the handles on her pruning shears - the ones that match her gardening clogs? That's no accident.

There's a lot of rooms for rent in the virgin-whore complex.

Guess at the breed of the recurring rose petals: American Beauty, thank you much. (It's also a brand of pasta. So fresh; you dump them in the water and they're done.)

The bag, dancing.
We came out of the cinema and within 10 minutes formulated a theory which blew our minds. The gist of it is this: American Beauty is a re-telling of the story of Christ, with the appropriate generic adjustments made so that it becomes a religious text suitable for our times.

Let's look at the characters one by one:

  • Colonel Frank Fitts: Judas and the Romans, for obvious reasons.

  • Angela Hayes: embodies carnal temptation and knowledge, Mary Magdalen if you must have a definite Biblical icon.

  • Carolyn Burnham: embodies material temptation and avarice, together with Buddy Kane who also represents abandon and lack of temperance.

  • Jane Burnham: the meek who will inherit the earth, with her quiet ways and simple, sincere pleasures, and most particularly her relationship with Ricky Fitts (more of that later).

  • Barbara Fitts: the indifferent, jaded, lethargic masses who do not hear the voice of God.

  • Ricky Fitts: God. He is completely detached from the weaknesses of this world - he never gets angry or vengeful with his father, he never displays overt lust for Jane, he doesn't seem to covet anything that he cannot provide for himself through his own efforts. Significantly, he creates beauty in his films, and strives to share that beauty with those who would listen - in this case represented by Jane. He creates Lester - through his guidance it is that Lester begins to free himself from the shackles of his life, and it is that first meeting between them that sets the events of the movie in motion.

  • Lester Burnham: Christ. Is celibate throughout the movie, resists temptation in the form of Angela Hayes and embraces his killer in the form of Colonel Frank Fitts. Also accepts calmly the humiliation of his wife's betrayal and the degradation of working in the burger joint. It is noteworthy that the only two people with whom he actively seeks a meaningful relationship are his daughter (the meek, the pious) and Ricky (God).

Lester dies after suffering humiliations, passing the test of temptation and achieving a degree of enlightenment. If not a literal Christ, he is at least a symbol of the pure soul.

Daisy is darling, Iris is sweet,
Lily is lovely, Blossom's a treat.
Of all the sweethearts a guy could meet,
well I finally chose
an American beauty rose.

- Altman, Evans, and David. Sung by Frank Sinatra.

The rose called American Beauty was bred in France by Henri Lédéchaux, and was originally named the Mme Ferdinand Jamin (M. Ferdinand Jamin was the nurseryman for the French town of Bourg-la-Reine). As a Hybrid Perpetual it blooms in early Summer and again in the Fall, always in large, repeating cupped blossoms possesing a strong traditional rose fragrance.

Not to be confused with the Miss All American Beauty Hybrid Tea Rose or the American Beauty, CL climbing rose, the true American Beauty has fallen out of favor with growers for better modern hybrid varieties. It now has an "old-fashioned" connotation among rosarians, and as a motif for quilts, china, and wallpaper, recalls the feel of the Gilded Age.

It first arrived in the US in 1875, and because it featured long stems with sparse thorns and attractive foliage (not to mention the blossom), it quickly gained a reputation as the stately queen of roses, and commanded a queenly price: once source quotes a price of two dollars per stem -- in 1886, no less. It is to this day the official flower of Washington, D.C..

Since the selection of popular music which accompanied the film American Beauty did not include any Grateful Dead (although Sugar Magnolia would've been a great addition to the soundtrack, IMHO), and roses were central to much of its plot, I propose that it is this variety of rose which lent its name to the 1999 film, as well as two before that in 1916 and 1927 (see http://us.imdb.com/Title?0006358 and http://us.imdb.com/Title?0017626). It should be noted that neither the roses that Carolyn Burnham is seen growing nor the petals that covered Angela Hayes's naughty bits are actually American Beauties.

Sources:

http://www.chambleeroses.com/americanbeauty.htm
http://www.uncommongarden.com/r/americanbeauty.html
http://www.helpmefind.com/sites/rrr/pl.php?n=192

Script: Alan Ball
Director: Sam Mendes
Produced by: Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks
Dreamworks SKG, 1999

Learning to see beauty

When I was about sixteen, I suddenly stopped and looked at the world around me with new eyes. It was so beautiful! The green grass, the clouds in the sky, the shiny red pipes twisting up a brick wall - how could I have failed to have realized its beauty?

Maybe that's why American Beauty hit me the way it did. In it, two troubled teenagers live through the same realization, finding love in the process. It was my own experience captured on screen. So maybe I was too susceptible to be an objective judge, but I really, really liked this film. So did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. American Beauty won five Oscars: best picture, best original screenplay, best director, best actor (Kevin Spacey), and best cinematography (by Conrad Hall). In addition, it was nominated for actress (Annette Bening), film editing (Tariq Anwar), and original music score (Thomas Newman).

And yet there are many people who fail to see the big deal about the movie, in fact, quite a few take a great dislike to it. It's easy to see why. American Beauty is full of disagreable people doing stupid, selfish things. It contains oodles of drugs, sex, and gays. It's definitely not a film I would show my grandmother, or my seven-year-old niece for that matter. But a movie doesn't have to suit everyone in order to be good. Sometimes, provocation is the best means of waking people.

American Pie

American Beauty deals with the stories of several people. Some of them are well developed, others are barely touched upon. But for almost every single character we meet in the movie, there is a personality, and a hidden tragedy. A great cast means that each actor becomes their character so much so that I, at least, keep pondering the characters' lives without remembering that they aren't real.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is the anti-hero of this extraordinary everyday drama. As the story begins, he calmly relates that he has less than a year left to live. Not that it matters much, as he takes stock of what there is to live for: His wife and daughter both despise him, he has no friends, no satisfaction at work, no hobbies...

This all changes dramatically when Lester is hit by what might be described as an enlightening midlife crisis. Shell-shocked out of his comatose life by seeing his daughter's beautiful friend, he starts exercising and smoking dope, he quits his job and buys a sports car, and most shocking of all: He answers his wife back when she tries to henpeck him.

As Lester jumps from one stupid act to another, the audience can't help but rejoice at his newfound happiness. But does he turn into a better person? From griping about his personal misfortunes he at least begins to do something about them, although he still seems to take much more interest in himself than in his family. Yet we do see him trying, now and then, to change the long-standing habits of hostility in his household. And towards the end of his life, he offers compassion to two wounded, insecur people.

Apart from Lester, neighbor Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his son Ricky (Wes Bentley) are the other important male characters. The two are total opposites, and rank with paradoxes: Frank, a colonel of the US Marine Corps is an angry, violent man, torn between extreme militaristic machismo and deep homosexual desires, while Ricky, a former mental patient, is solidly grounded in his own self and his sense of beauty.

American Woman

The women in this saga seem to represent different pressures put on American women, and various responses to this. Barbara Fitts (Allison Janey) and Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) are both extremely unhappy women, and they both react in different, introvert ways. Mrs. Fitts turns into herself so much so that she's hardly part of the normal world anymore. The inwardly seething Mrs. Burnham goes out of her way to create a successful life for herself and her family.

The younger generation is represented by Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) and Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) - only sixteen, yet believing they should be picture perfect and sexually experienced as well as constantly happy. Towards the end of the story, their perceptions seem to have changed for the better - with a little help from the stronger sex. If I had criticized this movie from a feminist perspective, I could have argued that the females are much too passive in this whole story. Despite Jane's determinedness in getting together with Ricky, they seem incapable of making any real change. But I won't do that, because even a movie about something as elusive as American Beauty needs a focal point, the focus in this case being Lester.

beauty

This is a movie of exaggeration. Each character in it is slightly too neurotic to be true. More realism would have killed the movie - the sorrows would have remained concealed, the way they normally are. By taking everything one step further, American Beauty goes beyond the bleak suburban landscape it tries to portray, and instead becomes an uplifting movie about hope.

What is American Beauty, then? Throughout the movie I kept looking for it. Is it that gorgeous cheerleader? Is it a spotless window? Is it a plastic bag, blowing in the wind? Is it a rose petal? If there is a clear moral to this movie, which I'm not so sure there need be, it could be to look for beauty in your own life. If there isn't any, you might as well be dead already.

A little-known fact about the movie American Beauty: there was an extended ending that was never aired to the general viewing public, and left off the "extras" section of the DVD. There was an extended beginning too, but I don't know anything about it. They left the endings off the final cut because they felt that it unnecessary, since the movie was primarily about Lester, and anything more would simply detract from the overall aim of the film. I hope to offer some insight into these extended endings, regardless of the fact that I've never witnessed them firsthand. All my information is collected from various second-hand sources, so take this information with a grain of salt...

The extended ending consisted mostly of the trial of Ricky Fitts (Wes Bently) and Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) for the murder of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). There were two possible outcomes that they had filmed.

In one alternate ending, Ricky and Jane are found guilty of murder, and both are sentenced to life in prison. Their conviction and sentencing is a result of Ricky's videophilia, as his entire videography is submitted as evidence. The movie ends with Ricky in a prison cell singing "Us and Them" by Pink Floyd. Zoom out, cue Lester and his treatise on life.

The second alternate ending is similar to the first one, but the outcome of the trial is different. Barbara Fitts (Allison Janney), the mentally unsound wife of Col. Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), submits as evidence the bloody shirt of her husband, the murderer. This evidence is sufficient to convict Col. Frank Fitts of the murder of Lester Burnham.

From what I know about these endings, it seems that Sam Mendes didn't feel that it was necessary to have the longer ending(s), and that it would detract from the credibility of the film. I suppose he's right, since both of those endings would be too... final, I guess. They're just not the right way to end a film like American Beauty. Regardless of their cinematic value, it's an interesting tidbit of information.

Album: American Beauty
Artist: Thomas Newman
Label: Dreamworks Records
Year: 2000
Rating: 5/5
Summary: Unusual sounds and beautifully understated piano melodies.

The score to American Beauty features the kind of beautifully understated piano melodies and sappy, bittersweet strings that Thomas Newman has used in other films to good effect. Like many artists, he's found a good formula and he's sticking to it. I can't say I blame him, and Tracks like Mental Boy and American Beauty aren't any less emotional just because he's written similar pieces for other films.

Despite this familiarity, the score stands out from the composer's other work due to the unusual choice of instruments, which includes tablas, udu drums, an Appalachian dulcimer, and various flutes and guitars. From the playful percussion to the sparse portamento slides of deep bass that you can feel in your stomach, this eclectic array of instruments makes the score feel like a breath of fresh air.

Pairing these unconventional instruments with the more traditional piano works well, contrasting the interesting with the familiar. As a result, the score can change from being playful to haunting while maintaining a unique identity. I'd recommend this soundtrack to anyone who appreciates music that doesn't conform to the rigid structures of pop, even if they haven't seen or didn't like the film it was written for.

Grateful Dead album, released 1970


"I will say that I still love American Beauty but I cannot think of another of their albums I'd still listen to without cringing at some point." - dannye

"For once a truly beautiful album cover is more than matched by the record inside" - Andy Zwerling (Rolling Stone)


Mea Culpa. I don't think I actually listened to any Grateful Dead albums until 2005. It's my own fault, being born and brought up across The Pond in England, and being a Rolling Stones fan, to boot. Of course, I must have heard their songs played on the radio, but was never moved enough recognise the band as distinct from any other, let alone actually buy an album. As a result, my expectations of the band and their music were skewed. Whenever I heard people talk about the Dead, I imagined them to be playing some sort of hardcore psychedelic acid rock, hence I left them alone, veering more toward The Doors and Pink Floyd. For whatever reason I imagined both those bands were English, rather than American in origin, and at that young age, I imagine that I was still full of musical chauvinism. My later recognition of The Doors as an American band did not move me, and I continued to enjoy them.

At any rate, I had never stopped to pay attention to the Dead's music until I settled in California, and was exposed to Christine's music collection, which in its own way, was as eclectic as mine. I could write a bloody book about the opening of my mind to other forms of music and different artists, but I will for now content myself with this band, and this particular album.

First Impressions

Surprise, surprise! The Grateful Dead is not all about 60s druggy/psychedelia after all! It's all about rock'n'roll, and American folk tradition, a little country, and of course a good deal of West Coast Sound. I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or delighted, at first. Some tracks I'd heard before, and of course, because I'd never associated the songs with the band, was quite amazed. Truckin' was one classic example, and darned if it wasn't almost as much Beach Boys as rock. It was rather like seeing my breakfast egg wink at me.

I wasn't really able to hang my hat on anything at first listening. After all, I lacked the cultural background to fully appreciate what they were about. Real "Country music" was something I still had to come to terms with, after years hearing only the most commercial (and awful) C&W on British radio playlists. I have to admit now that identifying the threads of real Country music, and American folk, was part of the key to really getting to enjoy this new sound.

A Little Background

This was the Dead's fifth studio outing, and the recording started soon after Workingman's Dead, and was produced by Stephen Barncard. The cover, so Wikipedia informs me, contains an ambigram; the letters for the word "Beauty" can also be read as "Reality". Myself, I had to squint to see this, but then my eyesight is not what it was.

Musically, it's a little bit rock'n'roll and quite a lot of folk music, with nods to both country and bluegrass styles. I remember the song Truckin', which was one of two released as singles, the other being Ripple. I have memories of hearing Friend of the Devil many times on the radio, and had assumed it to be a single, though it was not.

The band at the time consisted of Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals, piano), Mickey Hart (percussion), Robert Hunter (who wrote many of the lyrics), Phil Lesh (bass guitar, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Ron McKernan (harmonica and vocals) and Bob Weir (guitar and vocals).


Listening Notes

My first impression I have already mentioned; the lack of the psychedelic influences I'd been expecting (the band had moved away from the acid music by the late 1960s). My second was "Wow, so this is an intriguing mix!", and it is. The roots of the component parts being largely unknown to me, I nevertheless explored with some delight. As I began to dip in, slowly the essence of Americana began to unwind from the eclectic weave.


Box of Rain is a slow and simple Country track, gentle and emotional, yet not sappy. Layered guitars, good vocal harmonies and a superb intro make this an ideal opening. Worthy of note to DeadHeads is the inclusion of Phil Lesh on lead vocals, on his recording vocal debut.

Friend of the Devil is a wonderful, classic track, oft-covered but rarely improved upon. With some wonderful guitar work and awesome mandolin by David Grisman, it's a great favourite of mine, a song I love to sing along with. One day I will learn all the words, and join in the tale of a man on the run from the Law and the Devil. Its wondrous American folk style makes for easy listening, and it's by far the catchiest tune on the album.

Sugar Magnolia is quite a poppy love song, smooth and sensual, but that does not do it justice. Some great steel guitar is woven in and out of solid vocals and percussion, and although it is a three-minute song, seems too short; I always want it to last a little longer.

Operator follows with a nice-and-simple Country guitar-picking intro, clear and steady rhythm and whilst it's a decent song, I nonetheless feel that the vocals let it down a little. Woven with some blues harmonica, it's a straightforward enough song, but doesn't stand out, at least not for me.

The opening of Candyman could almost be from a Rolling Stones song. It's a little bluesy, with a lot of rhythm laid over by good Country guitar work. I find myself humming along easily, but not convincingly attached to the lyrics. Nice tune.

Ripple is slow Country, and quite beautiful. Both lyrically and musically, it delighted me on first hearing, and the more I listened, the more I got from it. It is a track to listen to if one wants the best from it. The harmonies have a little Gospel feel, and whilst it appears simple at first, subsequent playings reveal ever more detail, from a perfectly-timed choral harmony to simply heavenly mandolin. Classic, beautiful and haunting. Hear it a dozen times for full effect, and then segue into Brokedown Palace. The pace slows, the vocals are more relaxed, but the feeling is very similar, though with a little more Gospel and more of an R&B feel. Emotional, almost religious, it's almost inseparable on the album, but lacks the delicacy of Ripple.

Till The Morning Comes is one of the "rocky" tracks, with a lot more of a 60s sound than the rest of the album. It's a nice change of pace after the preceding reflective tracks, is a lot more open and certainly more simply produced.

Attics Of My Life is beautiful in a very different way - think Beatles meets Beach Boys. In some ways it's a disappointment, as the tempo is so slow that I almost fell over it. I may upset fans if I say it's quite plodding, but I'm going to say it anyway. I feel that it's a minute too long; I can only take so much four-part harmony. I really want to hear Pick Floyd cover this, just for kicks.

Truckin'. Ah, what more need be said? It's the story of a touring band, "Chicago, Detroit and New York, and it's all on the same street". Listen, and you'll hear the sound of the cat's eyes as the tour bus drives over them. It's practically flawless, energetic and with a few surprises thrown in. All in all, it's a biography; listen carefully and almost the whole history of the band is there, the drug use, run-ins with the Law. It's all summed up in the famous line toward the end, "What a long strange trip it's been".


Is it a classic? Well, yes it is, even if as dannye said that the band is hard to listen to with a straight face. The album has aged a little, seems a little hippie today, but is to me representative of a musical turning point. Thank you, Grateful Dead, you created a marvel which has become a part of the soundtrack to my own truckin' life. I will long love your harmonies.



For Christine and dannye, who inspired me to write this.
Album Background

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