Friday, October 21, 2016

American Exceptionalism at Work in “American Beauty”

Right now you can watch in theatres a small indie called American Honey, a road trip flick that won the jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. And this weekend sees the opening of American Pastoral, an ambitious family drama based on one of Philip Roth’s most acclaimed novels. Directed by and starring Ewan McGregor (in the unlikely role of an American Jewish husband and father coping with life in the Sixties), it made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It has always amazed me how many movie titles start with the word American. Off the top of my head, there’s American Graffiti, American Gigolo, and  American Ninja.  Not to mention An American in Paris, An American Werewolf in London, and An American Tail. Much more recently we’ve had American Heart, American Pie, American Psycho, American Hustle, and American Sniper. On TV, of course, there was until recently American Idol (based on a British show much more modestly called Pop Idol.) And, currently, American Horror Story and American Crime Story. Plus, of course, The Americans. When Richard Schickel published a biography of the brilliant but racist filmmaker, D.W., Griffith, he gave it the subtitle “An American Life.” And Paula Uruburu’s fascinating look at the life of notorious showgirl Evelyn Nesbit is called American Eve.

What does it say about the American people that we seem to respond to titles that shine a spotlight on our national character? The recently popular phrase “American Exceptionalism” seems to make the point that we who live in the United States (Canada and Mexico don’t count) think of ourselves collectively as awfully important on the world stage. Sometimes we’re a force for good and sometimes for evil, but nothing done by an American can be considered insignificant. And when an American steps forward, for good or for ill, he or she is not just an individual but rather a representative of  our entire culture.

All of which leads me to mention one of the bleakest Oscar winners of all time, 1999’s American Beauty. I watched this film, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, again recently, and was blown away by its craftsmanship and its power. (Kudos both to director Sam Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball.) American Beauty is undeniably dark in its depiction of suburban life, and of the disintegration of the nuclear family unit. As is the case with the great Sunset Blvd., it is narrated by a dead man, one who was not really living even prior to his abrupt demise. In American Beauty, many of the less-appealing aspects of American life are put under the microscope: crass materialism, homophobia, drug use, obsessive body culture, the inability of even the most articulate of wage-slaves to share what’s on their minds with those they love. The protagonist, disappointed in so many aspects of his materially comfortable life, lusts after a teenage girl, in a way that is calculated to make us (or at least most of us) feel uncomfortable.

And yet . . . and yet. The other side of American Beauty is one that recognizes that there is beauty in American life. The film’s most sensitive soul is (of all things) a young drug dealer, whose home life is horrendous but who’s blessed with the ability to recognize loveliness when he sees it. The film’s advertising catchphrase is “Look closer,” and by the end of the film the doomed hero has recognized that life—his life, American life—is crammed full of simple and beautiful things. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Or a really terrific film.  

Bruce Tracy, this one's for you. 

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