The Oscar winning movie “American Beauty” made its debut in 1999. It was written by Alan Ball who wrote “Six Feet Under,” the darkly comic HBO series. IMO Mr. Ball has found the secret (or maybe one of them) to living a life where you are not periodically contemplating jumping off the nearest bridge. I think mystics would love Alan Ball. Of course they would. They are mystics (they love everybody) but what I mean is they would embrace his belief. Mr. Ball writes
“Beauty is in the strangest places. A piece of garbage floating in the wind. And that beauty exists in America. It exists everywhere. You have to develop an eye for it and be able to see it.”
Who could dispute this idea? We all need to develop an eye for beauty, however we define it, (the beauty in us, other people and our environment) in this changing world unless we want to be perpetually miserable. Seeing this beauty does something to our souls. “American Beauty” is also a comment on how we as Americans live. I choose to focus on the “ big” idea in this movie of finding peace in life regardless of where you live.
My complete thoughts on "American Beauty" or what I call Lester Burnham’s Magical Mystery Tour.
We are all cartons of milk with expiration dates. Someday we will curdle and that will be the end. Are you thinking I’d rather not hear this? I’d rather watch American Idol or listen to Wayne Dyer on PBS or go get a drink or wash the dishes, fold the laundry, go bowling, call my mother, go to the gym. I don’t need an existential crisis today. My Prozac prescription ran out. Hey, listen, there is hope in the face of each of our eventual demises. I mean this sincerely. Take a deep breath.
When we are in our prime and we feel invincible, do we keep putting off the important things believing time will never end? Okay time may go on for infinity but as humans there is an end date. What happened to Lester Burnham the narrator of “American Beauty” a darkly comic film (winner of an Oscar in 1999) written by Alan Ball (he also was the writer for the HBO series “Six Feet Under”) snapped me out of my complacency about time and how I viewed what is important in my life. And I actually felt hopeful. See there is a silver lining at the end of that tunnel or behind the cloud.
As “American Beauty” begins and I eat popcorn swimming in butter, the camera pans across the suburban landscape where middle aged Lester Burnham, actor Kevin Spacey, the protagonist lives. We hear Lester talking. He is dead. It is a bit startling to hear a dead man talking. He tells the story of what happened in the few weeks that lead up to his death.
What happened? Lester’s mid-life crisis peaked like a tsunami. He quite his job of 14 years, blackmailed his boss, bought the car he always wanted, got a menial job at a fast food restaurant, smoked dope. He became infatuation with his teenage daughter’s seductive girlfriend and started to work out to attract her (she liked muscular men). He became everything a middle-aged man is not supposed to be according to the American Dream and he became happier than he had been in years.
As the movie continues we see the people in his life: his realtor wife Carolyn played by Annette Benning (she is obsessed with success and appearances and values her $4,000.00 silk sofa in the living room more than her husband; Lester’ daughter Jane (who hates her father) and develops a romantic relationship with Ricky Fitts, the highly sensitive young man next door who is a documentary filmmaker and drug dealer; Ricky’s emotionally rigid father an ex – Marine colonel who is homophobic, paranoid and obsessed with keeping his son drug free. Every 6 months, Ricky his to give his dad a urine sample. How embarrassing for Ricky.
Everyone in this film has their own version of reality, something that energizes them and gives meaning to their lives, but the characters’ real needs are often concealed and in conflict with each other. They are all leading lives of longing and despair. There is someone among these characters whose despair and torment gets out of control. He kills Lester for a secret Lester learns about him. After Lester is killed in a shocking and disturbing way and the movie comes to its end, we hear the voice of dead Lester again. He says,
“I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one-second isn't a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time... For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars... And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined my street... Or my grandmother's hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper... And the first time I saw my cousin Tony's brand new Firebird... And Janie... And Janie... And. Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me... but it's hard to stay mad, when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.”
Just when Lester found happiness, his life was cut short by a senseless act.
Why was Lester Burhnam grateful for what he called “his stupid little life?” Because in the end his stupid little life taught him about beauty and love. I think Lester realized like mystics and rock and roll singers that
“You don’t always get what you want you get what you need.”
When I think about this often disturbing film, I come away feeling hope. I wasn’t lying. There is that proverbial light in the darkness. There is a great beauty, exquisite beauty to experience in this magical mystery tour, something so immense about the way things are, our connections to others and how it all works out. For Lester, the awareness of the meaning and grandeur of his life came as he was checking out. That doesn’t have to be our experience. Let Lester and this movie be a teacher. Experience what is important to you, what makes you feel full (besides popcorn, a message to myself) before you are taken off the shelf.