When you watch a film that is intended to be controversial that has an inner meaning which each of us finds to be different depending upon our gender, situated culture and cultural experiences; you may feel uncomfortable being subjected to it in a room full of your peers. Audience response is dictated by situated culture, the company we share will decide how we react, feel and respond emotionally to the characters. When I first watched this film in the presence of my peers and teacher in class, I was in all honesty indifferent to it. I felt nothing for Lesters demise or for any of the other pieces I will express strong opinions to on this blog. It was only after I watched it on my own did I establish an emotional connection with Lester and Ricky, and relate to them in multiple aspects of the way their lives were portrayed. Originally I didn’t understand why Colonel Fitts shot lester at the end until I had watched it again. I then understood his struggle against acceptance of his true nature which reminded me of the debate of one’s sexuality; whether it is nature or nurture that decides it. American Beauty obliquely suggesting that we are who we are and no matter how hard we can try to mask our identity; our true colors will always shine through.
I could imagine watching American Beauty in a cinema is much like being at home alone with the surround sound on, you are completely immersed in the world that is the directors vision, whereas watching it in a purely educational paradigm somewhat censors your emotional connection with the film and characters. Our upbringing will axiomatically affect our perception of film, in this example the characters initially represent that of a normal, middle-upper class family all bound by the vices and troubles we ourselves have experienced. Girls of my generation may have been raised to believe that the celebrity culture is indeed a model to which they should base their lives upon and respond with a sense of relation and empathy for Jane. An oppressed husband or wife will most likely respond similarly to Caroline or Lester and their pursuit of happiness, and all of us can take note of Ricky’s appreciation of beauty in everyday scenarios. He uses his camera to capture these moments, he said that:
“It’s like God’s looking right at you, just for a second, and if you’re careful… you can look right back…”
I found that quite powerful, it reminds me (and indubitably other members of any audience regardless of cultural experience) of similar moment in life where I have witnessed something beautiful, even if that beauty is oblique and obscured by the mask of it being just an ordinary, everyday item e.g. a plastic bag floating in the breeze. I believe this method of having his camera as a narrative function is an extremely effective way of telling a story, it lets you see life from Ricky’s point of view and highlights the moments that are significant to him. An example of this is when Jane is sat at her desk and Angela is doing a strip tease in the foreground and Ricky ignores her to focus on Jane’s smile which is in the reflection of her mirror. Though we may not all go around filming women through their windows at night, our cultural experiences (especially in the UK) have set an almost list of guidelines for conventions of teenagers that is, quite frankly, our interest and fixation on sex. I believe that scene challenges this social stigma coupled with my generation.
Some members of the audience may have had an upbringing surrounded by family and friends that abuse narcotics, or indeed use them themselves. Their response could be to relate to the freedom and outer-body experience that substances like marijuana provide. In juxtaposition to the aforementioned culture, people belonging to the higher end of the class system which I maintain is still in practice regardless of the supposed “equality” of this day and age may respond negatively to this film. This is because their endeavor and struggle to achieve such a status is being regarded as pointless and not the true way to achieve happiness, for that it is only gained by being happy with yourself and the none materialistic things you already posses. Family being the focal point of American Beauty in my opinion and family being a thing that in some shape or form we all possess.
Gender will ultimately dictate individuals understanding of the characters portrayed in this film. A female audience (especially of my generation) may relate more to Jane and her insecurities about her appearance, this reinforced by the medias influence with celebrity magazines that axiomatically and almost categorically state everything that it is to be a modern day woman. Men might find this film inspirational in the sense that it encourages us to be a little bit more like Lester, that we should break free from the aforementioned confines of the ordinary life and pursue what truly makes us happy. From my experience and the excessive amounts of Disney films and “family specials” I watched as a child; I was raised to believe that we all have happy endings. Girls may have had the same coupled with the added pressures of being made to conform to the aesthetic qualities and fashions of the rich and famous. We are slowly beginning to realize that we won’t all be rich and famous celebrities, we are all being drawn into the alternative “family life makes you happy” way of life. This notion is being challenged by American Beauty and in my opinion disproved by the mask they had to wear to disguise their hatred for one another… life is clearly not a “codec moment”. Elderly and middle-aged women may relate to the character Caroline for her whole “woman power” vibe with her running about pointlessly shooting guns and committing adultery to make herself feel better about the fact that she has been oppressed. Caroline’s battle is against the lifestyle of the ordinary/ model housewife, this can be related to by the majority of the elderly female audience, as well as the act of her suppressing her suffering in solitude in order to yield and don the mask that is normality for the benefit of the rest of the world.
Middle aged men may relate to Lester for his struggle against the buttoned down, domesticated, house pet lifestyle he led at the start of the film, whereas men of my age may relate more to Ricky (or even idolize his humble and relaxed attitude towards life), for we ourselves should all appreciate the true beauties in life and not pursue the false, ‘perfect’ women like the character Angela represents.The preferred reading of the film American Beauty is that we should be more carefree in our approach to life, to free ourselves from the confines of social obligations and conventions that confine us to this consumerist lifestyle. Being products of this lifestyle obsession does not entail happiness, it restricts us to the mundane chores and obligatory tasks inherent within this way of life, making generic and repetitive tasks that we are meant to perceive as interesting (e.g. gardening) seem enjoyable.
This enjoyment is outmatched and far surpassed by the act of breaking free of these confines and restrictions, following your dreams, buying the car you always wanted or trying something new will make life more interesting. Spontaneity is a dying art from society due to the combined integration of government and media influence of the moral values we are to uphold to benefit ourselves in the long run, health, fitness and the ideology of the perfect human is portrayed in this film. We are expected to be perfect, to get breast implants, to cover over our private family lives and relationships with the mask that is deception with the veil of normality. American Beauty challenges this by outlining these issues in society and showing that true happiness comes with being comfortable with ourselves. An example and juxtaposition of this is the character Fitts and his denial of his true identity and the resulting anger and ugliness that proceeds it, perhaps relating to societies denial of accepting the fact that we are all hiding who we really are. Another preferred reading of this film is that the baser morals of family values should be paramount to our focus in life as opposed to material possessions.
The negotiated reading, given the specification of the preferred reading, I would say is that controversy and difference in opinion arises in the audience’s perception of the latter. As per my preferred reading; the controversy lies with the idolization of material possessions because as I stated in my preferred reading; in order to break free of this mundane lifestyle, you follow your dreams, but this can (and in today’s society) will entail the vast expenditure of money which links in directly with the lifestyle of being a consumer. The dream car is an indictment of this:
“This isn’t life! This is just stuff! And it’s become more important to you than living!”
Surely the act of him buying the Firebird was a blatant contradiction of his enlightenment. Another controversial issue is Lesters ultimate decision to become health conscious and his endeavor to “work out” after a conversation he overheard between Angela and Jane about his fitness in which Angela said
“ If he built up his chest and arms, I would totally fuck him”
This challenges my preferred reading because not only is Lester trying to impress Angela by trying to be what she wants him to be, but also in the process he is masking his previous feeble identity with his new reformed state.
“Uh Oh,Mom’s mad. (Bench presses). I’m going to wail on my pecs and then I’m gonna do my back”- Lester.
A quote from a related film “Fight Club” from Tyler in regards to men being ‘packed into gyms’ in the pursuit of what society believes to be the ideal man is “self improvement is masturbation”, a quote that defies Lesters endeavors and boils straight to the core of what women like Angela are trying to portray as true masculinity.
The oppositional reading to this film is that blackmail should not be used as the tool to accomplish our dreams, this of course supported by Lester’s ultimate demise that could be interoperated as a blunt form of natural order and justice in a yin-yan paradigm in which for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Another (alternative) view is that material possessions do entail happiness, Lester was happy with the possessing of his dream car, Caroline was set free by the purchasing of a firearm and Lester was also influenced by the taking of marijuana. Marijuana also linking in with addiction and vice which is also portrayed by his consumption of beer, and Caroline’s act of adultery (all of which made them happy). American Beauty is one hell of a film and can be interoperated in so many ways, write a comment if you find any other reading to this film.