"American Beauty" written by Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes
Watched again, 15 years later, the film has made the same impression on me as it did the first time. And the impressions have been huge. Almost a perfect masterpiece. The confusions (in both viewings) came from the video parts, which were taking me out of the flow of the film.
Down deep, the film seems to be a pretty much a loose connection of haiku like epiphanies circling around not beauty, not values, not culture - but rather around transformation, overcoming, transcending. It is not the development of the plot (although there is one) that drives the experience of watching the film. It is rather, the emotional impact of most of the scenes. As if the brilliance of the execution sidetracked the underlying intellectual efforts to convey meaning through the story.
Every major character in the story is on a wild inner ride. Everyone except Ricky, the kid next door, who is the only smart one, or the only fully realized from the start. And it is probably through Ricky’s weed that Lester finally breaks through his inner walls. Ricky’s presence seems to carry the “official” meaning of the film - the beauty in the mundane - as in the plastic bag. While the idea is noble, the execution seems problematic. The plastic bag is videotaped in a pedestrian way while the everyday life which is supposed to be criticized gets dazzling directorial and cinematographic treatment. This contrast is something I wonder about. From a logical point of view the stylistic choices for showing both realities are correct, but their juxtaposition rises questions.
As Marlan Warren, a screenwriter for my teaching reading video series “The Reading Planet” wrote in one of its episodes - “Don’t knock ignorance till you've tried it!” The line comes form a Lethard, an inhabitant of a planet Lethargia, where everybody hates reading.
Back on the planet Earth:
The frame above is from a 2011 documentary I made about prof. Zygmunt Bauman a giant world class intellectual figure of the past several decades, who for the current political regime in Poland became the archenemy. They claim that Bauman received the Cross of Valor, the highest military honor in Poland, for his work in the military communist internal security forces.
“Lawnswood Gardens” makes clear the Cross of Valor was given to Bauman for his participation in a May 1945 battle against Germans. Since 2012 the film has been shown a dozen times in Poland on television (Planete +.) Wikipedias (English and Polish) also correctly identify the 1945 origin of the medal. Yet, many still attack Bauman with the misinformation about the source of his military honor. Clearly for some ignorance is politically more useful than knowledge.
A perfect match of a narrative set-up (the story takes place in a mind of a hero as he lays dying) with the stylistic choices for many scenes which often emphasize slightly detached, dreamy POVs.
Particularly one scene sticks in my mind: the palatial garden party conversation between a conniving lawyer-Dave Kleinfeld and Carlito. In this scene the fate of Carlito is set: Dave begs Carlito to assist him in helping a gangster to escape from prison, which just has to end up badly. The talk between the two man is preceded by a long, wide take of Dave’s girlfriend walking toward the alcove where the two men will be talking. For now however she finds there only Carlito and asks “What are you doing here by yourself Carlito?” The question has a double meaning should one seek it.
Everything in this one minute set up foreshadows the impending doom. It is however done in a subtle way. It’s realism, as if filtered by the memory of a dying Carlito who remembers the key situations in his life but does not allow the memories to dwell on the outcome to the point of narrative vulgarity, balances on the representation and interpretation of what’s being told through the camera. I find this balance fascinating and very satisfying as a storytelling devise.
Brian dePalma said somewhere that he considers Carlito’s Way his perfect work. I can see how this movie could be considered the ideal crafting of a subjective story.
I am interested in the lofty and in the mundane, in the metaphysical and in the hilarious too. My film work has recently dealt with bridging the fictitious and the documentary as well as with seeking connections between the abstract and the visual.
The projects are described at www.directing.com