The 1999 film American Beauty represents the pessimistic attitude that many in the late 90s were already beginning feel, I would argue that this feeling of pessimism is still at the core of our society today. The film is focused around identity and beauty, touching on individualism and materialism through stale relationships and sense of self. In the opening monologue then main character Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, reflects the banal qualities of his life, the staleness and that his sense of purpose is unknown, that he is just floating through life, in his words ‘sedated’.
Adam Curtis in his documentary Hyper-normalization discusses this pessimistic attitude in great detail, making connections to our optimistic visions of the future or rather lack of vision, that everyone in society began to focus on the dangers that might be hidden in the future creating a pessimistic mood that infected the whole of culture. To make his point Curtis uses clips from films that depict mass destruction and chaos such as the 1998 film Godzilla and 1996 Independence Day. It’s easy to see that this pessimism was throughout popular culture during the late 90s, American Beauty is no different except it focuses on the everyday life in a more depressing and less finalizing fashion than that of complete destruction. Because it doesn’t rely on ‘something else’ being the danger or force against you or your life, and it doesn’t imagine the very worst, but in fact it is your life that is the danger and it is the system you live in, that you are already part of, and the you are the same as Lester.
[Opening Scene] – “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet. And in a way, I’m dead already. Look at me: jerking off in the shower. This will be the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here. That’s my wife Carolyn. See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident. That’s our next-door neighbour Jim – And that’s his lover, Jim. Man, I get exhausted just watching her. She wasn’t always like this, she used to be happy. We used to be happy. My daughter Jane. Only Child. Janie’s a pretty typical teenager: angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her that’s all going to pass, but I don’t want to lie to her. Both my wife and daughter think I’m this gigantic loser. And they’re right. I have lost something. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know I didn’t always feel this… sedated.”
The feeling of sedation is seen across all aspects of modern culture. We consume rapidly and wastefully because of ‘trends’, but these trends are not based on culture rather they are based on capital and promotion leading us to buy into a lifestyle as if to feel as though we are something more than ourselves, recreating a different aesthetic that is fake and untrue but through the guise of individualistic truths. It’s these truths that I believe are slowly destroying subcultures within younger generations. We have become so materialistic that we almost don’t care what we buy, we are happy to spend over the odds for a cup of coffee or clothing simply because of a brand name being attached to it, the subcultures of our time are not the trends we buy into, the clean eating or the resurgence of 80s nostalgia but rather the buying and consuming itself, capitalism doesn’t allow for movements or subcultures, for when they do arrive or try to make change, they are packaged and sold before any real momentum is taken, celebrities like Beyoncé make albums of the back of feminism, as shops sell t-shirts with slogans and slowly the movement becomes a commodified brand were the real voices, those with potentially more education and ethical views in the area, who want real change, get drowned out by capital and celebrity tabloid. And as the movement shifts from protests to stores and brands, we buy more wanting to stay close to the issue and in some cases, such as environmental concerns we buy more [recycled items] to save the planet, yet we are still consuming and without realising it, the issues that at first require real change has already been sold out.
American Beauty gives us a look at this trap, that the bought lifestyle kills the very person we are, were we care more about what we have than what we do. In a scene later in the film, Carolyn rejects Lester’s sexual advances because of potential spilt beer on a couch. The couch as a material object plays a role in becoming a wedge between the relationship as Carolyn has become obsessed to a point that material goods are more important than effort put into the breaking relationship.
[Lester] What ever happened to that girl, who used to fake seizers at frat parties because she got bored, who used to run up to the roof on our first apartment building to flash the traffic helicopters. Have you totally forgot about her, because I haven’t?
[Carolyn] Lester, you’re going to spill beer on the couch.
[Lester] So what it’s just a couch
[Carolyn] this is a $4000 sofa, upholstered in Italian silk. This is not just a couch [Lester] It’s just a couch! This isn’t life. This is just stuff and it’s become more important to you than living. Well hunny, that’s just nuts.
American Beauty was set in modern day 1999. As we see at the beginning of the film Jane the daughter of the family wants to have breast implants due to being unhappy with the shape of her body. If we take Jane and her body issues as a typical problem for teenagers in the late 90s, I would argue that these issues have only gotten worse for teenagers growing up in today’s society of online culture.
Teenagers are now subjected to more advertising and more cultural expectations than ever before, YouTubers are now celebrities in their own right, gaining thousands of views per video each earing the creator money through adverts played before the content, then in many cases, the content is in fact sponsored and in theory you are watching an advert before an advert and instead of having the pressures of the late 90s to be a certain body shape or size, the YouTuber claims to be just like you, and if you buy these things, then you can be just like me.
It would seem that we are now in an unescapable situation where material goods and individualism change the way we grow as societies, creating fake lives and unconscious decisions to mold ourselves into those we watch online, in a vain effort to create the perfect mirror were everything you see, hear and buy is you and what you agree with. One of the most worrying things about American Beauty is that, although the film addresses the feelings of being sedation and monotony it accepts them as a natural fact of life. Mark Fisher, in his book Capitalist Realism discusses capitalism and the real, quoting Alenka Zupanic’s psychoanalysis positing of reality.
“[The reality principle’, Zupancic writes] is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.”)
As Mark Fisher has also explained in Capitalist Realism, films like American Beauty that make light of capitalisms failures far from undermine capitalist realism but actually reinforces it. “[A film can] exemplify what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity. The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” So if we are to just accept that the state we live in is subject to only capital means, or that we live in a society were the only feeling left is to be sedated through work life, and we are not prepared to make changes at the core of culture, maybe the only radical decision left you can make is become a ‘Lester Burnham’ and quit your job, blackmail your boss through sexual harassment charges, get high, leave your partner and hope that by the end of it, after you have successfully scraped away everything you hate about yourself and your life that you get a bullet in the back of your head and die happy.
This article was wrote before the news of Kevin Spacey’s sexual harassment came out in the news. I would like to add that this will be addressed as a connecting comment on the topics in this article and will be linked here soon.