Why I like ‘American Beauty’

A talk given to a church film group, Feast of the Epiphany 2001 (first blogged 17th July 2005)

Today is the feast of the Epiphany, when the three Kings came to worship the infant Jesus and give him presents. At least, that is how we celebrate it in the Western church. What Epiphany is really about is the manifestation of God in human form, the word made flesh, the incarnation. In other words, it continues and completes the theme of Christmas as a whole. So what does this have to do with a film about someone who, in his daughter’s words, is a ‘lame-o’, ‘some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever [she] brings a girlfriend home from school’?

That’s what I want to say a few things about today. But a general point to begin with: I really enjoy watching films, primarily for their narrative content, but also – under Rolanda’s influence – for more filmic qualities as well. Narrative is for me the clearest vehicle for teaching anything about theology: if nothing else, theology is about human meaning, and the only way we can really absorb it is if we see it lived out through a story. So, if this works out OK and is of interest, there may well be further ‘showings’ when I indulge my own interests, and teach theology through film.

So, back to the horny geek-boy. American Beauty is about a man who saves his soul – it is a story of redemption. Lester is a man who has ‘lost something’ – he feels sedated, as if he has been in a coma for twenty years. He is estranged from his wife and daughter, but, just as important, he is completely estranged from himself, from his own passions. His wife and daughter think that he is a loser – and he doesn’t fight that assessment. He has given up. At the end of the film, this has all changed. In his own words, he’s ‘great’. So, how did this change come about?

The moment when the ice cracked was when he saw this sixteen year old nymphet dancing as a cheerleader. As is shown quite clearly in the film, this is a revelation to Lester, a true Epiphany. He sees something glorious and it sparks his passions into life, he starts to desire something again. Now, put to one side for the moment the questionable nature of this attraction, we can come back to that in our discussion afterwards. What I want to emphasise is that his desires are reawakened; in other words, his instinctual, bodily, carnal appetites.

Now, there is quite a good tradition in Christian thinking, which tends to get systematically overlooked in Western culture, about desire as the means to approach God. And desire is rooted in sexual attraction. This doesn’t mean that all our aesthetics, our understanding of beauty, can be reduced in Freudian fashion to misplaced sexual urges; it is to say that our sexuality is a gift, and a foundation for what can come later. In other words, what I am saying is the precise opposite of what Western Christian teaching has often held to be the case: that our sexuality is a dangerous inheritance from the fall, which must be repudiated or at the very least disciplined into submission. On the contrary, our desire is often a path to God, if we can but be honest about our true desires. Think of Augustine’s famous saying, Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God.

“…There may be higher states of vision. It may be possible ultimately to love God free from all form. But it is certainly better for man to love God in a form to which he can respond, and which has meaning for him, than it is to imagine he is loving a formless God when really he is simply committed to a spiritual vacuum. For in this way – in this loving of the divine in the creature – he is at least in touch with the Divinity. It is not for nothing that the great Andalusian spiritual master, Ibn Arabi, can say that the sages who enjoy the most perfect vision of God are those who can contemplate him in a woman.”
(Philip Sherrard, Christianity and Eros)

The whole point of the incarnation is that God can be found in the things of this world, if only we see them the right way.

So, back to Lester. Lester is having a mid-life crisis, and realising that all the things which he has been working for these past twenty years are actually worthless. This comes out most in the conversation he has with his wife, the opportunity for a reconciliation lost because of the importance of keeping a couch pristine. Although his wife’s character, like almost all in the film, is somewhat stereotypical they are fleshed out enough to be believable. And in this film the wife stands for a certain materialistic, career oriented ambition: her desires are focused on the world, her child raising is geared around success – ‘you didn’t screw up once’ – and material wealth ‘when I was your age…’ and even her adultery is lensed through her career goals. This is what Lester is walking away from. I think it appropriately symbolic that the first time we see him he is masturbating in the shower, the high point of his day. He is completely enclosed within himself.

Now the tagline of the film was ‘look closer’, and this is brought out most clearly with the video of the bag blowing in the wind. Ricky, remember, is the one who teaches Lester to let go, to the extent of seeking a job with the minimum amount of responsibility. He has what for me is the most important line in the film. When he is talking to Jane about why he films the things that he does, he says ‘When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back’. Jane asks what he sees, and the answer is simple: ‘beauty’. Ricky has what can be quite strictly characterised as a mystical outlook on life. All things hang together, they are meaningful and they are beautiful. In the course of the film, Lester absorbs this perspective, so much that by the end of the film, after he has been murdered, he is able to give thanks for ‘every single moment of my stupid little life’.

Some people commented to me that they were upset that Lester is killed at the end. To my mind that is a sign that the point has been missed. Our culture is terrified of death – it is the great taboo, and the dark side of the emphasis upon youth and sexuality – a diseased emphasis, to be sure. For me, American Beauty is a profoundly orthodox film – it is informed by a true perspective on the world, which doesn’t accept the values that the world provides, but transcends them. There are of course, other Christian motifs running through the film, but I don’t want to spell everything out. I’d like to finish with another extract from Sherrard:

“…the truth is that our heritage – and in it Christian (or what is called Christian) morality, according to which sexual love is at its best a frailty, at its worst damnation, has played its not insignificant part – has directed us into a way of life, or death, in which this energy is degraded and prostituted on every side. It has directed us into a way of life, or death, in which a person may be born into any one of our proliferating megalopolitan monstrosities and may go through the whole number of his years upon earth without ever once becoming conscious of the beauty of such a simple thing as a tree on the pavement catching the lamplight or as the rain falling.”

Or the beauty of a bag blowing in the wind.

4 thoughts on “Why I like ‘American Beauty’

  1. Excellent, Sam. Great to read this, as I didn’t see it in 2007. Interested to see that you’ve read Philip Sherrard. I’ve read a number of his books in the past but not the one you quote from.

  2. I saw American Beauty and Magnolia within weeks of each other with Jessica soon during the six months we were going out prior to our engagement. I suspect that they played a not insignificant role in our decision to get married not too long afterwards.

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