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theoddone33

American Beauty (again)

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American Beauty is trite, and there are at least a dozen movies from Hollywood, even, from the last ten years, even, that make its points better than it does.  I'll open the bidding with The Ice Storm.

Well I'm not sure it's worth reviving a dying thread for, but I just saw The Ice Storm. Having had this discussion in mind, I was looking for similarities between it and American Beauty. I don't know if this tainted my experience, but I certainly do not see what it is in The Ice Storm that has everyone so positive about it.

If American Beauty is about, well.. beauty, then The Ice Storm seems to have been about pain. I'm not sure I see any similarities between the two movies... even the surface-deep "they're both about dysfunctional families" bit seems to be a stretch.

It was interesting to see Tobey Maguire playing Spider-Man years before he actually got the part, though. The Ice Storm held my attention and was generally good craftwise, but it carried itself as if it was saying much more than it actually said. I don't know if I just missed it or what, but the movie never really rose above itself. Right now it's sitting at three stars of five on my scale.

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American Beauty is trite, and there are at least a dozen movies from Hollywood, even, from the last ten years, even, that make its points better than it does.

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Great discussion. I'd have to say that I don't like American Beauty much and that this dislike is on aesthetic rather than moral grounds. It seems over determined and schematic all the way through and makes me think of nothing more than Ordinary People. Like OP I think it's high contemporary reputation will be a mystery to audiences in a couple of decades. I recently read Robert Stone, hardly a denizen of the Religious Right, comment that the portrayal of Colonel Fitts was pure propaganda and reminiscent of racial stereotyping. While accepting that sometimes the most judgemental of people are themselves the most flawed, surely this glib antithesis has in itself become a cultural cliche, a bit like the cop who doesn't play by the rules but still gets the job done. The Annette Bening character is one long misogynistic cliche, the castrating bitch who's basically to blame for Lester's problems. She is like something from the sixties or early seventies when progressive film-makers had embraced the sexual revolution without taking notice of feminism. The idea that the pusher is the only person with integrity comes from that era as well. These are not moral judgements by the way, simply observations at how one dimensional the characters are. I think The Ice Storm is a superior look at suburban anomie but not all that interesting either. Just to go on a brief tangent, I reckon that one of the finest novelists dealing with a dearth of spirituality in contemporary experience is David Foster Wallace who takes these questions very seriously. He's very damning about John Updike and his cohorts who he calls the Great Male Egotists. There's a very funny Wallace review of an Updike novel, Towards The End Of Time, entitled "possibly about the end of something or other one would have to think," which is well worth reading. The reason I bring this up is that Lester is very much an Updikean character whose sole route to transcendence is getting laid and reliving the sixties dream. It's a movie without any great complexity though the performances, within the narrow parameters available to the actors, are very good. Still, the fact that it merits this kind of discussion shows it can't be easily dismissed either I suppose.

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Oh... and don't forget that the famous "bag" scene was ripped off from another short film by another filmmaker....

Who?

Nobody can ever tell me who this mythical film maker is whose mythical film was ripped off for use in AMERICAN BEAUTY. Consequently, over time, I've been gravitating to the theory that this is just a sort of cinematic urban myth that took root only because it was fertilized by the film's enemies and their unreasoning hatred, an unscrupulous desire to discredit this fine film by any nefarious means they could come up with.

Here's something from an article at the International Cinematographers' Guild website that at least makes it clear the segment isn't interpolated from a pre-existing film;

"Certainly, one of the movie's most persistent video images is Ricky Fitts' chance encounter with a wind-blown plastic bag. Recounted by Ricky to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) as "the most beautiful thing" that he's ever filmed, director Mendes shot the animated sack on one of the production's off days. Mendes used two wind machines, two sacks of leaves, an empty wall in a parking lot, and a video camera given to actor Wes Bentley during the rehearsal period. "We didn't want to take 40 trucks, and 125 people to go to some parking lot and film a plastic bag against a wall," Hall laughs. "It would have been a huge waste of time and money, and we were already short on both. It made more sense for Sam to go off his own with a little Honda generator, and two people to operate the wind machines, and keep filming until he got what he wanted. Again, the simplicity and reality of the shot comes through very strongly because of it."


I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Ron wrote:

: Nobody can ever tell me who this mythical film maker is whose mythical film was

: ripped off for use in AMERICAN BEAUTY.

FWIW, a simple Google search for "american beauty bag scene ripped off" turns up this:

Well Nick (Piombino), regarding your post about *The Butterfly Effect*, if it's any consolation, lots of people were mad about the way the crucial plastic bag scene in Hollywood's "American Beauty" seemed like such a ripoff from Nick Dorsky...--here's an excerpt from an interview that "indieWIRE" did with filmmakers Nick Dorsky and Stan Brakhage...

iW: -- yesterday, Nick, when I saw your film "Variations," from 1998, I was shocked to see a very familiar-looking scene involving a plastic shopping bag floating around in the wind in a city street. It looked exactly like the scene in "American Beauty," except you documented something real. Was there a connection?

Dorsky: I have not seen the film "American Beauty," and some people have told me that I shouldn't. When I made "Variations," I included a scene with a plastic bag, which I almost didn't use, because the image is similar to what has been used by many avant-garde filmmakers in the past - even back to "Symphony of a City" in the '20s, but I was walking on the sidewalk and there was this thing happening, it was very magical, and I shot it, and the light was perfect and I took a really good shot. I thought, well even though this is really kind of an avant-garde clich
Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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While no one can know exactly when the plastic bag scene was inserted, it is documented that Alan Ball had been working on the script off and on for a number of years. So it most likely is not valid to assume that the plastic bag scene was directly inspired by indie filmmaker's 1998 film.

And given that Connie Hall would be in any knowledgable critic's Top 5 (or at least 10) list of American cinematographers, I find critiques of the scene on an artistic level to be somewhat amusing. I imagine the superiority of American Beauty's cinematography is hard to argue against when compared with other films of the same genre or time period.

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There's so much here already, I really don't have much to add. Like some of the other people here, it's been a while since I've seen this movie although I loved it enough to buy it (I have a very small, very cherished DVD collection).

Yes, some of the characters are stereotypes - Bening's uber-housewife portrayal comes to mind - but the movie dismantles them (not all of them, the Colonel is what he is). Like with Bening's character, again, she begins as a kind of ideal - the successful housewife - but the movie picks her apart, shows us that the picture-perfect woman we see at the beginning of the movie is just a kind of facade. But it's not just that. The movie goes on, I think, to show that she wants to nurture and maintain this facade because it's the only way she knows to order her life and then as this construct begins to crumble around her, she lunges after a man who's got the nicer, sturdier facade.

And I think that's the strength of the movie for me - how it asks us to question what we might think of as ideal. To me, Ricky is the central character in that he tries to find beauty, not as the world defines it but as he finds it. Which is why he dismisses Suvari's character and latches on to Birch's instead. I love how he sort of frees her from the skin-deep-beauty that she feels trapped in - how he confirms the suspicions she has about that world and shows her that you don't have to let the world define beauty for you, that you can find it on your own. It think that's a beautiful love-story subplot.

Of course, Ricky's a drug dealer so he's no easy hero, but that's another thing that's great about the movie - it doesn't allow us easy answers.

I know I haven't been posting much lately, and in part it's because I find so few films worth thinking about. It's kind of a catch-22 situation for me where I don't see a lot of films because so many of the ones I do see weren't worth it so I see fewer films which means I'm probably missing the ones that are worth seeing. Blah. But it's nice to see an oldie-goodie like this one resurface to remind me that there <i>are</i> films worth seeing...even if some people think they aren't.

But that's what makes movies and this board so great, no?

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Brakhage: I said, "Don't worry about it. It's not a bad movie."

Stan BRAKHAGE likes the movie! See!!! SEEEEE!!!!!

Ron

"A man hears what he wants to hear

And disregards the rest,

La la la..."


I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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Revisited AB again after all these years. Still find it powerful - and in it's way, beautiful.


A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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Still find it powerful - and in it's way, beautiful.

I feel exactly the same way ... about my six-year-old comments above. tongue.gif

Overstreet's, too.

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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The film Spielberg gave away that he most wanted to direct was American Beauty. Though careful not to express any displeasure with the job that Sam Mendes did, Spielberg revealed that it was American Beauty that he would have liked to have had a shot at directing out of all the films he produced.

:blink:


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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The film Spielberg gave away that he most wanted to direct was American Beauty. Though careful not to express any displeasure with the job that Sam Mendes did, Spielberg revealed that it was American Beauty that he would have liked to have had a shot at directing out of all the films he produced.

:blink:

Thanks for posting that. I have no idea how American Beauty would have worked filtered through the lens of Spielbergian sentimentality. It boggles the mind.

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Calling Ron Reed! Calling Darrel Manson! American Beauty finds itself under attack!!

It's not a tremendous shock, of course, that the Academy would pick a mediocre movie as the Best Picture of the year—this happens all the time. What is downright bewildering is how often American Beauty was identified as instant canon, an unflinching satire of American dysfunction in Clintonian times, and the piercing cultural coda for an angst-filled decade.

I can think of few other films that struck such awe, and now inspire such vitriol. Unlike other contrived winners, like, say, Crash, whose repugnant qualities are immediately apparent, American Beauty's badness, its slickness, its insistence on its own profundity, was enough to bamboozle many of us as teenagers. I believe it's one of the earliest firsthand experiences my generation had with changing our minds about a movie we loved. ...

The movie's themes pander directly to the narcissism of the young—libidinous individualism, the triumph of youth over cynicism, the beauty of ordinary things (i.e. dead birds, plastic bags) over empty materialism. We responded naively and passionately—the desired effect. But we were just kids! What is so confounding now about American Beauty is how adults endorsed such juvenilia.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Wow, I'm amazed at just how right on that quote is. I definitely would've fought for American Beauty's good name as a late teen/early twentysomething, but when I went back to it a few years ago I couldn't believe how empty it felt--especially the plastic bag stuff. I think the tag line is something like "Look closer," but there's nothing to look closer at.

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Wow, I'm amazed at just how right on that quote is. I definitely would've fought for American Beauty's good name as a late teen/early twentysomething, but when I went back to it a few years ago I couldn't believe how empty it felt--especially the plastic bag stuff. I think the tag line is something like "Look closer," but there's nothing to look closer at.

I haven't revisited it some time, but I wouldn't be surprised if my reaction was similar to yours (I was 17 in 1999, I'm now a 29 year-old with a son).


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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Eek. A quick look at that article's by-line reveals it's by Natasha Vargas-Cooper who made a stir in the Twitterverse by thinking she was daring in praising TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (and dismissing THE RULES OF THE GAME by freely admitting she doesn't care that she hadn't seen it). Still, some of her analysis in this article seems pretty spot-on in diagnosing the interests of my generation.


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

Twitter.
Letterboxd.

Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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Came across this Tweet from Mike D'Angelo today:

Interesting that A.O.'s AMERICAN REUNION review treats AMERICAN BEAUTY as an obvious stinker. I wasn't aware its stock had fallen so low.

That made me curious. So I looked up Scott's review of the American Pie sequel, and sure enough, he says:

Ms. Suvari is notable for having appeared in two movies released in 1999 with “American” in the title. If you can’t remember the other one, count yourself lucky.

Sheesh. I mean, it won't surprise anybody that I'm not a fan of American Beauty, but does it deserve to be treated like a stain on movie history?

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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The Nostalgia Critic does that thing of his I hate where he answers a question with both "yes" and "no".* This time it's "Does American Beauty still hold up?"

 

It's Nostalgia Critic, with all the content-warnings that go with the name.

 

Anyway, I'm intrigued by the suggestion that American Beauty is worth holding on to because it gives an insight into a particular time. Since I know and have talked with people who work with this sort of thing in literature, I'm not too impressed with NC's handling of it, though. I'm really only posting so I have an excuse to post what I consider the single greatest Family Guy gag of all time [low bar, I know]:

 

 

___________________________

 

*I mean, in the manner of a freshman compare-contrast essay; not in an intriguing way.

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