Sunday, November 22, 2009

Film Review: American Beauty

Disclaimer: This may potentially give away parts of the film. Or the film may be so complex that my review can't possibly give anything away...

American Beauty is the story of a family - and in particular, a man (the father/husband) - falling apart at the seams. We're introduced to Lester Burnham through a post-mortem monologue in which Lester informs us that, within a year, he will be dead. The film goes on to chronicle the time leading up to his death through in-depth characterizations of Lester and the people surrounding him, focusing on the ways that they endeavor to change their lives.

Lester struggles with the construct of masculinity which defines success as being the breadwinner and leader of the household. Lester, incredibly passive and lackluster, works at a job he hates, is married to a woman who earns more than he does, and receives little respect as a human being from either his wife or his daughter (probably because even he does not respect himself). At the beginning of the film, Lester's character reminded me of the article we read at the beginning of the year entitled "All Men are Not Created Equal: Asian Men in US History." Although Lester is not Asain-American, and although the Issei's situation was much more drastic than Lester's, a parallel can be drawn between the emasculation these men: because of the breakdown of traditional patriarchal family structures, like Lester, "many Issei men felt useless and frustrated, particularly as their wives and children became less dependent on them" (ML 20). To cope, Lester reverts to a younger (male) age, quits his career-job for a job serving fast food, begins working out and smoking marijuana. He flees the responsibility of adulthood for the haven of youth - the last life stage when he felt truly happy. While he bucks the materialistic expectations of consumer-driven middle-class America, he still conforms to male constructs.

Frank Fitts is a retired marine colonel who expects constant perfection from those in his life. Though he appears incredibly racist and homophobic, we later realize that his behaviors and opinions are affectations adopted to hide his own homosexual tendencies. He represses his sexuality and overcompensates with stereotypically "masculine" traits in order to fit into a socially acceptable mold. Like Amit Taneja in "From Oppressor to Activist," for Frank, "[t]he obvious path to avoid this [being identified as gay] was to deny all feelings for men and be as straight-acting and macho as I could" (MSO 156). In Frank, we have yet another example of how incredibly messed up our society is: as a whole, we accept those who are hateful, discriminating, and abusive, yet do not accept people who love people of the same sex. When he final confronts his sexuality, Frank cannot handle the result and acts to counter it with the most aggressive "male" response he can (I would say more, but I don't want to ruin the movie).

The film also portrays Jim and Jim, a homosexual couple living in the Burnhams' neighborhood who embody a slightly different type of masculinity. However, though Jim and Jim present an alternative to hetero-normative masculinity, their existence is no less socialized than Lester's or Frank's. They try so hard to fit into their respectably middle-class neighborhood that they seem almost to be copies of one another rather than individual people. They are always together, always cheery, always fit, and always utterly conventional aside from their sexual orientation. It seems almost as if they have repressed their selves in an effort to fit in.

The only male in the film who is seemingly unaffected by society's idea perception of masculinity is Ricky Fitts, the Burnhams' neighbor and Jane's eventual boyfriend. He refuses to reciprocate his father's aggression, remains unaffected by Angela's stereotypical beauty and self-absorption, sees beauty in Jane when she can see none in herself, and puts no value on material possessions. He defines beauty by showing Jane a video recording of "the most beautiful thing he has ever seen": a plastic bag blowing in the wind. Though the whole film subverts the idea of what is beautiful and important in life, Ricky Fitts is the only male character who effectively subverts stereotypical American constructions of masculinity.

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