It’s all a matter of perspective–at least that’s the case in Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999): a visual panoply of thrilling satirical vignettes exposing the craftily concealed perversities and turmoil that lay beneath the film’s multiple manifestations of farcical representations. Mendes artfully crafts a topsy-turvy satire about the homogenizing attempts of Suburbia to sublimate individuality and a family’s attempt to appease the faceless regiment. The Burnhams, as both a familial unit and as individuals teeter totter between instinctual idiosyncrasy and the contemptuous stigma attached to being exposed as an outsider.In pursuing the attainment of social normalcy, the Burnham kin are forced to repress primal instincts, which, in turn, provoke a backlash of all things uncanny.
“Repression is essential to civilization, the conversion of animal instinct into civil behavior, but such repression creates what might be called a second self, a stranger within, a place where all that cannot for one reason or another be expressed r realized in civil life takes up residence. This, for Freud, explains why people experience what he calls ‘uncanny’ feelings of doubleness that consist of a sense that something strange coexists with what is most familiar inside ourselves. It also explains why we compulsively repeat certain gestures, desires, experiences and self induced situations that might be quite distressing…because they arise from something or somewhere that is beyond our control—the unconscious”
-Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Introduction: Strangers to Ourselves: Psychoanalysis (link)
Mendes forges beyond the outskirts of the great American Dream in order to trample over much of the folklore that surrounds the utopian notion of a Suburban Shangri-La. In relating to Sigmund Freud’s “The Uncanny”, the film rums amuck with absurdities from the start, utilizing the full-fledged malleability of the cinematic medium to fully expose Lester Burnham’s transcendental experience through death and his resurrection. Mendes’ filmic showcase then goes about taking us through the grotesque underworld of Lester’s own consciousness, as it suffers, grapples with, and eventually surmounts socially implemented fragments of repression. Mendes’ underlying message seems to be yep, the ‘burbs are still really fucked up! No, you don’t have to participate.
We begin to see that the family ostensibly diverges from what we’d consider to be ‘typical behavior’ as the camera penetrates more and more intimately into the Burnham’s underlying affairs. The degree of unsettling intimacy Mendes instills in the film mimics Freud’s statement that “we know now that we are not supposed to be looking on at the products of a madman’s imagination, behind which we, with the superiority of rational minds, are able to detect the sober truth, and yet this knowledge does not lessen the the impression of uncanniness in the least degree.”(424) The tension that exists between the Burnhams’ desire for and dismal failure in the face of normalcy suggests that these socially constructed notions of normalcy are skewed. We as viewers are thus led into a hazy state of ambiguity as the multi-dimensional layers of the cinematic ecosphere unfurl. Their’s is a life enshrouded by the pitter-patter of routine, imbibing social contexts, and materialistic fetishization—and we can all recognize our very own torments espoused by the identity/society duality.
Lester Burnham is a sterilized, lifeless 42 year old whose identity is associated with his daily routines, neighborhood and street, and a complacency with the void of respect and power allotted to him by his wife and daughter. Since this lopsided hierarchy of power has existed for so long, Lester naturally experiences notions of Freud’s “castration complex”. In a dinner table scene I later touch on, Lester recognizes this fear which has been instilled through his wife’s commandeering of familial shot-calling, seeming “to prefer that [he] go through life like a fucking prisoner while she keeps my dick in a mason jar under the sink.” He has thus been incarcerated in a sedated hibernation throughout the course of his domestic life, and is suddenly enlivened to reclaim his power. Once Burnham starts to awaken and rebel against his comatose complacency—a life enshrouded by habits, social conformity, and lack of emotional connectivity, he makes a rebellious attempt to turn his mundane world upside down.
Freud refers to the provocation of the uncanny inherent in the concept of the double, and “the constant recurrence of similar situations.”(425) Since the family is tangibly dissolving seeing the cohort together is a rarity, and the recurrence of another dinner table scene for the Burnham family’s is used to ostensibly show dramatic change in family dynamics.The earlier dinner table scene depicts a meticulously engineered formal dinner landscape, so perfect it’s as if we were peering into a picturesque dollhouse. The long shot depicts the visually symmetric scenery with the candles, linens and silverware and a bundle of Carolyn’s perfectly harvested roses. All three family members are perched on the long table to enhance the symmetrical aesthetics. It’s made apparent that there are already seedlings of boredom and disdain planted within the Burnham family due to the constrictive expectations and codes of normalcy dictated by suburban society and Carolyn’s ferociously conformist adherence to the social playbook. The distance between the Burnham trio is perceptibly striking even from a far. As the camera slowly moves closer, the mirage begins to dissolve while the circuitous sense of animosity between the family members is magnified. The camera imposes a tight frame on the scene to suggest how suffocating and unnatural these marginalizing social contexts are. Lester attempts to make small talk at the dinner table, but is continuously degraded and overpowered not only by his wife but by his daughter. The scene ends with Carolyn’s authoritative declaration of power and Lester fleeing the scene to grab some ice cream.
The acting in this scene (well and throughout the entire movie, but this scene particularly) is phenomenal
The second time we see the Burnham’s at the dinner table there’s definitely something amiss. Lester is swigging a beer and his attire is unkept. Carolyn has on a less formal sweater and an uproariously animated discourse wages between Lester and Carolyn. Recognizing that she’s walked into an extra bizarro unraveling of unheimlich, Jane attempts to flee the Crazy Fun House scene but is halted by her dad’s authoritarian demand that she sit down. Jane’s marvel, with her perplexed attention span being jostled between the combatant volleying dialectical blows, resembles our own throughout the course of the film. This is Lester’s attempt to realign himself with the family that’s obscured him, by reclaiming his power and voice. Carolyn attempts to further subjugate power from him by belittling him for quitting his job with her frantic, practically psychotic frenzy of ranting anxieties. Lester wants his asparagus, yet his requests are unheeded(due to the family’s lack of consideration and respect towards him) It is through the aggressive physical actions of getting the asparagus from across the table himself and subsequently hoisting the plate against the wall to finally get his family’s unflinching attention. Lester instills a sense of shock and fear in his conspiring familiar castration agents. This is Lester’s masculine and patriarchal revival over the family unit, divorcing himself front the layers of artificiality which Carolyn harbored throughout the course of her tyrannical 20 year reign over the Burnham fam.
Ricky’s capacity to see beauty in that which has been categorically deemed inanimate is accrued through his socially reclusive tendencies. By the end of the movie, we come to see that Lester’s gradually tail-spinned from the Suburban template of social acceptability. But his detachment from social mores, simultaneously enhances his capacity to see the world as Ricky does.
Lester, thus, recognizes the inherent beauty in everyday life . Not conventional(socially prescribed) mandates of what is coneventionally considered beautiful, but an organic, pure manifestation of beauty. A beauty which isn’t exactly the perfect rose, which has become a familiar motif in the movie. Behind the facade of beauty and normalcy, there may be something damaged and lonely; Behind what seems to be plain, ordinary, or weird may, in fact, be something quite beautiful.