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Movies That Made Me: American Beauty (1999)

Over the past few years, the phrase “Movies That Made Us” has been thrown around a lot. There’s a Netflix series with that title and I constantly run across various memes and memorial posts that include it. Usually these posts (and the documentary series) are focusing on movies that were pop culture phenomenons such as Ghostbusters, Ninja Turtles, and Star Wars. And while I would consider myself a pretty big fan of all of those franchises, I can’t really say the movies made me. Sure, I follow the fandom and various forms of storytelling, and they may have even inspired some interests of mine (I still think my love of The Real Ghostbusters set me on a path for horror fandom) but did they actually effect me in a way that I view the world or even the way that I act? I don’t think so.

Recently, I sat down to try and figure out what movies truly shaped me into the adult that I am and it’s not too surprising that most of the movies were released between 1999-2001, when I was sixteen-eighteen years old, a time when I was ripe for embracing new ideas and ways of living. Over the next few months, I want to revisit some of these movies and talk about what I took from them and what I like about them. We are going to begin with 1999’s American Beauty.

I first heard about American Beauty in my World History class. We had one of those teachers that if you could get her talking about something other than History, she would not teach and just have a discussion with the class. Two of the boys were brilliant and bringing up various social or entertainment topics, and one day American Beauty was brought up. I had no idea what the film was, but the teacher raved for twenty minutes about what a brilliant masterpiece it was. Her recommendation was enough to make me never want to watch it, but my opinion changed a few months later when I got my first DVD player.

DVDs were just hitting the market. They were very expensive and came in a variety of releases. Some were just rehashed laser disc releases, while others took advantage of the blossoming format. These were the titles that interested me the most and so I visited sites like DVDTalk to keep up on the latest and best DVD releases. One movie that was constantly praised for its features along with video and sound quality was American Beauty. And one fateful day, I walked into a used CD store in Barlett, Tennessee where I was able to pick up both American Beauty and The Mummy for $30, which was a fantastic deal at the time.

I took my latest discount finds home and popped in American Beauty first. Over the next two hours and two minutes, I sat dumbfounded watching a movie unlike any movie I’d seen before. The cinematography was flat out fascinating and the score… the score made a Thomas Newman fan for life and I still visit it frequently.

American Beauty is the story of a group of people who all pretend to be something they are not in hopes they will find happiness. The only true authentic character is the weirdo kid next door, who while a little eccentric he doesn’t try to be someone else. We follow these lonely, depressed people as they struggle with maintaining images and chasing things they really do not want in order to present themselves a certain way to each other and the world. And I think, if I took away anything from American Beauty it was that I should always strive to be myself, because being someone else never makes you happy.

Our main protagonist Lester Burham is a loser. He grew up to work in a boring office job, is stuck in a loveless marriage, and his own child thinks he’s pathetic. It’s not until he begins to lust over his daughter’s friend does Lester find the will to get in shape and pursue the teenage girl. While creepy, in it’s own way, it’s aspiring to watch Lester shed himself of his adult responsibilities and reframe his mind to that of a teenager who focuses on having fun and not prioritizing material objects. While Lester’s path may not be the noblest of one and his regression does not truly make him happy, there is a part of his quest to be admired. He realizes that the rat race he finds himself in is not for himself. He realizes that by playing by everyone else’s rules he’s become miserable and numb to the world. It’s only by giving up on the American Dream and presenting himself in a certain way that he finds a kernel of happiness to build upon. Had he maybe approach somethings a different way his outcome may have been different, but overall I’m a fan of Lester tearing down his world in order to reconstruct a new one.

The defining scene for me that for sure made the biggest impact is a scene where Lester seduces his wife for the first time in a long time. She’s getting into it and he’s referencing their wild younger days then suddenly, she notices he’s about to spill wine on their couch. She interrupts the intimate moment to point out that he’s going to ruin the couch and well… Lester reacts like this.

It was the first time, in my entire life, that I realized how people prioritize material objects over people, moments, and even happiness. The moment made me acutely aware that not only was this a common held belief, but one I too shared. I grew up around family that seemed to care more for their furniture than making memories, and it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t the best way to go about living.

American Beauty was maybe the first time that I realized the American Dream was bullshit. Doing everything right wasn’t going to guarantee you money nor happiness. It allowed me to see that so much of the world that I did see was fake and created by people who wanted to present a certain image to mask their own dissatisfaction with their lives. The movie has a tight script, accompanied with some amazing visuals, and equally fantastic performances. It’s a film I don’t revisit often, but when I have, I’ve always enjoyed myself.

American Beauty is a film that helped shape my view of the world and maybe established a distrust in inauthentic people. I desire to be like the free, regressing version of Lester Burnham, despite knowing (as he realized at the end) that maybe that path wasn’t the best one to take. The had to be a Middle Way that could have resulted in some better decisions and less selfish actions.

Favorite Quotes:

Lester Burnham: [narrating] I had always heard your entire life flashes in front of your eyes the second before you die. First of all, that one second isn’t a second at all, it stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… For me, it was lying on my back at Boy Scout camp, watching falling stars… And yellow leaves, from the maple trees, that lined our street… Or my grandmother’s hands, and the way her skin seemed like paper… And the first time I saw my cousin Tony’s brand new Firebird… And Janie… And Janie… And… Carolyn. I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.

Lester Burnham: Remember those posters that said, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”? Well, that’s true of every day but one – the day you die.

Lester Burnham: It’s a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you’ve forgotten about.

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