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American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper, Thora Birch, Peter Gallagher, Scott Bakula, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari

(DreamWorks; US theatrical: 1 Oct 1999 (General release); 1999)

American Beauty Director: Sam Mendes


Sam Mendes’ American Beauty wasn’t the first piece of art to probe the gnawing hollows in the American dream. Disaffection from marriage, school, kids, death, has been around as long as artists have tried to fashion visions within and without this standardization of human life.  David Lynch, even through several layers of surreal distortion, found small town life a Pandora’s box of perversion and sublime cobbler.  But the subtlety of Mendes’ vision (and Alan Ball’s writing), though it would later come to represent the amorphous and incoherent “Hollywood Values” was less an expose than a series of characters in crisis, people who had done what they thought they should, absorbing the collective momentum surrounding them, but still ending up alone and afraid trapped in a kind of insanity hidden by its ubiquity. 


Both Mendes’ and Ball’s exploration of the ways in which bad desire and repressed desire shatter people who “have it all” in nuzzled suburbia accomplished the feat of making a truly successful existentialist blockbuster.  Despite a few moments of sex and violence, American Beauty is a film of internal struggles unresolved, a question begging narrative that is not condemnation, but complex characterization.  Despite retrospective bitching, American Beauty was a welcome broadening of the themes of the indie mainstream, which had been sidelined by Tarantino’s canonization, a director’s values who have never been counter-cultural as hyper-hipster implications of traditional blockbuster obsessions:  violence, wit, and sexual fantasy.  Mendes (with cinematographer Conrad Hall)  had a cleverly veering eyes, forcing strange arrests in the narrative to simply meditate upon a beautiful frame or image.  Whether parodied or admired, the rose petals raining from the Pre-Raphaelite cheerleader stuck to the ceiling, or the moody teenager filming a bag caught in currents of wind, Mendes clearly wanted to have as much as he could:  the story, the characters, and the iconic frame. 


Any one of these elements would have made a great film, but Ball’s cast pulled masterful performances from roles were made of painfully incomplete masks, people desperate to win a game of charades that would provide them with the “it” that was supposed make them permanently happy.  Carolyn Burnham (Annette Benning) tightly holds a role that’s more of an unravel, as the Jekyll and Hyde-ing real estate climber, starving for upward mobility and trying to jam a falsely passionate affair into the weeping gaps in her life.  But Ball is a sensitive writer, lesser scribes would have made this the “crazy bitch” role, but both he and Benning sink us into her frustrations.  Kevin Spacey certainly earned the Best Actor Oscar for his dry turn as Lester Burnham, the husband who quits his drone job; leaving one fantasy of the fulfilling life for one with even more magical thinking.  Lester falls for one of his daughters young friends, eager to be reborn and reinvigorated by the validating sexual desire of youth.  He is insightful, but too detached to realize anything fully. 


Spacey gives Lester a barricaded comic persona.  A glib asshole, he has as much clarity as he does self-pity.  The viewer wants to invests him with the responsibility of the hero, but he’s clearly more interested in escaping into a regressive hallucination about his daughter’s hot friend.  No one finishes the work of their questionings and some, like the festering and tunnel-eyed Chris Cooper (Colonel Frank Fitts), have epiphanies that simply rip them from sanity.  With everyone such a Russian Nesting Doll of dysfunction, it’s hard to believe that the film didn’t simply come off as the narccisstic tangents of the loudly incomplete.  Its skill as a film rests in the acrobatic task of preventing the cerebral from losing the emotional.  Fortunately, this is Alan Ball’s aesthetic dialect.


Since its release, American Beauty has taken fair knocks for the density of the characters’ pathologies, for aspiring to be more emblemattic than prodding, but it deserves recognition for making a thoughtful film with boldly open-ended aspirations.  Even if it retroactively became misconstrued as a critique of blue state Americans’ lives (The National Review cites it often as typical of liberal disdain for the Palin-olithic block.), it deserves to be remembered as a movie that bravely asked questions about the friction between desire and dream, between cultural fantasies and individual agony. Terry Sawyer





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Three Kings

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, Spike Jonze, Nora Dunn

(Warner Bros.)

Three Kings Director: David O. Russell


George Clooney’s starring role in Three Kings seemed at the time yet one more attempt by the good-looking prime-time soap star to break into the movie big time, a transition still very uncertain, even after his turns in Batman & Robinand One Fine Day.  Now the role of Major Archie Gates, for which Clooney lobbied hard, and to which he remained committed, despite well-documented on-set tensions with Three King’s director, indie improviser David O. Russell, seems like the first step on a thoughtful actor/director/producer’s serious journey to question the impacts of American domestic and foreign policies on both national and international communities.  In movies like Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck, and the documentary, Sand and Sorrow, which Clooney narrated, he not only stokes his mojo as an influential Hollywood player but also, as he noted in a recent NYTimes video, works his celebrity to bring not just attention but action to the exterminations and mass displacements on Darfur.


In contrast, the film itself, set in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, looks much less radical than it did in 1999. Major Gates and his cohorts, Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Elgin (Ice Cube) and Vig (Spike Jonz), take advantage of the laxity of the US army, whose anti-climactic desert war has ended all too soon, to indulge in a little unilateral action and liberate one of Saddam Hussein’s stashes of looted Kuwaiti gold.  En route, they meet a group of Shiite anti-Hussein rebels, now abandoned by the United States which had encouraged them to rise against the Iraqi dictator.  After a deadly encounter with Saddam’s forces, they commit themselves to escorting the rebels to the Iranian border (thus establishing their moral superiority to the government they represent) but at the last moment find themselves in a stand-off with their own American forces. In yet another moment of righteousness, the remaining soldiers, under Gates’ leadership, trade the gold for the rebels’ escape.  They leave the scene morally empowered and, due to the presence of media cameras, famous, a commodity they subsequently can trade for material wealth.


Three Kings thus falls neatly into the sub-genre of war movie in which experience of war (or its immediate aftermath in this case) unveils for ordinary soldiers the deliberate deceits of official foreign policy and the by-the-book ineptitude of their nation’s military establishment.  As did the much broader Vietnam-era World War II comedy, Kelly’s Heroes, on which Three Kings is based, the later movie glorifies the maverick whose clear-sightedness about the corruption all war entails, and the specific corruption endemic to his own military organization, opens up space for individual initiative and private profiteering which will allow the maverick both to escape the war while also achieving success in the terms his society valorizes, the acquisition of wealth. Crucially, too, in both films the outlaw heroes’ apparently subversive actions inadvertently advance the American war effort.  In Kelly’s Heroes, the mobilization of logistical support to pursue the gold drags the front line ever closer to Germany.  In Three Kings, the actions of Gates and co. allow the US to solidify its alliance with the Kuwaitis through the return of the gold.


Thus, while Three Kings does enjoy itself in exposing the hypocrisy of American policy in the Gulf – the war is about oil, not about Kuwait’s “freedom,” for example, and the pusillanimity of American leadership in not pursuing the war to Baghdad exposes Saddam’s opponents to unprecedented punishments – it has no basic argument with American intervention, only with the kind of intervention and its results.  As Lila Kitaeff notes in her 2003 Jump Cut essay on the movie, despite Russell’s claims for the unconventional, oppositional stance of his film, the colonial mindset is well and truly embedded in Russell’s work.  The Iraqis still need Americans to sort out their problems: the crux of the matter in Three Kings is not the wrong war, but simply the wrong policy. This was exactly the kind of thinking which led to the second, and still continuing, Gulf War four years after the movie’s release.


Yet the movie is not all about feeding into the war-making frenzy that animated so many of those who became advisors to Bush II.  Ten years after its release, Three Kings seems most prescient about the ever more complex imbrication of waging war and mass media.  From Gates’ trading of sex for scoops with a female journalist at the beginning of the moving to the sealing of the closing deal because of the inquisitive presence of television cameras,Three Kings highlights the artificial framing of real war as a pervasive corrupter of genuine knowledge.  The irony of Gates’ and Elgin’s making money out of their maverick soldiering as advisers to Hollywood war movie-makers seems prophetic of the retired US senior officers who worked as consultants for hire to major TV news organizations during the second Gulf War.


The banning from the local and national news of images of the returning coffins of Iraq and Afghan conflict casualties renders both those wars as fictional as anything in the movies for the majority of Americans who have neither friends nor family involved in the conflicts.  Where journalists shill for political policies in the guise of reporting and fictional images of war shape both citizens’ and soldiers’ perceptions of war as much, if not more, than the fragmentary crisis clips of ever-shrinking daily news reporting (as opposed to opinonating), the ability of citizens in the world’s most powerful democracy to understand what war actually costs is fatally skewed. Three Kings reminds audiences of how that corruption spreads, and warns of its eventual cost. Lesley Smith



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