On multiple occasions recently I’ve found myself thinking about American Beauty, the now decades-old film that seems to either elicit rapture or mockery from critics.
It was easy for the Very Serious People (and for aspiring instances of same, such as myself at the time) to savage the film on a variety of grounds. It was derivative and unoriginal. It swung with a sledgehammer even as its essence was a critique of heavy-handedness from all sides. It wasn’t terribly literate or sophisticated. And so on.
I have to say that my opinion of the film has changed now that I am roughly the age of the film’s key characters.
© DreamWorks / 1999
The problem with the film—the reason why some who didn’t like it much didn’t like it much at the time—was actually and secretly that it was largely—nay, overwhelmingly—true. The film is an instance of truth made up of many smaller instances of truth—and truth, for the in-crowd, particularly the young who don’t believe in truth, is a dead giveaway speaking to a certain kind of naiveté. If there’s one thing that the young and the sophisticated alike can’t countenance, it’s the risk that they might fall prey to naiveté.
What’s changed in me, and what changes in a lot of people as they age, is the end of this postmodern, post-structuralist notion that truth is laughable. This happens, to be blunt, when you have to come to terms with your own mortality—which is, at the end of things, an inescapable, unassailable truth.
That you are mortal and that you will die—as evidenced by the continued accleration of time and similar acceleration of the decline of your body and of your prospects, no matter what counter-strategies you adopt—puts the lie to the seductive claim that there is no such thing as truth, that ontology is a story told by ice-cream sellers to credulous children.
(In fact, there is a kind of circular game at work; I suspect that the entire artifice of contemporary continental philosophy and its North American groupies is a way of daring death—let it be true as the result of my work that there is no truth, and with that gesture I escape the final truth and become immortal after all.)
But matter and time have a way of forcing you to the negotiating table, of prying your eyes open and forcing you to stare at the obvious (or, at the very least, at your wrinkles and graying hair in the mirror). And once you admit the truth of your own age, that of your all-too-familiar life arc, and that of the state of your life while still traveling it, the game is up.
And then, suddenly, American Beauty is a poignant, masterful film because it manages over and over again to embody truth in a medium that is, in fact, pure artifice by design. And with acceptance of the pat and bounded nature of the ultimate truth of your own life, once you’ve confronted and accepted it, all other truth begins to command a premium.
The title is a ruse; beauty is the shallow consolation prize for those that—as of yet—are unable to tackle truth. The film is adept at segmenting audiences and critics along precisely those lines—and those lines are what it is actually about.