American Beauty - Everything is Beautiful
We are told, right away, by Lester, that he will be dead by the time the movie is over. Not only do we go through the movie knowing this, when it happens we are not overcome with the tragedy of all, despite the fact that we have grown close to Lester. Why? Some might suggest this is due to the baseness or immoral nature of this character (and, some might argue, most of these characters). But those folks ignore what happens during this film, the changes Lester undergoes. I contend that we are not disturbed by Lester's death because it really is, as he tells us, "ok" - he is ready for, and indeed it is the proper next step for him.
This is, as the title suggests, a film about beauty, about seeing the inner beauty of other people, indeed seeing beauty in everything. As two characters tell us, there is so much beauty that sometimes our hearts feel like they are going to burst. The richness of the ideas here, however, go much deeper than this.
So we begin with Lester. We begin and end the film with a dead Lester, although only metaphorically at the beginning, of course. (For example, in the opening of the film, Lester sleeps in the back of the minivan, just like the dead body in the back of the hearse we later see.) During the course of the film, he goes through adolescence again, what with the crush on the teenager, the obsession with body image, the 70's sports car, the weed. And then, right at the end, he has an epiphany, and finally grows up. More importantly, he finally sees beauty in people and things, so much so that he feels his heart is going to burst.
The two catalysts for Lester's changes are Angela (the sexual) and Ricky (the spiritual). Lester's school-boy crush on Angela (which he gets at a high school basketball game - this movie really pays attention to detail) motivates him to improve himself physically, but it also sparks a self-centeredness which is most obviously portrayed in his masturbating (again, sexual); it also appears painfully in his relationship with Jane, his daughter. It's not until after his transformation at the end of the movie that he asks Angela how Jane is doing, and for the first time we see a father acting like a father, someone who actually cares about his daughter.
Lester's relationship with Ricky is less clear, but is done somewhat by surrogate through Jane because of parallels between characters which I'll get to later. Ricky's attitude to life convinces Lester to quit his job and is the main inspiration for Lester finally speaking his mind, which consists mostly of immature posturing. Think of the dinner table scene where he throws the asparagus, tells Carolyn not to interrupt him again, and then goes on about the music. The few times he tries to be more mature about his new-found philosophical attitude, there are other problems. For example, when he tries to get Carolyn to loosen up and rekindle their marriage, things fail because she isn't ready. Of course, he really isn't either - he just got finished buying the car of his childhood dreams as well as a motorized toy truck. Basically, Lester has got the information to move up, to mature - to see the inner beauty in others and in the world - but he's not ready yet. He's enjoying his new found freedom from what other people (his boss, his wife, his kid) want him to be a little too much to grow up.
Carolyn is presented as an opposite to Lester. He quits his job, she is obsessed with hers. He thinks about having sex (but doesn't) with a teenager (someone beneath his station), Carolyn does have sex with the Real Estate King, Buddy (someone above her station). He fantasizes about Angela and masturbates, although he doesn't even get to finish that; Carolyn's relationship with Buddy is unplanned (the opposite of fantasies), she certainly does finish (probably a bunch of times), but she doesn't masturbate (or so it is implied by her disgust at Lester doing it). Lester's new hobby is running (constructive improvement of his own physical self), Carolyn's is shooting (destructive injury of someone else's physical being); additionally she does not realize this potential of her hobby, as she only shoots targets (objects, not people), which points to her inability to escape the world of appearances.
Lester eventually breaks through the world of appearances to appreciate the inner world of people and the potential for beauty in everything. Carolyn is totally wrapped up in the world of appearances: "success projects the image of success all the time" is her mantra. Her family is a prop for her life and job. This comes home particularly at the real estate function where she treats Lester literally like a prop (she would have been better served hiring an actor to be her husband). Where he eventually learns to see through people's outsides to their inner selves, she sees only the outsides of people; worse yet, it seems sometimes she sees right through them, as if they were invisible. Certainly she treats her daughter that way. And what is she looking at if she seem through people? She sees things, and that is the world which is important to her. Her expensive sofa, her matching shears and sandals, her roses, her house, her husband's car, her dinners with candles and music, and so on. She slaps her daughter for being ungrateful because she had to grow up in duplex and Jane has so much more - totally missing what Jane would like to have, which is some real parents. Even her berating herself ("don't cry, don't cry") is a manifestation of this - she denies her feelings for the sake of appearance. We see her try to sell one house in the course of the movie, and it's an empty house, there are no people living in it. This is her world. An empty house which she oversells as something it is not (the lagoon-like pool) without a soul home. A metaphor for Carolyn herself. As Lester heads farther and farther in one direction during the movie, Carolyn is going the other way.
Carolyn biggest weakness, however, is power. She cheats on her husband with Buddy, solely because he's the biggest fish in the local real estate industry. She even calls him "king" while they're in the sack. Eventually this reach for power culminates in the shooting range where she is a natural with a gun. Like a rubber band, she stretches farther and farther in one direction, trying to deal with (or deny) the problems with Lester and Jane and life, lusting after power, until she is caught by Lester with Buddy (another opposition between Lester and Carolyn: he serves fast food, she consumes it). In the car in the rain with the gun and the motivational tape ("I will not be a victim" - like she's a victim of anybody but her own self), we are convinced she has crossed that line; if she does, if she could, she would become just like the one figure in the movie who embraces
violence, Ricky's father, Frank. But she doesn't, and although it is fleeting, the image of Carolyn hiding the handbag with the gun in disgust at her own black thoughts and embracing her husbands clothes (and they aren't his nice clothes, and she's not trying to be neat about it) suggests that the rubber band has snapped back, and that she has been restored. She still may be materialistic (she is, after all, embracing his clothes and not him), but there's a hint there which I feel suggests she could learn the lesson of this movie too.
And I feel that way partly because of Angela, who is the younger version of Carolyn. Like Carolyn, Angela sells herself with an image which is a lie. She is not a sexually experienced, confident person, but that is the image of herself which she sells to everyone else. And like Carolyn she thinks that's how the world is; you sleep with the photographer to get the job - in other words you do what you have to do to succeed, that's all that matters. This connection is further emphasized by Lester's interest in Angela sexually (Angela replaces his wife), and the use of Carolyn's roses in Lester's fantasies about Angela.
These fantasies are like ads, full of promise and surface beauty and sexual suggestiveness, but, like ads and the house Carolyn is trying to sell, not at all like the real thing. What causes Lester's epiphany is when he finally sees Angela as a person who is more than an image or a fantasy. Two things happen to create the shock necessary to wake Lester up. Angela confesses she is a virgin, and at about the same time, he opens up her shirt and we get.... breasts. No rose petals like in his fantasy. They're just little 16 year-old breasts. And this is a real person. Suddenly everything that Lester's been prepared to realize he realizes. He now sees people (Angela, Jane, Carolyn) as more than surface. He now can see beauty everywhere.
(The scene between the aborted sexual encounter between Angela and Lester, and Lester's death is rather interesting. Compare this scene, where Lester serves up a snack for Angela, with the earlier scene in which he throws the plate of asparagus at the wall. The asparagus dish is really for show, not for eating; that's why no one will pass it to Lester. The food for Angela is good (she eats it and likes it) and is made for eating, not for show (we don't even see get to see it). We do see the asparagus all prepared (food as image), and we do see Lester making Angela's snack (food for consumption). The environments in which the meals are served are also contrasted: fancy dining room vs. casual kitchen. And likewise the conversation: yelling, no real communication vs. real communication, including the important "How is Jane?" question from Lester.)
As Carolyn and Angela are a pair, Jane and Lester are too. She and Lester are the only characters who have a relationship with Ricky. Ricky and Lester are also the only men in the life of Jane. Like Lester, Jane is transformed by Ricky, although in her case she goes directly from someone who does not appreciate their own beauty (she thinks she needs breast implants, for example), to someone who does (at the end, she's willing to use her breast implant money for their future; more graphically, she's willing to take her shirt off and stand in a window and be videotaped). By spending so much time with Ricky, she quickly begins to see the world his way, at least a little bit. We don't get the sense that she's tapped into Ricky's "everything is beautiful" attitude quite yet, but you get the feeling she's on her way. So, unlike Lester, she doesn't go all the way (which in his case means being killed (more on that later), so it's probably a good thing).
I stated above that Jane is positioned as a surrogate for Lester. What I meant is that Jane is the character to whom Ricky tells the most to; this is so we can hear it, of course. With Lester and Ricky it mostly is about scoring pot, but it would be implausible to have Ricky reveal too much to Lester. So he reveals only a little to Lester, but it is enough to change him. The rest we get through his relationship with Jane. That's why I feel the pot is a symbol of the information Ricky possesses. Lester buys it from Ricky, and he only buys the best stuff, the stuff that Ricky himself smokes, the stuff that never makes you paranoid, but gives you a mellow high.
And so we come to Ricky, who has already gone through his transformation (mostly), which is why he can see so far into other people. The first time he meets Lester (at the real estate party) his immediate connection with Lester is in stark contrast to Carolyn's inability to understand even the simplest thing about her own husband. His outburst at Angela near the end of the movie (the first time he's really even looked at her) goes right to the heart of her insecurities, setting up not only her tryst with Lester, but more importantly setting up her revelation to Lester about her insecurity about having sex with him, which of course allows Lester to break from his adolescent behavior; this provides another important link between Ricky and Lester's transformation.
And of course Ricky only has relationships with those who are ready to be transformed. Not the Angela/Carolyn pair, whom he nearly totally ignores, but only with the Jane/Lester pair.
Ricky's transformation into this nearly pure character, who, like the Fool in King Lear, always tells the truth (except to his father; see below), who experiences everything as beauty, takes place before the movie begins. He has died and been reborn (metaphorically) in his time in the mental ward. Lester, after his death, explains that the last second of life goes on forever, and it is only at this point that he quotes Ricky's lines about too much beauty in the world. Ricky is already living like every second is his last, but for most of us this is not possible. We cannot go about our lives, doing dishes or work or anything mundane if we are so painfully aware of our mortality as Ricky is. This is why Ricky is shown linked with death (the funeral, the dead homeless lady). He has gone beyond the pale, between his life with his father and his time in the ward. Symbolically he has already died, and so each second is a gift, extra time granted to his life. And here lies the heart of the movie. We should all strive to live like this, aware of our mortality, aware of the beauty in a plastic bag, at least a little bit. Each moment, each minute and hour, we do die a little, never able to retrieve those moments to live again. It is impossible to be this aware all the time. Ricky's mother is the symbol for that existence - she spends her day disconnected from the world, staring at nothing in particular (presumable arrested by the beauty all around her), unable to act until prompted by someone else. Ricky has to navigate between the two extremes of the violence of his father and the non-existence of his mother. (When we last see Ricky's mother, we get the view of a person who can't even do the dishes without being completely arrested by an object as ordinary as a plate.)
So, we cannot go about our lives, or anything mundane, if we are so painfully aware of our mortality as Ricky is. This is also why Lester must die, and it's not really a sad thing when it happens. He has reached that point, and he cannot live with this newfound revelation. All he will be able to do is look at things and marvel at their beauty like he does with the photograph right before his death. Lester's death is simply part of gaining that particular viewpoint; if you reach this point, you can't go on living. That's why Jane's transformation is primarily about finding beauty in herself; Ricky (and all of us) need her to stay living in the world.
Ricky also stands in opposition to his father, who is unable to penetrate the obvious lies his son feeds him (Colonel Frank Fitts is the only character Ricky lies to), while Ricky knows the inner secrets of strangers. Colonel Fitts cannot even begin to love himself, to see beauty in himself or anything else, while Ricky sees beauty everywhere, in the must mundane things The first time we meet the family, Frank is reading the paper. Ricky inquires about what is going on in the world, and Frank's reply is that it is going to hell. He can't even graciously accept a welcome to the neighborhood gift (and I mean before he finds out the men at his door are homosexuals). Frank's depravity is most obvious when he beats Ricky for going in his locked cabinet, a cabinet from which nothing is missing, a cabinet filled with violence and hate, a cabinet filled only with things, and not very nice things at that. On one level, it shows us where Carolyn's materialism could end up; as I suggested above, she is headed in Frank's direction. On a deeper level, it shows something about Frank. Frank is so angry over this because he doesn't want Ricky to become what he is, a self-hating, all-hating individual. Remember, Ricky is sneaking into his father's locked cabinet which filled with violence and hate, a sort of Pandora's box of evil. (Frank's fear that Ricky will become like him also contributes to his mistaking Ricky's and Lester's relationship as homosexual.)
Even Frank makes an attempt at redemption in this film, a bold step for the movie to take. In reaching out to, and kissing, Lester he attempts to finally accept and love himself (much as Ricky transformed Jane), and perhaps love someone else. Because he is incapable of understanding people (he is the anti-Ricky, after all), he misinterprets so many of the facts leading up to this scene. Most important of these misunderstandings is Frank's transformation of Ricky's and Lester's drug trade into oral sex, a transformation of the spiritual into the sexual. Compare this to Lester's two muses; in Frank's mind Ricky becomes Angela, which is a retrogression. Frank is witnessing what is metaphorically the passing of information from his son to Lester about appreciating beauty in all things, and he mistakes it for prostitution. That is why his fumbling attempt to love someone else and accept his own homosexuality, courageous as it is, is doomed to fail. He is not nearly ready. Like Carolyn inability to shot Lester, Frank goes as far as can to love, and then recoils. And he recoils to the other extreme, with the ultimate act of hate and violence, shooting Lester.
Ricky does have one major step to go in his transformation, however, and we do get to witness it. When he finally breaks with his father and leaves home, he is breaking with the possible violence which his father represents. Remember, he is institutionalized because of an act of violence, and his father is indirectly the major cause of his behavior. We see the possibility that Ricky is still capable of slipping from angel to devil when Jane jokingly or not so jokingly solicits him to kill her dad. (In fact we see the possibility they will both slip.) By leaving his parents' house he leaves behind that hateful violence of his father, and it is Jane who is the catalyst for this transformation. She provides him with a reason to leave, and when he does he leaves his camera and his collection of tapes behind. (He also leaves the darkness of the scenes at the Fitts' house for the lightness of the Burnham's.) After he escapes we don't see him taping anything; we'd expect, from past experience, to see him at least tape Lester's dead body. What does this mean? As Lester points out when he repeats Ricky's lines about beauty and feeling like your heart will burst, the thing to do is to not hold on to those moments too tightly. Jane has enabled Ricky to learn to let go a little bit, and for the first time in the film he witnesses an "interesting" event (Lester's dead body) without his camera acting as an intermediary.