Thursday, October 27, 2011

Today is the first day of the rest of your life




I used to be angry, confused and insecure. Things haven’t changed much since 2000. And I am reminded of two specific lines of dialogue spoken in two different scenes in director Sam Mendes’ phenomenally brilliant debut American Beauty. Featuring the talents of Kevin Spacey (in an Oscar-winning turn as Lester Burnham), the film is a dark comedy that dissects suburban angst in modern-day America. It also serves as a scalpel-sharp critique and a sordid reminder of consumerism gone horribly wrong. Spacey’s portrayal of an everyman bound to the illusion of the American Dream, whose yearning to break free at all costs throws open a veritable closet of skeletons.

Brought alive, kicking and screaming into my world by screenwriter Alan Ball (of TV’s Six Feet Under fame), the film turned out to be my one, definitive life-changing movie-going experience. It was one of those things that transformed ‘everything’ for me, starting with my perspective on life. I recall to this day, the hopes and naive anticipations I had harbored as I had gone for a screening of the film, upon its release in a theatre called Sridhar in Kochi. It was the monsoon of the year 2000. And I had just moved lock, stock and two smokin’ barrels to Kochi along with my family.

A still from American Beauty 

I had gone for the film all by myself and the solitude of sitting among like-minded strangers in a darkened theatre is an experience I have craved since then. An explanation of how the movie altered my perception of reality will be dealt with in a post in the not so distant future – you have my word on that. It is without a doubt my all-time favourite film, not to mention, my most beloved Hollywood feature as well. And it deserves more than one measly post.

For now, I shall nosedive into the first line that kick-started this post. The offscreen dialogue appears roughly 10 minutes into the opening of American Beauty. Kevin Spacey’s voiceover introduces us to his disillusioned daughter Jane (Thora Birch) while she’s trolling the internet in search of breast enhancement solutions. She in turn gazes at her reflection in the mirror, pondering over whether she needs a boob job or not. Lester’s voiceover goes on to tell us, “Janie is a pretty typical teenager. Angry, insecure, confused. I wish I could tell her it’s all going to pass. But I don’t want to lie to her.”

Thora Birch as Jane Burnham in American Beauty

This one scene sets the stage for what is to become a leitmotif of sorts for the entire film. Ordinarily, it would have been dismissed as just another prop. But, in the godly hands of the legendary cinematographer, late Conrad Hall (A.S.C), the simple mirror assumes an almost reflective, and dare I say, analytic role. Mirrors play a huge part in unveiling the character arcs of the key players in American Beauty. Everyone’s either looking at their reflection in the mirror or appearing as a reflection in a mirror or letting us reflect on their appearance in it.

There is an ample scope for metaphysical musings that I can reproduce here on the basis of that one finding. But, I’ll save them for a later date. Let’s move on to the other reflective scenes in the film. Having run into his daughter’s girlfriend Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), Lester experiences a change of heart and the awakening of a sexual zeitgeist that had seemingly died out in his pursuit of the ideal life. The stunning Angela is a precocious predator who takes her responsibilities very seriously – responsibilities arising from being a Lolita in this tale of urban melancholia.


Mena Suvari plays Angela Hayes in American Beauty

So much so that the very thought of Angela prompts Lester to raid his garage in search of a pair of dumbbells in the middle of the night. Actually, it’s not the thought of Angela, rather a comment that he overhears while snooping around his daughter’s bedroom that inspires him to embark on that midnight workout. And yes, he has a good reason for spying – Angela’s having a sleepover at Lester’s home and he’d really like to know what Angela thinks of him. Sure enough, he gets the gist of the conversation that transpires between Jane and Angela, which involves Angela telling Jane, “I would totally f*** your dad if he worked out a little.”

Thora and Mena in a scene from the film

Leaning close to Jane’s bedroom door, that’s all Lester needs to hear. For soon, he sprints down to his garage and proceeds to strip completely. And he inspects his reflection in the window pane that serves as, you guessed it – a temporary mirror. Accepting the ugly truth of ageing (a paunch to start with), Lester decides it’s time he took charge of his own life. And he begins exercising the dumbbells then and there, much to the surprise of his young neighbor Ricky Fitts (played by Wes Bentley), who moonlights as a voyeur, working within the confines of his bedroom walls.

Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham in American Beauty

This scene brings us to the next usage of the mirror-metaphor in the film. The beautiful passage of reflection says everything that needs to be said without uttering a word. It takes place during the same night of Angela’s sleepover. The girls, who are busy fooling around, are momentarily alarmed by the sound of a pebble hitting the window panes. Angela Hayes clad in her underwear, decides to make an appearance at the window. Upon furtively looking out, the duo see that Jane’s curious (“I am not obsessive”) neighbor Ricky Fitts has written her name on his front lawn by lighting up a fire that spells out J-A-N-E.

Being the insecure girl that she is, Jane suggests that Ricky might be filming them at that very moment. And she’s right, for you can see Ricky’s visage peering over the girls through the windows in his bedroom. As he trains his video camera at Jane’s window, the view inside gets almost entirely obscured by the exhibitionist Angela’s innuendo laden gestures. But far from being seduced by the blonde temptress, we find Ricky’s camera zoomed in on a mirror on which he sees the hint of a smile appearing on Jane Burnham’s face.


Wes Bentley plays Ricky Fitts


It’s the very first time that Jane has smiled in the movie with a genuine sense of joy. And as a member of the audience, I couldn’t care lesser that the shot was filmed in grainy, hand-held video by Ricky Fitts. All I cared about was Janie finding happiness and a reason to live. And her reflection in the mirror said it all. I can go on and on about this. And I bloody well will because there are even more examples of reflective resonance in American Beauty.

Annette Bening plays Caroline Burnham 

For instance, consider the shot of Annette Bening’s Caroline Burnham struggling to get rid of an invisible speck on a spotless mirror in the “I will sell this house today” scene. Then, there’s a shot of Ricky Fitts combing his hair in front of the mirror in the final act of the film, while his father, the enigmatic and homophobic Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper) looks on. There’s also this shot of Angela Hayes standing before a mirror in the bathroom, adjusting her makeup when she hears the sound of a gun going off.

These were just some of the mirrored shots that I remembered over the top of my head. I can recall one more, but it might be a spoiler. So I’d keep off that. Let me know if you find it. I’ll give you a hint – it appears in the final act of the film, but it’s not too evident.

With that, I once again arrive at the very origin of this post, the second line which inspired this post – things haven’t changed much since 2000. A variation on that line appears during that scene where Lester walks into Ricky’s bedroom for the very first time. While enquiring about the cost of a bag of marijuana, Lester is stunned by Ricky who quotes an astronomical price, ranging in thousands of dollars. And Lester says, “Jeez man. Things have changed a lot since 1973.” 


I shall leave you with a small footnote that would explain the title of this blog. It was of course derived from a scene which takes place in the final act of American Beauty. The scene starts with a shot of a scarlet red front-door that is swung open as Lester Burnham exits his house. Jogging towards the audiences, all beefed-up in a skin-tight yellow tee and running slacks, Lester is a changed man as his voiceover tells us emphatically over the sounds of The Who’s The Seeker, “Remember those posters that tell you, ‘Today is going to be the first day of the rest of your life. It’s true for all days except one day – the day that you die.”

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