Saturday, 5 July 2014

Top Five Movie Moments #7

#7 - American Beauty (1999)

As a film fan I owe an awful lot to Alan Ball and Sam Mendes (amongst many others). Their writer/director collaboration that resulted in the wonderful American Beauty not only gave me one of the finest films I've ever seen, but it also changed my whole attitude to films in general, inspiring me to seek out and watch many examples I would most likely have previously steered clear of.

I never used to be too bothered by Oscar-winning films, for example, stupidly dismissing them as overly artsy and/or melodramatic. American Beauty came highly recommended by my good friend Luke though, with whom I mostly share a taste in films, so I figured it must be worth watching at least. And without getting into a detailed critique of the film, it was worth watching, to say the very least.

It had such an impact on me, in fact, that as soon as the credits rolled and I sat there in stunned silence, staring at the names scrolling down the screen as I contemplated what I had just seen, it was immediately my favourite film ever. Accordingly, near enough ever scene and every line of dialogue is important to me so choosing just five moments for this list was a tough job, but here they are:

Spoiler Alert: the Top Five Movie Moments featured here obviously assume that you've seen the film in question or don't mind knowing about its most prominent moments so don't come whining to me if they ruin a film that you haven't seen yet!

5... The Plastic Bag

Having grown up with an overbearing, ex-military father and a meek, browbeaten mother, Ricky has ended up a very interesting character. Angela dismisses him as a 'freak' and Jane finds him creepy as well, partly on account of him filming almost everything with his handheld camera (including her), but she soon changes her tune when he actually pays attention to her rather than Angela as is usually the case (Ricky: "I didn't mean to scare you, I just think you're interesting.")

After walking home from school one day (Angela, incredulously: "Jane, that's, like, almost a mile!"), Ricky shows Jane a few things he finds interesting... including his favourite recording: a plastic bag fluttering around in the wind. Yes, it's a scene that's been mocked many times since, and I suppose with reason in some ways. However, it's not so much what it shows but more about what it means to Ricky and how he speaks about it with such poignancy and emotion which, when combined with Thomas Newman's haunting score, makes it a tremendously memorable scene.

Ricky: "You want to see the most beautiful thing I've ever filmed?"

(cut to a TV showing a plastic bag fluttering around in the wind as they watch)

Ricky: "It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just... dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever."

"Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember... I need to remember..."

"Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it..."

4... Jane's Boobies

There are two very significant things in this wordless scene but, surprisingly, I'm not talking about either of Thora Birch's sizeable knockers. Jane, having just witnessed a fantastic argument between her parents (Lester: "WILL SOMEONE PLEASE PASS ME THE FUCKING ASPARAGUS?!!") retreats to her bedroom. It doesn't take long before she's standing at her window in the hopes of seeing Ricky who is duly standing in the corresponding position. With no prompting whatsoever, she immediately starts letting her hair down and removing her clothes for the benefit of her new boyfriend.

Though far from revolting for us viewers, the importance of this is not the strip itself but what it symbolises. Whatever lingering reservations she may have had, whatever internal shields she may have held in place, they were now gone, lowered; she was effectively opening herself up to Ricky - not physically but emotionally. His response, as seen via his camcorder, is to zoom in closer. However, whereas most guys would probably fill the screen with her ample (and now naked) boobs, he instead zeroes in on her face, showing that the feeling is very mutual.

3... "Well come on baby, I'm ready!"

The newly 'awoken' Lester has been fantasising about his daughter's best friend, Angela. Hardly surprising since 1) she's pretty hot, 2) she's apparently a bit of a slut, and 3) she's been flirting with him, must to Jane's disgust. One such dream-fantasy sees him entering a bathroom where Angela is soaking herself after determining that she's "very, very dirty". Lester is of course only too happy to lend a hand which is apparently needed in the vicinity of her slowly parting legs...

This improbable scenario would be enough to get anyone all hot and bothered and sure enough, Lester has decided, unconsciously or otherwise, to spank his monkey... whilst laying in bed next to his wife! Unsurprisingly, his undercover activities soon rouse her from her slumber and she's not happy when she sees what woke her. The ensuing argument doesn't go quite the way she was expecting though, with the 'new' Lester pleasantly surprising himself by finally standing up to her.

(rustle, rustle, rustle)

Carolyn: "What are you doing?"
Lester: (sleepily) "Nothing."
Carolyn: "You were masturbating."
Lester: "I was not."
Carolyn: "Yes, you were."

(Lester turns to her, trying to look innocent, then gives up)

Lester: "All right, so shoot me. I was whacking off. That's right. I was choking the bishop. Shaving the carrot. Saying hi to my monster."
Carolyn: "That's disgusting."
Lester: "Well excuse me, but some of us still have blood pumping through our veins!"
Carolyn: "So do I!"
Lester: "Really? Well I'm the only one who seems to be doing anything about it!"
Carolyn: "Lester. I refuse to live like this. This is not a marriage."
Lester: "This hasn't been a marriage for years but you were happy as long as I kept my mouth shut. Well, guess what? I've changed, and the new me whacks off when he feels horny, because you're obviously not going to help me out in that department."
Carolyn: "Oh. I see. You think you're the only one who's sexually frustrated?"
Lester: "I'm not? Well then, come on, baby, I'm ready!"
Carolyn: (furious) "Do not mess with me, mister, or I will divorce you so fast it'll make your head spin!"
Lester: "On what grounds? I'm not a drunk, I don't fuck other women, I don't mistreat you, I've never hit you. I don't even try to touch you since you made it so abundantly clear just how unnecessary you consider me to be! But, I did support you while you got your license, and some people might think that entitles me to half of what's yours."

(Carolyn sinks into a chair, stunned)

Lester: "So, turn out the light when you come to bed, okay?"

(Lester lays back down, facing away from Carolyn, and smiles)

2... "Well, at least I'm not ugly."

Things may have been going swimmingly between Jane and Ricky but her relationship with her 'best friend' has gradually been going downhill, owing partly to Angela's desire to shag Lester and partly to Jane's realisation that Angela is just using her. During one such argument (Jane: "Just don't fuck my dad. Please?"), Ricky is being interrogated by his apparently-homophobic dad who thinks his son is gay. Sensing an opportunity, Ricky gleefully confirms all of those deepest fears and his father reacts with fury, hitting him and kicking him out of the house - something we soon come to learn is due to his shame at his own unwanted homosexual desires.

Ricky decides to leave town and wants to take Jane with him, so he heads straight for her bedroom where she's having said dust-up with Angela. The power of this scene, for me at least, is because after ignoring the shallow, transparent Angela for the whole film, this is the moment when Ricky finally pays some attention to her, and it's not in the way she would've wanted. Instead of gazing at her lustily and/or cooing adoringly as she's used to, he tells her exactly what he thinks of her, even confirming her own worst fears (Angela, earlier in the film: "There's nothing worse in life than being ordinary"). A very powerful and superbly-acted scene which is right near the end of the film but I always look forward to it...

(Ricky knocks on Jane's bedroom door, interrupting the argument between her Angela)

Ricky: (to Jane) "If I had to leave tonight, would you come with me?
Jane: "What?
Ricky: "If I had to go to New York. To live. Tonight. Would you come with me?"
Jane: "Yes."
Angela: You guys can't be serious? You're just a kid, and he's, like, a mental case. You'll end up living in a box on the street."
Jane: "I'm no more a kid than you are!"

(Jane turns back to Ricky)

Jane: "We can use my plastic surgery money."
Ricky: "We won't have to. I have over forty thousand dollars. And I know people in the city who can help us get set up."
Angela: "What, other drug dealers?"
Ricky: "Yes."
Angela: "Jane, you'd be out of your mind to go with him."
Jane: "Why do you even care?"
Angela: "Because you're my friend!"
Ricky: "She's not your friend. She's somebody you use to feel better about yourself."
Angela: "Go fuck yourself, psycho!"
Jane: "You shut up, bitch!"
Angela: "Jane! He's a freak!"
Jane: "Well, then so am I! And we'll always be freaks and we'll never be like other people. And you'll never be a freak because you're just too... perfect."
Angela: "Oh, yeah? Well, at least I'm not ugly."
Ricky: "Yes, you are. And you're boring. And you're totally ordinary. And you know it."

(Angela stares at him, stunned, then rushes toward the door, crying)

1... "I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me..."

But the moment of the entire film for me is the one that closes it. We knew Lester would be dead before the credits rolled but we didn't know how or why, and when the time finally came, it was sudden and a genuine shock. It was superbly built-up though, and his closing monologue, interspersed with shots of the various characters hearing the offending gunshot, is one that leaves us filled with wonder and hope about what may lie ahead, rather than any sadness or dread...

Lester: (voiceover) "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."


  1. Makes you think about our place in the scheme of things. We're all wrapped up in our own bubble worlds, assigning great importance to this or that. On the one hand, we could say this is what makes our life so important. On the other, we could be brutally honest about the scale of our failings, and how we are just one creature of billions on one tiny rock.

    It's frustrating that both of these contradictory statements are true, as it leads you round in a circle back to where you started: lots of questions without definitive answers! Ultimately, this reveals our true contradictory nature. In spite of all our contradictions, our myriad qualities balance out just enough for us to be marginally progressive over long periods of time. This very complex balance is mimicked throughout the fabric of the universe.

  2. I wrote a long response a few days ago but the sign in crapped out on me. To summarise, I failed to understand the attention this movie garnered, being altogether slow and pointless, devoid of any significant entertainment value. It slots neatly behind Lost In Translation in my list of movies to recommend people avoid. Thankfully the Academy has refrained from praising such tosh in recent years after a long run of Oscar winners to be avoided.

    I watched Turbo last night, that was a far better film. Also featured Michelle Rodriguez, so I expect a positive review here soon ;)

  3. Fair enough sir, I know not everyone's a fan, but American Beauty is a masterpiece in my eyes. I probably shouldn't mention that I also like Lost In Translation (though not as much as some people) :P

    I'm a bit behind of films featuring Ms. Rodriguez actually. I haven't even seen the Machete films yet, for example. So much to watch (and play), so little time... :|