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American Beauty and the Power of Media

A scene from the 1999 film on finding beauty in the mundane

The 1999 film American Beauty is about a disillusioned man, Lester, trapped in suburbia who despises his wife and his job, is alienated from his reclusive daughter, and becomes infatuated with his daughter’s attractive best friend. It’s a dark comedy that highlights the American preoccupation with impossible ideals and standards of beauty. It’s also a story about what real beauty might be and how we can find it.

Ricky Fitts is the next-door neighbor who films everything he finds interesting and beautiful, including Jane, Lester’s daughter and who he goes to school with. At first, she thinks he is a creep for this, but over time, realizes that Ricky is refreshingly different from other guys. He is interested in more than just looks. For instance, when he first speaks to Jane, he does not even glance at the attractive best friend. His attention is focused a different type of beauty.

A few days later, Ricky shows Jane the video footage he captured of a plastic bag swept up in the wind in front of a red brick wall. The bag looks like it’s dancing in the wind among a pile of leaves. While to many, this scene might seem ordinary, and maybe even imbued with the melancholy imposed by a consumeristic society, it leads Ricky to something akin to transcendence. He says to Jane while they watch:

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. And this bag was, like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I knew 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… and I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.

Media critic Read Schuchardt calls attention to this scene in his insightful book Media, Journalism, and Communication. For media forms to be effective, should they privilege the ear or the eye? Can visual media artistically imbue the aural? Schuchardt notes that it can be difficult, but that this scene accomplishes the delicate balance. Without Ricky’s commentary, we would not appreciate the depth that this scene has to offer. We might, if were perceptive enough to share in Ricky’s attentiveness, bear the appreciation of the floating, dancing bag. But we may not fully grasp the underlying point the film is seeking to communicate, which is that true beauty is often discovered in the places where we least look for it.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and serves as Managing Editor of Mind Matters.

American Beauty and the Power of Media