A plastic bag flails to an unheard rhythm supported by Thomas Newman’s “Any Other Name”. Fallen leaves give chase in an attempt at mimicry. Effervescent. Solemn. A ballet choreographed by the inner eye. It sees what it alone can see: an unseen acquiescence, beckoning, comforting.
You know the scene well. It’s from the blockbuster American Beauty (1999). “Ricky Fitts” is gushing to “Jane Burnham” about a transcendent moment he captures on film. Both look on in wonderment as we, the viewers, participate in a wonderfully framed moment. Two heads, shoulder to shoulder, separated so we can look on from behind. The TV set projects the images I described earlier. After Ricky’s sullen narration of the filmed event, the camera shifts suddenly to a facial close-up. Glazed eyes, Ricky mouths the words: “That’s the day I realized that there was this … entire life behind things. And this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid … ever…. Sometimes there’s so much beauty … in the world. I feel like I can’t take it. And my heart is just going to cave in.”
We look to Jane’s reaction to some of these words, after which she nestles Ricky’s hand. Ricky looks down surprisingly. He reciprocates and steals the beauty now offered to him from her lips. A tender kiss followed by a loving stroke of his chin. Jane smiles solicitously as if embodying the unseen force Ricky sees behind the plastic bag.
And then there’s the earlier scene, which makes us iffy about Ricky. He’s filming a dead bird that he calls beautiful. Jane is present as is her friend, “Angela Hayes”. “What are you doing?”, Angela asks. Ricky: “I was filming this dead bird.” “Why?”, she exclaims, puzzled by Ricky’s idiosyncrasy. “Because it’s beautiful” is shot back nonchalantly. Short pause but full of audience anticipation. “I think maybe you forgot your medication today, mental boy,” Angela snickers. The camera effectively pans to an intensely composed Jane as Angela says this. Jane is riveted. Two reactions we can appreciate. We may not be as crass or heartless as Angela but our conscience might utter something similar, if euphemized. No? I doubt you connected as easily with Ricky’s sentiment in this scene as you probably did in that of the flailing bag. We are supposed to feel ambivalence and Jane’s there to help us through it. Perhaps she’s as disturbed as Ricky? Maybe. But I can’t bring myself to believe that that’s what Sam Mendes, the film’s director, wants us to focus on in his orchestration. These two, Ricky and Jane, see otherwise and, whatever their psychological state, they surface two sides to beauty we are invited to see.
Hold up! A dead bird?! Beautiful? Seriously?! Dexter, too, saw beauty in astonishing hues of blood spatter and mangled bodies. Are we supposed to see beauty in that too? Apples and oranges, my reader friend! I’m not expounding a theory of aesthetics but our connection with Dexter is not on a par with our connection with Ricky and, possibly, Jane. It’s not with Dexter’s Hyde self that we connect or how beautiful, CSI-like, what he does appears on the screen. We connect with Dexter because he’s both nice and terrible as we placate feelings of disgust for who he sometimes is and what he does through his vigilantism due in large to an unfortunate childhood. Unless you’re psychotic yourself, I doubt all of Dexter is beautiful to you, let alone the debris of what he does. Note, too, that Dexter is conflicted by all this. We like that. It’s an admirable quality, minimalist but redemptive. With Ricky and Jane, their personalities are almost incidental, their idiosyncrasies mere instruments. They communicate what in our indifference we tend to miss, in our busyness, in our surface living; what we don’t always see as beautiful, what we could easily ignore as gross or blasé.
Ricky and Jane teach us how to appreciate what already is, not to manipulate what is for our fascination. Theirs is not an issue of control but of revelation. It’s not the beauty of the psychotic (potentially present in the dead bird scene) that morphs into a sinister, one-sided God-like power: “he taketh away”. Ricky is enchanted by the “he giveth” in which the play of beauty and obscurity often jumble together. A feathery carcass on a lush bed of grass, a blue sky punctured by clouds, Ricky experiences beauty. I’m going to wager that the beauty the dead bird occasions in him is one of pathos for a lifeless being whose fate Ricky can share at any moment. Angela’s too preoccupied to see it; she’s too self-absorbed, too hospitable of accepted mores regarding normalcy. Jane is considerably less preoccupied. She welcomes Ricky’s words startled that someone might see things as she. She connects. She sees something we come to appreciate more in the plastic bag scene.
A space opens up, an interstice airing on both sides of life and death, of beauty and its presence where it’s supposedly absent. Let’s be clear, though. I’m not saying that the whole point of American Beauty is captured in these two scenes. Duh! They are embedded in a larger, more complex storyline. These scenes fascinate me because they are well-crafted representations of moments I myself experience and, I trust, you do as well, which underlies, of course, why I’m bothering to write this. Is the meaning I capture from these scenes mere projection, then? Perhaps. In the interstice we’re not troubled by the absence of assurances. Here we get to play. We get to select, compare, and contrast, to reflect and genuflect. A world of possibility, an opportunity to develop and affirm. I have no interest in being Angela, although I have some of her in me. Ricky and Jane? Too intense, but they resonate more. Thankfully it’s not an issue of them but how they mediate a universal experience, as opposed to, say, Dexter, where it is an issue of him rather than anything beautiful or desirably revelational in his sinister oeuvre, CSI elements notwithstanding.