In my last post, “Beauty in a plastic bag and a dead bird” (https://jimkanaris.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/beauty-in-a-plastic-bag-and-a-dead-bird/), I selected two scenes from American Beauty to play on a contrast: beauty as alluring and potentially morbid. After posting that blog I chanced on the closing scene of the film, which, no joke, I had forgotten. Hence I can’t call this contribution: the director’s cut! In any event, although I believe, and continue to believe, that the ending of a story doesn’t determine the meaning of a story, this scene enhances a point I tried to make in my earlier blog. Incidentally, I can’t even call that blog the theatrical version! Afterword must suffice for this one.
“Lester Burnham”, Jane’s father, is seated lifeless and bent over a table. His head rests in a pool of his own blood. Eyes open, in that earthly state he sees nothing. The Ariadne’s thread of Newman’s “Any Other Name” is playing again, as in the plastic bag scene. Jane and Ricky clutch each other fearfully making their way down a flight of stairs. They’re incited by a gunshot. Ricky slowly pushes the door open to reveal the surroundings of a homicidal act. Lester’s blood is consistently dripping off the table. Jane embodies what our response would be: “Oh my God!” chokingly. Ricky, slightly perturbed, is more composed. We’re made to feel even iffier about him. At least in the dead bird scene that somewhat loopy stare he’s wearing here, as he makes his way toward Lester, is absent. A frontal shot captures Ricky lowering himself to Lester’s first-person perspective, looking even loopier now, as a crimson bed frames the scene. He lets out a faint smile after the camera shifts back from a brief shot of a tranquil-looking Lester who himself appears to be smiling. “Wow!” Ricky exhales finally in amazement as he takes in more of the scene. Were it not for these signals—music, camera panning, and an eerie-shared serenity (Lester’s and Ricky’s)—we’d probably want, with Angela, Jane’s friend, to certify Ricky. But then the voice of the narrator suddenly breaks in, which happens to be that of the disembodied Lester, as if to placate doubts about Ricky or to minimize his importance. He drops the veil and Ricky vanishes.
What does the disembodied Lester say? Does he articulate from his privileged point of view what Ricky viscerally experiences but clumsily expresses? I like to think so. Lester speaks with authority, with certainty. “I’d always heard your entire life flashes before 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.” He personalizes that stream by recounting moments in his life that stuck and the people who were central in it without whom there would’ve been little joy. The narration is interrupted by scenes surrounding his death that we don’t see as he’s gunned down, of Jane and Ricky, of Angela, of “Carolyn”, his wife. Trauma mixed with serenity. As in life, so too in death: a melding of opposites. Heraclitus and Empedocles would be pleased. And wouldn’t you know it, Ricky’s plastic bag scene is a leaflet in Lester’s atemporal script! And his words, too, almost verbatim! “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” (emphasis mine). Now Ricky is pleased and we are appeased. Dexter bows out.
The veil drops. “And then I remember to relax … and stop trying to hold on to it”, continues Lester. “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.” As in life, so too in death. In losing one’s grip an alchemy of sorts takes place. The larger picture renders our “stupid little life”, our insignificance, if you will, significant. It’s a revelation glimpsed by the Ricky in us walled off by our Angela and Carolyn—worst case scenario: Dexter. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure,” gloats Lester in the calm of infinity. “But don’t worry, you will some day.” As in life, so too in death: an interstice of awareness and decision.