Happy President’s Day/Susan B. Anthony Day! In the spirit of holiday fun, I figured it was a good time to talk about movies. I’m inspired by this hilarious article at the Onion AV Club, where they surveyed their critics about what artistic work—music, movie, whatever—they used to love but have come to dislike or even hate. The answers are varied and interesting, but there’s basically no way that the conversation wouldn’t be dominated by “American Beauty”, an intellectually bankrupt film that managed to hoodwink a nation for about two years with its floating bag and, according to the stalwart dudely fans in the comments at the AV Club, Thora Birch’s breasts. “American Beauty” was a stupid movie, but it taught me a lot about myself, lessons I’ve tried to retain going forward.
Basically, my experience with the movie was this: I enjoyed how it was beautifully shot and acted, but I had nagging doubts. Unfortunately, due to audience reaction and critical acclaim, I squished down those nagging doubts in a bout of second guessing myself, no doubt a typical reaction in a young woman in her early 20s who hasn’t yet realized that just because some dude with an imperious air about his disagrees with you doesn’t mean you’re wrong. At that age, you may not be great at much, but you are good at pre-emptively second-guessing yourself in order to avoid this humiliation. So, these are the nagging doubts that I recall from the first time I watched the movie, reinforced subsequent times:
*The classical music at dinner was way anvilicious, and anyway, if they were that level of pretentious fuck yuppies, they’d listen to jazz at dinner.
*The murder at the end is meaningless and clearly tacked on to make the whole thing seem profound when it’s not.
*Anyone who thinks working at McDonald’s must be a laid-back, easy job because it doesn’t require any skills or education has never worked a service job and discovered what a pit of hell it really is.
*The nagging feeling we’re supposed to share the main character’s joy when he buys that stupid fucking car, even if we’re also laughing at him.
*I fail to see why a man masturbating in the shower is supposed to be pathetic and heart-breaking. From the get-go, one of the underlying themes of this movie was, “Poor guy has to touch his own cock. The tragedy.” I think a sexless marriage is a sad thing, sure, but I hate the use of a character masturbating to represent that, since it implies that sex with your spouse is basically just fancy masturbation, that masturbation is pathetic, and scenes like that are really just done for pointless shock value anyway.
But what really bothered me, and what I squelched initially but revisited later, was how the movie was basically the same misogynist whine that many corporations use to sell their products during sports events. Thematically, it wasn’t much different than the now-notorious Dodge Charger ad. Annette Bening’s character was a vicious stereotype, and the only reason it transcended that at all was that the actress was good enough to elevate this stereotype to humanity. Then you have Mena Suvari’s character, who exists so that Spacey can come off as some gallant hero because he doesn’t fuck some virginal teenager. In that interaction, we’re apparently meant to find her pathetic, because she gallivants around like she’s hot shit, but she’s still a virgin and a child. A more interesting movie would have asked why our society makes girls feel like they have to act that way.
But this was not what made the movie intellectually bankrupt. What made it really stupid was that screenwriter Alan Ball apparently realized that his first draft was so overtly misogynist that he better try to complicate things a little bit if he wants to get that Oscar. So he tries, weakly, to show that Bening’s character is feeling stifled and trapped, as well. But his heart’s not in it—he’s still a devotee of the idea that suburban malaise was invented by women to destroy men’s souls—and so he makes the affair pointless, stupid, and fundamentally meaningless. And with a man who is an even bigger douchebag than she is, so it ends up reinforcing the idea that women are basically creatures of conformity, and the main promoters of the worst values of American culture. And in case you don’t get that message, there’s the scene where Spacey, being a Bigger Man than you, sees the beauty in his wife that (let’s face it) isn’t actually there, and he comes on to her only to get rejected. You know, in a symbolic rejection of the creative life force.
What about Thora Birch, you may ask? Okay, well she’s shown being way more accepting of said creative life force. But she can’t, being female, come up with it on her own. She is the better person because she’s submissive to male guidance in a way her mother isn’t. She is pointed at the floating bag and she sees (even though it’s stupid). Apparently, the movie was telling young women like myself experiencing doubts that we really should squelch them, or we’ll be soulless monsters like Bening’s character.
After I quit squelching my doubts about “American Beauty” and saw it for the bankrupt film it is—and was happy to see other critics and people I admire express those same doubts down the road (who doesn’t like validation?)—I got a little firmer in my opinions, a little braver about my own tastes. Which is why I humbly wish someone had reamed the crap out of “Y Tu Mama Tambien” on this list, since that’s the last movie I saw that I just absolutely hated and couldn’t believe that so many people were impressed by it. It’s probably the same issue as “American Beauty”—since it’s well shot and well acted and has all the markers of an arty film, it suckers people into ignoring that it has the same plot as “Love Story”. Except worse, in a way, because the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is not only interested in teaching young men to live life so she can expire with her purpose in life being filled, but she’s there to teach us something about men’s relationships with each other. In this case, the attempt to weasel out of a tedious, sexist cliche involves injecting some man-on-man action and having the men’s relationship with each other fall apart, but I was unimpressed, since the basic idea that cheeky women are there as muses and conduits for men, and that they have no reason to continue to exist having accomplished their assigned task, was central to the story.
Thoughts? What movie that got roundly applauded did you find tedious, cliched, or intellectually bankrupt?