"I can't believe I'm saying this, but some nights, I actually miss the short pants and pixie boots."
This was fun to write :)
It’s one of those hot summer nights where the air is so muggy it’s almost tangible and there’s barely a warm breeze to provide even a hint of relief from the torturous temperatures. Nights like this, Jason starts to rethink the heavy Kevlar and the leather jacket and the damn heat-trapping helmet. Even having stripped off his jacket and his extra armour, having tossed the helmet to the side so he’s in just a red domino, he’s still hot. He sighs.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he begins, breaking the silence for the first time in almost half an hour. “But some nights, I actually miss the short pants and pixie boots.”
Dick huffs an amused breath, too tired and hot for proper laughter. He’s sprawled out on his back on the roof’s ledge, a now-warm beer dangling from his fingers, the top of his uniform rolled up to his naval from where he’d started to tug it off but stopped when Jason reminded him how pissed B would be if someone had seen them and recognised his ridiculously well-defined abs or something. “You and me both,” he says. “Why did I think a skin-tight costume would be a good idea?”
“‘Cause you thought it made your ass look good?” Jason suggests, taking a swig of his own beer and grimacing at the lukewarm temperature of what had started out as cool, refreshing liquid.
“Hey!” Dick lifts an arm to swat at him, hand smacking his side then flopping down to land on his forehead. The picture of melodramatic. “My ass always looks good.”
Jason snorts. “Whatever you say, Dickie.”
The wail of a siren pierces the air and Dick half sits up before Oracle’s voice reassures them that it was just an ambulance responding to a call. The night has been so hot and humid that pretty much everyone, including criminals, has stayed inside with air cons and fans turned on high. Batman and Robin had broken up a messy bar fight that had spilled out onto the street about an hour ago, and Red Robin had called in a minor B&E at an electronics store, but other than that the comms and the streets have been mostly silent.
“You think we could convince B to install a pool in the Cave?” Dick muses.
Jason peers down at him with raised eyebrows. “The Manor already has a pool,” he points out.
Dick’s only response to that is to groan, “It’s so hot, Jay. I’m pretty sure I’m melting.”
Jason just rolls his eyes, sure that if he says Dick is being dramatic it’ll come across in his voice that he feels exactly the same way right now. “You know what would be great? If Mr Freeze broke out of Arkham and covered the city in ice.”
His brother “hmm"s an agreement. “You know what sounds even better than a sudden winter wonderland? Ice cream.”
That does sound better. Fighting Mr Freeze would take effort Jason is pretty sure he doesn’t have right now. “I’m pretty sure there’s an ice cream shop a block away,” he says. “It’s not that late, it’s probably still open. I bet they even have air conditioning.”
“Let’s go get ice cream then,” Dick says.
But despite the plan, they’re still hot and lethargic, weighed down by humidity, comfortable enough that moving is an idea only briefly entertained. For a long time, they just stay there on the edge of the roof, watching the moon climb higher through broken cloud. Jason is pretty sure Dick dozes off at some point. Hell, maybe he does too because he startles when the rumble of thunder rolls across the city and a fat raindrop hits his nose. Lighting slices through the sky, bringing more thunder and a gust of cool wind.
“We should go before the storm gets bad,” he says.
“Yeah,” Dick agrees.
But the rain comes down and they still don’t move. Jason drapes his jacket over his shoulders and is glad that he has more protection from the storm than just short pants and pixie boots.
This pains me to say it and I apologize, but I feel compelled to write a comprehensive exegesis on American Beauty, or at least, something to address the flood of messages left in my inbox overnight. I understand if a number of you folks wish to unfollow me; that’s certainly okay. I probably would do the same given this recent influx of boring old text posts. What really drives me to continue beating this dead horse are those numerous messages so passionately expressing their estimations on this topic, suggesting that this is a film worth arguing about. I remain nonplussed however at the lack of careful consideration levied against the filmmaking tools and techniques that tie into the film’s themes, characterizations, and narrative.
Yes, giving a critical appraisal of a work of art is subjective, such as voicing judgment on the quality of a performance or the effectiveness of a scene in arousing its intended emotions. Such things are endlessly debatable, and I definitely don’t insist that what I have to say is correct. However, I don’t want to overlook the knotty issue of representation in this film, which has more stake than simply arguing artistic value. As I’ve said before, American Beauty locates as its savior protagonist a moneyed, white, heterosexual, pedophiliac, American “everyman” who’s dismayed with life but is unsure why, setting up the kind of mind-numbing redemptive arc about ungrateful characters whose redemption feels unearned given their ultimately shallow worldviews.
Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester, responds to suburban entrapment by way of infantile regression. He shirks his responsibilities at work, with his family, and with his basic morals, suggesting that these actions are rebellious against the prison-like, disciplinary nature of bourgeois suburban life. So yes, while the film is open to interpretation, director Sam Mendes still highly directs its viewers as to the primary themes driving this narrative. Visual evidence such as those prisonic bars on the computer screen, claustrophobic interiors, and that expressive use of the color red (the latter two borrowing from Douglas Sirk) should clue us into the thematic objectives of this film, opposing the claim that a number of you have left in my inbox saying that this film isn’t about suburban ennui and anxiety at all.
The success of Mendes’ commentary on contemporary suburbia is of course, arguable. I think what American Beauty has to say about dysfunctional families, boredom, and consumerism is shallow and reductive, but this point doesn’t damn the entire film for me. What damns it lies in how the film asks audience sympathy for Lester while periphery characters like its women and the one gay character assuage his anxieties, upholding traditional and safe values not at all progressive or revolutionary as the film purports itself to contain. Rather, all other characters surrounding Lester service his moneyed / male / heterosexual / pedophiliac desires, revealing the narrow worldview this film actually has on American middle class life in 1999. All other characters revolving around Lester are simply insulting and reductive: his shrill, materialist wife who literally beats herself up over her failings is laughably hyperbolic; the film’s closeted gay character is essentially thrown away as villainous (literally a Nazi); the two teenage girls are robbed of dissenting voices – which fits the film’s underlying themes on suburban anxieties – but Lester still ends up the savior of the film and not a damnable figure who damages those around him.
Most egregious of all lies in the film’s depiction of sexual politics and how little it really has to say about social ills and the damaging psychology of its characters. Lester’s decision not to bed the underage girl is ultimately the catalyst for his redemption, concluding his narrative arc at the end of the film, a conclusion that excuses his infantilism and remains too easy and, frankly, too insulting of a conclusion. Not succumbing to pedophilia shouldn’t be valorized as heroic but rather as everyday, basic moral sense. His decision really isn’t profound at all. And let’s not forget about the actual reason he didn’t continue hounding after this girl. Lester doesn’t so much realize the depravity of pedophilia but the importance of maintaining the girl’s virginity after she expressly tells him so. It activates some bizarre paternal switch that maintains patriarchal superiority over female virginity, perpetuating misogynistic myths on female sexuality. Moreover, I’ve even encountered some messages claiming that this underage character isn’t a little child at all and that her actions are natural in her sexual/social development. That still doesn’t excuse the fact that she is underage, and it probably undermines Kevin Spacey’s character even more for preying upon a young woman not yet sexually mature enough to make adult decisions.
And of course, we can’t talk about American Beauty without talking about that floating trash bag scene that a few of you have requested I discuss. Some folks have argued that this film is critical of these characters, even potentially reaching for satirical import. Again, my point doesn’t represent a universal judgment but just another perspective open to questioning, but I disagree with this claim given the mounting evidence that Mendes sprinkles throughout the film to invite sympathy for these characters. As I’ve suggested before, the film focalizes its action primarily through the eyes of Lester, leaving all other characters servicing his privileged status. When we do get scenes focused on its periphery characters like that trash bag scene, American Beauty provides a number of cinematic devices that clue us into the “seriousness” of the moment, cueing our emotions like clockwork and begging for audience sympathy. For instance, the music during the trash bag scene swells into emotional, heartstring-tugging tomfoolery, clearly underlining the purported profoundness of that trash bag monologue. The camera movement slowly pushes in towards the television screen, stressing the significance of that damnable bag floating around in the wind, and the resulting close-ups of these two characters compels the audience that they’ve seen something profound, visually coaxing us to mimic their speechless expressions onscreen. Everything is simply calculated and controlled for maximum emotional impact – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because plenty of films do this to agreeable effect – but American Beauty’s lack of deep, critical engagement and its shallow commentary on social ills betrays the scene of any profoundness. Instead, it’s a film left really without much to say except for the unjust redemption of a perverted man-child and his sorry pseudo-justifications for his actions.
Lastly, I’m disappointed that a few comments have disparaged my opinion on American Beauty as “hipster trash” for dissenting against a film with a high Rotten Tomatoes rating. I’d invite you folks to unlatch yourselves from holding numerical scores as an end all for critical inquiry. In fact, holding numerical value as the zenith of worth reduces these works to nothing more than quantifiable objects, disingenuously contradicting initial assertions that art is of course, subjective. That’s why I’d like to at least try and be constructive with these rambling thoughts on American Beauty. Instead of congratulating a film as reductive as American Beauty, I’d recommend the filmmakers that this film owes a great deal to: Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray. Watch Ray’s film Bigger Than Life, a film that didn’t have to delve into pedophilia or self-flagellating housewives to express suburban entrapment, and with more meaningful impact to boot. Also, Todd Solondz’s Happiness (released a year prior to American Beauty) beats Mendes to the chase, dissecting its sexual politics and bourgeois unfulfillment with greater success than a million floating trash bags could ever accomplish.