Impact of Existentialism on American Beauty Film


Historically American Beauty is an American drama film produced in 1999 and authored by Ball Allan and directed by Mendes Sam. In the early 1990s, Ball first wrote the film as a play, but on the realization that it would not work on stage, he shelved it. Producers took American Beauty to DreamWorks which financed its production and distribution urging the director, Mendes to consider better-known actors for the studio. According to Smith (75), Mendes’ major style was zoom and static shots geared at creating tension which got complimented by Conrad Hall, the cinematographer. After making various changes during editing, American Beauty got positively received in America. Most production aspects emphasized were specifically Spacey, Ball, and Mendes. Critics focused on the familiarity of the setting and the characters as noted by Smith (95). The description of the film from the academics was satirical referring to the American middle-class ideas of personal satisfaction and beauty. The film is a tragic comedy since we can identify with the hero’s failure and laugh at the irrationality of his problems. The analysis of the film is directed towards its exploration of beauty, materialism, paternal love, redemption and self-liberation.

Existentialism which states that our existence comes before our essence has widely impacted American Beauty film. The main character, Lester, in the film engages in an existential crisis as Gila (34) posits. As a result of questioning the meaning of his life, he uses his freedom to create meaning out of it. At the commencement of the film, Lester’s existence is deemed as meaningless thus works to acquiring his responsibility. He feels that his life is aimless and Carolyn, his wife and Jane, his daughter view him as a failure. In the film, he says, “…in a year I will be dead… but in a way, I am dead already” (Smith 77). As Gale (97) sums up, it is out of the depression that the protagonist is attracted to his daughter’s best friend and in taking responsibility for his life, he makes decisions and takes actions leading to his death.

Additionally by existentialisms’ argument that we get our purpose in life by assigning a value to various pieces of it is captured by Jane’s boyfriend obsessed with capturing his experiences in the film (Gila 112). His main lovely moment is the image of plastic bag blown around with leaves by the wind as cited by Smith (86). The beauty is due to lack of meaning in the blowing. The bag has no reason or motive for existing at all. After noticing this, Ricky latches onto it giving the audience the absurdity of human life. Moreover, existentialism impacts on the roses found in the film which is loved because of their fullness and richness in color. However, the flowers while above the ground are subject to black spots. This precisely defines the character’s situation; as their lives look perfect, there is a growing disappointment that covers them.

Existentialists also argue on the pointless of life. As pointed out by Gale (116), the end of American Beauty film is sad yet satisfying, seemingly negating the whole movie. Finally, after the protagonist attained pleasure in his life, he is shot and killed, a reminder of how useless life can be. Throughout the film, we watch him struggle and lastly succeed through the essence of his struggle is meaningless.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s writings, a primary source I referred to have points that are reflected in American Beauty film. Among his points, Sartre argues that one rather happily embraces the meaningless of life or remain depressed (Gila 106). In the film, the protagonist goes through his depression, embracing his knowledge of his life’s absurdity and his freedom to be responsive, make choices and set goals. Lester’s actions match with Sartre’s argument that it is one’s freedom and responsibility to make life meaningful and take action if life is not how it is expected to be (Gila 110). Furthermore, Lester in the film revolves around such activities like buying a sports car, quitting the job and working up to his wife’s, Carolyn, expectations. Contrastively Carolyn does not recognize how empty her life is and continues to work extremely painful, ambitious of achieving her success quantified in material goods, income and sales records.

Likewise, Sartre argues on the idea that we are alone despite the attempts we may or may not make in connecting with others (Gila 45). It is true of the American Beauty film characters who suffer from their failure to form a significant bond with people in their lives. The fault is mostly in actors who cannot wholly convey an idea. For instance, when Lester phones Angela yet he cannot find words.

Conclusively, American Beauty is a film presenting existentialism positively by demonstrating the freedom and happiness only endured from the acknowledgment of one’s role in the creation of meaning. Protagonist last words upon his death “I’m great,” and the fading smile on his face alludes to his increased happiness due to his existentialist thinking (Smith 125). The ending is a strong quality to a delightfully unsettling film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *