Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Birthday Take: Alan Ball in "American Beauty" (1999)

Left to right: Mena Suvari and Thora Birch in American Beauty
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Alan Ball
Born: May 13, 1957 (58 years old)
Nomination: Best Original Screenplay - American Beauty (won)

The Take

To talk about American Beauty is to discuss a multitude of issues, both present in the film and also that have risen since. For its praise of the shocking depiction of suburban America, it also features issues regarding gay characters, heightening comedy, and having a simply dated world view of things. Of course, if one must take offense, take it with the latter statement. The thing that has always made the Oscars interesting is the films it chooses to reward Best Picture. In this case, it was given to a dark comedy that chose to address the many conflicts of American culture and a desire to be in a sense forever young. With one of Kevin Spacey's best roles, it is a film that definitely feels like it would have been challenging for its time, but only 16 years later feels like a dated relic, specifically on how we address these issues. While this is an apt argument, it isn't a right one, as films are more indicative of their time than of being the ipso facto reality.

However, what makes the film work is that it introduced a whole series of new talents to the community. For starters, there was Sam Mendes as director, whose background in theater allowed for the theatricality to fit perfectly with the obtuse tone of the production. There was countless symbolism, specifically of flowers. Then there was Alan Ball: the writer. While some could easily put a lot of the success on Mendes' shoulders, Ball is just as integral into making the film click and clack as well as it does. Because it manages to address controversial issues with dark humor and makes for something challenging. Even if the ending has the more divisive elements of the film, it culminates all of the themes of the film in a way that impacts the world view of its characters. For all of the delusions that these characters have, there's still tragedy that needs to end this story.

What is so intriguing about Ball is that this is a comedy that shook the world, specifically the Oscars, in the time when sweeping historical epics were winning almost every year. There was a sense that the Academy was becoming full of themselves because of this. Then comes a little film that chooses to challenge the normality and ends up making a difference. It chooses to address issues with discomfort and even goes into scandalous marriage and relationship ideals that would make for pulpy material in the wrong hands. Somehow, the film straggles the line deftly enough that thanks to the cast's charisma, any small faults are wiped away. It plays like the best of theater played out across an American city, using the medium to heighten the flourishes and make it something gripping, but also memorable in its ability to make the audience reconsider small things. The film is implicitly political, and your views will likely influence your outlook at the end.

For what it's worth, Ball has continued to have an impressive career despite being involved with an Oscar-nominated film ever again. His most notable work is Six Feet Under, which is in some ways an extension of American Beauty in that it dissects family values as it relates to death. The characters are all at times theatrical and the themes can become overtly blatant. Still, it allows for the staging and intimate moments to ring true and most of all, allows for there to be comedy in tragedy. It has since been considered one of HBO's best shows and is definitely worth watching for fans of American Beauty. He has also done True Blood, which has its fans but is definitely less similar to American Beauty. Either way, he has made a career out of creating complex stories based around simple themes. It may make his work occasionally dated, but it does allow for a sort of time capsule of the era in which idealism and politics are explored in ways that aren't reserved to an outwardly political film, but a regular story.

Is American Beauty worthy of its decrees? Not really. People will see what they want out of it, though its choice to challenge the existence of success as being hollow is something so audacious that to call the film hollow is to miss the point. It may not be great in some people's eyes, but it definitely achieves an unnerving balance between cinematic and theatrical while shoving a disturbing level of humor into everything. Its views on social subjects is odd because thankfully society has progressed to discuss things differently. However, there has to be a film somewhere to start with. There's few that are likely to be as daring or striking in their cleverness about it than American Beauty

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