Photographed by canonical cinematographer Conrad Hall near the end of his long and varied career, American Beauty is a luminously, exasperatingly gorgeous motion picture. It also makes you feel a little sick for caring about cinematography at all, especially when it is put to use excusing and gussying up Alan Ball’s amateurish, ruthlessly self-apologetic, largely confused screenplay. Ball is a fully capable writer – his television shows have their place in a society currently convincing itself it is in the midst of a sort of Golden Age of Television. But he has never been particularly suited to the cinematic medium, and his exercises in concision truncate and confuse what is given episodes upon episodes to expand itself on the small screen. In particular, he has a severe difficulty managing tone, shooting from sickeningly sentimental monologues about modern society to cruel and unusual acerbic put-downs of a great majority of its cast, not to mention the paltry, piece-meal questions raised by his simplistic treatment of the modern middle-class. American Beauty is a troublesome, troubled film, and all the beauty in the world can’t make up for a screenplay as hurtful as this. Continue reading
By and large, this adaptation of David Mamet’s 1984 update of middle-century tales of economic middle-American woe is a trenchant, vital work of writing enlivened by a cornucopia of destabilizing performances of the highest order. It is, admittedly, hard to square with the cinematic adaptation when so little of the piece actually benefits at all from being made into a film, visually speaking. But sometimes the felt force of the writing is so affective on its own you just have to let measly little things like “filmmaking” slide.
Admittedly, there’s something to Mamet’s harshly, claustrophobically stripped writing style that coalesces with the jagged edges of the acerbic visual storytelling that works in spite of its would-be failures as filmmaking. Specifically, the decision not to particularly open-up the play beyond its suffocating two-day focus is essential, allowing the material a claustrophobic feel to capture the claustrophobia of men torn apart by a job that encircles their lives. For the film, Mamet slightly altered his play about four real estate salesmen who will be fired at the end of the week if they don’t sell enough marks, but he made the crucial decision to avoid any and all hints of these men at home or their family lives. The end result is a work that captures the four as round-the-clock victims and agents of capitalism, left working for home lives that the film tacitly avoids depicting. Thereby, the film exposes the central paradox of capitalism: the need to work to benefit one’s everyday life, only to have that work overtake one’s life so that the purpose of the work becomes the work itself, thus folding in on itself as capitalism strangles its governing justification. Continue reading