Sam Mendes’ 1999 Academy Award winner for Best Picture tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), a bored middle-aged American man living in suburbia with his wife Carolyn and daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who rediscovers his joie de vivre in the final year before his death. We know this from an initial voice-over who identifies himself as the dead Lester that we hear as we pan over the town with a soaring birds-eye aerial view.
The film sets itself up as both a critique and an endorsement of surface culture, but is it self-aware about this? On the one hand, Lester’s boredom stems from his enslavement to corporate culture, as does Carolyn’s depressing self-chiding and slapping as she tries to sell real estate. Ricky, who eventually becomes Jane’s boyfriend and awakens her to her own ‘unusual’ (vs. ‘ordinary’) beauty, lives in an ascetic’s black-and-white room filled with gadgets focused on generating pure aesthetic products. Their gay neighbors are a tax attorney and an anaesthesiologist (agents of money and sedation, two major themes of the film).
On the other, the “eggshells and Miracle-Gro” that feed Carolyn’s too-perfect roses are the same stuff of culture that create Angela, the cheerleader, whose body, sexuality, and kisses are linked to red rose petals throughout Lester’s fantasies (the film ends with Lester preserving her innocence, rather than taking her virginity, and is ambiguous about whether she is ‘ordinary’ – one of its strengths is to make Angela a more complex character). Lester’s big revelation (which he shouts at Carolyn) is that the things in the house are “just stuff,” but his solution is to quit his job, buy a T-bird, flip burgers, and become obsessed with his appearance to seduce a 16 year-old girl.
Mendes seems to seek to resurrect the sublime in ordinary suburban America – not so much in the Lyotardian sense of a postmodern sublime made of negotiation across multiplicity, but instead a more classical (Kantian) sense of the sublime and beautiful – one focused on depth, the defamiliarization of the object, the failure and subsequent triumph of the coherent subject to categorize free beauty or make sense of the sublime. Why is this film, ostensibly full of surfaces, actually not as “productively flat” in those surfaces as say, The Graduate & The Master?
Mendes is far more focused on justifying these surfaces by showing how they give onto depth. His overhead shots always show the borders of the flatness the camera is describing – Angela is depicted lying in a box of rose petals with delimited edges revealing lower surroundings, or in a tub whose depths are plungeable by Lester’s hand. Even the Busby-Berkeley-type scene of Angela in a formation of uniformed girls is in a gym whose dimensions are overemphasized by the fantasy of emptiness and dramatic lighting, singling her out and attempting to insist on her individuality.
Glass is mobilized as a mirror (Lester working out), which Ricky then films through the window from the other side, fracturing the image, and the mirror image is mobilized as photograph (Janie’s still face on film in the mirror while Angela dances at the window). In fact, the filming of the dead – like the dead homeless woman or dead bird Ricky is fascinated by – seems to attempt to find in the turn-of-the-century video the same punctum that Barthes finds in the photo. Here, it is reversed, though – not “I know the subject of this photo is going to die,” but “I know the subject of this film is already dead.”
Ricky seeks the world “behind things” by filming “so much beauty in the world… my heart can’t take it,” and he senses “the incredibly benevolent force” that lets him know “everything is going to be okay.” All of this is repeated by Lester after death, except the “everything is going to be okay,” which he says to both Angela and Ricky’s father on the night of his death. “Video is a poor excuse, I know,” says Ricky, “but it helps me remember. I need to remember.”
The film ends with an extended memory – again in Lester’s voice-over, again as we pan over their town.