DVD - Image C+ Sound B- Extras C-
BD - B Sound A- Extras C
starring Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Chris Cooper
screenplay by Alan Ball
directed by Sam Mendes
*/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field
screenplay by Eric Roth, based on the novel by Winston Groom
directed by Robert Zemeckis
by Walter Chaw People who say the Oscars suck aren't entirely wrong, but saying this tends to obscure the fact that most Best Picture honourees aren't terrible so much as dedicatedly mediocre. They're masterpieces of toeing the centreline, and in so doing they manage to offend neither side of the divide overly: The great American strive, Hollywood-style, isn't to rewire the mousetrap, as it were, any more than it is to produce a pile of crap on purpose. No, the goal is to achieve medium buoyancy. Too bloated to float, too fat to sink; if you don't reach too ambitiously, you won't get slapped down--and a career constructed around formula-prestige, 140-minute pictures is suddenly within your grasp, Ron Howard-like. The trick is to appeal as broadly as possible without appearing to do so--to recast convention in vague middlebrow hot-button terms and neither speak above the heads of your audience nor be obvious in your condescension.
When Brokeback Mountain, a mediocre, middlebrow-massaging situation comedy was in the so-to-speak pole position to win the big prize, an actual hot-button issue (homosexuality, oh my) reared its ugly head and realigned the universe on its axis around the reality that people hate fags and always did. An interesting lesson to take away from the ascendance of Crash into the pantheon on the back of Brokeback Mountain is that facile, parabolic bullshit about tolerance is a lot easier than legitimately taking on the burden of a broader perspective. What Crash also proved is that bigots don't like to think of themselves as such, and better to be reassured on this point than thought a pansy, individually or collectively, for voting for that other one. The picture is a master's course on how to render racism sterile and inoffensive, all the better to let the blasé and the purposefully non-conscious off the hook. Hooray for Hollywood!
Which is to say that the Best Picture winners, with seemingly increasing frequency, are prone to parsing the zeitgeist without delving deeply into any of the sundry particulars--which makes sense because, as popular film edges ever closer to its dream of total inoffensiveness, the picture that's celebrated as the year's best must be the one that best democratizes the annual caboodle. "For Dummies" guides to the things that troubled the cinematic mind of a particular twelve-month stretch, they leave the heavy-lifting for the edgier stuff. The best film of 1999 is arguably David Lynch's The Straight Story, but there's momentum in my head for The Iron Giant, eXistenZ, Ravenous, Election, The Messenger, The Blair Witch Project, Toy Story 2, and Being John Malkovich. The Best Picture winner of that year--one that heralded for many the ascendance of the "indie" and predicted, if one were cynical enough to predict such a gloriously foolish thing at the time, the major studios scampering to erect boutique "major-minis" and hence create their very own independent movies--was of course Sam Mendes's grimoire of suburban gothic archetypes, American Beauty.
American Beauty beat out the dreadful The Cider House Rules, the ne plus ultra of Super-Duper Magic Negro flicks The Green Mile (happening not in the dark ages pre-Civil Rights, but right there at the end of the twentieth century), Shyamalan's fun The Sixth Sense (which simply buckles under scrutiny), and the picture that probably should've won, Michael Mann's admirable The Insider. But American Beauty, yeah. The film most like it from that year is David Fincher's Fight Club, in that both aspire to be plangent black satires but ultimately end on flaccid off-notes: the one with the idea of an organized posse of anarchists destroying our financial infrastructure, the other with a homophobic Republican gunning down gay Best Actor winner Kevin Spacey in his last role as accidental Christ before he took on the crown and sandals permanently and on purpose. Of course there's also Mike Judge's Office Space (also 1999), a similar male-re-empowerment fantasy revolving around an ordinary guy telling his boss to fuck off and getting paid a lot of money to do so.
Neither Fight Club nor Office Space (nor Election, The Blair Witch Project, eXistenZ, etc.) were reductive about their nihilism, though. Rather, both films, very much unlike American Beauty, took no great pains to massage any middle-line conception of normalcy. Predating American Beauty (though Fassbinder's Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? beat both to the punch), Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998) deserves a mention here as being not only painted in a similar hue, but also not interested in the slightest in celebrating the absolute emptiness of American Beauty's worldview. (Solondz would go on to almost directly respond to that worldview with the flawed Storytelling.) Happiness is unpleasant, no question, but Solondz's essential decency is popularly misunderstood as misanthropy. Dylan Baker's pedophile dad of the year Dr. Maplewood, Edward Norton's nameless everyman (Fight Club), and Ron Livingston's Gibbons (Office Space) are representations of abnormality--sometimes triumphant abnormality (call them anachronisms, or "rebels"), but abnormality just the same. By contrast, Spacey's Lester, jerking off in a shower and lusting after his teenage daughter's nymphet cheerleader pal (see: Election for a better snapshot), is meant as post-modern icon: the inner dude embracing the stupid '70s teen chowderhead, who remains the taffy moral centre for an audience of middle-aged men remembering what it's like to get stoned, bang minors, and listen to Pink Floyd and The Who. (See, even its counterculture is mainstream.) The zero-sum game of the world doesn't make Lester insane as it does the others, it makes him sane. It's like Norman Bates getting good advice from Mother.
American Beauty is the kind of dickheaded film that decries a woman's mania for material possessions while celebrating Lester's acquisition of the right material possessions ($2000 bags of super-pot = righteous!), but I do wonder whether we should indict it, since it's so soulless and morally confused, or indict the surrounding culture, because American Beauty is in fact a pretty good pastiche of 1999. The problem is, like most survey courses the picture skirts any real nuance in favour of a lot of pretty, often contradictory nothings that ping off every tuned string in our collective harp. Think of it as the American Heritage coffee table edition of millennial dysfunction.
Lester is no rebel--Lester is Everyman in all His astonishing ugliness and frailty, and Spacey delivers this milquetoast Archie with a plaintive sensitivity. I love this performance. I love Annette Bening's performance, too, as Lester's shrill, crazy wife Carolyn--a real estate broker, it goes without saying; Bening is given the burden of screaming and crying and tearing at her flesh in another thankless role. She's Everywoman, American Beauty suggests, thus neatly slotting each character into a broad, ugly pigeonhole; but the way Bening transcends the part should merit her a Purple Heart, if not a commensurate Oscar (lost to Hilary Swank in Boys Don't Cry). Suffering on the sidelines are closeted clean-Marine Fitts (Chris Cooper) and his catatonic wife Babs (Alison Janney); the ugly-duckling, nay, swan daughter (Thora Birch); and damaged DV voyeur Ricky (Wes Bentley), who serves as the picture's savant looking glass. At some point, American Beauty isn't a lean satire so much as a reductive, facile, mean-spirited sitcom that--perhaps inadvertently, for what it's worth--sees Lester's desire for a muscle car, a job flipping burgers, the freedom to call his wife and daughter "bitch," and a liaison with jailbait Angela (Mena Suvari) as the secret of life. No accident that the film decides to gift then-16-year-old Birch with a topless scene for the gratification of Truth in a voyeuristic double-bind. There's humanity in American Beauty, but you have to thank Spacey and Bening for that. Without them it's just angry, empty dross about a pathological loser.
Add the similarly, if more honestly, nihilistic The Blair Witch Project to the list of pictures that share a connection to American Beauty (and is there a more cynical, back-handed, self-loathing title for any film? "American Beauty" not as the rose varietal, but as the smug irony attached to a repugnant diatribe) in more than mere year of release, with digital video coming of age in 1999 as the vehicle of Truth. Funny how a decade earlier in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape, the Truth didn't come out until you put the DV camera down and put your eye to the 35mm one. It's a transition highlighted by the celebrated scene of a plastic bag caught in a wind eddy that suggests to the picture's digital philosophers the presence of some benevolent design. More prominent in my mind, there's the bludgeoning use of CGI rose petals, replacing Lester's clipped manhood with images of rampant female sexuality (didn't Hearst nickname his mistress's vagina "rosebud"?) as masturbation fantasy and iron-pumping catalyst. (Consider The Sixth Sense's own meaningless, auto-filmic use of the colour red to glorious onanistic distraction.) The rose petals should be menacing, but they're not. They are, come to think of it, a hell of a lot like the goddamn CGI feather that haphazardly connects the febrile disconnectedness of Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump--the implication there being that life isn't so much like a box of chocolates as like a great cosmic wind.
It could be the metaphor for Forrest (Tom Hanks), his own self as dumb as a bag of hammers and unburdened--unburdenable--by the vicissitudes of life as he jerks and floats around like Chauncy Gardener with a lobotomy, fecklessly affecting the universe with his insipid, viral stupidity. Another object of respect and, yikes, veneration (à la American Beauty's Lester), Forrest is an Alabamian Chauncey Gardner doling out his accidental philosophy with Hanks's embraceable face and the halting speech pattern of an actor trying hard to snag an Oscar in a sure-fire Oscar-winning picture about a fey Republican shrimp farmer who does his damnedest to avoid getting involved in the sometimes-insultingly-crude skim over the recent American past. History, in Forrest Gump, is an inconvenience to be overcome with digital technology, remembering here that we're midway between the film-as-vérité of sex, lies, and videotape and the digital-as-vérité of American Beauty--in the middle of a sea change, as it were, between what film used to mean and what it's going to mean. It's a gradual, insidious mutation, and remarkable, too, in predicting the worlds that we are on the verge at that point of experiencing as reality (Peter Jackson's Rings Trilogy doesn't happen in 1989--or 1994), as well as giving fair warning that the tactility of our memories is subject to invasive mutilation and manipulation. At its heart--and source of at least a ration of my bile--is that Forrest Gump is really fucking disrespectful.
The picture itself concerns our eponymous hero doing nothing at the centre of history's maelstrom, unlike, say, the passive centre of The Remains of the Day (1993). Where Anthony Hopkins's sad, lovelorn, marooned Stevens is equally the spectator for WWII and his own chance at love, Forrest reaps massive benefits from his benighted inaction. Far from sour grapes over a life well-lived, I fall back on Socrates for "an unexamined life is not worth living" and remark that for non-disabled audiences to use this venerated character for the purposes of uplift and edification is the lowest form of exploitation. There's more: Read for me a scene where Forrest and his crippled Vietnam captain Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) walk through a late-Sixties Manhattan to the strains of Harry Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'," the iconic theme song from fellow Best Picture-winner Midnight Cowboy (1969). It's there for no purpose than to reward recognition; there's no trenchant connection--or is there?--to be drawn between the relationship of huckleberry hustler Joe Buck and his crippled pal Ratso and Forrest and his crippled pal Dan, no sense to the reference unless it's there entirely as a sop to the same group of cinephiles anxiously awaiting Shrek 4. Forrest is the ultimate Republican foil: Reagan in the ice cream suit of a Pentecostal minister (and Reagan would've played this role, sans significant affectation, a few generations earlier), listening to the good word of momma, God, and the girl he only screws once (and for procreative purposes at that), in that order.
If that were all, it'd be enough. Alas, Forrest Gump provides the cautionary corollary to sitting quietly and nodding stupidly in the character of Jenny (Robin Wright), an aspiring folk singer who becomes actively involved in the tumult of the world only to die of AIDS, because that's what dreamers and other reactionaries do. Better to not exist in the Descartisian sense than to risk idealism: The path to riches, fame, and reproductive success begins with zero critical facility and ends with recycled platitudes. Less than six years from this moment, we elect George W. Bush on a platform of 'C-student, backslapping, Born Again ex-boozer makes good.' Far from a satire (although it begins to feel like one in its endless loop of identical mini-set-ups and payoffs), Forrest Gump is a lot like American Beauty in that the disaster that forms its core is a calamitous state that it worships. Forrest is no more "simple" than Lester (stupid is as stupid does, as Gump is fond of saying)--indeed, he embodies the choice to abhor intellectualism, intention, and free will for no noble purpose of rebellion, but rather to nurse quietly on the vast unknowable "benevolent design" of a current pushing around plastic bags and feathers. Salvation in the lives of sheep, the gospel of St. Gump: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both." It's toeing the centreline like a motherfucker while Rome burns. Can I get an "amen"?
Released on DVD a few years back by DreamWorks in an "Awards Edition" now bundled as part of Paramount's "Best Picture: Academy Award Winners Collection," American Beauty is crying out for a fresh run through the telecine (there's a hair in a couple of frames), its 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer conspicuously struck back in the nascence of the format. This was one of the earliest discs mastered for DTS playback, which is, ever since I got a sound system with hair on its chest, the preferred mode. In this case, though, the differences seem minimal, something to be expected with a dialogue-heavy picture. What's unexpected is that the DTS option sounds thinner than the DD 5.1 alternative.
An attendant yakker teaming director Mendes with scribe Alan Ball is dreadful stuff: smug and heavy on plot regurgitation and self-approving laughter. "Here he's just looking at her--ha ha ha, and she's just dancing there by herself in his mind, ha ha, isn't this great? Hey, those rose petals are digital." "Look Closer: A Behind the Scenes Featurette" (21 mins.) is a particularly well-done B-roll fluffer but a B-roll fluffer all the same. I did appreciate the focus on Thomas Newman's exceptional score, however, a piece that is as integral to the success of American Beauty in Best Picture lore as Hans Zimmer's is for Rain Man. Text-based hagiography for Sam Mendes closes out the otherwise perfunctory circle-jerk. A very nice storyboard presentation conducted by Mendes and legendary shooter Conrad Hall (60 mins.) is, lamentably, dominated by Mendes, though Hall scores a few points via insight into the method behind his polished madness. Two trailers, cast & crew bios, and production notes round out the presentation; I leave the helping of DVD-ROM extras for someone with a more reliable CPU.
Forrest Gump, likewise reissued in the Best Picture box set, sports significantly cleaner video, its 2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer matched by full DD 5.1 audio. (The film was popular demo material for those with AC-3 systems back in the LaserDisc era and holds up pretty well.) Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey, and production designer Rick Carter join forces for the first of two commentaries on the first of, nightmarishly, two platters. Nothing revelatory here, but it's always nice to hear homey Zemeckis recounting his experiences shooting the flick. I could've done without all the "Forrest isn't stupid. Stupid is as stupid does" rationalizations, mind you. Producer Wendy Finerman, credited in the first track as the prime mover behind the project, has the second yakker all to herself. She offers that the appearance of Elvis early on in the film is the cue to the audience that something special was unfolding before their enchanted eyes. About that scene: The picture hints that the Gumps' mystery boarder is The King at least three separate times before just coming out and saying it; Forrest may not be stupid, but its filmmakers sure as fuck think we are. As yakkers go, Finerman's is exactly average: nothing to learn here, yet it doesn't make you want to turn the DVD into a coaster.
Switch to Disc 2 to find "Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump" (31 mins.), and it's nothing like The Eyes of Laura Mars, disappointingly. Imagine the possibilities. Instead, this is a vintage promo consisting of behind-the-scenes footage and junket interviews. Clicking on "Production Featurettes" takes you to a sub-menu including "Screen Tests." There are three for Michael Humphrey and Hannah Hall (little Forrest and Little Jenny), each running around half a minute; two (approx. 2 minutes apiece) with Robin Wright playing against Tom Hanks playing it straight--and demonstrating in the process that the film mighta been a helluva lot less offensive were intellectual disability not transmogrified into sacred sideshow; and finally two with Haley Joel Osment, again playing off Hanks playing it straight. Five years later and this kid sees dead people the year American Beauty wins the grand prize. Cute kid. Shame about that Country Bears movie. "Building the Worlds of Gump: Production Design" (7 mins.) is a long chat with Carter including film excerpts; "Seeing is Believing" is eleven clips, two minutes apiece, spent with F/X supervisor Ken Ralston explaining over and over again how bluescreen is used; and "Through the Ears of Forrest Gump" is the same sort of thing but with five clips and legendary sound designer Randy Thom. Lastly we have "The Magic of Makeup" featurette (8 mins.), in which makeup artist Dan Striepeke tells you what you already know in supplemental form. Two trailers and an exhaustive/exhausting photo gallery round out the presentation. Originally published: May 24, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - AMERICAN BEAUTY
by Bill Chambers Despite their upper-crust manifesto, Paramount's Sapphire Series Blu-rays have been a mostly disappointing lot for one reason or another (two of them had to be recalled and remastered; another one of them is Forrest Gump), and American Beauty continues in that tradition by being status quo at best from an A/V standpoint, as well as by recycling the content of the 2000 DVD without bringing anything new to the table. The 2.35:1, 1080p presentation definitely represents a new transfer, as the film elements look cleaner than before in addition to more vibrant, but there is something occasionally electronic about the image, with the fine, Super35 grain turning to noise during a few rogue applications of edge enhancement. Its occasionally insincere sharpness is a problem I imagine will only intensify on sets bigger than my 46-incher; whites, too, have a tendency to run hot in a way that seems excessively artificial. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is nice, though--the film's soundtrack breathes for the first time since it played in cinemas, and the cheerleading sequence is a triumph of simulated acoustics. Is it a tad loud and boomy overall? While I thought so, that might just be because I couldn't resist playing it at a rock-concert volume, having finally made the jump to lossless audio the day before this disc arrived. The bonus material from the "Awards Edition" DVD returns, the video-based stuff in standard-def save for the two trailers, which get a HiDef upgrade. Originally published: September 20, 2010.