Sunday, August 05, 2012

Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, 1999

American Beauty: An Anti-Nazi or a Pro-Nazi Propaganda Movie?
By Nicholas Stix
Spring (?), 2000
(Published at the time at various, since defunct Web sites, whose names I can no longer even remember correctly (The Opinion?) This is a slightly shortened version I found at Amazon, entitled, “Father Knows Best.”)

With the video release of American Beauty, now you, too, can rent or own this subversive satire of the hypocrisy, Nazism, and homophobia lurking among the freshly cut lawns and orderly subdivisions of suburban civilization.

In American Beauty, an expert Hollywood eye shows an American neighborhood for what it really is: the miserable businesswoman putting on a phony, cheery face; the degraded husband who, suffering a midlife crisis, fantasizes about his daughter’s girlfriend; the girlfriend, who brags of seducing older men; and best of all, the new neighbors, a retired Marine Corps colonel and his family. The homophobic colonel is of course a neo-Nazi and closet homosexual. Meanwhile, the one gay couple on the block is as sweet, decent, and tolerant as everyone else is screwed up, mean-spirited, and phony.

Bad enough, that director Sam Mendes and screenwriter/co-producer Alan Ball presume to be telling “the truth” about suburbia, but they think they’re doing director-screenwriter-producer Billy Wilder [alive in 2000, at the time of original publication] proud! They said so at the Oscars. This is clear, as well, through the gimmick, copied from Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard, of the dead protagonist’s (William Holden’s Joe Gillis) opening and closing narration. Mendes and Ball aren’t fit to carry Billy Wilder’s director’s chair. Indeed, today a young Billy Wilder would be satirizing them and their ilk.

Billy Wilder has never shown hatred toward the land that not only made him rich, but which saved the Viennese refugee from being turned into soap by his fellow Austrian, Hitler. And in contrast to the retired Marine Corps colonel on whom Mendes and Ball focus their hatred, see Wilder’s affectionate portrait of America’s fighting men in his Oscar-winning, 1953 movie, Stalag 17.

Wilder—considered anything but subtle in his day—wore silk gloves, in contrast to the hamhanded doings here. And though cynical, he didn’t ooze superiority over his characters. In Sunset Boulevard, for instance, Wilder depicted faded silent screen legend “Norma Desmond” (played by Gloria Swanson, herself a faded silent screen giant in a career-capping performance dripping in irony) as a monster, and yet, she was a monster for whom he clearly felt affection. Wilder, as screenwriter, gave Desmond the best line in the picture, which indicted the Hollywood of his time. When a police detective asks Desmond, “Didn’t you used to be big in pictures?,” she responds, “I AM big. It’s the pictures that got small.” They sure did.

Mendes and Ball confuse glibness and smugness with irony, with every character a mere prop in their anti-morality tale. They promote the adolescent notion that people are good, only to the degree that they do whatever they feel like at any given moment.

And yet, the picture does have its funny moments, most of which involve Spacey, one of only two characters for whom Mendes and Ball feel any sympathy. The other character is a young, drug-dealing, peeping Tom—but he’s authentic! (The gay couple can’t be counted: Their brief, superficial presence exists only to emphasize the evil of the homophobic colonel.) Much technical skill is in evidence. And the cast does marvelous work. Kevin Spacey, in particular, gives a performance for the ages, in this otherwise conventionally PC, Hollywood concoction.

American Beauty has two basic attitudes, each of which is anathema to Billy Wilder’s work:

• Political correctness. Wilder made a living skewering the sort of simple-minded notions that Mendes and Ball prize; and
• Authenticity: Younger fans of this film have said things like, “It’ll change your life!” They saw the film as saying that most people walk around already dead, but don’t know it yet. When protagonist Lester Burnham (Spacey) has an awakening, his life can never be the same.

But of course! In an Intro to Psychology lecture in 1978, wide-eyed with wonder, I heard about the philosophy that swept across America, after The War. The brainchild of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger (1889-1977), existentialism teaches the ethics of “authenticity,” of consciously living under the shadow of death, without religious evasions or “bad faith.” Existentialism’s impassioned attack on hypocrisy has always made it attractive to young people. And yet, its premise—that life is led only in the face of mortality—is philosophy’s point of departure, not its destination.

Had Ball and Mendes known anything about existentialism, they would have known that it is inseparable from ... Nazism!

Martin Heidegger’s philosophy of life was of a piece with his politics. Like other Nazis, he was disgusted by the hypocrisy of bourgeois life.

And then there is American Beauty’s embrace of homosexuality, and insistence on an unholy trinity of Nazism, homophobia, and closet homosexuality.

One of the obscenities of revisionist, pc history is the assertion that the Nazis persecuted homosexuals, just as they did Jews. In fact, the second most powerful man in the Nazi Party, Ernst Roehm, was an open homosexual, as were all of his lieutenant/lovers. Roehm headed the Storm Troopers, who openly brutalized Jews and leftists. Among many Party members, Ernst Roehm was even more popular than the Fuehrer. That’s why Hitler, in an infamous “night of the long knives,” had Roehm and his lieutenants murdered.

It is understandable that gay activists would want to grind the history of Nazi homosexuality, and those who would tell it, under their jackboots. But Billy Wilder knew all about Roehm and Heidegger.

Having grown up in suburbia, I know its problems all too well. And as a Jew who lived for five years in West Germany (1980-85), and once got his nose bashed in by an old Nazi, I know something about the problem of authenticity, too. But Mendes and Ball are strangers to such problems, their jaundiced movie a self-righteous exercise in bigotry and ignorance.

In a just world, suburbanites would be able to make movies mocking Hollywood hypocrisy, say, “I Spend My Free Time and Influence Getting Murderers Paroled ... So They Can Kill Again!” Oops! That’s not a movie; that’s real life in Hollywood.

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