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Why we rarely ask philosophy professors to review films

This Magazine Staff

This is the first in what I hope will be a number of considerations of The Rebel Sell as I make my way through the intellectual landscape of this well-thought-out and very entertaining book. I’m just now beginning Chapter Three (Being Normal) – I read slowly these days.

Chapter Two, Freud Goes to California:

Okay, so I definitely must rent Pleasantville, which looked too precious by half to see in its first release, but now, with promises of endless black and white teen sex, I’m there (by the way, for more great black and white teen sex, rent the DVD of The Last Picture Show – very little counterculture analysis made available, but some of the best light on film in American cinema history).

Thanks to Potter and Heath for as succinct a summary of why I think Freud has been watching me my entire life, and laughing at all the most embarrassing parts.

Here’s my one complaint…

I like American Beauty just fine, and I resent the suggestion that I was somehow suckered by its naïve counterculture message. To begin with, it is a simplistic reduction to attribute the film’s popularity to its “message.” I would guess the startlingly naked Mena Suvari had as much to do with filling the seats (hers is the abdomen on the famous poster for the film) as any “stick it to the man” ideology inherent in the script. Suvari played Angela Hayes, the too, too young object of Lester Burnham’s raging id, and it is worth noting that Lester does not in fact despoil her innocence; rather he pulls back at the crucial moment, explicitly returning to the shackles of the life he had so dramatically cast off, accepting his responsibility to repress his pleasure drive in the name of being a good father and an upright citizen. This makes his smile at death much more mysterious than Heath and Potter suggest. Is he suddenly pleased that he was redeemed at least before death, redeemed by his willingness to re-accept the rules of boring old society?

Finally, the film has some stellar acting in it. Annette Bening shocked me with her depth, Chris Cooper is a frickin’ genius anyway (see John Sayles’ Matewan), but here his menace is overwhelming, and Kevin Spacey invents an entirely new type for himself – one he resurrects in the not so great The Life of Arthur Gale. American Beauty is not a great film, but it is good enough on lots of grounds; it was probably the best Hollywood film of 1999 by far (and that’s who gets the Oscar after all), and its counterculture message is, I think, a bit more complex than Heath and Potter suggest.

I fully expect to be shown to have jumped the gun on this as I read further into the book.

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