Some of my students are looking at Sam Mendes’ American Beauty and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as part a unit on The American Dream. In an essay I marked on the texts last week, the student was having trouble explaining the meaning of the dominant symbols of Mendes’ film- the rose petals and the plastic bag. The rose petals seem obvious, but what of the plastic bag? It’s tempting, but important not to, ignore the latter – when explored together with the petals, the symbol offers compelling insight into the relationship between an individual and society.
For those who have seen the film, the rose petals first appear as we are introduced to Mena Suvari’s character Angela Hayes, Lester’s object of obsession. They fly out of her cheerleader’s jacket and leave Lester delirious on the bleachers. They reappear in several dream sequences – showering Lester’s face and filling the bathtub Lester finds her in.
At first glance they obviously represent beauty, or the perceived beauty of Angela. But this isn’t enough to understand what the film has to say about the nuances of beauty – to engage with the film’s representation of beauty fully, the rose petals need to be considered along with the Ricky’s plastic bag.
Ricky films everything an ordinary person would find banal – he tells Jane that the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed is a plastic bag swirling in the breeze. The plastic bag, when considered in juxtaposition with the rose petals reveals two faces of the titular theme. The petals represent a false, socially ingrained image of beauty. Its seductive power is reinforced by the way that the petals fly out and fill the shot, clouding both Lester’s and the viewer’s vision. The plastic bag and its perceived beauty presents a stark contrast to Lester and Carolyn’s notions of beauty (in the form of conventionally attractive women, elegant homes and perfectly trimmed lawns) Ricky, in believing the bag to be beautiful, relies entirely on his own intuitions of what is valuable rather than depending on society to tell him what is worthy of pursuit.
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