American Beauty or Christian Beauty?
Theological Aesthetics in
directed by Sam Mendes and written by Allen Ball, premiered on October 1, 1999.
The film, set in a typical modern American suburb, focuses in on the life of Lester Burnham (Kevin
Spacey) who narrates posthumously: “My name is Lester Burnham, I’m 42 years old and in less than a
year I’ll be dead. But in a way I’m dead already.”
At the beginning of the film Lester is depressed
and cynical. He is trapped in a loveless marriage with his wife Carolyn (Annette Bening); estranged
from his daughter Jane (Thora Birch), who considers her father “too embarrassing to live”
ensnared in a job he despises. Lester’s passion for life is rekindled when he meets Jane’s friend Angela.
His sexual desire for Angela sparks a transformation. Lester tries to affirm his existence by smoking
marijuana, working-out, and asserting himself against his domineering wife. The other Burnham family
members are simultaneously experiencing life altering changes. Carolyn has an affair and Jane falls in
love with neighbor Ricky Fitts, whose reaction to his militaristic upbringing has propelled his search
for beauty in every facet of life. The film culminates in Lester’s murder.
viewed through the lens of theological aesthetics, offers insights into notions of
has three primary elements: first, a theological investigation into how one
comes to know religious truths through sense experience; second, a theology of beauty; and third, a
theology of art.
engages the viewer in an exploration of a theology of beauty by
asking: Where can we see beauty amid the pain, suffering, and alienation of life? The film offers two
related answers to this question. First, the film suggests that true beauty cannot be found in that which
traditionally has been considered beautiful. Second, there is a deeper reality associated with beauty.
I have significantly re-ordered and edited these introductory paragraphs.
Generally, however – if
the author can strengthen the conclusion, then the introduction might be able to be sharpened
and refined a bit, as well.
Several scenes in the film emphasize the importance of looking beyond the superficial in ord
true beauty. The tag line of the film is “look closer… .” The film illustrates this theme by asso
traditional indicators of beauty- - symmetry, nature, and physical beauty- - with the negative
the positive. For example, when the Burnham’s are eating a family dinner, the camera pushe
on a scene that is starkly symmetrical. Each family member is positioned around a large tab
equidistant from the other. Carolyn and Lester are positioned at opposite ends of the table, w
daughter Jane sits in the middle. While the scene appears to be perfect, in reality the family
miserable. Each member is alienated from the other. The three characters are spread out ar
table creating large gaps. These gaps symbolize the isolation and fragmentation within the f
behind the picture perfect exterior suggested by the scene’s symmetry.