The beauty that is found in something or someone can be a very difficult thing to describe. The definition in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary reads: “Beauty- the combination of qualities that make something pleasing and impressive to listen to or touch, or especially to look at”. In the film American Beauty a different type of beauty is depicted. Beauty is not merely defined by aesthetic means. The simplicity of beauty and the overpowering feeling that a person gets at the sight of it are given as guidelines to discovering the beauty found in conventionally unbeautiful things. Seeing this true beauty, as Ricky describes it, would be overwhelming and would make one feel like “their heart was caving in”. This is the beauty that is at the core of Ricky’s recordings; he tries to capture the pure simplicity of beauty on film.
When Ricky’s family first moves next door to the Burnham family, he is immediately drawn Jane’s inner beauty and thus attempts to film her. In the scene in which Jane is in her room with Angela, Ricky is in his room filming her through his window. The true intentions behind his shots are shortly revealed. When Jane realizes that she is being filmed, she immediately closes her curtain. Her friend Angela however would love the attention; she reopens the curtains so that she can be filmed. Although the scantily clad Angela is dominating the screen Ricky sees the beauty that is sitting behind her. He uses the zoom on his hand held camcorder to focus on the real and pure beauty, the beauty within Jane. The use of a hand held camcorder within this scene further highlights the emphasis placed on simplicity. The grainy picture of Jane as she sits smiling subtly represents an image of all that is good within the world. She is plain but genuine. Jane does not need to be the center of attention for her beauty to radiate. The image of her smile reflecting off the mirror sitting on her desk is what captures Ricky’s desire to film her further; her beauty is luminous, her simplicity is overwhelming to him.
A more clear and direct understanding of Ricky’s conception of real beauty is found in the scene in which he attempts to explain the reasons behind his recordings. Ricky is filming a dead white bird when Angela and Jane approach him to inquire about what he is doing. He tells them that he is filming the bird “because it is beautiful”. Later, he further explains his reasoning to Jane:
Ricky: I got that homeless woman on videotape.
Jane: Why would you film that?
Ricky: Because it was amazing
Ricky: When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you. Just for a second. And if you’re careful you can look right back.
Jane: And what do you see?
Even though ordinarily a dead body would not be perceived as beautiful, Ricky explains to Jane that it is amazing to see something so simple that no longer exists. For one second, you see beauty.
Ricky finds beauty in places that others would overlook. He believes life and all that surrounds it is beautiful. He claims that there is life within objects, and beauty within that life. He shows Jane a video of a bag floating in the air, “dancing with him”. The bag is being carried by the wind and seems to have a life of its own. The bag exhibits freedom and a lack of responsibility. Watching this bag float and ‘come alive’ for over fifteen minutes makes Ricky see that “there was a life behind things”. There was life within the bag and the beauty that it contained captured him. He must capture this beauty on video in order to remember it.
Ricky’s insistence on seeing beauty in all aspects of life and death comes through with a resounding impact. The characters at the end of the movie realize the unconventional view of beauty that Ricky successfully explains. Everyone is bored with their lives and is asleep but slowly they each begin to wake up, open their eyes, and see the simple beauty of living their lives. The places in which beauty are found are often the least expected.
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