The dark Beauty of America and Cuba's music

American Beauty

American Beauty, the much talked about film debut by stage director Sam Mendes, has been promoted, with good reason, as one of the year's best movies. An American Beauty is a kind of rose, an image that is beautifully and metaphorically interwoven throughout the text of the film, a biting satire on decaying suburban life. American Beauty's narrator-protagonist is 42-year-old Lester Burnham (played brilliantly by Kevin Spacey), a burned out, unfulfilled husband and father, who, in the tradition of Sunset Boulevard, just happens to be dead as he narrates. "I'll be dead in a year," he says casually in the opening scenes of the film. "In a way, I'm dead already."

On the surface, Lester's life seems fairly normal: his wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), a frigid Martha-Stewart wannabe and real estate agent, is obsessed with order and appearances. At one point in the film, Lester describes his marriage as "a commercial for how normal we are when we're anything but." Lester's marriage and family are falling apart. One evening, Lester and Carolyn go to watch their teenage daughter, Jane, (played with edge by Thora Birch), at a cheerleading performance. Rebellious with her dyed hair and dark-stained lips, Jane is a stark contrast to her prototypical cheerleader friend, Angela, a blonde seductress about whom Lester begins to have erotic fantasies. He drools as he imagines Angela, in several whimsical sequences, with rose petals flying from her bosom, and Angela bathing in rose petals, inviting Lester to join him. Jane is painfully aware of her fathers' embarrassing fantasies, and this drives a large chasm between the once close father-daughter duo.

To impress Angela, Lester attempts to recapture his lost youth by working out (with his neighbors, lovers both by the name of Jim), smoking pot given to him by the new boy next door, as well as quitting his unsatisfying but well-paying job to work at a burger joint, where he is told in an interview with a pimple-faced teenage manager, "I don't think you'd fit in here." He ditches the family vehicle for a red 1970 Firebird, "the car I've always wanted and now I have," and bounds through his wife's meticulous rose garden and into his house to announce emphatically, "I rule!"

Though Carolyn is indeed furious and humiliated by her husband's irrational behavior, she is too busy having an affair with another real estate agent to devote much attention to the sorry state of her marriage.

Meanwhile, unnoticed by her parents, Jane is in the midst of a sexual awakening. The handsome young pot dealer next door, otherwise known as Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), has taken an intense interest in Jane, spying on her with his digital camcorder, and burning her name into her yard. But this doesn't scare Jane too much; she's just happy that someone is paying attention to her, instead of Angela. Ricky is also from a morbidly dysfunctional family that is much more obviously so than Jane's.

A series of surprising plot twists and role reversals unveil. When Angela comes onto Lester, wanting to sleep with him, his downward spiral suddenly reverses, and his Lolita-esque fantasies go ultimately unrealized. American Beauty comes to its inevitably disturbing and somewhat forced ending through a series of tragically comical misunderstandings. And the viewer is left to come to terms with this ultimately dark, but beautifully crafted message on life's true beauty.

- Elisabeth Weinstein

The Buena Vista Social Club


A lighter, more optimistic note resonates through The Buena Vista Social Club, the latest documentary from German film legend Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas). The film is an enlightening story about the power of music, through the lives of an almost-forgotten group of Cuban musicians (all between the ages of 70 and 90), in Havana.

Producer Ry Cooder assembled the group, including Ibraham Ferrer (vocals), Compay Segundo (lead guitarist), Ruben Gonzalez (keyboards), Omara Portuondo (vocals), Barbarito Torres (12 string lute), Luis Barzaga, and others, in 1997 to create the award-winning album by the same name.

Wender's film is a montage of biographical vignettes, interwoven with music, concert footage, recording studio footage, and historical accounts. The unchained camera for which Wenders is known is active, and at times hyperactive, throughout the documentary. It circles magically around musicians and chairs and cuts dizzyingly through Havana, Amsterdam, and New York City (where the group finally performs at Carnegie Hall). While the unconventional, hand-held camerawork is indeed interesting, it also distracts from the music.

Passionate songs pack the film with energy and life. As the band's lead singer, Ferrer, sings about fire and romance, the crowd goes wild. Between rehearsals and performances are interviews with several of the group members, including Ferrer, Gonzalez, Segundo, and Torres. Shots of the battered streets and beautiful but dilapidated buildings of Cuba undercut their stories of childhood, poverty, instruments, and family.

What has kept these musicians alive and going over the years is their love of music and performing, even when their fame is no longer. Between interviews uneven in length, the film drags, but is able to recover without any real harm. One of the most entertaining scenes is when the group is touring New York City. They marvel like children at the comparative "beauty" of New York and popular culture. Culminating in a fantasy-like performance in Carnegie Hall, The Buena Vista Social Club leaves viewers uplifted by the spirit of music and the ultimate fulfillment of a dream deferred.

-Elizabeth Weinstein

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Copyright © 1999, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 128, Number 7, October 29, 1999

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