American Beauty, 1999. Director Sam Mendes. Producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks. Screenplay Alan Ball. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. Music Thomas Newman. Cast Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, Mena Suvari, Peter Gallagher, Allison Janney, Chris Cooper, Scott Bakula, and Sam Robards.

One suspects that the creators of American Beauty were unaware that the movie provides a demonstration of the aesthetic decadence resulting from the glorification of the visual at the expense of the transcendent, from the triumph of superficiality, of epidermis over epithet. Poetry be damned, metaphysics be damned–why, damnation be damned. Which spells the triumph of damnation. For that reason, American Beauty is a profoundly sad movie. Or one could say, as does David Denby of The New Yorker, that it is “a funny movie that hurts.” This is not simply because the main character is shot at the end senselessly. His death is irrelevant anyhow: indeed his commentary from beyond the grave proves he is no less alive, or aware at least, than the characters who are still on earth. Rather, the movie is deeply disturbing because of the implicit irony of its title: beauty in America emerges as little more than an oxymoron. But the laugh, alas, is on us, on the America that seems to be ending the millennium not with a bang but a self-absorbed whimper.

The movie asks: is contemporary culture so shallow, so narrowly narcissistic as to have obliterated both love and beauty? Has the American idea that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights, degenerated into the illusion that there are no higher values? Has the television age dangerously amended that idea by endowing the eminently photogenic with special privileges? That American Beauty seems to ask such questions is for James Greenberg of The Los Angeles Magazine important enough that he dubs this movie “one of the best of the year, maybe the decade.” That emphatically it is not; but deserve attention it certainly does.

The deliberately ambiguous title denotes specifically the little nymphet who epitomizes everything that American beauty is–and is not. Blonde and slender, she becomes the object of her best friend’s middle-aged father’s sexual fantasies. But she is a temptress in dream only: ready to deceive even herself, she boasts to her friends of sexual conquests that turn out to have been invented. Epitomizing the ultimate perversion that results from a glorification of the purely visual, she appears fully satisfied to inhabit the imaginations of masturbating males. This is sex by pure proxy. Her life ambition is to become–what else?–a model. She is what she appears–and less. Indeed when faced with the prospect of a real live prospective lover, she confesses, terrified, that she is not merely a virgin but incapable of knowing both what to do and what she might want from an actual physical encounter. The beast decides to forgo the frigid beauty; for what would be the point of possessing her? It would merely detract from the fantasy.

But fantasies are notoriously thin, metaphysically speaking: that is, they barely exist. And some are especially shallow. Thus the wife of the protagonist wants to succeed in her real-estate business because this is what one does in America–succeed. Right? Doomed to “joylessness,” in the words of her husband, she ends up having an affair with an equally one-dimensional man whose single-minded pursuit of the maximum number of sales breaks up his marriage. The affair is solipsistic for both. He is merely attracted to his reflection in her eyes, while she succumbs to his success, which she craves for herself. As she gazes at his picture on the ubiquitous billboards, she wishes for the same. Oh, to be seen . . . Does one even exist otherwise?

So then, is this the ontological argument of modern America: “My image proves that I am”? Unfortunately, there is a further ominous tautological corollary: