Thursday, May 29, 2008

Some movies are better than others

American Beauty (the film, not the Grateful Dead album) always rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn't understand why until I watched Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Both films critique elements of American society, suburbia in Beauty's case and the media in Ace, but American Beauty allows the viewer to assume superiority while Wilder holds up a mirror.

American Beauty allows that there are many unfortunate people out there who follow some suburban dream, but rebels like Lester Burnham ( and by extension the viewer) don't have to put up with it. Viewers can even feel sorry for themselves as Burnham is martyred by the forces of hatred.

Kirk Douglas's Chuck Tatum is a hustler from the get-go who takes advantage of a human tragedy in order to create enough buzz to get a job at a New York newspapers. With just a few (generally pathetic and tragic) exceptions, every character in the movie is out to take advantage of the situation, whether to make money, gain power or to get a few moments on the radio. It is a ugly portrait of a problematic part of the American character.

You can argue whether or not the portrait is fair, or even if the naked pursuit of self-interest is all bad, but Ace in the Hole doesn't allow the viewer the opt-out of the criticism or to have knowing conversations about the horrors of the suburbs. So it shouldn't surprise that American Beauty was a hit, while Ace in Hole did so poorly that Wilder was docked pay on his next movie.

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