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The ‘American Beauty’ Plastic Bag Won’t Ever Float Out of Our Lives

Twenty years later, the film’s star has faded — but we’re stuck with its obnoxious legacy

In 2019, the retrospective focus of many a film critic has turned to 1999, and the movies of that period have generally aged quite well. Of particular note is the cerebral aspect to many of the lasting gems: Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia wowed audiences with mind-bending premises and formalist craft. But the Academy Award for best picture — and the most Oscars that year — went to American Beauty, a film that flatters your intelligence instead of challenging it.

The Academy whiffing these calls is nothing new; we’re used to best pictures falling into obscurity as more deserving movies endure. American Beauty feels like an anomaly because, 20 years on, I’d love to forget it — but I can’t.

Yes, the prospect of viewing it is repulsive to me at this point: Even apart from the many credible accusations of sexual misconduct against leading man Kevin Spacey, plus his ongoing sexual assault trial, American Beauty delivers the utmost in turn-of-the-millennium smarm and cheap shots at suburbia. There’s no getting around its central plot of a modestly successful white man’s midlife meltdown and lust for a girl who could be his daughter, topics the male authors of a generation prior — Cheever, Roth, Updike, Heller, Yates — had pretty much exhausted. The closeted homophobe neighbor is a painfully dated choice, and the railing against American materialism is an underbaked afterthought. Then there is the film-student banality of its lush, gothic aesthetic: blood, roses, and that damn plastic bag.

Even if you’ve successfully nuked the rest of American Beauty from memory, you remember the plastic bag. It’s seen, frame within frame, in a homemade video that the intense young obsessive Ricky (Wes Bentley) shows his insecure neighbor Jane (Thora Birch). It’s a romantic overture — he considers the image of this grocery bag dancing in the wind “the most beautiful thing” he’s ever filmed, proof that “this incredibly benevolent force” is at work in the world. “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it … and my heart is just going to cave in,” he concludes. The moment remains iconic (and has been endlessly parodied) in part because one cannot pry the teen pretension away from the self-seriousness of the film depicting it. We don’t know whether Ricky’s gloss on the bag is meant to be genuinely profound or to satirize the overzealous, underdeveloped artist. The latter reading may give the screenplay too much credit.

Especially for those of us who first witnessed the sequence at a formative age — and maybe went on to creative passions and careers — it’s hard to divorce real-life plastic bags from the emotional state Ricky tries to convey. I flashed on American Beauty, very much against my will, when I read this week that history’s deepest ever submersible dive had found a plastic bag under seven vertical miles of ocean. “How sad that we’ve polluted this planet to such an extreme,” I thought, “but I wonder if the bag, illuminated by headlights, floating in the abyss, wasn’t sort of beautiful.” Goddammit. There’s no way out of this trap: The minute you notice the magic in the mundane, you’re right back in 1999, watching that grainy camcorder footage in that dude’s bedroom. Fuck.

The frustration arises because a plastic bag frolicking in the breeze, giving shape and the aura of consciousness to an invisible fact of nature, is actually beautiful. (I’ll resist drawing too bold a line between this and my age cohort’s exaltation of internet “garbage,” i.e., memes.) That’s why most of the lazy jokes at the bag’s expense — like a Family Guy gag where God interrupts the rhapsody by yelling, “It’s just some trash blowing in the wind! Do you have any idea how complicated your circulatory system is?!” — don’t quite land: Any halfway philosophical 17-year-old would correctly argue that weather and microclimates are as marvelously intricate as human biology. That, if anything, is the point of the scene: That all exists in a unified plane of accidental grace.

It’s just that we’re now forced to process anything like the mystery of the plastic bag through Ricky’s twee monologue and the lugubrious vibes of the stale drama that entombs it. We are not free to have the experience or epiphany ourselves, but a shadow of it, tainted by mediocre cinema starring an alleged sexual predator. It sure doesn’t help that the era of American Beauty, in retrospect, seems like the last before a sharp decline. Before 9/11, before the Great Recession, and before Trump. Before we escaped into adulthood like the kids in the film, with the greatest of ambitions, only to let reality set in. From our current nightmare, we cynically regard the plastic bag as a deception, or another empty promise. It represents nothing. Which, of course, was what we loved about it back then — and the recollection of that ardor sickens us even more.

So, yes, I do wish there was some way to surgically remove this cursed plastic bag from my mental vocabulary. Maybe it’s unfair, though, to blame a movie for my faded sense of awe. As a work of art it simply intended to wake us up to life — to the life we are always already missing — and it must have done something right if I still can’t lose the key metaphor. I’ll try another 20 years of melting my brain with online discourse and see if it goes away.