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American Beauty's Grace Note

Though, God does not play an overt part in this movie, screenwriter Alan Ball establishes the spirituality of the film in several ways. First, there is the voice-over monologue of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) who narrates the story of the final year in his life from the perspective of a character speaking to us from the realm of the dead. This simple technique tells us from the outset that Burnham is bringing to the here-and-now a sense of perspective that he could only have achieved by passing to the "other side."

What he finds from this perspective is, to put it in a word, beauty. Not the simple beauty of appearances, but the deeper beauty that conveys a sense of the ultimate worth of life itself, and the mystery that lies behind it. Lester is not the only one aware of this, or course. There's also Ricky, the next door neighbor, who videotapes a plastic bag blowing in the wind and says: 

It was one of those days when it's a minute away from snowing. And there's this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was just ... dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.

Seldom has a character in a movie come closer to what the mystics refer to as the "mysterium tremendum." For Ricky is clearly in touch with a presence beyond the here and now, and a power greater than that which can be understood by a merely human intelligence. It's the same ultimate reality which Lester himself invokes in the closing voice over of this powerful film. I reproduce the words of the screenplay with Alan Ball's original punctuation and emphasis:

We're FLYING once again over Robin Hood Trail, ASCENDING SLOWLY.


...and then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life ... (amused) You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry ...  


You will some day.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.