Period Piece is a feature wherein we examine media from the past through a modern lens.
(Caution: filled with spoilers.)
By Robby Townsend →
On the surface, there is very little sense in pairing up the 1999 drama American Beauty with 2004 action-thriller Cellular. American Beauty was artsy and starred a number of Academy Award winners and stage performers. Cellular was paced to build tension and featured actors who fit that billing better. American Beauty was a critical and commercial darling, winning four Oscars and making over $300 at the box office. Cellular was… not. It received mixed reviews from just about everyone, except Roger Ebert who loved it. The film has been largely lost to time, even though it featured both Chris Evans and Jason Statham prior to their meteoric rises to fame.
What brings these two films together is how they both perfectly encapsulate their moments in time, two moments that five years apart, yet seemingly two different worlds in many ways. The way many Americans perceived their relationship with the rest of the world drastically changed after the events on September 11, 2001. These changes were exponentially sped up by the huge technological upgrades America experienced in this same period. American Beauty only came out 20 years ago, but watching it for the first time last weekend, it struck me how dated it felt. The drab nature of their suburbia looked uniquely late 90s, and all of the main characters were fully enveloped with their own issues, and while many were legitimate problems, there was no larger scope to them like we see in many films’ themes after 9/11. Technology, aside from an old camcorder, played no role in American Beauty, a near impossibility for a movie set in contemporary times just years later.
Cellular similarly feels dated to contemporary viewers, but for completely different reasons. In that film, obviously, they jumped fully into the burgeoning technology trends. A cell phone played a pivotal role, while occasionally commenting on the pitfalls of relying on this technology. But it was an early 2000s Nokia phone, which might as well be two tin cans and a string for us smartphone users. Cellular also illustrated the concerns of its time; evil, mysterious “others” violently harming a seemingly perfect family unit, and the ability for an everyday man to be a hero.
Before I dig into these things more, let me qualify the obvious; there were films before and after the 2000-2002 period cutoff I make here that go counter to the different themes. For example, there are plenty of films after 2001 that still analyze more mundane individual conflict. But often, I’d argue that the exceptions prove the rule, as so many of the best films in this category were set in the 90s or earlier (The Way Way Back, Moonrise Kingdom) or utilized technology as a major plot point (Eighth Grade, Easy A). Also, in discussing “culture” I’m focusing on the one I personally experienced, the white American perspective pre- and post-9/11. The intersection of racism, Islamophobia, etc. are all incredibly important topics but ones for another article.
Perspectives Move Outwards
As the world began to recover from two World Wars, the big cultural questions and fears began to circle around the enemies within, both within our immediate spaces and within ourselves. A lot of movies began to analyze this through subjects such as mental health issues like PTSD, spies infiltrating society, autocratic government, localized crime, and of course, suburban neighborhoods.
If the media we engage in is a reflection of ourselves, films like American Beauty stood to show how truly desperate Americans were to engage with the larger world, but felt unable to do so. Suburban life was boring, monotonous, and portrayed in some films equally as repressive as it was in the ‘90s as it was in the ‘50s. Critiques of the suburban culture were prevalent in media for as long as the suburbs existed, but beginning in the late ‘80s and up to 9/11, entertainment in general started to take a different turn, perceiving suburbia as not only drab and choking individuality, but also evil. See The ‘Burbs (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Truman Show (1998), Happiness (1998) as just a few examples of the threat within suburbia.
American Beauty was a clear culmination of this egocentric outlook. Every character is obsessed with their own deficiencies. Lester’s daughter Jane was so obsessed with her body image she admitted that she planned on getting breast implants as an adult before she hit puberty. Angela felt pressure to make up stories about her sexual conquests. Frank Fitts struck out at his loved ones due to his hidden sexuality (a bit homophobic, but that’s for a different essay). Ricky Fitts was the only character who focused outside of himself, to the point of dissociation when his father assaulted him, and was also the only one who truly understood how much beauty there was around him. Granted, he was also obsessive and creepy about it, so I’m not sure if he was fully a director surrogate, but through Lester’s final monologue it became clear that Ricky was perceived as on the right path.
After the tragic events of 9/11, entertainment creators determined that America wanted escapism in spades. There was a fear that people outside wanted to hurt “us” and “our” way of life which had been largely complacently left behind after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even some of the big monsters featured during this period arrived because of humanity’s ego or other inherent evils, like Jurassic Park and the 1998 Godzilla. In American Beauty, Frank Fitts and Lester can be seen as villains, but they are both filmed sympathetically, or at the very least complicatedly. In a naturalistic way, Lester’s death could be seen as freedom from the prison of his mundane life. To end a film with this perception of what life was worth clearly went against the collective (white) American cultural attitudes after 9/11’s shift, which I’d argue was a big reason why the film was turned on so quickly by contemporary critics.
We needed well-meaning heroes; ordinary, everyday Spidermen, of the super and non-super variety took over. Just look at the top box office grossers and most popular films on Letterboxd to see how quickly the changes happened. The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises were perfectly placed to aid in the adult and youth transitions, and as we all know they made insane amounts of money because of it. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. The original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man (2002), which was famously partially re-filmed because of 9/11, opened the floodgates for the super-hero franchises we are still inundated with today.
Cellular was the epitome of the culture’s needs (albeit not appreciated, possibly for being too on-the-nose). The film featured very clear good and bad guys. The threat was external; Jessica and her family were being attacked even though they hadn’t done anything to deserve it. Even outside of superhero movies, we wanted every protagonist to be super in some way. Ryan (Chris Evans) was basically a deadbeat and Bob Mooney (Macy) had one foot in retirement, yet they managed to take down an organized gang of dirty LAPD cops. Popcorn flicks like the Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious and John Wick franchises feature normal human beings with super-human abilities to withstand physical punishment and diminished need for basic human requirements like food, water, and rest. If the movie had a big budget, it also probably had an overpowered hero.
The Internet Takes Over
The incoming revolutions in technology only sped up this cultural change and made it impossible to ignore for anyone trying to reach public consciousness. First, reality was beginning to finally catch up to the anxieties of future technology shown in the dystopian 80s films. Early A.I. and cloning ventures lit the film world aflame with ideas, but most of these still focused on the personal effects of the horrors (Gattaca, 6th Day) or set in a philosophical future (The Matrix). Y2K, however, forced society to consider that our reliance on all this new tech could cause widespread disaster sooner than later. Yet it did nothing to curb the intrusion personal tech would make into our lives.
In 2000, less than one-third of adults owned their own cell phone, which jumped to 50% in 2002, and over two-thirds by 2005. At the same time, US households shifted from dial-up to broadband internet. The effect of this incredible shift in access to information and each other on our perception of the world can’t be overstated. Google, chat rooms, social networking, all of it pointed to our collective interest in things outside of ourselves and our neighbors. It took fancy doorbell cameras for our internet focus to reorient locally again.
Outside of Ricky’s video camera, which was intended for personal enjoyment, American Beauty had very little concern for technology. Imagine American Beauty being set just five years later. Instead of obsessing over a teenager, Lester could have found (potentially equally unhealthy) escapes from his sexual frustration online. There would no longer be the same suffocating tension created by seeing these teenagers feeling so trapped by their home lives when they could talk to people across the world on AIM. Lester assessing how much beauty there is in the world post-mortem would be far too cynical in the post-9/11 world.
Cellular also had a video camera played a pivotal role, but one that was actually more of a hindrance than a statement of beauty like in American Beauty. This older technology was contrasted against the fancy new cell phone in its impermanence versus the cell phone’s saving grace of being able to keep information alive in perpetuity. We hadn’t yet realized as a culture how dangerous the whole “anything you post online never goes away” thing was, apparently. Cell phones were imperfect in Cellular, but still essential, as without them, the Martin family would have been killed. Cellular phones before the turn of the century were used as a signal for high socioeconomic status. Plenty of plots from pre-9/11 films would be ruined if cell phones had been available; Cellular was one of the earliest to try to figure out how to not only accept the wide availability of cell phones but make them central to the plot.
I was 8 when American Beauty was sweeping the Oscars and 10 by September 11, 2001, so I obviously didn’t fully grasp the cultural changes during this time period, although I think anyone around my age would agree that the terrorist attacks were a flashpoint in becoming aware and concerned of the world at large. Clearly that trauma did not only affect children, but adults as well, and the cultural shifts are still reverberating today. Cellular was not a great film by any means, but as a marker of time, I would argue that few show where much of the country was in that weird period of so much change in such a fun way.