American Beauty
The compelling 'plastic bag' scene in American Beauty (1999). (DreamWorks Pictures)

In the following quote from American Beauty (1999) Ricky Fitts’ words suggest optimism —the possibility of a wonderful existence within this beautiful world—beauty within each of us. Yet there is also dread—dread arising from the responsibility of having to find one’s own beauty. To be free, to be open, to be full of love—these require courage. One must search themselves blindly—take ownership and commit themselves to a beauty that might not truly exist. And while Ricky could leave his sad existence and tragic family situation behind, he would have to do so alone and exposed.

'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 realised 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. Video's a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember … I need to remember … 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.'

Ricky’s situation screams the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, according to whom ‘Man is condemned to be free … Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.’

Sartre’s man transcends in revolt. But, because he is ontologically rooted in what made him, his existence is stricken by a fraught ambiguity. While he can find freedom, it will come at the cost of being terrified: of feeling torn and isolated from the world. Total responsibility is now his.