The “beautiful plastic bag” scene from American Beauty has become one of those cultural moments with which we post-millennial cynics bludgeon the bloated corpse of our (former) zest for life. I suspect we mock it not because it has some essentially childlike earnestness in it, but because we sense in it the same kind of calculated self-mockery we all so love to wallow in. It’s an infinitely recursive, intentionally unfunny in-joke. It’s the cultural equivalent of a self-loathing fat kid puking upon his own myriad reflections in a funhouse full of shattered mirrors.
These are the contents of several audience comment cards, collected at the first screening of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS on March 16th, 1942 (image: page 117, THIS IS ORSON WELLES, Bogdanovich & Welles). Based on comment cards like these, AMBERSONS was mangled by RKO executives. Welles’ career went down the toilet.
This audience, by the way, had been shown the film after actually paying to see a bit of Dorothy Lamour fluff called THE FLEET’S IN. This is all a bit like asking an A-TEAM audience to focus-group a Haneke film.