I was watching American Beauty last night and found myself once again mesmerized by that perfect scene where the young videographer-next-door shows his new love the "most beautiful thing" he's ever seen... footage of a plastic bag whirling in the wind, dancing with a pile of leaves.
Apparently it was this very image, which he experienced in real life, that inspired Alan Ball to write the screenplay, and Ball's words, Rick telling Janey about shooting the scene, carry the sensation:
"It was one of those days, when it's a minute away from snowing. And there was this electricity in the air. You could almost hear it. And this bag was just ... dancing ... with me. Like a little kid, begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That was the day when I realized that there was this ... entire life ... behind things. And this incredibly benevolent force who wanted me to know that there was no reason to be afraid. Ever.
Sometimes there is so much ... beauty ... in the world. It's like I can't take it. And my heart is just going to cave in."
The sensibility that went on to provide us with five seasons of Six Feet Under (probably one of the most profound treatises on death American popular culture has ever produced) ends his debut film script with an echo of this moment in a voice-over from Janey's dead father Lester, who's just been shot:
"I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me. But it's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once and it's too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst. 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."
I'm struck by the experience Ball describes twice in his film - of expanding with emotion, almost to the point of collapse - juxtaposed with this ephemeral image, which is repeated in the dying father's visual sequence as well.
It's like he's trying to make visible, audible, the sheer, unpredictable, and almost-impossible-to-bear beauty at the very heart of life.