There are few films that achieve the high level of quality exhibited by that of the 1990 beautiful tragedy, American Beauty. The film is a true masterpiece in both content and how this content is delivered to the viewers. It excels at being an enlightening and relevant drama about American life, and never fails to keep the audience entertained by providing many instances of well-placed humor. Every scene is filmed including metaphoric elements that not only show great stylistic and aesthetics, but also create a mood and feeling for the theme of the movie.
American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, is a film that is set in suburban America, in a normal neighbourhood, following the everyday life of the central protagonist, Lester Burnham, who is living the typical ‘American Dream’. He appears to have a great job, big house, loving wife and daughter and even a white picket fence. However, all is not as it seems as appearance can often be deceiving; if we just “look closer”, we as audience members soon see that he realises both his wife, over bearing and controlling Carolyn and jaded teenage daughter, Jane think that, in the words of Jane, he is “this gigantic loser” and they’re right.
The character of Lester is initially portrayed as a depressed, sad and lonely forty-year-old man, deprived of freedom and struggling to find anything worth living for. However as the film progresses Lester’s persona as a character is dramatically developed with the introduction of an equally intriguing character, Angela Hayes. Everything changes for Lester the night he is forced by his wife to his daughters school to see her perform as a cheerleader. There on the floor, engrossed in a pompon routin, parading and dancing around the court, he sees his ‘angel’: Angela his daughter’s high-school classmate.
Angela fulfills the stereotypical idea of what beauty physical beauty is. She is thin, blonde, big blue-eyed and immediately catches Lester’s attention; Angela is not Lester’s highway to bliss, but she is at least a catalyst for his freedom (Ebert, 1999). His thoughts, and the dissatisfaction they stimulate, blast him free from years of emotional torture and bring him right back to his youth. It is from this moment on that Lester transforms into a spontaneous hormone-driven teenage boy, who smokes marihuana, works out, and uits his job all in order to impress his Angel-a. American Beauty uses Angela as the image of Lester’s broader want; that being his underlying desire for freedom and evidentially beauty. However, she symbolizes the potential underlying superficiality of physical beauty that is slowly revealed towards the end of the film. The film portrays many of the hidden problems within the white picket fence American dream along with addressing the problems many Americans have with feeling free and accepting their own identity.
The film shows the vastly different worlds that people can live in whilst still living on the same street, and the disorder and frenzy that lies veiled in a society that we all try to portray as being as perfect as possible. In doing so, American Beauty reveals that the only way to calm the chaos is to find beauty in everything. To “look closer” is a must for truly understanding and identifying with the continuous bombardment of symbolism that is constantly being illustrated in this film.
American Beauty portrays such themes as the falseness in lust, power and appearance and that we need to remind our selves “…of all the beauty there is in the world”, as beauty is a matter of opinion. Beauty however, is the most significant and explored theme in American Beauty. Another prevailing theme is the notion of the characters journey and transformation throughout the film. Lester’s journey can almost be compared to one from childhood from adulthood, figuratively speaking as evidentially, he steps into a mature, paternal phase where he takes responsibility and finds meaning in life, as an adult.
Many techniques were used to portray these themes and influence audiences opinions of characters and events, including film techniques of cinematography, soundtrack as well as such visual techniques of symbolism, colour and contrast and both aesthetic and stylistic elements. American Beauty is a complex film that relies so heavily on mis-en-scene and cinematography to portray its message. In particular this is showcased during one scene that truly puts the ‘American Beauty’ into perspective; the opening scene or as it is often referred to as, the “High Point Scene”.
The film explores the concepts of what true beauty really is and as suggested in the title of the film, the American Dream and how far this ‘dream’ really goes and what it actually means; this is explored further from the films tagline “look closer”; to think about perceived desire and to analyze more what these wants are. Through the exploration of the opening scene and a study of how the cinematography, mise en scene and sound foreshadows plot points in the rest of the film, the underlying messages and symbolism will be uncovered.
The movie opens with a grainy shot of Jane Burnham reclining on a bed, complaining about her father. The scene begins with what is referred to as a flash forward, in cinematic terms. The line “Someone really should just put him out of his misery” is a hint towards the mid life crisis that the father Lester is currently going through and the ways in which she is aware of the pain he is dealing with, not knowing what he truly wants. Through the mise en scene and cinematography displayed throughout the scene, the audience is enabled to receive a glimpse into the events that have just occurred.
Through the use of a lesser quality picture, shaky footage and dimmed lighting the audience is able to identify with the fact that the imagery being presented has that of a ‘home movie’ feel. The utilization of ‘raw footage’ within this drama genre of film gives the audience a sense of reality towards the character, hence making the dialogue seem more legitimate and believable. The addition of a pause into the characters dialogue helps to support and express the sense of ‘reality’ further, as it is as if she is really thinking about what she is saying.
The rather ambiguous approach to the delivering of the line “You want me to kill him for you? ” helps to draw attention to Jane’s reaction as apposed to the interviewers own intensions. This poses both Jane Burnham, the daughter and the unidentified interviewer as suspects to her father’s upcoming murder. However the abstruse approach from the interviewer combined with the daughters reply is foreshadowing what is to come later in the film, as each character related to the father is set up to be the possible murderer of his death.
By using the body language as a primary tool for communication, the reply of “Yeah, would you” to the previous statement, suggests that she is almost daring the interviewer to kill him. This is expressed through the dominant changing of levels when she sits up, almost creating a shift in power, and looks down and straight into the camera, but at the same time also insinuates some sarcasm on her part. The audience learns in the very first lines of the movie that Jane’s dad, Lester, is not the father that she wants. The opening credits roll, and the shot switches to an aerial view of a neighborhood.
The exact location is not specified, and that is very intentional. It is important that this not be a critique of a specific area, but of American culture as a whole. The scene begins with an aerial shot of a suburb, with Lester Burnham introducing the audience to his life and informing them that “In less than a year, I’ll be dead,” and “in a way, I’m dead already. ” This dialogue is heightened through the following shots of Lester lying alone on a bed in a very dull coloured room, thus signifying the meaninglessness life in which he is leading.
The utilization of an aerial shot here creates the idea that the world is looking down on him. The dominant use of bright lighting also indicates that it is the morning, however through the use of shadowing casted over Lester, it expressed to the audience that he is still in ‘the dark’; he is yet to be enlightened. Visual techniques are a constant feature in American Beauty, including the use of colour, contrast and symbolism. The primary recurring prop that is introduced at the beginning of the film is a rose, in which the audience first sees in a close up before Lester’s wife Carolyn Burnham picks it up.
The first shot of the rose seems out of place, beginning with the flower filling the frame and then moving down to focus on the thorns before Carolyn’s clippers cut it. The rose symbolizes the impotence of not only the love life between Lester and Carolyn but the idea of the American Dream. This shot not only draws attention to the rose as a recurring object in the film, but it also serves as a metaphor for the Burnhams: on the outside they appear perfect, like the flower, but underneath they are rotten and broken (represented by the thorns).
In this shot the character of Carolyn is also introduced and is instantly perceived as a cold, workaholic who is obsessive about how they (the family) is presented. This portrayal is demonstrated through the line “See the way the handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident”, thus showing the audience what level she will go to, to maintain order and control. What is also noticeable about this shot is the mise en scene, in particular the red roses, white picket fences and the blue painting on the house.
These colours in specific represent the American flag and therefore the American dream. These objects are most perceived to be included within the American dream as well as stereotypical figure of Carolyn, the suburban housewife. This ideology however, creates contrast with the cinematography. Many scenes are metaphoric in how they are shot, and what is in the frame symbolizes a higher, deeper meaning. This is demonstrated when, Lester looking out the window of his house at his wife, and the blinds on the window represent jail cell bars.
Even the blocks of text on his computer screen at work, (shown later in the film) represent jail cell bars. Lester is “in jail” because his life at this point is so empty and missing substance. This cinematography technique often used in film nior is utilized to convey the emotions of disassociation and distance which in this case, is the way in which Lester feels towards his wife; he is no longer associated with her. American Beauty” is more than a biting satire on suburban life. This somewhat contrived story is meant to be an allegory.
Alan Ball’s richly textured screenplay, brilliantly executed stylistic and aesthetic elements such as cinematography, mise en scene and symbols are effectively demonstrated throughout this masterpiece of a film. Every single shot is so carefully taken and layered with such vast significance that it is a marvel to behold. “Look closer,” the film’s tag line tells us. Look closer at the beautiful things we yearn for and spend our life chasing. There isn’t a single example of a film done better. Not only is the content top-notch, but the technical aspects of the movie are excellent as well. American Beauty truly demonstrates the power of film.