Term Paper: American Beauty What are the costs of living in a success-driven, consumer-oriented, image-obsessed society? This challenge to contemporary America’s suburban culture finds a voice in Sam Mendes’ 1999 movie American Beauty. The film’s complex subtlety underscores its implication that subtlety itself is a casualty in our society. American Beauty’s tagline exhorts viewers to “look closer,” but the film expresses ambivalence concerning what is revealed by closer inspection.
On one hand, protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his young neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) speak of the unappreciated beauty surrounding us; however, Lester also begins to question the values of a world that seems perfect but is actually a suburban dystopia. Through their use of various filmmaking techniques, particularly cinematography and editing, Mendes and his collaborators create a vivid illustration of this dichotomy. In terms of depth of narration, American Beauty is a remarkably subjective film.
Mental subjectivity actually serves as a baseline and framework since the movie unfolds as a posthumous flashback narrated by Lester. The audience moves deeper inside Lester’s mind at various points in the plot, particularly during his fantasies about Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), a nubile blond cheerleader. In the film’s expository scene, Lester says in his voiceover that he feels “sedated,” and these four fantasy scenes focus the viewer on Angela as the cause for Lester’s awakening from white-collar drudgery.
The scenes use a few point of view shots but also provide reaction shots of Lester. Outside of the fantasies, Mendes uses point of view shots for nearly all of the characters at some point. This perceptual subjectivity takes on the most significance through Ricky’s ever-present video camera and when Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), thinks he sees Ricky performing oral sex on Lester.
Ricky’s camera becomes a motif that contributes to his characterization and the film’s overall meaning, while the homophobic Colonel’s misperception becomes vital to the plot because it causes him to finally disown Ricky and raises the possibility in the Colonel’s mind that Lester is a closeted homosexual like himself. In its range of narration, American Beauty may initially seem to focus heavily on the actions of its protagonist, but the film’s scope is actually much wider than that. Instead of staying with Lester, Mendes frequently uses cross-cutting to follow the other Burnhams and outside characters such as Col.
Fitts. This enables the audience to know more than any single character, but the filmmaker withholds one key piece of information – the Colonel’s true motivations – until the movie’s final scene. Col. Fitts immediately seems like a volatile person, so the audience is inclined to watch his actions carefully; the attentive viewer will eventually realize that the Colonel is a much more complex character than he initially appears. Perhaps the most significant element of American Beauty’s narrative structure is the film’s segmentation into three sections.
The transitions between sections are signaled by the visual motif of a helicopter shot above the Burnhams’ neighborhood, along with the return of Lester’s voiceover, which plays only at these points and at the film’s beginning and end. The first segment is largely expository, introducing all of the major characters and how unhappy most of them are. Here Mendes and screenwriter Alan Ball also plant the seeds of the major changes that will generally bring happiness to the Burnhams’ lives in the second section.
However, during the final part of American Beauty, the consequences of the various characters’ actions tear the complex and tenuous web of relationships amongst them, destroying whatever happiness each had attained. . . . . . . For a movie in which a video camera is a major motif, American Beauty makes an appropriately rich use of cinematography. As mentioned earlier, the repetition of helicopter shots over Robin Hood Trail establishes a narrative framework for the film and makes its end mirror its beginning.
Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall substitute film of a lower resolution to add realism to shots supposedly filmed with Ricky’s video camera. Black and white footage in the closing montage sequence differentiates Lester’s memories of his life and family from the story time of the flashback that makes up the rest of the movie. However, the most important feature of American Beauty’s camerawork is the use of the technique to reinforce the message of the movie’s tagline, which tells viewers to “look closer. Though zoom-out shots occasionally appear – most notably in the closing helicopter shot – they are far outnumbered by zooms that bring the audience closer to the subject. This preponderance not only contributes to the film’s theme but also emphasizes zoom-outs, particularly in the final shot of the film. Ricky makes abundant use of the zoom feature on his camera, and because his subject is often Jane, close ups on her are common. One particularly interesting example appears in the scene of Angela spending the night with Jane in the movie’s first section.
The girls notice that Ricky has spelled out “Jane” in the yard in burning letters. Surmising that Ricky is filming them, Jane retreats flustered while Angela, ever the exhibitionist, dances at the window. Rather than focusing on Angela, the crass, unsubtle beauty, Ricky zooms past her to settle on Jane’s face reflected in a mirror. From her faint smile – an echo of the expression she wore after first noticing Ricky filming her – the audience knows, despite Jane’s outward repulsion, that she is flattered by her neighbor’s attention.
Ricky says that he is not obsessing over Jane, merely “curious,” and all of his zooming in on her face represents his efforts to get closer to her, as well as his ideas about looking closer at things and seeing beauty where others (such as Lester) do not. Ricky also zooms in on Lester’s face when Lester first resolves to get in shape, undressing in the garage to examine his body and pulling out his old weights. The view of Lester’s face reveals the intensity of his expression, which matches the man’s newfound determination to turn his life around.
Lester and Jane become Ricky’s subjects because of the boy’s curiosity in both of them, and the close ups give the audience better insight into both characters’ minds. Mendes’ camera also takes viewers deeper into scenes, though not always through use of the zoom lens. For example, a long, slow tracking in on the first dinner table scene suggests that the Burnhams are a family that merit closer inspection. A combination of zoom, camera distance, and editing embodies Lester’s interest in Angela, similar in ways to Ricky’s curiosity about Jane.
In the first fantasy scene, the Spartanettes’ routine at the basketball game, a long zoom in on Angela, combined with strange music, a spotlight on her, and a similar zoom in on Lester’s dumbfounded expression, signals the transition to the mental – and occasionally perceptual – subjectivity of Lester’s imagination. Shot distance varies, but closer and closer shots of Angela dancing ever more seductively dominate, punctuated by dramatic views of Lester, such as the extreme close-up on his eyes or the long shot of him alone in the stands. From this moment on, Angela is all that matters to Lester.
Later that night, Lester imagines Angela smiling down at him from his bedroom ceiling, surrounded and covered by rose petals that drift slowly downward to fall on him. No zoom lens is used in this scene, but as a shot-reverse shot pattern of editing unfolds, Angela appears larger and larger in the frame due to successively shorter camera distances, mimicking a zoom. These examples reiterate the idea of looking closer in connection with Lester’s increasing obsession with Angela. In addition to cinematography, editing provides American Beauty with much of its resonance.
The film makes repeated use of the editing technique of cross-cutting, switching back and forth between different lines of action. The story includes many eventful days, so Mendes and editors Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury employ cross-cutting to present the changes that Lester, Carolyn, and Jane are all undergoing. The first of the two most prominent examples occurs in the film’s second section, beginning with Lester quitting his job and continuing to incorporate Carolyn meeting real estate rival Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher) for lunch and Jane walking home from school with Ricky.
This expands the range of narration beyond any one character’s knowledge to bring the viewer key plot details and create a parallel between the beginning of Carolyn’s affair and of Jane’s relationship with Ricky, while Lester does not form a connection with anyone (although he is getting closer to his authentic self and has met Ricky). Then, because the entire last section of the movie unfolds over the course of one day, cross-cutting becomes an important tool for showing the audience how the characters’ actions culminate in Lester’s death.
Everyone thinks that they can sustain the relative happiness acquired in the second section, but the audience knows that many of these developments can come to no good. Another visual motif in American Beauty is the use of overlapping editing in Lester’s fantasies. The technique’s first appearance is the most pronounced; when Angela turns to face Lester in the stands, unzips her top, and opens it, each motion is shown at least three times. This occurs in the middle of the fantasy, but during the root beer scene, overlapping editing signals the shift into Lester’s imagination as Angela’s arm seems to move three times.
During the third fantasy – Angela in the bathtub of rose petals – Lester reaches into the tub several times, and the movement is even photographed from multiple angles. The technique emphasizes that the scenes are merely fantasies and creates a sense of tension and excitement that Lester must feel when Angela is nearby. As a motif, overlapping editing also connects the fantasies to an actual occurrence in the movie’s last section, the near-fulfillment of Lester’s desires on the day he dies.
As Lester undresses Angela, his stroking of her legs is repeated once. The greater subtlety of this example underscores the fact that the scene is taking place in the actual story world, not Lester’s imagination. Though he does not tell anyone, Lester does not seem ashamed about his fantasies, which most people would consider totally inappropriate. Finally, two montage sequences appear in American Beauty, one near the beginning and the other at the end of the film. The first shows Carolyn preparing for and working an open house.
She vigorously scrubs the countertops, squeegees the windows, and vacuums the floors, then describes the house’s modest features to potential buyers in glowing terms that obviously contradict reality. Like most of the movie but unlike most montage sequences, this sequence uses direct cuts in continuity editing, so the audience does not pick up on the passage of time until different skeptical couples appear. It is clear that despite all of Carolyn’s hard work, the house will never be clean or attractive, and that there will be no offer on it that day.
At the end of the day, Carolyn starts to cry over her failure and slaps herself back into composure, but not before revealing the importance – and deceptiveness – of image in her world. Far less cynical is the second montage sequence, which simulates Lester’s life flashing before his eyes as he dies. Distant memories from Lester’s life are joined by dissolves to scenes from the night of his death. Unlike the direct cuts that predominate in the movie, these dissolves indicate the plot’s back-and-forth movement in story time. Also linking the images are graphic matches: the camera tracks through an overhead shot of Lester as a boy lying n his back in the grass and continues to track right through Jane’s bedroom and a similar overhead shot of Jane and Ricky lying in bed. A teenage Jane opening a door dissolves to Jane as a toddler dressed up for Halloween as she appears behind an opening door. In spite of Lester’s interest in Angela and his claim that his marriage is “just for show,” this sequence reaffirms Lester’s love for his family. The simple, mundane memories – his cousin Tony’s new Firebird, his grandmother’s hands, yellow leaves on maple trees – are examples of the world’s simple and ubiquitous beauty.
In a sense, they finally replace all of Lester’s fantasies about Angela. In the end, an analysis of the depth and range of narration, form, camerawork, and editing of American Beauty reveals an ambivalence about the norms and mores of suburban America. Mendes implies disdain for the superficiality of a consumer culture that squashes individuality, encouraging viewers to penetrate slickly manufactured facades. However, Mendes’ protagonist does not entirely succeed, succumbing to consumerism without even realizing it. For example, Lester belittles Carolyn over her concern for a couch only minutes after gloating about buying a sportscar.
Adding to the film’s complexity are the disastrous consequences of individualism gone too far – the selfishness embodied by Carolyn’s affair with Buddy, Lester’s pursuit of Angela, and Angela’s exploitation of Jane to improve her own self-image. A final paradox is Lester’s sense of closure and peace in the face of the movie’s decidedly unhappy and somewhat unresolved ending. Lester reaches contentment as his “stupid little life” flashes before his eyes, suggesting that happiness may be easier to find than it seems, if only people would “look closer. ” –