Written Assignment 1: Critical Analyses of “American Beauty”

Wheeler C.J 920402233

Phyllis Dannhauser


27/ 03 / 2006

Table of Contents

1. Look Closer: An Introduction 2. The Eye Of The Beholder: Making Sense of the Chaos 3. Between The Lines: A General Analyse 3.1 3.2 3.3 Converging Themes and their Meaning The Building Blocks of Story: Structure and Flow Echoed Reality: Relevance to Modern Life

4.“Lets Try That Again”: Sequences and their Meaning 4.1 Sequence 1: Lester at Work 4.1.1 Perspective 4.1.2 Frame and aspect ratio 4.1.3 Light 4.1.4 Colour 4.1.5 Visual design 4.2 Sequence 2: Lester and his Murderer 4.2.1 Perspective 4.2.2 Frame and aspect ratio 4.2.3 Light 4.2.4 Colour 4.2.5 Visual Design 5. Conclusion 6. Bibliography

1.Look Closer: An Introduction:
Once upon a time there was a typical American family living in typical American suburbs, but look a little closer because behind all this normality a sinister and very real reality exists. American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, was released in the late 1990’s and with it came an uncomfortably real perspective on the lives of one special and dynamic American family. The movie looks to dissect American culture and functioning on all levels, from daily interactions to the compounding societal pressures to become self-actualised and successful. However, American Beauty (1999) doesn’t claim to be diving into unmapped movie territory, instead the writer (Alan Ball) has skilfully crafted a story that takes typically stereotypical characters and slowly peels away the prophecies that societies act upon to reveal real human suffering and distress. The movie serves as a paradigm for American culture; despite some of the disturbing themes in the movie (e.g. Adultery, murder, drugs, etc), the real message is in the omnipresent “beauty” that, despite life’s hardships, exists in our surroundings and daily interactions. The film is spectacle of flamboyant cinematography, intelligent storytelling and visionary directing, all of which converge to create an epic tale within a context that would normally be undermined and overtly judged. This assignment will look at how the films meanings are constructed and embedded in the films visual elements (e.g. perspective, frame and aspect ratio, visual design, light and colour) with regards to specific sequences, as well as uncover the complexities of the film’s themes, structure and relevance to modern life.

2. The Eye Of The Beholder: Making Sense of the Chaos:
American beauty (1999) seeks answers to the question: what is beauty? Folk wisdom suggests that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a subjective perception that pleases the aesthetics senses, but where can it be found? The film looks to unravel society’s simplistic notions of beauty. It accomplishes this by depicting onedimensional stereotypes (e.g. the lead cheerleader) and their immediate worlds, then progressively revealing each character’s confining reality. The initial portrayal of the characters lends the idea that something in their lives is incomplete, leaving them feeling lethargic and empty (e.g. Lester’s undesirable relationship with his wife and daughter, his monotonous dead-end job, etc). As the film progresses, the main character (Lester Burnham) comes to realises how illusionary his life feels and how detached he actually is from the things in life that make it worth living (e.g. A good relationship with his daughter). Ironically, Lester receives a taste of “beauty” in the form of a fantasy involving his daughter’s friend Angela, from this moment on Lester travels through his daily life and overtly challenges his relationships, career and general lifestyle. Lester’s transformation is initially an attempt to possess Angela, but as he slowly reconnects himself with reality as he realises that life is filled with an abundance of beauty (other than Angela) that is almost over whelming. But what does it mean? Why tell such a story? The characters are reflective of modern societal archetypes: A farther dealing with a mid life crisis (Lester); the status-seeking wife (Carolyn); the troubled and detached teenager (Jane); inner versus outer beauty (Angela); the ex-marine trying to adapt to now having a family (Colonel Frank Fitts). It is in these archetypes that the filmmakers begin to embody the subjective nature of experiences but, paradoxically, the resultant feeling when beauty is embraced is universal. In other words although what each of us find beautiful differs the feeling that results from perceived beauty is constant and almost innate, therefore beauty is not what appears aesthetically pleasing but rather it is a deeper understanding and appreciation of the underlying connectivity of ones surroundings (real or otherwise) and oneself. The film attempts to awaken the senses to such beauty by projecting society’s sense of helplessness and then falsifying these myths by giving the film’s characters strong conviction to challenge their mettle states.

The film’s meaning is a conglomeration of ideas that depict today’s worldly beliefs to be superficial and ultimately inadequate as a means of acquiring a meaningful and purposeful existence. American Beauty (1999) presents a fresh perspective of what it means to be fulfilled in life, by attempting to manifest a strong sense of contumacious towards the current conceptual paradigms. The movie serves as a paradigm for American culture; despite some of the disturbing themes in the movie (e.g. Adultery, murder, drugs, etc), the real message is in the omnipresent “beauty” that, despite life’s hardships, exists in our surroundings and daily interactions.

3. Between The Lines: A General Analyse:

In his début film, director Sam Mendes has skilfully transferred his skills and talent from the limitations of stage directing to Hollywood cinema. Mendes has overcome the complexities of this two-dimensional medium resulting in a film that “resembles the real world only in a superficial sense” (Giannetti, 2005:483), while at the same time remaining true to the psychological integrity of the characters. American Beauty (1999) is therefore part of the formalist film genre, which suitably complements the converging themes throughout the film and ads flexibility to the structure and flow. Mendes has used Formalist conventions (i.e. Mise en scene) to superimpose societal stereotypes onto a world, which ultimately forces one to take notice of the delusions about our own reality and the attributions we make towards others (hence the tag line of the film being “look closer”). American Beauty (1999) could be seen as a “metaphorical overkill” (Zelevinsky, 1999), but this simplistic label does not take into account the complex and converging themes in the film that contribute to a conglomeration of meaningful and insightful perspectives on the idiosyncratic nature of experience. 3.1 Converging Themes and their Meaning According to Fourie (2001:75), a useful starting point when analysing a film is to identify the theme of the story (e.g. Love, hate, desperation, heroisms or cowardice, unrealistic fantasies, etc). In American Beauty (1999) the themes are embedded in the films exposition, which involves the following elements: the locality, the era and time, the main characters and the cause and/or nature of underlying conflict. Locality and Era The film takes place in America (during the late 1990’s) and from the title we can further deduce that one of the main theme is the innate understanding of beauty and the context within which it existents. Contrastingly, the film begins with ideas of malicious intent (Janie seemingly attempting to pay for her fathers murder, American Beauty: 1999) and dissatisfaction with life (Lester waking up alone, masturbating in the shower, sleeping on the way to work, American Beauty: 1999). The film is an allegory for American culture at this point in time; therefore themes such as intoxication (from Lester’s drug use to Carolyn’s self-indulgent fixation with success, American Beauty: 1999) and acceptance (the Colonel’s overt prejudice towards homosexuals, American Beauty: 1999) are common and relevant to the suprastructure of American culture.

Fittingly, one of the first visualisation of beauty in the film comes in the form of a red rose that Carolyn picks in the garden. This superficial symbol of beauty is the beginning of the film’s leitmotif (“… something which is often repeated in order for it to take on a symbolic or higher meaning”, Van Nierop: 1998:180), although the red rose itself is the leitmotif, it serves as a reference point for future interpretation of colour in the film. The irony is that even though the colour red is repeated throughout the film and it enters the viewer’s awareness, it is not appreciated due to the distractions that the story itself presents (e.g. In the final sequence when Carolyn is in her car looking at the red door through the rain, American beauty: 1999, the viewers focus is on what her probably intentions are, that is killing Lester, and not the semantic origin the door makes reference too). This relationship between awareness and appreciation serves as the ideology behind the dominant theme in the film: beauty is an omnipresent experience that, despite life’s hardships, exists in our surroundings and daily interactions. Interestingly, despite the above-mentioned leitmotif, there are a number of disturbing themes that seem to undermine “real-life” causality. For example, the ease at which both Lester and Carolyn engage in scandalous behaviour (i.e. adultery) is concerning and seemingly ignores society punishments for such taboo behaviour. The style and nature of the film allows such illegal behaviour to be overlooked in the context of the film because the viewer is always seeking psychological closer in order to preserve one’s image (Fourie, 2001: 288-289), therefore when Colonel Frank Fitts murder’s Lester, although we are show the Colonel does not receive any punishment for his act, we assume the were repercussions because to ignore this fact is to undermine our societal structure as whole. Main characters and the cause and/or nature of underlying conflict Although the majority of the films themes are related to society as a whole, there are important themes to be mentioned that ordinate from the characters themselves. Van Nierop (1998:177) describes the notion of “irony of character”, which is when character possesses opposing emotions which often clash. This is best illustrated in Colonel Frank Fitts, despite the character’s unconcealed hatred towards homosexual behaviour, he ends up kissing Lester in the garage in an emotional quest to gain insight into his son’s betrayal. This gives rise to themes of change and transformation; throughout the film each character undergoes a two-step process of self-actualisation. Firstly each character becomes aware of their character flaw (e.g. Janie realises that she is not like Angela and will never be like her, American Beauty: 1999), and secondly they are presented with an opportunity/motive to change this flaw (e.g. Janie finds someone who

loves her just the way she is and, hence, overcomes her poor self-esteem issues). In Colonel Frank Fitts case, his attempts to change are submerge in his overwhelming conditioned state of what values his family should adopt, this results in a false catharsis in his character which ultimately misleads the audience in the issue of accountability of Lester’s murder. Colonel Frank Fitts is the exception in the film with regards to the theme of change and transformation, it is possible that his character’s integrity was sacrificed to provide a suitable climax.

3.2 The Building Blocks of Story: Structure and Flow According to Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999:DVD commentary), the film is about “jail cells”, he talks about how the main character Lester is always to be found trapped in literal (e.g. his work cubicle) and metaphorical jails (e.g. his marriage). Initially the film’s structure is a transition from one jail to another and in between these transitions the audience is introduced to the other characters in Lester’s life. As the other characters are given more importance in the story, the structure and flow of the film expands to incorporate each character’s perspective with a certain degree of equality. The result of this “branching out” structure is a well-paced story that is able to make use of alternating perspectives in order to emphasis the films dominant theme. In order words, because we are continually attempting to empathise with each character as each scene presents itself, we are distracted from the underlying message of the omnipresent beauty the exists, this lack of awareness towards beauty is the core message of the film and therefore the structure and flow of the American Beauty (1999) directly contributes towards the finality of the message embedded in the actual story itself.

3.3 Echoed Reality: Relevance to Modern Life When considering the extent to which American Beauty (1999) is relevant to modern life it is important to consider the ideologies of the film. According to Giannetti (2005:428), Ideology is the “body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture”. With this in mind American Beauty (1999) can be considered as an explicit form of ideological cinematic storytelling, in which the film “aims to teach/persuade as much as to entertain” (Giannetti, 2005:429). The “teaching” takes the form of the narration by Lester in which he explains the transition from emptiness to

enlightenment. This narration, by nature, has direct implications to the “real world”, this is because the film is set in a familiar environment and hence all “teachings” in the world of the story can easily be related to modern life. If, for example, the film took place in outer space the parallel between the movie and the present would be blurred and only the film’s themes would allow reference to be made to modern life. The film deals with many current issues in the form of character stereotypes (e.g. A farther dealing with a mid life crisis - Lester; the status-seeking wife - Carolyn; the troubled and detached teenager - Jane; inner versus outer beauty - Angela; the ex-marine trying to adapt to now having a family - Colonel Frank Fitts). It is in the very nature of the film to have reference and relevance to modern life, because American Beauty (1999) is a Hollywood production it has to appeal to the mass market, therefore having characters that everyone can relate too is essential. If people can see characters in a movie with similar problems to there own and then see the same characters overcome/challenge these problems, they will be part-taking in the process of modelling in which they will begin to question the way they handle similar situations. Seeing Lester overcome his monotonous and empty lifestyle to become “free” and energetic serves as a template for how society members can challenge their own lives in pursuit of happiness. Another possible relevance to modern life in the film could be found in the homosexual couple that live next door to Lester. Society is still in the process of tolerance (rather than acceptance) of homosexual relationships, Colonel Frank Fitts character would then represent members of society that are not yet accepting of the once taboo lifestyle. There is a strong message to be found in that the character that opposed homosexual liberation (the Colonel) becomes one of the antagonists and ultimately commits a taboo much greater than the non-traditional sexual orientation choices of minorities.

4.“Lets Try That Again”: Sequences and their Meaning: “When a director uses more than one location, allows time to lapse and shows several points of view to portray a certain event, that part of the film is referred to as a sequence” (Van Nierop, 1998:106). 4.1 Sequence 1: Lester at Work The first sequence to be analysed involves the main character Lester in his work environment. There are three scenes that make up this sequence: Lester in his work cubicle and Lester in Brad’s office before and after he meets Ricky. 4.1.1 Perspective The use of perspective is an important cinematic tool in any film and American Beauty (1999) is not exception. In this sequence, cinematographer Conrad Hall uses perspective relationships to portray Lester as inferior to his boss Brad by having the camera constantly above Lester (making him appear smaller) and lower than Brad (give him a sense of grandeur and power). This indicated to the audience on a subtle level that a hierarchy and division of power exist within Lester’s work environment. The first shot of Lester is in his cubicle (or “jail cell”), the high angel of the camera not only makes him appear smaller and passive but it also allows the rest of the office to be viewed, this gives the impression that Lester is part of a mass collective task force and this implies that his position and purpose within the organisation is relatively small and inconsequently. Contrastingly, when Brad appears the use of scale is evident and results in his superiority being felt immediately, the camera angel no longer makes visible all the other employees suggesting that brad is indeed “above” them. The next scene in the sequence is Lester and Brad in Brad’s office (American Beauty, 1999). Here the same camera angels are used for both characters, but the emphasis is on scale. Lester now appears significantly smaller than brad and more isolated from the rest of the room, this again indicates the presents of a clear hierarchical management-employee relationship. 4.1.2 Frame and aspect ratio “The Frame of a shot refers to the boundaries of the image” (Fourie, 2001: 466), in all three scenes Brad takes up significantly more space in the frame when compared to Lester. Since Brad has significantly less headroom, the “magnetism” of the boundaries of the frame complement the low camera angel to add to his

strong sense of stature and power over Lester. Lester on the other hand is seemingly lost in the frame, his environment appears to overwhelm his presents, making him appear as passive as the objects that surround him. Interestingly, Lester placement within the frame “pulls” him towards the bottom of the frame, while Brad’s placement within the frame “pulls” him upward (both complement the high and low camera placement respectively). 4.1.3 Light In Lester’s cubicle the office lighting is harsh and consistent, suggesting that the demands of work are relentless and unforgiving. When Brad enters the scene the lights from above possibly indicating that he was sent from upper management to access the employee’s value, this lighting effect on Brad once again complements the perspective within which he is framed resulting in a indication that Brad is paramount and too be respected, neither of which Lester’s responds too. When Lester is sitting in Brad’s office, there is are strong rays of light the streak across the room and which strike Lester, the director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999) suggests that this is an indication that the outside world holds a possible future for Lester. 4.1.4 Colour “Colour tends to be a subconscious element” (Giannettti, 2005:24), the lighting involved in this sequence is subtle and not as predominant as the leitmotif “red” that exists throughout the film. Instead the colour in this sequence is dominated by a neon blue cause by the combination of the penetrating sunlight and the neon office luminance. This creates a contrasting irony to the scene because lighter shades of blue are generally associated with tranquillity and peace, but the reality of Lester’s work situation is quite the opposite, being that he strongly despises his job and all that is associated with it. Brad is dressed in traditional management style (blues suit, shirt, tie, etc), the blue on Brad’s shirt complements the rooms hazy blue tinge and hence adds the contrast between the ambience of the room and what Lester feels when he is at work. Comically, Brad is also wearing a multi-coloured tie, which is reminiscent of a manager who is trying to be seen as the employees friends and not to be feared or seen as intimidating.

4.1.5 Visual Design The visual design aspect of this sequence is structured in order to make it clear to the audience, in this early point in the film, that Lester is seemingly trapped by the constraints and procedures that his work demands. Mise en scene, according to Giannetti, 2005:48, refers to the arrangement of all the visual elements of a theatrical production within a given playing area. The very first shot of Lester at his desk sets the tone for every other scene that we see Lester in. It is a shot of Lester through the reflection of his computer screen, on which is a series of vertical text, resulting in the impression that Lester is in fact in a prison every time he comes to work. The tag line to the film is “look closer”, this can actually be seen on Lester’s notice board by his desk, suggesting at the films main motifs and themes. When Lester goes into Brad’s office he is a significant distance from all other objects in the room, suggesting that he is indeed isolated from the world around him. Brad’s office is dull and ordered indicating that Brad is a well-organised and structured individual (clearly in opposition to Lester). 4.2 Sequence 2: Lester and the Colonel This second sequence begins when the Colonel watching Ricky (his son) and Lester in the basement and seemingly misinterprets their actions as acts of homosexuality and prostitution. This scene is proceeded by the Colonel confronting Lester in a rather emotional state and tests Lester to see if he is in fact gay. The Colonel once again misinterprets the situation, which ultimately leads to him murdering Lester (American Beauty 1999). 4.1.1 Perspective The use of perspective hear is very important in order to make sure that the audience understands that the Colonel’s actions are of a result of his predisposed conditioning to violent solutions rather that acting on pure rage and evil. The subjective nature of the camera allows the audience to understand why the Colonel would interpret such ambitious situations the way he did. Therefore the viewers understand why he acted the way he did and as a result of such empathy they rend to reserve judgement to a certain degree. When the Colonel is looking through the window towards the basement, the audience can see why he (the Colonel) would interpret such is situation as being a homosexual act.

When Lester and the Colonel are interacting in the basement, the camera’s perspective is still strongly reflective of the biased interpretations of the Colonel, only a few cut-a-ways are used to visualise the Colonel’s emotional facial expressions which allows the viewer to empathise with/and feel the distress and internal conflict that the Colonel is experiencing. Contrastingly, in the murder scene an objective perspective is used in order to create doubt in the minds of the audience as to who the murderer is, with suspicion falling heavily on Carolyn. This creates suspense and mystery for brief period until it is revealed to the audience that the Colonel was indeed Lester’s murder. 4.1.2 Frame and Aspect Ratio Throughout this sequence the frame is limited and the audience is not to be distracted from the content of the Colonel’s experience. Both characters take up a large percentage of the frame indicating the emotional stakes of their interaction, by not allowing the viewers eyes to wonder the emphasis is on the characters expressions and conversation and not the aesthetic presentation of the setting. 4.1.3 Light When the Colonel is watching Lester and Ricky in the basement, he the lighting places him in the shadows only allowing enough light to allow the audience to identify who is watching. The point at which the Colonel concludes that his son is engaging in homosexual activities is a huge credit to the cinematographer (Conrad Hall). The Colonel’s face is dimly lite by the luminance of the night sky and then the colonel slowly pulls away from the window casting his figure in complete darkness, then as he draws further back into the room the lighting changes and results in the Colonel’s silhouette. This brilliant use of contrast suggests that the Colonel is now faced with an internal dilemma of anger and “social responsibility” to rectify the situation as he knows how. The garage scene is murky and creates suspense, because the audience is expecting the colonel to physically confront Lester and probably kill him in the process. Lester is strongly lit while the Colonel’s face is, for the majority of the scene, in the shadow. This strongly highlights the indifference the Colonel is experience as he internalises every word Lester says in order feed his own misguide perception of Lester (being that he thinks that Colonel is a homosexual).

4.1.4 Visual elements and Colour The use of colour when the Colonel is spying on Ricky is used sparingly, only used to highlight the interactions of Ricky and Lester through the basement window, while the Colonel’s immediate environment is dull and flooded with darkness. As the Colonel watches them through is window (figurative expression of the Colonel’s subjective interpretations), Lester and Ricky are framed in such a way that there is uncertainty with regards to what they are actually doing. Interestingly, there are two windows in the basement, Lester and Ricky can be see by the Colonel independent of one another, the Colonel’s misunderstanding comes from when Ricky seemingly disappears from his window frame and enters Lester’s in a compromising manner – resulting in the Colonel’s initial misinterpretation of the event. In the garage, the arrangement of elements behind Lester (i.e. the dagga leaf poster, dart board, etc) acts as a subconscious trigger to elements in the Colonel’s life that have strong conviction and meaning. For example, the Colonel is constantly testing Ricky for drug abuse and now when face with Lester there is a big poster of the very substance the Colonel is concerned about. But ironically, despite the Colonels concerns about Ricky’s drug use, his emotional state does not allow him to open his mind to the possibility that the link between Lester and Ricky is marijuana and not of a sexual nature. A small hint to the fact that the Colonel is Lester’s murder can be found in the placement of a dartboard directly behind Lester head. The colonel is familiar with targets given that he is in fact an ex-marine. In the murder scene the leitmotif is brought to and end by the vivid splatter of blood and shrapnel resulting from the gunshot. Although this shot is innately disturbing, because the whole movie use of red colour has been associated with beauty and fantasy it is not as depressing as the audience initially thinks.

American Beauty (1999) is a spectacle of flamboyant cinematography, intelligent storytelling and visionary directing, all of which converge to create an epic tale within a context that would normally be undermined and overtly judged. The filmmakers have created a strong parallel between the world of the story and modern life, allowing the viewer to adequately make the transition from the story to the “real world”. The movie looks to breakdown American culture and functioning on all levels, from daily interactions to the compounding societal pressures to become self-actualised and successful. The writer (Alan Ball) has skilfully crafted a story that takes typically stereotypical characters and slowly peels away the prophecies that societies act upon to reveal real human suffering and distress. The movie serves as a paradigm for American culture; despite some of the disturbing themes in the movie (e.g. Adultery, murder, drugs, etc), the real message is in the omnipresent “beauty” that, despite life’s hardships, exists in our surroundings and daily interactions.