[I am back in school working on finishing my degree and because I sometimes feel guilty about not writing as much as I should or want to I have decided to post the work I do on film for school here. I’ll post the grades/comments I receive when I get them.]
Acquiescence to the lifestyle represented by suburban America is emasculating. The routines and office jobs act as a prison for an internal self that is freer and happier, but outwardly abnormal. Lester Burnham’s fourteen years of dedication to this have gotten him a cubicle and all the job security of a knife edge. His family think of him as an embarrassment and his sex life exists solely in the shower. Notably, this version of Lester seems more acceptable to nearly everyone around him than the Lester he becomes over the course of the film. His wife reacts to his libido creeping out of the shower with alarm, threats of divorce, and concern over the couch. While it is understandable that she feel threatened by the shift in power within their family that this represents, she makes no attempt to understand what he’s going through and instead indulges in an affair and purchases a gun.
Lester’s newfound freedom and manhood are even more at odds with the conservative ex-marine neighbor that moves in next door. A man so retrograde that when he comes into contact with Lester’s newly progressive self, Lester ends up a beatific sacrifice to the gods of the suburban conformist façade that is anything but normal.
Character placement and proxemics:
- Lester and Carolyn are at EXTREME opposite ends of the frame with Jane positioned between them.
- Jane’s positioning shows she is psychologically caught between the parents for their understanding and love.
- Lester’s body is not fully in frame (which could be easily fixed) showing he’s not a full man in the family unit.
- Jane is the only ‘bright spot’ in the scene and the whole household. Showing her innocence.
- Lester and Carolyn are lighted to show a mix of good and bad, both optimism and pessimism in their hearts.
- Lester looks at his food, tuning out his wife and family problems.
A motif is an image, an idea or a word or phrase that is repeated several times in a particular work. It is a unifying device.
A symbol is an image, an idea, a word that represents something else, other than itself. The meaning of a symbol is decided by convention, rather than by any direct lin with what it signifies.
- Roses and rose petals
- Lester’s red car
- Ricky’s Camera
- References to death
- Empty Rooms
- White Walls
- Repeated movements and gestures
- Mirrors and reflections
- “Beauty is found in places you least expect it - sometimes in death” - Sam Mendes
- “Lester rediscovers the ability to amuse himself and find things in the world to laugh at” - Kevin Spacey
- “It’s a story about what do we dream for, what do wo hope for, and what do we fight for” - Kevin Spacey
- The point is that we live in a culture that goes out of it’s way to deny mortality.
- It’s a rite of passage film about the need to escape from the prisons we make for ourselves.
- The young see with more clarity than older people.
- It satirises the ‘American Dream’
- ‘Look Closer’
American Beauty Essay:
“The beauty that addresses itself to the eyes is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul.” George Sand hit the nail right on the head when he said this in 1872. Appearance versus reality has been a central theme in many American creative works including the film American Beauty. American Beauty is a film that looks into your typical, middle-class suburban American home and slowly uncovers all of the abnormalities that lie within. The family is portrayed as normal but as the films tag line suggests “look closer” then it is possible to fully understand the implications that takes place in this seemingly happy home. The film is masterfully directed by the famous theater director Sam Mendes and encompasses a great number of cinematic techniques that appear fresh and exciting. Sam Mendes effectively uses the color red; as a central motif to heighten mood and theme, to contrast families, and to reveal characters personalities and feelings.
In American culture red is a color of various meanings and images. The color red is the essence of life; it is the color of blood. “It can imply energy, vitality, passion, anger, power, excitement, and sacrifice. It is a grounding color. Red can stand for warmth, danger, love, sex, death, rage, lust, and beauty” (Behm 15). Red is the color used for the women’s clothing, the cars, the doors and also it is the color of Lester’s blood splattered across the white table at the end of the movie. Red is the central motif of the film.
Sam Mendes incorporated many of these meaning of red within the film American Beauty. Not only did Sam Mendes implant a motif of red, he also incorporated a motif of the red rose. Roses in American culture are the ultimate symbol of love, life and death. Flowers are a large part of the American culture. They have come to symbolize compassion, caring and love. The beauty of rose is covered with danger, for they have thorns that can pierce. Roses symbolize beauty; perhaps that is why they chose the title American Beauty.
The title American Beauty is an assortment of symbolism; it encompasses a variety of meanings. For the viewer it can stand for the American beauty rose, a rare and antique climbing rose, much like the roses in the Burnham garden. It can also represent the ideal American woman such as Angela, with her long flowing blonde hair, her porcelain complexion and her ruby red lips and bright blue eyes. Another adaptation of the title is the beauty of a perfect American home much like the Burnham’s home appears to be. But all have flaws, the rose has thorns to prick, Angela has her fear of being ordinary; and the Burnham’s home, well it too is cursed with the reality that they are a dysfunctional family. Red roses become not only a motif in the film; they come to represent symbols. They are prevalent in almost every scene. They are in the garden; almost every room in the house has a bouquet of brightly colored roses in a vase. They are the centerpieces to the dining room table. This table becomes a motif in the film as well, the family has its nightly dinner ritual and over the course of the movie we see a delineation of the family at this table. Rose petals are the symbol of sex also, they are seen surrounding Angela, they burst out of her blouse, they pop out of Lester’s mouth after he fantasizes of kissing her and they fall from the ceiling onto his face when he pictures her above his bed.
The front door to the house becomes a motif as well, with constant references from neighbors about the house with the red door. As if the door is a gateway to the oddities lurking inside the house. Within the house Mendes restricted the colors to a monochromatic blue-gray scheme to emphasize the isolation between the Burnham’s. Lester escapes from this cold and lonely house by creating a domain for himself, it is framed in golden browns, and this separates him even further from the blue-gray existence he had been living.
To carry further the theme that the Burnham’s happy home is just a front for what lies deep inside. Sam Mendes juxtaposes the Burnham’s house with the neighbor’s homes. The bright, almost artificial colors of Burnham’s house are quite a contrast against the Fitt’s which is very bland and regimented; inside it is almost Amish looking. They have limited furniture, and the furniture that is present is plain, straight lined dark and wooden. The lighting is dim and the prevalent color throughout the home is white or cream. The Fritt’s family is one of distances. Mendes makes a point by surrounding them in mild, gloomy colors and spacing them at length from one another. The family is clad in black and white throughout most of the film to externalize the loneliness and isolation between themselves and society. The other neighbors, Jim and Jim, two very successful men living together as “partners,” appear at first to be the most abnormal of the bunch. They are always bright and cheery dressed in primary colors and portrayed as happy and full of life. The irony is that they are most normal characters in the entire film. Color is used not only to show juxtapositions in neighborhoods, but to bring out the characters as well.
Sam Mendes captures the essence of each character with color. At first we see Lester in cool colors to suggest a lack of energy and a drained life. As the film continues and Lester goes through a rebirth we see him develop a brighter outlook on life and the color of his garments go through a rebirth as well, at first he turns to yellow, then green and eventually he adopts red. He wears a red tank top, acquires a red car and pursues a job wearing a red and white uniform. Mendes uses this color transformation to show that Lester has remembered the things he wanted. He suddenly realizes what is lacking in his life and red clothing gives him a sense of power and control over his life. What started this change was when he first saw Angela. She represents the ultimate sign of American beauty; she is adorned with red throughout the movie. She emanates sex and passion. Throughout the film she wears very red lipstick, she wears brightly colored clothing and she is seen to Lester as surrounded by red rose petals, he has visions of her soaking in a bath tub of rose petals.
Red is the dominant color of nail polish and lipstick for all the central females in the film including Caroline. Caroline Burnham goes through a transformation as well she outwardly appears isolated and controlling but underneath she yearns for passion and power. Mendes ingeniously shows this in the beginning of the film when Caroline undresses to clean a house and underneath her drab yellow suit is a crimson red camisole. While she cleans the dark and shadowy house she is backlit with brightly colored walls. She has a private “breakdown” and covers her sobbing face with those red nails to mask her uncharacteristic behavior. Carolyn attempts to fill her loneliness up with having the right things. The right car, the right house and even the right garden, but she doesn’t see the big picture. She does transform, much like Lester into a more secure and grounded person. This is most apparent in the last sequence of the film when she is wearing a sexy red velvet dress. She has become assertive and is ready to finally connect with Lester, even though she is too late. Early on it becomes obvious that she is obsessed with her image of success, and this is why she envies Buddy Kane so fervently. Buddy Kane the “king of real estate” is her competitor and the ideal figure of success, he has a bright red sign mounted in the yards of his homes to advertise himself. The sign represents his power and hints at his sexual appeal to Caroline.
Jane and Ricky are important too, they are the more grounded of the characters, they are both presented in neutral colors throughout most of the film. They represent balance and neutrality in the movie. Ricky’s parents are not so neutral; they are dressed in pale, washed out colors to show their lack of vitality. Especially Mrs. Fritt’s, she plays a minor role in the movie and that is precisely the point Sam Mendes makes. She is seen as a minor role in the family. She is usually wearing a long white nightgown and appears almost as a ghost in the picture of her family.
American Beauty is a fantastic film that encourages viewers to “look closer.” Sam Mendes used the color red to signify many things in this wonderfully crafted movie. The transitions of the characters, and the environment really gave a consistent feelings associated with the color red. Sam Mendes’ movie American Beauty is truly a marvelously crafted film.
Behm, Barbara J. Investigating the Color Red. Milwaukee: G.Stevens P, 1993. American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Dreamworks. 2000. Getlein, Franks. Movies, Morals, and Art. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1961.
The camera work is very stylised - particulary in the lighting, framing and composition Hall empolys.
- For the main part Mendes creates a sparse, almost surreal feeling - a bright, crisp, near Magritte (painting) take on American suburbia. Characterised by static camera positions and slow camera movement.
- In Lester’s fantasy sequences the camera movements are move fluid and graceful. Computer generated and repeated gestures.
- Ricky’s video camera shots have a much more kinetic handheld strange energy. A grainier amateur look.
The whole effect is to show the familiar in an unfamiliar way, which forces us to look closer as well in a different way - which is of course what American Beauty is about.
“Every character starts off as if they’re going to be one thing but then they become another. The movie peels back layers and reveals so much more… Our relationship with the characters shifts and changed.
What was this man Lester doing? Acting like a spoiled child or raging against the dying of the light?
His wife Carolyn? Furious and frigid, yet vulnerable and lost.
Jane? Impassive, unreadable, but with a well of tenderness barely visible to the naked eye.
And Ricky. His camera emotionlessly recording it’s subject or reaching out to touch it?”
- Sam Mendes
One of my all-time favorite movies. In one scene, Kevin Spacey’s character, Lester, relives certain memories from his life: stargazing as a boy scout, yellow leaves from the maple trees on his street, and his grandmother’s papery hands. I cried when I watched this scene. The memories sound nice, don’t they? But in real life, they’re the types of things that people tend to take for granted or never really appreciate. Or, never even consciously notice.
How many of us are present enough to notice the texture of someone’s hands? Or the leaves that fall on our street year after year? Perhaps not many of us, because to have that kind of presence of mind requires a raw vulnerability. In those moments, you relinquish your dreams of the life that you want for the reality of the life that’s before you. It’s losing control, letting life be life. Without your manipulation. It’s… seeing clearly.
Seeing clearly when an angry mother smacks her little girl across the face. Seeing clearly when a runaway teenager sticks a needle in his arm again. Seeing clearly when the person in your bed—-your wife—-is a complete, hollow stranger to you. p>
just wrote a paragraph for my paper about how the murder scene (don’t want to spoil it and make you all mad or something) in American Beauty is symbolic of homoerotic fellatio (in the sense of the gun being a phallic symbol and this being a rape & murder case). It’s an honest observation, though…
Rene Magritte’s intention was to fuddle the illusion of reality. A play on images so to speak.
Why does Mendes do it too? I think it may be because all the characters have their own perception of beauty, and for Ricky, his perception of beauty is Jane, who exists in a frame two frames away from him: his camera and his own window frame. So, Mendes chooses to display Ricky’s perception of beauty through a Magritte style of representation, that you need to look closer beyond the frame to see what’s truly beautiful and not what’s obviously or superficially beautiful, all the while fuddling what is “beautiful.”
For Ricky, beauty comes in a never-ending observation of life. He sees beauty everywhere in the simplest forms, as noted with the plastic bag and his mother sitting at the dining table. He videotapes them because he “need[s] to remember” what was beautiful to him once even though he is on a constant look-out for beauty.
Hey tumblphiles! Here is my American Beauty/Lolita analysis.
Making Beauty Out of Beasts:
How American Beauty Redefined Sexual Perversion
Look closer. You see a teenage girl in the midst of exploring her newfound sexuality. Look closer. You see a man in the depths of his mid life crisis. Look closer. You see a desperate search for ecstasy in a community that perpetuates in stasis. Look closer. You feel sorry for both. Stop. American Beauty’s popular slogan “look closer” asks the audience to see past societal standards and view the deconstruction of “normal” suburban values. Not only are suburban values re-imagined, but taboo topics are placed in a more acceptable light. Voyeurism and pedophilia are two typically detested actions around the world. Both taking a step out of the love section and into a more erotic, perturbed area. However, American Beauty attempts to challenge the way we view the two acts. This movie argues that one must “look closer” to see what is really going on behind an action. While classics such as Lolita by Vladimir Nabokovfully condemn such acts, American Beauty give the two gentlemen partaking in such activities as sympathetic and hero-esque. Why is this? American Beauty redefines the taboo of both voyeurism and pedophilia by making the two more about an infatuation, and less about sexual exploitation; while Lolita focuses on the more sexually perverse side.
American Beauty directed by Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball follows the life of one Lester Burnham and need to find a new meaning in his seemingly dull life. He isn’t stimulated by his wife, his relationship with his daughter, or his job. It isn’t until he see his daughter’s cheerleading performance that he is introduced to Angela Hayes, Jane’s best friend who acts in a Lolita-esque manner. She flaunts her sexuality and states on multiple occasions that she has no problem sleeping with older men. Once Lester sees Angela is completely infatuated. By smoking weed and working out he reestablishes a life that he once had, and is revitalized by the idea of sleeping with his daughters friend once he hears her say she would if he buffed up a little more. This affects his relationship with his family to the point where his daughter states that, “[she] needs a father who’s a role model, not some horny geek-boy who’s gonna spray his shorts whenever I bring a girlfriend home from school.” By the end of the movie Lester finally gets his opportunity to be with Angela; yet, unlike Humbert, he doesn’t go through with the consummation. Why is this? Lester is not a predator, he is a man on the search for meaning. While Humbert is sexually attracted to younger girls, Lester is only infatuated. This is seen by the rose metaphor. Every time Lester imagines Angela he envisions her covered by a bed of roses. These roses cover up every sexual part. Once Lester finally sees Angela without the roses, in real life, he stops himself. The roses represented beauty and desire. They were what he wanted. Just as a kid dreaming about the toy in the commercial, once he gets it and realizes it’s not what he thought it was, the joy is lost.
Humbert on the other hand does not see Lolita as this representation of beauty. He sees her as more of an object. When he speaks of her he says, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul (1.1)”. His loins are aroused when she is around. He instantly goes to a more explicit place in his mind then that of Lester. When Humbert gets the opportunity he attacks. He consummates the relationship—an act Lester came close to but stopped himself. Why was Humbert more willing to sleep with her? It’s because Lester isn’t a pedophile and Humbert is. The two may have been in a similar situation; both having girls tease them, but Humbert would act on it because he is aroused by young girls where Lester is merely interested in one. Humbert was infatuated by the act of sex, while Lester only the beauty of the girl.
Lester isn’t the only man in this movie characterizing taboo traits. Ricky Fitts, the boy that lives through a camera, is the perfect representation voyeurism. We are first introduced to him filming Jane at her will. We are then reintroduced to him as they go back in time a bit to him recording Jane without her knowledge. When she starts to notice him filming Angela, with a tinge of jealousy, tries to get Jane to veer away from Ricky by saying, “It’s that psycho next door. Jane, what if he worships you? What if he’s got a shrine with pictures of you surrounded by dead people’s heads and stuff? (American Beauty).” Instead of being perturbed by his staring through a camera, she is interested. She starts to feel beautiful, as if someone was finally noticing her. Ricky claims he watches because she is, “interesting,” and never once makes a sexual reference. Yes, Ricky is watching her, but not in a sexual way. He is taking out his infatuations in another manner. He videotapes all the beauty he sees in the world as seen by the plastic bag he recored that he describes as, “the most beautiful thing in the world.” In fact, while there could be some implications that Ricky and Jane slept together the act is never shown on camera, and really the audience only sees Ricky fully naked. Humbert watches Lolita in a more sexual way. He watches her change, he watches her sleep, he watches her naked. Ricky only sees Jane naked when she willingly takes off her clothes, and even then he zooms into her face showing he cares more about her then her body.
It is hard to judge character by taking an outside view. From a distance Lester, and Humbert and Ricky are all one. They all look as though they sexually exploit the young women in their lives for pleasure. You have to “look closer” to see where their paths divulge. American Beauty is about appreciating the world you live in. It takes the mundane and turns it into the magnificent. While both Ricky and Lester’s actions are not condonable, they are not neatly as reprehensible as Humbert. The two men are just searching for beauty which is easy to find because after all, there’s so much beauty in the world.
These scenes provide metaphors of cages and prison to position the audience in a way so they see the characters as trapped.