American Beauty (1999) Summary and Analysis
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Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017
American Beauty tells the story of one man’s search for happiness. The film introduces the audience to Lester Burnham, an ordinary- looking married man and father in his forties. Lester is in a loveless marriage. Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is so wrapped-up in her real estate career that Lester often claims that Carolyn doesn’t even acknowledge him. Furthermore, Lester’s daughter, Jane, is completely distant, often claiming how “pathetic” she thinks her father is. Moreover, Lester has dedicated fourteen years to his occupation, and suddenly, he is in danger of losing his job due to downsizing. All of these factors dramatically effect Lester and culminate into feelings of desperation and vulnerability for him. Lester is therefore in search of an escape and a rebirth. He is seeking the slightest possibility of happiness. Throughout the story Lester is consistently reminiscing on his past; wishing he could have it back. In the beginning portions of the story, Lester, as the narrator, states that “it is never too late to regain your past.” The catalyst to this frame of thought is Jane’s friend, Angela. Lester feels excited by the thought that a teen-age girl thinks he is “hot.” Lester overhears Angela state that she would have sex with him if Lester would start working-out and build-up his body. This drives Lester to change himself completely. Lester, in desperate search of happiness , finds an escape in Angela. Much like a hormone-driven teenage boy, Lester thinks that if he can “score” with a “bombshell” like Angela, then he will be reborn. Lester’s mission for happiness and escape is further perpetuated by his eighteen year old neighbor, Ricky. In Ricky, Lester sees his model for rebirth.
Lester calls Ricky his “hero” and is in awe of Ricky’s confidence. Lester, then begins a transformation back to his stereotypical understanding of what a teenager is. Lester begins to work-out, smoke pot, and drink beer. Much like a teen, he rebels against responsibility by quitting his job and; therefore, bypassing his duties as a provider to his daughter and wife. Furthermore, Lester spontaneously, trades in his Mercedes automobile for a 1970’s cherry-red Trans Am sports car. In addition, Lester pursues a job with the least amount of responsibility. He finds that job in a fast food restaurant. All of these actions are deemed necessary to Lester because this is the way to escape and thus achieving happiness. The first scene where the audience is introduced to Lester’s transformation process is when he first spots Angela. Lester and Carolyn decided to come and support Jane at a school basketball game where she is to perform a dance at half-time. This scene is significant because it shows how Angela’s sexuality motivated Lester to rebel against who he is. Furthermore, this scene exemplifies Lester’s characteristics as a hormone-crazed male in search of sex. This frame of thought is associated more with teens than with men in their forties. The first two technical elements used to exemplify this scene are composition and camera movement. The scene begins with Lester and Carolyn already in the stands with the crowd. Angela, Jane, and the other cheerleaders enter the picture with right to left movement assisted by a panning camera shot of right to left. This foreshadows the unordinary actions that are about to occur. Almost immediately, into the dance routine, Angela is given an upward position in the frame elevated with dynamic composition. It is dynamic composition because there is movement (Angela dancing) within a fixed frame. By giving Angela an upward position within the frame this suggest Lester is first noticing her. As the scene continues, and Angela has Lester’s full attention, Angela is shown moving towards the camera in another dynamic composition shot complemented by the camera zooming in on her. This gives the audience an idea as to the degree of attention that Lester is giving to Angela due to her sexuality.
It also enhances her presence. The scene continues with a static composition shot of Lester. It is static composition because there is no movement within the frame. The camera then begins to zoom in on Lester. As the camera zooms, the crowd is eliminated and only Lester is shown in the frame. Furthermore, the camera focuses on Lester’s eyes and makes them appear bigger than they actually are. This makes Lester look like an animal drooling at the mouth over something he desires. At this point, the camera performs a point of view shot showing what Lester’s eyes are fixated on, and focuses on Angela. This, once again, displays the degree of enchantment that Angela has placed over Lester. Angela is also shown alone in the frame. This shows that in Lester’s mind, only Angela and himself exist at this moment. Not even his daughter is of any relevance. The scene concludes with the camera then performing a shot-reverse-shot of Angela then Lester. This allows the audience to see that in Lester’s fantasy, Angela is dancing erotically just for him and is paying as much attention to him as he is paying to her. It is important to note that Angela and Lester are never shown in the same frame in this scene. This suggest that there is some barrier that is between them such as the fact that Lester is desiring a girl that is his daughter’s age. Lighting is another technical element that adds to the effectiveness of this scene. When the camera performs a point of view shot from Lester’s perspective to show the audience that he is fixated on Angela; Angela is shown by herself in the frame. As stated above, this is to show that Angela is the only object of Lester’s attention.
Lighting adds to this effect. Lighting is used to focus the audience on Lester’s eyes and to show that he is being enchanted by what he sees. As Angela is shown alone in the frame, the background in the shot becomes completely black. There is a bright light shining on Angela. The source of the light is not clear, and is coming from above Angela. The lighting in the scene is high contrast and low key. It is high contrast because the difference between light and darkness is clear. It is low key lighting because Angela’s shadow can be seen behind her and shadows can be seen on the rest of Lester’s face, excluding his eyes.. The contributions that the lighting effect has in this scene are many. First of all, the light shining solely on Angela adds to the audience understanding that Angela is the object of Lester’s attention. Secondly, light is usually affiliated with good and darkness with bad. The light compliments Angela’s characteristics because she is a virgin. Since the source of the light cannot be seen, there can be speculation that the light is one from Heaven, shining down on her to show her innocence. At the same time, Angela is trying to be somebody that she is not. She consistently claims throughout the movie that she is sexually experienced. The darkness in the background of the shot can be the foreshadowing of things to come if she continues on this path of lies. Even though she may be a virgin, unknowingly to Lester; Lester views her and is thinking bad thoughts. He is fixated with her sexuality, as shown through the dance routine his fantasy has Angela perform. Lester’s thoughts which represent darkness, are shown as surrounding Angela and her innocence. Editing complements this scene by adding more definition to the “relationship-to-be” between Angela and Lester. The entire scene uses decoupage.
It is decoupage because the cutting is fast paced which suggests an almost chaotic and imbalance perspective to the audience and at the same time it shows that the thoughts that are going through Lester’s head are not ordinary, instead they are chaotic. Also, decoupage has a tendency to use close-ups. This scene has plenty of zoom shots of Angela and Lester. Furthermore, it is important to note that Angela and Lester are never shot together in the scene. They are individually shot in a shot-reverse-shot fashion. This suggest a disunity between the both of them. Again, something is separating the both of them, such as the age gap. Not including the absence of decoupage and ellipsis is important in this scene. Absence of decoupage requires a decelerated pace. A slower pace would take away from the chaotic sensation that decoupage brings and; therefore, would not reflect well on the relationship-to-be between Angela and Lester. Using ellipsis would require fast-paced cutting that would compare and contrast the actions occurring in this scene with another scene. This would disturb the scene and take away its effectiveness. By showing the degree of passion between Angela and Lester in his fantasy; the audience learns much about Lester’s intentions and transformation. The usage of sound adds to the effectiveness of both Angela’s moves and Lester’s thoughts in this scene. The scene begins with Jane, Angela, and the other cheerleaders dancing to a wordless version of “On Broadway.” This is parallel diegetic sound because it relates to what can be seen on screen. The usage of this song is important to the theme of this movie. Lester is about to embark on a mission to be free. Lester is going to pursue happiness. In the same way, “On Broadway” is about pursuing a new experience. “On Broadway” speaks about coming to New York and being taken aback by all the lights and attractiveness of the city. In the same manner, Lester is about to be taken aback by an “American beauty”, Angela. Further in the scene, through shot-reverse-shot fashion, only Angela and Lester are in the frame (they are shown separately); the song “On Broadway” and the crowd cannot be heard. This is an example of contrapuntal sound.
Contrapuntal sound involves muting sound beyond what one would normally hear if he/she were in that scene. Using this devise adds to the audience understanding the amount of attention that Lester is giving Angela. Lester, in his fantasy, is so infatuated with Angela that it appears that he can “zone-out” all the other tremendous noise occurring during a basketball game. During Lester’s fantasy, as Angela is dancing in an extremely erotic manner, touching her body all over, a slow and erotic song begins to play. The song has a romantic and Latin beat to it that intensifies the mood from the audience’s perspective; providing clues as to what Lester’s intentions are with Angela. This is an example of non-diegetic sound. It is sound that does not have its source in the image. The second scene of interest occurs when Lester’s erotic dreams are about to become reality. Lester and Angela are in his house. Lester has confessed to Angela that “he wanted her since the first time he laid eyes upon her.” The scene begins with Lester laying Angela down on a couch so he could have sex with her. This scene is essential because Angela and her virginity is for the taking, but Lester comes to a realization and refuses to have sex. Lester transforms once again, from the teenage rebel he had become, back to the man he was. He came to understand, as most boys do when they become mature men, that sex is not the key element to happiness. Lester did want his past back. However, he wanted back the past that included the family he had lost. Composition and camera movement are used in this scene. As the scene begins, Lester has Angela and is laying her down on the couch. This is a dynamic shot with downward movement. It is dynamic because there is movement within a fixed frame. The downward movement implies an action that is not positive, such as Lester having sex with a teenager. Furthermore, the downward movement implies something lost, such as Angela’s virginity and innocence. If they have sex, both of those will be lost forever.
This shot is also a canted shot. It is a canted shot because Angela appears at a 45 degree angle in the frame. This suggest that things are bizarre and that Angela’s point of view is slanted. A bizarre sex act is about to occur, and Angela is inexperienced, and doesn’t know the first thing about why she should be having sex. As the scene continues, the camera pans from left to right and right to left following Lester’s hands as they go up and down Angela’s body. The camera movement intensifies the erotic feeling in the audience. The camera then moves to a dynamic crane shot , showing Lester’s hands unbuttoning Angela’s blouse. That shot is then followed by shot-reverse shot of Angela and Lester looking at one another. Angela, is given the low angle, looking-up at Lester, which implies that Lester is in control. This complements the idea that society considers it a “macho” action for the man to be in control. Still thinking under the mentality of a hormone-crazed teen, Lester feels good. It is important to note that Lester and Angela are not shown in the same shot during these actions. This implies disunity and an ironic separation because they are about to engage in the most intimate activity two humans can share with one another. It is also important to note, that during the crane shots, Angela is consistently given the higher position in the frame. This implies that she is pure and innocent because usually good elements are given the higher position over bad elements (such as heaven being in the sky and hell down under). As Lester is prepared to begin the sex act, Angela reveals that she is a virgin.
It is at this point that Lester realizes what he is doing and stops. This shot is a dynamic shot with a crane. It is as if, by some divine intervention, Lester came to realize the error of his ways before it was too late. The scene concludes with a dynamic shot of Lester apologizing to Angela and, for the first time in this scene, they are scene in the same frame. This time, Lester is given the higher position in the frame. This symbolizes that he has come to a realization and is wise. The usage of lighting in this scene implies many symbolic meanings. Throughout the entire scene Angela is shot with light. For example, when the scene begins, Angela is laid down by Lester on a couch. Angela is wearing a white blouse, the couch she is lying on is white, and the light from outside is dimly shining on her, emphasizing the fact that she is wearing white. The light and the color white represent purity: Angela is a virgin. On the other hand, Lester is shown with even less light. As the camera follows his hands erotically going up and down Angela’s body; Lester’s hands are given the least amount light possible in order to emphasize the impurity aspect of what he is doing. The lighting in this scene is low contrast and low key. It is low contrast because the light used was dim and was rather gray. This implies a sense of mystery because the audience knows that Carolyn is on the way to the house to kill Lester. Also, the audience is unsure if Lester is going to go through with having sex with Angela.
It is low key because both Angela’s and Lester’s shadows can be seen. Editing is very significant in this scene. Decoupage is used throughout this scene. Decoupage implies that there will be fast-paced cutting. This is absolutely necessary in this scene in order to add to the excitement of the scene. Angela and Lester are at the point of no return. It is not clear what is going to happen. Fast paced cutting accelerates the speed of the scene, as almost to provide the audience with excitement. In this case, the kind of excitement that a teenage boy, or Lester, in this case, would feel before having sex. However, unlike the previous scene, this scene uses an ellipsis. This takes place when Lester is rubbing his hands around Angela’s thighs. The scene cuts to Jane and Ricky. Both of them are about to run away to New York. The ellipsis occurs to show the audience what has caused Jane to do this. Lester never paid attention to Jane. Instead, he focused on her friend. All Jane wanted was attention from her dad, but Lester was preoccupied with being irresponsible and chasing a girl.
The scene then switches back to Angela and Lester. It is important to note that Angela and Lester are never shot in the same frame while sex is still a possibility between the both of them. Instead, they are shot in a shot-reverse-shot fashion. When Lester realizes the error he has made, both of them are shot in the same frame as a two-shot showing unity and resolution over the dilemma. Sound is used heavily in this scene. As the scene begins non-diegetic sound is used. This sound has no source in the image. The sound is music played by a piano and chimes. The music gives the audience a sense of the erotica that is occurring on the screen between Angela and Lester. It also serves a connector to Lester’s fantasies. Whenever, Lester fantasizes, an erotic song is used. This time, his fantasy is about to come true. The music comes to an abrupt end when Angela reveals that she is a virgin. Suddenly, Lester realizes that he cannot have sex with a teenager. The ending of the music symbolized the conclusion of that fantasy as well as marked his return to manhood. Throughout this scene, it was raining outside. If you were in the scene you would be able to hear raindrops. But not in this case. This exemplifies the usage of contrapuntal sound. The raindrops were not heard during this scene. This gives the audience an idea of the amount of concentration that Lester was, once again, giving Angela. While Angela was around, nothing else mattered to Lester. Lester’s inability to deal with difficult situations, combined with his need for freedom and lack for responsibility, appear to have been too much. Unfortunately, he realized that too late.
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