`American Beauty` is a drama, it was distributed by DreamWorks and it won five Oscars including one for cinematography. The film was written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes. It was a very popular film with audiences of all ages wanting to see what the American Dream was like and how they lived. The establishing shot shows suburban streets with regimented houses, this shows that the owners are aspiring to the American Dream. `American Beauty` is the portrayal of a suburbanite nuclear family that has gone super-critical, superficial and materialistic.
The main characters in the film are the Burnham family. First there is the father Lester Burnham who is played by Kevin Spacey, he is the leading character, a 42 year old man who earns $60,000 a year as a writer for a magazine, who seems to be fairly bored with his life. Carolyn (played by Annette Benning) looks like a typical American with white teeth and perfect skin she would like to live the perfect American life and have a normal, happy and smart family. She is a false cheerful and a perfectionist who is trying to seek status.
Their daughter Jane Burnham (played by Thora Birch), is a typical teenage daughter going through adolescence, she is self-critical, she is very much wants a breast enlargement to be perfect, this has links to the title American Beauty. The house is typical of the `American Dream`; it is a white house with blue shutters and has a red door, and this is symbolic of the American flag. However the Burnham family are not a `perfect` stereo typical family as the mum is the man of the house and Jane isn’t as self obsessed as most American teenagers (with their white teeth blue eyes and blonde hair).
The American dream encourages all Americans to believe that opportunities are limitless, regardless of social class they believe that through desire and hard work they can be something more then what we are, nothing is out of reach. The `American dream` feeds on dissatisfaction, it encourages people to strive for perfection, and it encourages people to be materialistic and false. In this film there are many symbolic codes, for example Carolyn cutting the rose symbolises her rejection of Lester sexually.
She is talking to her gay next door eighbours who strive for the `American Dream`-they treat their pet dog as though it’s a child and act just like a man and wife this is symbolic of their struggle to achieve the American Dream and appear like a typical `American family`. Technical codes are concerned with things such as camera angles and close ups, Technical codes can reveal whether a person is important or if they only have a minor part in a film. The establishing shot in `American Beauty` shows regimented lines of houses, this shows that the owners aspire to the `American Dream`.
Lester is also narrating from above, this suggests he feels like he’s dead and he’s really fed up with his life and wishes to some extent that he was dead. Lester is masturbating in the shower, this symbolises sexual rejection by his wife and his own frustration. As a result they are not a happy couple. The camera also comes close up in this shot as if to show that the director wants us to look closer at what his life is really like and that his man of the house role has been displaced.
A close up reveals Carolyn as she cuts the rose and examines it. We see her nstant reaction in a reaction shot. She is admiring the perfection of the rose she has grown whilst she has been spending some time in her beloved garden (this gives her a chance to get away from her husband and spend some time with herself). A large depth of field shot shows Carolyn with a smile on her face looking happy, as she is talking to Jim, one of the gay neighbours, who seem pleased to be talking to her, and Lester is looking out of the window with a jealous look on his face, sulking like a child. We get the sense that if Lester came out he would spoil her perfect garden.
As a result of this mis-en-scene we believe that he does not fit in with the idea of Carolyn’s life and she isn’t too bothered about him being in her `American Dream` and he is kept in the background. Lester would prefer to be a bigger part of her life but this just isn’t possible in Carolyn’s eyes. In the next mis-en-scenes, at the beginning of the film, Lester comes rushing out of the house as Carolyn is telling him to get a move on and he drops his brief case. All of the papers that drop out are red, white and blue and as such are symbolic of the American flag.
The fact that he dropped his briefcase is clearly symbolic of his failure at work and that he is not enjoying it, this also shows he does not fit in with Carolyn’s idea of perfection. Later in the film a tracking shot is used from above when Lester’s narrating, this makes it seem as if his life is going on and on and the viewers begin to think he’d rather be dead. He is narrating about his day and how boring it is this shows that he’s dreaming that he could lead a much more simplistic life. Alternatively it reminds us that at this point he is already dead!
There are many different camera angles and positions which reinforce Lester’s sense of submission and this shows his low position within the company that he works for. There is also an example of a medium shot with a high angle this establishes Brad’s dominance over Lester, Lester is totally inferior. Brad is like the perfect American high class citizen and he symbolises an American hero (the sort of man an American lady would like to have) with his gold pen. In contrast we see Lester with his joke pen (which shows his sense of humour and lack of professionalism).
Another technical code is the point of view shot; this enables the viewers to experience Lester’s humiliation and Brad’s superiority. When the Burnham family are in the dinner scene, the lighting is minimal which shows the family is gloomy and emotionless, and that the family has been driven apart. There is also lack of colour in comparison to the other scenes; this makes it much more dull and lifeless. This symbolises that the Burnham family are a typical `American Dream` family, plus Jane’s parents are not a proper couple.
The elevator music in this scene is false and cheesy, therefore it doesn’t sound real, and maybe fits in with the family, it shows that they used to be much happier and they’re not living the `American Dream` that they wished for. Before this scene was shown we see many family pictures and photos shown, the first ones are in black and white and the family are smiling, these were taken when the family was much younger and happier. Later, in the last picture we are shown they are wearing clothes in red, white and blue.
This symbolises that the family got on much better. There is a slow close up during the family meal and this shows the perfect positioning of the table with its white candles and red roses but in reality there has been forced perfection and false communication between the family. The technical codes and symbolic codes are extremely effective in this film, because they lead to a greater understanding of the message of the film. Alan Ball’s view of the `American Dream` shows that it is dangerous because it encourages false behaviour and ultimate happiness.
They help enhance viewing especially to an older audience. They do lead to a deeper understanding of the message `look closer` as seen on Lester’s desk when he worked for the company. A point of view shot shows Lester’s humiliation and Brad’s superiority. Lester later went onto work for a fast food chain selling burgers, which shows that he hasn’t got as far in life as he would hope. The writers of the film are aware of the `American Dream` and suggest that he hasn’t got as far in life as he would have hoped, it has a negative effect on peoples lives.