American Beauty is a complex film that relies so heavily on mis-en-scene and cinematography to portray its message that the story could have been told with no dialogue at all. The film focuses on Lester Burnhan. Lester appears to have the American dream, however he still feels empty. His marriage is falling apart, he has a poor relationship with his daughter, and he is on the verge of a major mid-life crisis. The film shows the many hidden problems in the white picket fence American dream. It also addresses the problems many Americans have with feeling free and accepting their identity. The film shows the vastly different worlds people can live in while still living on the same street, and the chaos and disarray that lies veiled in a society we try to portray to be as perfect as possible. In doing so, it reveals that the only way to calm the chaos and find peace is to find beauty in everything, and to accept one’s own identity..
The movie opens with a grainy shot of Jane Burnham reclining on a bed, complaining about her father. An unseen boy (presumably the camera operator) asks her if she wants him to kill her father, to which she replies, "Yeah. Would you?" The audience learns in the very first lines of the movie that Jane’s dad, Lester, is not the father that she wants. The opening credits roll, and the shot switches to an aerial view of a neighborhood. The exact location is not specified, and that is very intentional. It is important that this not be a critique of a specific area, but of American culture as a whole. As Sikivu Hutchinson states, “the aerial view is a meditation on the premature death of the suburban ideal, and the tradition of American frontierism from which it emerges.” As we fly over suburban America, Lester Burnham begins to speak, introducing himself to the audience and informing them, "in less than a year, I'll be dead." The shot then transitions into Lester Burnham's bedroom, where he is sleeping alone. An irritating alarm rings, and Lester, still in voice-over, ruminates on his sense that "in a way, I'm dead already." The voice-over continues as the camera follows Lester Burnham into the shower, where he masturbates - the "high point" of his day. The shot is framed so that Lester is trapped in between the panes of the glass. This created a prison-like imagery that is repeated throughout the film. For example, In another shot we see Lester looking out the window, and again he is trapped between the panes. He is watching his neighbors start their days. He is inside, while they are outside, further highlighting the separation between Lester and others in the world. Even in Lester’s job we see his imprisonment. Lester works in a very large office, confined to a cubicle. In a conversation with his superior, Lester is shown again from a high angle while his boss, Brad, is shown in superiority from a low angle. There is emphasis on Brad’s name plate on his desk, indicating that he is concerned with himself and not his employees. Lester is shown sitting in a chair with not many things around him The next shot is a close-up of a beautiful red rose. The camera pans out to show Carolyn Burnham snipping roses from her garden with pruning shears that match her gardening clogs. The American beauty rose is a major element of this film’s mis-en-scene. The American beauty is a breed of rose that, while being known for its beauty, tends to rot from the roots and branches of the plant. Rose imagery can be seen throughout the film, particularly prominent during Lester’s fantasy scenes with Angela. Rose pedals can be seen raining from the sky, filling up a tub with her, or even filling the entire frame with Angela lying on top covered only by more rose pedals. This, once realized, is a very blatant nudge to the message of the film. It shows that Angela, who is the embodiment of the falsified American glamour concept, may appear beautiful and desirable; however she is rotten from the roots. Underneath the beauty is...
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