What are the costs of living in a success-driven, consumer-oriented, image-obsessed society? This challenge to contemporary America’s suburban culture finds a voice in Sam Mendes’ 1999 movie American Beauty. The film’s complex subtlety underscores its implication that subtlety itself is a casualty in our society. American Beauty’s tagline exhorts viewers to “look closer,” but the film expresses ambivalence concerning what is revealed by closer inspection. On one hand, protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his young neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) speak of the unappreciated beauty surrounding us; however, Lester also begins to question the values of a world that seems perfect but is actually a suburban dystopia. Through their use of various filmmaking techniques, particularly cinematography and editing, Mendes and his collaborators create a vivid illustration of this dichotomy.
In terms of depth of narration, American Beauty is a remarkably subjective film. Mental subjectivity actually serves as a baseline and framework since the movie unfolds as a posthumous flashback narrated by Lester. The audience moves deeper inside Lester’s mind at various points in the plot, particularly during his fantasies about Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari), a nubile blond cheerleader. In the film’s expository scene, Lester says in his voiceover that he feels “sedated,” and these four fantasy scenes focus the viewer on Angela as the cause for Lester’s awakening from white-collar drudgery. The scenes use a few point of view shots but also provide reaction shots of Lester. Outside of the fantasies, Mendes uses point of view shots for nearly all of the characters at some point. This perceptual subjectivity takes on the most significance through Ricky’s ever-present video camera and when Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), thinks he sees Ricky performing oral sex on Lester. Ricky’s camera becomes a motif that contributes to his... [continues]
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