In American Beauty, 1999, directed by Sam Mendes, we are confronted with the permeating images that have consumed mainstream American life. Mendes exploits these images as constructions that we created around ourselves as a means of hiding our true selves. Mendes is able to implicate us in the construction and make us active viewers by exploiting our voyeuristic nature. In American Beauty Mendes uses the voyeuristic tendencies of the spectator to acknowledge the permeating constructed images. Mendes, through the use of narration, the mise en scene and cinematic techniques implicates the spectator in to using their voyeuristic tendencies to deconstruct the images in order to reveal the true image. From the start of the film the construction of images is evident.
American Beauty begins with the obvious constructed shot, shown through the use of a video camera, of a young teenage girl. The narration reveals that she wants her father dead. The image portrayed around her is constructed as an evil, unaffectionate youth. The next scene is of a high angle shot, with a voice-over narration. The voice-over goes to explain that this is Lester Burnham's speaking and he is already dead and the following is a construction of the relevant events. This scene holds relevance for two reasons. First it constructs an image that the young teenager in the previous scene is the killer. And as we will learn by the end of the film this image is not all that it appeared to be. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the film, that these are constructed images, and to notice that there is more to the story then what appears on the surface. The high angle spanning shot of Lester's street also holds significance for the spectator. This opening shot is quite similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock's opening scene in Psycho. The similar themes is the spectators being the voyeurs. In each we are looking into the private sphere of the character. However, in American Beauty our voyeuristic nature is not shameful.
The narration that accompanies the scene is allowing our voyeuristic desires to enter into the private lives without guilt or shame. Mendes as does Lester asks the spectator to be the voyeur. As well the sign on Lester's cubicle wall is not a coincidence. Mendes is again soliciting the spectator's voyeuristic nature by placing a sign that asks us to "look closer." This theme of looking past the constructed images is Mendes way of telling us to look past the superficial images that we represent and to find a way to see our true selves. The construction of images within the narrative is important to how Mendes constructs them through cinematic techniques.
Carolyn Burnham, real estate agent, mother and wife have been, from the very beginning is constructed through the narrative in such a way that the spectator defines her as someone who is consumed by the importance of projecting and maintaining the perfect image. She is often caught, consciously making references concerning images. Referring to Jane Burnham, "are you trying to look unattractive" or to her husband at a real estate gala "there's a certain image . . . " and to herself, " to be successful one must always put forward an image of success." These comments are additions to what the spectator has already been subjected to when Lester points out "that it is not an accident the handles on her pruning sheer's match her gardening clogs." Mendes through his depiction of Carolyn in earlier scenes is directing the spectator to be appalled by Carolyn's obvious shallow and selfish ("could you make me any later?") personality. Yet at the same time Mendes gives the spectator reasons to appreciate Carolyn's obsessive qualities about the projected images. Carolyn respects the dominant ideologies about images, and is consciously aware that she is an object of the gaze. As women are often the objects of the gaze (at least more then men) she is...
Bibliography: American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes. Dreamworks /Warner
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