Analyse the use of Performance/Mise-en-scène in American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999); how is meaning created in my chosen clip?
American Beauty has been described as a “blood-chilling dark comedy” and a “beautifully executed drama”, both of which are appropriate. Through Kevin Spacey’s intelligent and realistic portrayal of Lester Burnham and Sam Mendes’ meticulously arranged image of Lester’s life, we can find humour and draw a bitter parallel between our lives and those of the characters. I have chosen American Beauty’s dramatic conclusion as it successfully integrates all of the main themes of the film through a carefully chosen sequence of powerful imagery.
The extract begins with Angela (Mena Suvari) asking Lester (Kevin Spacey) how he is. The medium close up of Angela effectively displays her curiosity and almost pity when posing the question to Lester. This seemingly small act of compassion from Angela illustrates her transition from earlier in the film: Angela was entirely consumed by outwards appearances of herself and others. However now, she has matured to realise others and their emotions. This is reinforced by his response: “God, it's been a long time since anybody asked me that”, the viewer realises how little people have cared about Lester throughout his life. Lester continues to say “I’m great” in such a way as if he is shocked by the truth behind his answer. This resonates from earlier in the film where Lester says “It's a great thing when you realise you still have the ability to surprise yourself”. Lester is finally happy again and this is shown through the honesty in his voice and the slight smile on his face. Following this, Angela exits the room and Lester repeats his response to himself, he is delighted and proud of his newfound happiness. Through Spacey’s projection of Lester’s total happiness, we can clearly see this pivotal moment of Lester’s life.
The film cuts to Lester slowly walking through his kitchen and subsequently picking up an old, colourless family photo. The camera tracks and pans Lester until he sits down at a table giving the effect that we are in the room with Lester rather than watching him. This, coupled with Conrad Hall’s cinematography earlier in the film which generally separated Lester from others, reinforces how Lester has become more human over the film’s course and thus we can relate to him more, whereas the earlier cinematography made it difficult to sympathise with him The diegetic sound of the rain contrasts greatly with the soft, non-diegetic piano piece which has just begun. This juxtaposition of the two different sounds illustrate to the viewer Lester’s happiness (through the piano) and simultaneously foreshadows (through the rain) to perhaps something more ominous.
We now see Lester sitting down, completely mesmerised by the photo of his (previously) very happy family through a shot/reverse-shot sequence. The camera then changes to a profile shot of Lester’s head and we are suddenly shocked by the gun pointed at it. With hindsight we recognise Colonel Fitts to be the perpetrator of this crime. Fitts’ represents the person let down by the capitalist society he is within. With Fitts being a repressed homosexual attempting to conform in this very homophobic society, he can not accept his homosexuallity and murders Lester, the one who he is attracted to. It is also significant that Fitts’ cowardice forces him to take Lester’s life behind his back, this again reinforces his total shame about his attraction towards Lester. The camera begins to pan away from Lester, perhaps as if we are saying goodbye to him, to the blank white wall. As the camera pans over the table, we see but one object: a vase of Roses. Roses in American Beauty are symbolic as an object of desire and lust yet also as an image of artificiality. For example; whenever Lester fantasises about Angela she is seen covered in rose petals. However, this particular genetic strain of Rose (called...
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