In preparation for our episode on American Beauty I watched the film through a couple of times. Once to watch it and put some thoughts together about what to discuss. The second was to look at the film, really look at it and engage with the way it is shot and how information is presented on screen.
During the episode I talked about how this is a film I would call a legitimate piece of art. The story and narrative structure came together in editing, but it is in the shooting of the film that the visual style was established. A podcast is not the easiest place to demonstrate the great visual elements of a film (although I will keep trying), so here are some of the shots I want to highlight from American Beauty.
The first shot is one designed by Sam Mendes to show how Lester is a prisoner in his workplace, if not his life. The stark colour of the ‘bars’ on the computer screen against his reflection stand out to really hit the metaphor home. But this is not the only time we see this in the film. Part of the shooting style of the film is to be distant, increasing the tension of the scenes, but this also means they are often shooting through windows or from down corridors.
In the two frames above, we can see how both Angela and Frank are portrayed through bars, also trapped in situations of their own making.
Carolyn in her safe space
We see characters in cars on several occasions, but for Carolyn this is particularly a place of comfort. She sings, she talks frankly to Lester, and has flirty fun with her royal lover. This shot demonstrates the tension building in the film, bringing us to the final crescendo of the story through a number of steps – the gun like finger when singing, the shooting range, the gun with her, and finally the gun in her hand as her secret has been revealed.
We discussed roses in depth on the episode, particularly the way they demonstrate different qualities of different characters. They are the most recurrent theme, particularly visible because of the striking colour of the plants. We see them constantly, sometimes without realising it.
However their association with Angela is the most memorable, and her Birth of Venus shot on Lester’s ceiling is a striking fantasy image from such a grounded film.
Glass, mirrors, and videotape
Much of American Beauty features characters seeing their reflection, or seeing someone else through glass or a videotape. In reflections they usually reveal their true selves, whereas through glass the conclusions are often mistaken. The Fitts men, Frank and Ricky, spend a lot of time looking at the world in this way.
A key reflection comes early in the film with Frank washing his car. He is cleaning the exact spot where Jim, Jim, and Lester are running towards them. Is he trying to wash away the reflection of homosexuality on his car, or is he polishing it to impress these men he wishes he could be?
Roses are often connected to blood. The colour of the flower, the pricking on a thorn, or even the metaphor of a woman, these things are used in poetry and art time and time again. This is just one element of the rose in American Beauty, and gives an early demonstration of Lester’s final moment (see the rose collage above).
The blood itself then becomes another theme of the film’s visual style, reflections. The reflection of Lester in his blood finally matches the true version he wishes to see – a Mona Lisa smile on a man at rest.
Respect must go to the costume department who chose the perfect colour dress for Carolyn to wear when contemplating dark thoughts and then showing her grief.