Term Paper: American Beauty
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
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Ricky says that he is not obsessing over Jane, merely “curious,” and all of his zooming in on her face represents his efforts to get closer to her, as well as his ideas about looking closer at things and seeing beauty where others (such as Lester) do not. Ricky also zooms in on Lester’s face when Lester first resolves to get in shape, undressing in the garage to examine his body and pulling out his old weights. The view of Lester’s face reveals the intensity of his expression, which matches the man’s newfound determination to turn his life around. Lester and Jane become Ricky’s subjects because of the boy’s curiosity in both of them, and the close ups give the audience better insight into both characters’ minds. Mendes’ camera also takes viewers deeper into scenes, though not always through use of the zoom lens. For example, a long, slow tracking in on the first dinner table scene suggests that the Burnhams are a family that merit closer inspection. A combination of zoom, camera distance, and editing embodies Lester’s interest in Angela, similar in ways to Ricky’s curiosity about Jane. In the first fantasy scene, the Spartanettes’ routine at the basketball game, a long zoom in on Angela, combined with strange music, a spotlight on her, and a similar zoom in on Lester’s dumbfounded expression, signals the transition to the mental – and occasionally perceptual – subjectivity of Lester’s imagination.