American Beauty

American Beauty

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American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes in 1999, is one of the best and most unique films I have ever seen. One of the opening scenes of the movie starts with a view of Lester Burnham, his attractive, blonde wife Carolyn Burnham and their daughter Janie and what seems to be what seems to be the Burnhams picture perfect life and picture perfect marriage. The suburban house with the clean cut lawn and perfect garden, white picket fence, the oak trees lining the street, the two cars parked in the driveway, typical ordinary suburban neighborhood. But what Mendes emphasizes throughout the film is to look closer, and it will be clear that nothing is as it seems, there is always more to the story then what appears on the surface. No one is perfect, even a rose has its thorns.
American Beauty's main focus is on the threesome which is the Burnhams family. He delves into each of their characters until we truly get the closest look at them possible, as the film unfolds each being's true beauty, or lack of, emerges. Each of the characters in this film are so consumed in trying to fit into the life and project the image that they're supposedly living, that they're unable to be happy.
The movie begins with the shot of a young teenage girl, Janie, through a video-camera. She's talking about how she wants her father dead, that he's a pervert who's in love with all of her little friends, stating that he's not a role model. She's portrayed somewhat goth, evil, unaffectionate and pretty emotionless. In the next scene it becomes clear that it is Lester speaking through the over head, and that he is already dead. This is very interesting because it implies that the following scenes have already taken place, and leads the viewers to believe that it is Janie who kills him. But by the end of the film it is shown that this image is not at all what it appears to be.
Carolyn is prime example of appearing to be something she is not. Driven real estate agent, mother and wife (well, technically), who is completely consumed by the importance of projecting and maintaining the perfect image. Living by the words of the "Real Estate King" who stated "to be successful one must always put forward an image of success." As Lester states in a make-fun sort of way, it was not an accident that "the handles on her pruning sheers match her gardening gloves.

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" Not only does she feel the need to maintain this image, but she seems to think it is necessary for her family to hold up to her perfectionist standards as well. She often seems embarrassed by them, almost resenting any imperfections in them that it could possibly harm her own image. Comments such as asking her daughter, "are you trying to look unattractive?" as she is on her way to school. She also says to her husband to act happy when meeting her coworkers, specifically the "Real Estate King", Buddy, and even demoralizes Lester in front of him saying "Honey, don't be weird." Carolyn is so obsessed with the idea of perfection in the objective of getting there she has become the complete opposite in the eyes of her family. While she may do a good job of pretending, Carolyn is far from the perfect mother, wife, or real estate agent.
Another side of Carolyn's need for perfection is shown by her consistent use of mantras. When she is cleaning the house before her potential buyers get there, she keeps repeating "I'm going to sell this house, I'm going to sell this house". She's scrubbing the surface of the mirrors and windows until they are completely spotless and shining. But the clean image was not enough to sell the house, the potential buyers saw right through it. This caused Carolyn to lose her self control a little bit, because to Carolyn the idea of selling this house seemed possible, unlike saving her marriage, yet she was unable to succeed. part of perfection is always maintaining control of her surrounding, lets her control how other people see her, and losing control to her would mean putting her fate in the hands of others, which can potentially be extremely dangerous. Mendes shows us here that it is essential that people don't automatically buy into the appearance or surface of things, both the idea of the house, and or the characters, but rather to look closer.
Another way that Mendes helps us look closer is through the video camera that Ricky uses. It lets us see two views of the same situation, allowing us to depict it and see the inside of it, the truth behind the images and characters, which in all the scenes are completely different from the outside. The filming always occurs inside the home, which seems symbolical, since the outside view is so different then when you take a closer look. The video camera really shows the dysfunction behind the Burnhams. But mainly Ricky focuses on Janie, who in the beginning acts like she doesn't want to be recorded, walking away from the camera, or asking him to stop filming. But what is interesting about this, is that it is purely that, an act. At one point the camera focuses in on Janie after she walks away, and actually catches her break into a little smile. Janie, as much as she didn't want to show, really did like the attention Ricky was giving her.
Mendes uses two more symbolic forms of showing the view to look closer as well. One of these is through the use of the American Beauty red rose, as well as the color red. Throughout the film, these roses appear when Lester is in his "happy place", the first time we see them is when Lester first lays his eyes on Angela, Janie's friend, cheerleading. As the camera focuses in on Angela, roses start to fall from the sky and you see a look of complete infatuation and desire in Lester's eyes. There are also red roses on the center of the dinner table, these roses are a sign of perfection, yet American Beauty roses are engineered, and have no scent to them, which is not so perfect after all, similarly to their family dinners, which often end in upright anger. The roses, as well as the red door to the Burnhams home, seems to signify happiness, when inside their home is anything but that. The camera focusing in on the red blood after Lester is shot seems to be very ironic as well, since when Lester dies, he does so happily, yet blood is usually associated with pain.
Another way Mendes showed how the appearance of things can be much different then reality is with Lester and Ricky as well as Lester and Frank. When Frank Fitch, Ricky's closeted-militant father, who would rather Ricky were "dead than be a fucking faggot," looks out his sons window to see what looks like Frank and Lester engaging in homophobic acts, Frank kicks Ricky out of his house. Though this is what it may have look liked from an outsiders view, it was simply a little drug deal and friendly neighborhood chatting. After this incident occurs Frank runs to the arms of Lester, thinking that Lester is gay, he begins to flirt with him. After Lester states that his marriage is just a "commercial to show how normal" they are, Ricky misunderstands and leans in to kiss him, showing that his homophobia was a complete mask of his true feelings. Ricky, after being turned down, kills Lester, most likely out of anger of rejection but most importantly so that his homosexual desires can never be revealed. Not only does this show how different things can appear from the surface, but it is also a perfect example of what lengths people will go to in order to maintain and protect their image.
You see a happily married man. He is a magazine writer, father of one. His life couldn't be any happier. Look closer. You see a n unhappy, numb person who despises his wife and what his life has turned into. You see a happily married woman. She is a successful realtor, and mother of one. Her life couldn't be any more perfect. Look closer. You see a shallow, rude person who will do anything it takes to portray the image of success, even if it hurts her own family. American Beauty has such intense and amazing meaning behind ever scene, and puts a very realistic spin on what so called "beauty" really is. It really makes the viewer take a closer look at their own lives and question how many of us are really who we think we are, or are we just what we want to be, or even think we're supposed to be?
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