American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes

Good Essays
“American Beauty” is the 90’s film version of a satire about the ideal American dream of living in suburbia. It was preceded by “The Graduate” in the 60’s, the “Stepford Wives” in the 70’s and “Ordinary People” in the 80’s. “The best films about the suburbs are inherently going to be those that peel back the veneer made of clean lawns and nice cars to investigate the real emotions beneath the surface, whether tragic, comic, wistful, or some mercurial mix of all three.” (Web Design Schools, 2008) In American Beauty the characters may look like ordinary people living in idyllic suburbia but at the same time you see the pain, frustration and regret that they’re dealing with. The cinematographer uses several techniques to convey the theme of appearance verses reality by presenting characters as they see themselves and at the same time shows the reality of their lives.

In the first scene of the film there is an aerial view of an ideal suburb: lovely houses, tree lined streets and a church steeple. In appearance all homes are the same and ordinary. As soon as you take in this view the camera zooms in to show Lester’s home where you expect to see the typical “man of the house going off to work” but what you really see are multiple shots of a man disregarded by his family while making dismal attempts at regaining respect.

It doesn’t get much better when he gets to work. In the first office scene, Lester appears to be confident and condescending as you see him talking on the phone with a client but the focus shot of the ceiling, cubicle and harsh lights gives the viewer a truly oppressive feeling. The reality of Lester’s oppression at work continues as soon as he enters his boss’ office. Finally, you see him as he really is, apprehens...

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...her perfections and criticisms of others. The camera also focuses on Carolyn as she has a break with reality when faced with failure. The scene, in which she cannot sell a house, has a close up of her abusing herself by screaming, crying and the slapping herself back into her altered reality. Although Carolyn appears to be socially savvy, she is often shot alone struggling to be the success she has created in her mind.

“American Beauty” has many facets of ordinary, predictable and typical scenes of life in suburbia with characters to match. Portraying the appearance of such a lifestyle can be done in costume, narrative, clichéd dialogue or the juxtaposition of scenery and props. In this satirical film the character’s façade disappears as the reality of their life is presented to the audience seamlessly and continually by the techniques of the cinematographer.