A Closer Look At American Suburbia

  • Category: Music & Movies
  • Words: 1212
  • Grade: 90
Toni Troell
Film Appreciation
Cherie King
March 20, 2002
A Closer Look at American Suburbia
        In American Beauty (1999), which was directed by Sam Mendes, we are confronted with the images that have consumed mainstream American life. Mendes exploits these images that we, as Americans, have created around ourselves as a means of hiding our true nature. In American Beauty, Mendes plays on the natural tendencies of the viewers to seek problems in other peoples' lives and make us acknowledge and confront the images that have become our own. Also, through the use of narration, the mise- en- scéne and cinematic techniques, Mendes invites us into the home of the Burnhams so that we can "look closer" at American suburbia. He uses the audiences' tendencies to relate to the characters in order to deconstruct the images that are portrayed by the characters and to confront our true nature. From the start of the film the construction of images is evident.
American Beauty (1999) begins with a shot of a young teenage girl, shown through the use of a hand-held camera. The narration reveals that she wants her father dead. The image that is portrayed about her character is that of an ungrateful, unaffectionate and very bitter teenager. As we will learn by the end of the film, this image of Jane is not at all what it appeared to be. The next scene is of a high angle shot, with a voice-over being spoken by Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey. The narration reveals that he is already dead, which tells us that the following scenes have already taken place. This sets the theme for the movie: there is more to the story than what appears on the surface. The high angle tracking shot of Lester's street also holds significance for the spectator. It is our official invitation to peer into the Burnhams' private lives. The narration that accompanies the scene allows us to fulfill our desires and enter into their private lives without guilt or shame.
The sign on Lester's cubicle wall is not a mere coincidence. Mendes is again soliciting the spectator's voyeuristic nature by placing a sign that asks us to "look closer." This theme of looking deeper than the surface reoccurs throughout the film. We as viewers are provoked to look past the superficial images that we represent and to find a way to see our true selves. The construction of images within the narrative is important to how Mendes constructs them through cinematic techniques.
Carolyn Burnham, real estate agent, mother and wife have been, from the very beginning, constructed through the narrative in such a way that the spectator defines her as someone who is consumed by the importance of maintaining the perfect image. She is often caught, consciously, making references concerning images. Referring to Jane Burnham, her teenage daughter, "are you trying to look unattractive" or to herself, " to be successful one must always put forward an image of success." These comments are additions to what the viewer has already been subjected to when Lester points out "that it is not an accident the handles on her pruning sheers match her gardening clogs." I think many viewers were appalled and at the same time related to her behavior. At the same time we are able to appreciate some of Carolyn's obsessive qualities about the perfect image.

As a real estate agent Carolyn is in the business of selling, not only houses, but an image of a lifestyle, which centers around the home. In the scene where Carolyn begins to clean the house before the it is viewed by potential buyers, Mendes constructs the understanding that the image is only the surface of an object. Carolyn believes that a clean image on the surface is enough to sell something. The potential homebuyers did not buy into the image of the home, and we as the viewer are warned not to "˜buy' into the images of things, since they are just that: images. With all of the images of the film, we are provoked to look closer and not only see the surface of things.
Our tendencies as viewers are further played on through the use of a video camera. From the opening shot of Jane, the use of a video camera is used periodically throughout the film. The use of the camera serves two important functions. The repeated use of the video camera establishes the theme that someone is always watching, and in a way, validates Carolyn's feeling that we must always project a certain image. The second way Mendes uses the video camera relates directly to the spectator's role as a voyeur. As the narration allowed the spectators to be guilt free voyeurs so does the video camera. The viewer repeatedly sees Rickey with his camera capturing images wherever he sees beauty. By using the video camera, we are given two different images of the same situation. Mendes renders two different approaches to one scene. When Jane and Lester are arguing in the kitchen, there is so much color that the image is barely distorted. When we see things through Rickey's camera, the color is lost, the image looks stale, dull, and lifeless. There is no happiness between the two and the perfect American family image is beginning to fall apart. The secret about the real family is beginning to unravel under the direction of the video camera.        

When we are first presented with the dining room within the Burnham's home, the scene is carefully constructed with everything from the curtains to the candles and bowl of roses on the table. Everything had its place within the dining room. The shot is perfectly symmetrical, as at the time so is their image.                                                 As Lester begins to deconstruct the images that surround him, the images within the mise en scene are representative of this. When the spectator returns to the dining room, the mise en scene has lost some of its structure. The candles on the table are out of line, and the center-piece of red roses has completely vanished. Jane is missing at first and arrives only to watch this particular room loose more and more order and control. The mise en scene is beginning to show the flaws that the characters are discovering about themselves. This technique is used early also when Carolyn is unable to sell the image of the house. We see Carolyn standing against the jumbled blinds of the sliding door. The perfect symmetrical image within the mise en scene is erased in order to represent the failing images in Carolyn's life.                                                 In American Beauty (1999), Mendes constructs his images in order to ask the audience to looking closer at the images that are portrayed. This film represents the darkness that we have allowed to intertwine into American culture. We have allowed ourselves to become overly concerned with the way we want to be or told we should be. Mendes asks the audience to try to see the beauty that this world has to offer. To reach the point where we can appreciate the beauty of life we must strip away the complex layers which we have surrounded ourselves with.
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