- Published: November 8, 2022
- Updated: November 8, 2022
- Language: English
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This essay will explore the fundamental film elements of American Beauty focusing in particular on the mise-en-scene and sound. I have chosen this film because it is a wonderfully deep story, written by Alan Ball. The director, Sam Mendes, describes the story as a ‘ kaleidoscopic journey through American suburbia, and a hugely visually articulate one at that!’ I couldn’t have put it better myself! It is a highly inventive black comedy. A mystery story with a genuine final twist! I love it. I have chosen the stated areas to study because firstly, there is just so much to say about the mise-en-scene. Every aspect of each frame has been thought through carefully and is saying something about the whole story; and secondly the sound in the sequence I am studying is extremely important, and it would just not make sense if I didn’t study it.
DreamWorks pictures presents a Jinks/Cohen company production. Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen launched DreamWorks SKG in October 1994, which is now a leading producer of live-action motion pictures, animated feature films, network, and cable television programming, home video and DVD entertainment and consumer products. American Beauty is directed by Sam Mendes, who has mounted award-winning productions on the stages of London, New York and around the world. Mendes many triumphs include the highly praised renewal of the musical Cabaret, first in London and then on Broadway. He also directed the award-winning London production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, introducing Jane Horrocks, who reprised her role in the film version, Little Voice. Mendes has won various awards for his brilliance including a Critics Circle Award for Best Newcomer when he directed The Cherry Orchard, starring Judi Dench, soon after joining the Chichester Festival Theatre.
But American Beauty marks his feature film directorial debut. The film would be best described as a black comedy as it clearly gives strong but comic interpretations of various life traumas. For example, the domestic arguments Lester Burnham has with his wife Carolyn are usually portrayed in a humorous sort of way. The stars in the film include: Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, Annette Bening as Carolyn Burnham, Thora Birch as Jane Burnham, Wes Bentley as Ricky Fitts, Mena Suvari as Angela Hayes, Peter Gallagher as Buddy Kane, Allison Jahney as Barbara Fitts, Chris Cooper as Colonel Fitts, Scott Bakula as Jim #1 and Sam Robards as Jim #2. The critics of the film seemed to be falling over each other to call it the best film in years; the reviews were “ spec..
. tacular”. ‘ American Beauty is a stylish and intelligent satire, but it was the power of love that won it five major Academy Awards.’ Writes Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw, while Jonathan Ross exclaims it’s, ‘ The first genuinely great film of the new millennium’. The Sunday Mirror believed it to be ‘ Unmissable’ with 5 stars and even The Sun viewed it as ‘..
. the best film of the year!’American Beauty is a comedy that aspires to be taken seriously. It opens with a young grungette called Jane (Thora Birch) passing judgement on Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), her apparently hopeless father. ‘ I need a role model .
..’ she says in direct address to camera, ‘… not some geek-boy who’s going to spray his shorts every time I bring a girl home.
‘ Lester shares her point of view: ‘ I’ll be dead in a year…’ he says in a deadpan voice-over from beyond ‘.
.. in many ways I’m dead already.’ Fortunately, Lester decides to live a little before the suburbs finally get to him. It all starts to go wrong – or right if you think that mental death is worse than physical extinction – when Lester’s wife, Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening) drags him kicking and screaming to a school basketball game.
Jane’s doing her cheerleader routine and Lester shows no interest whatsoever until he spots a young siren of a blonde in the squad. In fact Lester finds Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari) so sexually exciting that he’s sent into a fantastical erotic daydream and when he finally lands back on earth the sleeping hippie within has been awakened. Lester’s first move is to put his harpy of a wife back in her box. Then he fixes the corporate morons at work and trades his rather sedate run around for a large red 1970s muscle car – to the acute embarrassment of his family. Within a few weeks Lester’s become a one-man counter-culture at the heart of the suburbs. The sequence of American Beauty I am analysing is scenes 26 and 27, the last two before the End Credits (approx.
6-7 minutes). I have chosen these because of the intense twist, and astounding end to a superbly entertaining movie by the genius screenwriter Alan Ball. The whole masterpiece of a movie is based around this one sequence; and is what the entire film is about – life changes (Lester finding himself), emotion (Colonel Fitts seeming homophobic and his confusion towards the subject) and death (from the start of the film we know Lester is going to die). Inside a Mercedes Benz. View of Carolyn’s eyes, reflected in the rear-view mirror. She turns her head to look out the window: Her POV (point of view): The red door of the Burnham house stands out, even in the pouring rain, juxtaposed against the dull colours of the house.
The door almost looks out this reality. The music sounds sad, eerie. You can hear the rain on the car; all of this, the door, the music, the rain is definitely connoting what will happen next. Inside the Burnham house – Kitchen – moments later.
Angela sits at the kitchen counter. You can still hear the rain outside, very heavy – symbolises sadness, it also almost signifies a trapped feeling; no one wants to go out in the rain. You can see the red roses just in view behind Angela. All the other colours are dull, the clothes, the make-up and any other mise-en-scene. This is to make the colour red stand out as much as possible when in the frame.
Something at the edge of the counter (off frame) catches his eye, and he reaches for… close on a framed photograph as he picks it up: the music starts again, but this time slightly more upbeat to create the happy memories feeling inside the audience. It’s a photo seen earlier in the movie, of him, Carolyn and Jane, taken several years ago at an amusement park. It’s startling how happy they look.
Lester crosses to the kitchen table, where he sits and studies the photo. He suddenly seems older, more mature… and he smiles: a deep, satisfied smile this connotes the end of something, he is fulfilled and is ready now, to move on. After a beat, the barrel of a gun rises up behind his head, aimed at the base of his skull.
Angle on an arrangement of fresh cut roses in a vase on the counter, deep crimson juxtaposed against the white tile wall. There is a long tense, but vague tone in the music. There is complete silence and instantly, a gunshot rings out, echoing unnaturally, causing the audience to really feel the impact. The tile is sprayed with blood, the same deep crimson as the roses and slightly resembling the arrangement, which seemed to resemble Lester’s feelings (blooming). Burnham house – foyer – moments later.
Ricky comes down the stairs, followed by Jane. Ghostly sounds are heard, there is eeriness connoting death or ghosts. Burnham house – kitchen – moments later. Ricky opens the door from the dining room, and then stops. Jane appears behind him. Their clothes are also dull colours; this helps to bring out the colour red again, this time more violently to complement the violent scene.
Music starts again, back to slightly sadder tone. Their POV: A pool of blood is forming on the kitchen table. Ricky comes into the kitchen and slowly approaches Lester’s lifeless body, wide-eyed but not afraid (he can see the satisfaction on Lester’s face). Jane follows him, in shock. Ricky kneels, gazing at Lester’s unseen face.
.. then he smiles, ever so slightly. His POV: Lester looks back at us; his eyes are lifeless, but he’s smiling the same slight smile. Burnham house – Jane’s bedroom – night.
Ricky and Jane lie curled up on Jane’s bed, fully clothed. We hear a gunshot from downstairs. They look at each other, alarmed. Burnham house – bathroom – night. Angela stands in front of the mirror, fixing her make-up, we hear the gunshot again. Angela turns, frightened.
(It can’t have been her). Burnham house – night. Carolyn walks slowly toward the red door, drenched to the bone, wearing a crimson dress the same colour as the pool of blood earlier. She clutches her purse tightly. We hear the gunshot again (If it wasn’t her, who shot him?). Fitts house – the colonel’s study – night.
The Colonel enters, wet. He’s wearing latex gloves. Blood covers the front of his t-shirt. He paces in front of one of his gun cases; the glass door is open, and a gun is conspicuously missing from inside. Burnham house – master bedroom – night. Carolyn enters, gasping and still clutching her purse.
She shuts the door and remembers she has a gun. She opens the closet door and shoves the purse into a hamper. Then, suddenly aware of Lester’s scent, she grabs as many of his clothes as she can and pulls them to her, burying her face in them. She sinks to her knees, pulling several items of clothing down with her, and she begins to cry loudly (a lot of tears like the heavy rain). Her red dress is juxtaposed against the dull colours again, just like the blood and the roses; but this time we have pity for her. In conclusion, after exploring the fundamental film elements of American Beauty, I can say that the use of mise-en-scene in the sequence has really made a difference to the effectiveness of the film.
The colour red has purposely been drawn forward and made very noticeable in most frames throughout the film; this is because it is trying to signify all the main aspects of what the story is about, like love, hate and anger. The roses have a big part in the story as well because they seem to link all the scenes together, just by appearing. Red is often shown on or around Carolyn mostly. This connotes that she is one of the main reasons Lester ‘ cracked’, and also symbolises her respect (or lack of) for Lester; for example the fact Carolyn cheats on Lester. The way sound is used in the sequence is very mood altering. The music is very gentle and slow, very delicate.
There are changes in the tone that are not very consciously noticeable; but if you really listen you can hear it getting more contented or more solemn. The non-diegetic sound is the music and the voiceover from Lester. The difference between the ‘ in-frame’ Lester and the voice of Lester is quite interesting. He is telling the story on the voiceover, and seems so mature, and wise. He also appears to be amused with himself.
Where as the ‘ in-frame’ Lester appears to be more child-like; until the second before he dies, when you seem to be able to see how old he is, he changes, just at that split second before he gets shot. All the diegetic sound is very straightforward. Like the speech, gunshots and the rain, but it all seems so airy, like echoes. Like it doesn’t really matter at all, and it completely takes away any fear that would have otherwise been created in the audience; causing the whole story to just ‘ flow through us like rain’, giving us an unexplainable feeling of content.
.. he’s free.
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