“American Beauty” is a film written by Alan Ball and directed by Sam Mendes in the year 2000. The film is about Lester Burnham , who is searching for happiness. Lester Burnham is an ordinary-looking man in his forties. Lester is in a loveless marriage because his wife, Carolyn Burnham, who thinks that success is the most important thing in life, neglects him due to her obsession to her real estate career. In the film, Lester often mentions that Carolyn doesn’t acknowledge him. Lester’s daughter, Jane Burnham, is emotionally distant from her father, and often claims how pathetic she thinks Lester is. In the beginning of the film, Lester was told that he was in danger of losing his job. All these factors dramatically culminate into feelings of desperation and vulnerability for him. This begins to change as Lester is introduced to his daughter’s friend, Angela Hayes. Lester overhears a conversation between Jane and Angela, where Angela states that she would have sex with him if he would start working-out and building up his body. The thought of having a teenage girl finding Lester “hot”, excites Lester thus beginning Lester’s change throughout the movie (American Beauty, motion picture, 2000).
I will be analysing two scenes of this film which I found to be the most significant in terms of how it helped me shape my interpretation of and emotional response to the film. Both scenes involve major turn of events in the film regarding Lester Burnham and I found that the cinematographic qualities of the scenes played a major part in contributing to the movie’s overall meaning. According to Richard Barsam, cinematography is the process of capturing moving images on film or some other medium (Barsam 2007, p.140). Barsam states that, “Although cinematography might seem to exist solely to please our eyes with beautiful images, it is in fact an intricate language that can contribute to a movie’s overall meaning as much as the story, mise-en-scene, and acting do” (Barsam 2007, p.140). This means that the use of the different aspects of cinematography such as lighting, framing, camera angles can help contribute to interpreting the meaning of the film itself.
The two cinematographic elements which are mainly used in the scenes include composition and camera movement. Barsam states that the composition element refers to the arrangement of visual elements within a shot (Barsam 2007, p.161). There can be numerous visual elements within a shot. Some of the elements include lighting, shot compositions (long-shot, medium-shot, close-up), and dynamic compositions. Barsam points out that a key component of composition is lighting. The lighting shapes the way the movie looks and helps tell the story (Barsam 2007, p.148). Among its properties are its source, quality, direction and style. Barsam states that the different properties of lighting work together with other elements to determine the overall mood and meaning of a scene (Barsam 2007, p.154).
According to Barsam, the second cinematographic element, camera movement, can change the way we see the images because any movement of the camera modifies the different elements of framing. These elements include camera angle, level, height, types of shots and scale (Barsam 2007, p.176). The moving camera opens up cinematic space, and thus filmmakers use it to achieve many effects. Barsam points out that the moving camera leads the viewer’s eye, or focuses the viewer’s attention and, by moving into the scene, helps create the illusion of depth in the flat screen image. (Barsam 2007, p.176)
The first scene I will be analysing is the scene where Lester first spots Angela. In this scene, Lester and Carolyn decided to support Jane at her school where she was performing a dance at half-time. This scene is significant because it shows how Lester begins to rebel against who he is, as a result of Angela’s sexuality. The scene begins with Lester and Carolyn arriving at the basketball game right before Jane’s performance. Then as the performance begins, almost immediately into the dance routine, Angela is given an upward position in the frame elevated with dynamic composition. It is dynamic composition because there is movement within the fixed frame (Barsam 2007, p.161). By giving Angela an upward position within the frame, it suggests that Lester is taking notice of her. And as the scene continues, Angela has gotten Lester’s full attention. Angela is shown moving towards the camera in another dynamic composition shot complemented by the camera zooming in on her. This enhances Angela’s presence and this also gave me an idea as to the degree of attention Lester is giving Angela due to her sexuality.
The scene continues with a static composition shot of Lester. According to Barsam, a static composition shot is where there is no movement within the frame, unlike a dynamic composition where there is movement (Barsam 2007, p.161). The camera then begins to zoom in on Lester. As the camera zooms in, the crowd is eliminated and only Lester is shown in the frame. Furthermore, Lester’s eyes appears to be bigger than they actually are because of the way the camera is focusing on them. This makes Lester look as though he is drooling over something he desires. At this point, the camera performs a point of view shot showing what Lester’s eyes are fixated on, and that is Angela. This again displays the degree of enchantment that Angela has placed over Lester. In Lester’s mind, only Angela and himself exists at that moment, and everyone else is filtered out as they are not of any importance to Lester.
The scene then concludes with a shot-reverse-shot of Angela and Lester. A shot-reverse-shot is where one character is shown looking at another character (often off-screen), and then the other character is shown looking back at the first character. Since the characters are shown facing in opposite directions, the viewer assumes that they are looking at each other (Yale Film Studies Program 2002). This allowed me to see that in Lester’s fantasy, Angela is dancing erotically just for him, giving each other the same amount of attention. Because of the fact the Lester is desiring a girl that is his daughter’s age, it should be noted that Angela and Lester are never shown in the same frame in the scene as this suggests that there is some barrier in between them.
Another technical element which I found that added to the effectiveness of the scene, was the lighting. In the point of view shot from Lester’s perspective that showed that he was fixated on Angela, Angela was shown by herself in the frame. And as mentioned above, this is to point out that Lester only has his attention on Angela. The lighting used complemented the shot as the lighting helped to focus my attention on Lester’s enlarged eyes and this showed me that he was being enchanted by what he was seeing.
Another way the lighting was used in the scene was when Angela was shown alone in the frame and the background in the shot became a lot darker. At the same time, a bright light shined on Angela from above. The lighting in this shot is high contrast and low key. It is high contrast because the difference between the light and darkness is clear. Barsam states that low key lighting is when little or no fill light is used, the ratio between bright illumination and deep shadow is very high (Barsam 2007, p.152). This is shown in the shot because Angela’s shadow can be seen behind her and shadows can be seen on the rest of Lester’s face, excluding his eyes.
I found that lighting contributed quite a lot in this scene. Firstly, I felt that the light shining solely on Angela portrays Angela as the object of Lester’s attention. Barsam states that lighting thrown down on a character from above can be used for many different effects, (ie: vulnerability) (Barsam 2007, p.153). In the case of this scene, the light may be portraying the innocence and purity of Angela as she was a virgin throughout the entire film and as light can sometimes be affiliated with good and darkness with bad. The darkness in the background may represent her fake personality where she lies about her sexual experience to the people around her. The darkness surrounding Lester during the close up shots of him may be representing the sexual thoughts he fantasizes about in the scene. And thus the darkness surrounds him throughout the shots of him paying full attention to Angela.
The second scene I will be analysing, is the scene towards the end of the film when Lester’s fantasies and dreams are about to become reality. This scene is significant because it shows the second turn of events which transforms Lester again, but this time back to the mature person he once was, and also making him realize what it really meant to make him happy. This scene also makes use of composition and camera movement.
The scene begins with Lester moving close towards Angela who is lying on the couch. The camera pans right while following Lester. I found this to build up suspense to what would happen next. And as the camera moves to the right, it moves back down. This is a dynamic shot with downward movement. Dynamic because of the movement within the frame and downward movement because the camera moves in a downward movement. According to Barsam, this downward movement implies a negative action (Barsam 2007, p.177). In this case, the negative action is Lester’s sexual tendencies towards Angela who is a teenager. Barsam also mentions that the downward movement implies the loss of something (Barsam 2007, p.177). In this case, the loss is of Angela’s virginity.
The next shot is of Angela appearing at a 45 degree angle in the frame. This is known as a Dutch-angle shot. According to Barsam, a Dutch-angle shot is when the camera is tilted from its normal horizontal and vertical position so that it is no longer straight, giving the viewer the impression that the world in the frame is out of balance (Barsam 2007, p.174). The Dutch-angle accentuates the unnatural nature of the actions in the frame. In this case, it is of the unnatural reaction of Angela, who is about to have a sexual experience for the first time. As the scene continues, the camera pans from left to right and right to left following Lester’s hands as they go up and down Angela’s body. I found that this intensified the erotic feeling of the scene.
In the next shot, the camera moves to a dynamic crane shot, showing Lester’s hands unbuttoning Angela’s shirt. According to Barsam, a crane shot is a shot made from a camera mounted onto an elevating arm that, in turn, is mounted on a vehicle capable of moving by its own power resulting in it being more flexible due to the freedom of horizontal and vertical movement. The shot is then followed by a shot-reverse shot of Angela and Lester looking at one another. In the scene, Angela was given the low angle shot, looking up at Lester. Barsam states that a low-angle shot is made with the camera below the action and typically places the observer in the position of feeling helpless in the presence of a superior force (Barsam 2007, 171). In other words, a low-angle shot emphasizes anxiety, fear and vulnerability. The fact that Angela is looking up at Lester also implies that Lester is in control. However, I noticed during the crane shots, Angela’s position in the frame is always higher than Lester’s. In a way, this implies that she is pure and innocent because good elements are usually given a higher position over bad elements (eg: Heaven up, Hell down).
In the next shot, Angela reveals to Lester that she is a virgin. At this point, the shot goes back to Lester, who is in a Dutch-angle shot smiles and asks if Angela was kidding. The reason for the Dutch-angle shot is because Lester has realized what he was doing was unnatural. After this shot, is the second major turning point in Lester’s transformation, where he finally realizes after all this while, that being lustful for a teenager wasn’t what it meant to be happy.
The lighting technique used in this scene seemed to portray the light and darkness symbolic meaning that was mentioned above. Throughout the entire scene, there was always a light shining down on Angela but Lester was always kept in darkness. And with composition of Angela’s white shirt and the soft light shining on it emphasizing the white colour of the shirt, the light represents purity and innocence because Angela is a virgin. Whereas, the darkness that surrounds Lester, and the minimal lighting shining on his hands as he moves his hands up and down Angela’s body represents the impurity of his actions. The lighting used throughout this scene was low contrast and low key. Low contrast because the lighting used was dim and rather gray.
In the final shots of the scene, the lighting used were low contrast and low key as well because that implies a sense of mystery. As a viewer, although Lester had come to realize what it meant to achieve happiness, there was something which kept me wondering what would happen. And true enough, the film ended with Lester getting killed.
Throughout the film, there were many more cinematographic elements used which emphasized the personalities and characteristics of each character such as high-angle shots, the use of short-focal-length lenses and Long takes. However, because I interpreted the movie as Lester’s transformations through being “reborn”, I found that the cinematographic qualities used in the two scenes I analysed to be the most significant in my interpretation of and emotional response to “American Beauty”