Look Closer… AMERICAN BEAUTY
The Plot Catalyst for change Jane asks Ricky if he would kill her father Lester is a middle-aged ‘loser’ questioning his life Lester is introduced to Jane’s friend Angela, and becomes infatuated Lester works out to impress Angela, creating a gym in the garage. Lester meets new neighbour Ricky - his new ‘hero’(quit job & smokes dope) Ricky’s father, Col Fitts is disgusted by two gay male neighbours (Jim & Jim) Ricky is mesmerised by Lester’s daughter Jane, finding her beautiful Lester’s wife Carolyn begins an affair with Real Estate ‘idol’ Buddy Kane. Jane falls for Ricky, who shows her beauty in mundane everyday moments Col Fitts hits Ricky for ‘snooping’ in his private study Lester quits his advertising job, and takes a burger job Catalyst for change
Lester stands up to Carolyn and Jane Lester buys a red 1970 Firebird. Carolyn begins gun lessons with Buddy Lester discovers Carolyn’s affair. Buddy ‘finishes’ the affair Col Fitts ‘misreads’ a meeting where Ricky sells Lester dope Col Fitts beat Ricky, believing he is gay Ricky chooses to leave home & Jane agrees to go with him Assuming Lester is gay, Col Fitts tries to kiss him Lester gently rejects his advances Ricky tells Angela she is ‘ordinary’ Angela seeks reassurance, offering herself to Lester Angela reveals she is a virgin Lester chooses not to sleep with her (no longer object of desire) Lester is shot dead by Col Fitts - but dies smiling! .
Plot – Stylistic Features • Highly dramatic = major turning points, shock twists, foreshadowing, smoking guns & red herrings (signature style of director, Mendes) • Step-stair structure, or domino effect = causation; one event causes another to occur; thus seemingly coincidental events are pivotal and necessary plot devices • Deliberate attempts to mislead audience (Jane’s wish to have her father killed; Carolyn learning to use a gun; Col.Fitts hatred for homosexuality)
Genre • NOT easily classified or ‘pigeonholed’ into one genre as it blends multiple genre features • Deliberately subverts genre expectations • Includes elements of film noir, melodrama, black comedy and satire • Also, neither a Classic Hollywood mainstream film’ nor an Independent Art-house film • Its features are designed to appeal to both audiences: character driven but some action/momentum in plot • Produced by Hollywood BUT with low budget (characteristic of independent films). • ‘Platform’ release means first released in art-house theatres, then in stages to chain cinemas to create demand
Film Noir • Mendes hugely influenced Film Noir – AB similarity • He admits the influence of films such as “Sunset Boulevard” (1951) -first film narrated by dead character, a private eye thriller • The dead-pan tone of Lester’s early voiceover are characteristic of Film Noir • As is a blonde temptress – a femme fatale • However, the colour intensity and the upbeat tone are NOT characteristic of Film Noir
Melodrama • Mendes has influenced by earlier melodramas which show the flaws in the suburban nuclear family (theme) • Allusions to Robert Redford’s 1980 film, “Ordinary People” (the mother is a character of emotional coldness) in almost copied scenes = the first dinner table scene and the final scene where Carolyn collapses in front of the wardrobe • Features of melodrama obvious in AB: suburbia setting emotive acting, bold colours & lighting, realism, the use of the “male gaze” – women as sex objects; focus on conflicts between characters (drama) • By including ‘surrealist’ fantasy scenes which self-consciously break the narrative, Mendes subverts the Melodrama genre; more symbolism breaks realism= not an ordinary drama
Tragi-Comedy or Black Comedy • A Black Comedy laughs at serious topic e.g. Death at a Funeral, Four Lions • Mendes describes AB as a Tragi-Comedy ( blends humour & tragedy) • Classic distinction between Comedies and Tragedies (Shakespeare) = A comedy is a plot that ends with a happy ending, a tragedy – the hero dies . In AB, the hero dies yet it’s a happy ending! • Features of black comedy in AB: powerless protagonist rebels, misunderstandings, fate, irony (The ending is rife with fatalism and irony)
Satire • its influences: (Stalag17, Truman Show) • Features of Satire: sarcasm & wit (Carolyn, Lester), irony (Ricky placating his father), caricatured characters are ridiculed • Character dialogue mocks & questions values • Burlesque type striptease highlighting nudity & desire – Lester’s desires are identifiable yet pathetic, encouraged yet morally questionable • clear from Lester’s final comments and expression, that Mendes feels positive about family life itself, but critiques their values
Mendes Signature Style Signature style = seen in other films (Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road) • Minimalist style mise en scene (sparse props, stark colours & lighting) suggesting symbolism
Mendes Signature Style • Slow camera movement, extended lengths of shot (duration of shot), symmetrical framing
Mendes Signature Style • Few closeups, limited handheld steadicam; prefers wide shots and mounted cameras
Mendes Signature Style • Dramatic plots with multiple climaxes
Mendes Signature Style • Links audience viewing with acts of ‘voyeurism’
Mendes Signature Style • Familiar (reality) shown in Unfamiliar Way
Drawing Connections Across Texts • Characters: Lester – Anti hero; a flawed ‘everyman’ but not a Byronic hero (as he’s not "mad, bad, and dangerous to know“) like Heathcliff. What other antiheroes have you encountered? • Characters: Carolyn & Fitts – stereotyped, caricatures. Other stereotyped characters? • Themes – Family Disharmony, Familial Relationships & Conflict, Family Secrets? • Themes – Beauty. What is shown as beautiful in texts you have studied? What is valued? • Themes – Conformity or Rebellion. What do characters rebel against? Who is shown to conform? What other texts question the need to conform to society’s expectations? • Remember – the other part of Level 3 thinking, is being able to draw connections with what you think – your experiences and your viewpoint
Pathetic Fallacy • Final scenes – weather setting reflects the stormy emotions of multiple characters as the conflicts come to a climax
Discussion Questions to Challenge • How does Lester’s opening revelation that he will die affect the viewer? • After watching the film, what do you think are the significance of the roses and the title American Beauty, in relation to themes? • Existentialism is a philosophy that every individual must create their own meaning as values are not fixed. Does AB support this? • Are Mendes female representations in the film problematic, unsympathetic and lopsided? (2 neurotic wives and a sex kitten) • Who is the hero of this film – Lester or Ricky? • Why isn’t the audience troubled that Lester’s transformation is made via lust and pot?
Discussion Questions to Challenge • Mendes filmed a flashback scene of Fitts having sex with a soldier in Vietnam. Why did Mendes edit it out? • The film explores the shame around homosexuality for an older conservative character. Is the film suggesting that a younger generation is more accepting? • The film was primarily marketed to young men. It employs the “male gaze” in representations of Angela and in Lester’s visual interest. Is Jane’s representation and Ricky’s visual interest also a ‘male gaze’? 10. What representations of men in AB could be seen as “homoerotic” ? i.e. images which could target a homosexual audience?