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American Beauty

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Essay title: American Beauty

American Beauty (1999) tells the story of one man’s search for happiness. The film introduces the audience to Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), an ordinary married man and father in his forties. Lester is in a loveless marriage, however, as Lester’s wife Carolyn (Annette Benning), is so wrapped-up in her real estate career that Lester often claims that Carolyn doesn’t even acknowledge him. Lester’s daughter Jane (Thora Birch), is completely distant, often claiming how pathetic she thinks her father is. In addition, Lester has dedicated fourteen years to his occupation, and suddenly, he is in danger of losing his job due to downsizing. All of these factors dramatically effect Lester and culminate into feelings of desperation and vulnerability. Lester is therefore in search of an escape and a rebirth.

Lester is seeking the slightest possibility of happiness. Throughout the story, Lester is consistently reminiscing on his past; wishing he could have it back. In the beginning of the movie, Lester, as the narrator, states that it is never too late to regain your past. The catalyst to this frame of thought is Jane’s friend, Angela (Mena Suvari). Lester feels excited by the thought that a teenage girl thinks he is hot. Lester overhears Angela state that she would have sex with him if Lester would start working out. This drives Lester to change himself completely. Lester, in desperate search of happiness, finds an escape in Angela. Much like a teenage boy, Lester thinks that if he can score with a girl like Angela, then he will be reborn.

Lester’s mission for happiness and escape is further perpetuated by his eighteen year old neighbor, Ricky (Wes Bently). Lester sees his model for rebirth in Ricky. Lester calls Ricky his hero and is in awe of Ricky’s confidence. Lester then begins a transformation back to his stereotypical understanding of what a teenager is. Lester begins to work out, smoke pot and drink beer. Much like a teen, he rebels against responsibility by quitting his job and thus bypassing his duties as a provider to his daughter and wife. Lester also spontaneously trades in his Mercedes for a 1970s cherry-red Trans Am sports car. In addition, Lester pursues a job with the least amount of responsibility--at a fast food restaurant

All of these actions are deemed necessary to Lester because this is the way to escape and thus achieving happiness. The first scene where the audience is introduced to Lester’s transformation process is when he first spots Angela. Lester and Carolyn decided to come and support Jane at a school basketball game where she is to perform a dance at half-time. This scene is significant because it shows how Angela’s sexuality motivated Lester to rebel against who he is. Furthermore, this scene exemplifies Lester’s characteristics as a guy in search of sex. The first two technical elements used to exemplify this scene are composition and camera movement. The scene begins with Lester and Carolyn already in the stands with the crowd. Angela, Jane, and the other cheerleaders enter the picture with right to left movement assisted by a panning camera shot of right to left.

This foreshadows the unordinary actions that are about to occur. 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 (Angela dancing) within a fixed frame. By giving Angela an upward position within the frame this suggest Lester is first noticing her. As the scene continues, and Angela has 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 gives the audience an idea as to the degree of attention that Lester is giving to Angela due to her sexuality. It also enhances her presence. The scene continues with a static composition shot of Lester. It is static composition because there is no movement within the frame. The camera then begins to zoom in on Lester. As the camera zooms, the crowd is eliminated and only Lester is shown in the frame. Furthermore, the camera focuses on Lester’s eyes and makes them appear bigger than they actually are. This makes Lester look like an animal drooling at the mouth over something he desires. At this point, the camera performs a point of view shot showing what Lester’s eyes are fixated on, and focuses on Angela. This, once again, displays the degree of enchantment that Angela has placed over Lester. Angela is also shown alone in the frame. This shows that in Lester’s mind, only Angela and himself exist at this moment. Not even his daughter is of any relevance. The scene concludes with the camera then performing a shot-reverse-shot of Angela then Lester.

This allows the audience to see that in Lester’s fantasy, Angela is dancing erotically just for him and is paying as much attention to him

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