American Beauty Term Paper

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Term Paper: American Beauty

What are the costs of living in a success-driven, consumer-oriented, image-obsessed society? This challenge to contemporary America’s suburban culture finds a voice in Sam Mendes’ 1999 movie American Beauty. The film’s complex subtlety underscores its implication that subtlety itself is a casualty in our society. American Beauty’s tagline exhorts viewers to “look closer,” but the film expresses ambivalence concerning what is revealed by closer inspection. On one hand, protagonist Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his young neighbor Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) speak of the unappreciated beauty surrounding us; however, Lester also begins to question the values of a world that seems perfect but is actually a
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Mendes and cinematographer Conrad Hall substitute film of a lower resolution to add realism to shots supposedly filmed with Ricky’s video camera. Black and white footage in the closing montage sequence differentiates Lester’s memories of his life and family from the story time of the flashback that makes up the rest of the movie. However, the most important feature of American Beauty’s camerawork is the use of the technique to reinforce the message of the movie’s tagline, which tells viewers to “look closer.” Though zoom-out shots occasionally appear – most notably in the closing helicopter shot – they are far outnumbered by zooms that bring the audience closer to the subject. This preponderance not only contributes to the film’s theme but also emphasizes zoom-outs, particularly in the final shot of the film. Ricky makes abundant use of the zoom feature on his camera, and because his subject is often Jane, close ups on her are common. One particularly interesting example appears in the scene of Angela spending the night with Jane in the movie’s first section. The girls notice that Ricky has spelled out “Jane” in the yard in burning letters. Surmising that Ricky is filming them, Jane retreats flustered while Angela, ever the exhibitionist, dances at the window. Rather than focusing on Angela, the crass, unsubtle beauty, Ricky zooms past her to settle on Jane’s face reflected in a mirror. From her faint smile – an
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