In American Beauty, 1999, directed by Sam Mendes, we are confronted with the permeating images that have consumed mainstream American life. Mendes exploits these images as constructions that we created around ourselves as a means of hiding our true selves. Mendes is able to implicate us in the construction and make us active viewers by exploiting our voyeuristic nature. In American Beauty Mendes uses the voyeuristic tendencies of the spectator to acknowledge the permeating constructed images.
Mendes, through the use of narration, the mise en scene and cinematic techniques implicates the spectator in to using their voyeuristic tendencies to deconstruct the images in order to reveal the true image. From the start of the film the construction of images is evident. American Beauty begins with the obvious constructed shot, shown through the use of a video camera, of a young teenage girl. The narration reveals that she wants her father dead. The image portrayed around her is constructed as an evil, un affectionate youth.
The next scene is of high angle shot, with a voice-over narration. The voice-over goes to explain that this is LesterBurnham's speaking and he is already dead and the following is a construction of the relevant events. This scene holds relevance for two reasons. First it constructs an image that the young teenager in the previous scene is the killer. And as we will learn by the end of the film this image is not all that it appeared to be. This is a reoccurring theme throughout the film, that these are constructed images, and to notice that there is more to the story then what appears on the surface.
The high angle spanning shot of Lester's street also holds significance for the spectator. This opening shot is quite similar to that of Alfred Hitchcock's opening scene in Psycho. The similar themes is the spectators being the voyeurs. In each we are looking into the private sphere of the character. However, in American Beauty our voyeuristic nature is not shameful. The narration that accompanies the scene is allowing our voyeuristic desires to enter into the private lives without guilt or shame.
Mendes as does Lester asks the spectator to be the voyeur. As well the sign on Lester's cubicle wall is not a coincidence. Mendes is again soliciting the spectator's voyeuristic nature by placing a sign that asks us to "look closer." This theme of looking past the constructed images is Mendes way of telling us to look past the superficial images that we represent and to find a way to see our true selves. The construction of images within the narrative is important to how Mendes constructs them through cinematic techniques. Carolyn Burnham, real estate agent, mother and wife have been, from the very beginning is constructed through the narrative in such a way that the spectator defines her as someone who is consumed by the importance of projecting and maintaining the perfect image. She is often caught, consciously making references concerning images.
Referring to Jane Burnham, "are you trying to look unattractive" or to her husband at a real estate gala "there's a certain image... " and to herself, " to be successful one must always put forward an image of success." These comments are additions to what the spectator has already been subjected to when Lester points out "that it is not an accident the handles on her pruning sheer's match her gardening clogs." Mendes through his depiction of Carolyn in earlier scenes is directing the spectator to be appalled by Carolyn's obvious shallow and selfish ("could you make me any later?" ) personality. Yet at the same time Mendes gives the spectator reasons to appreciate Carolyn's obsessive qualities about the projected images. Carolyn respects the dominant ideologies about images, and is consciously aware that she is an object of the gaze. As women are often the objects of the gaze (at least more then men) she is able to understand that there is a need to always be projecting the perfect image. To her this is a way of controlling her surroundings and thus being able to control the image that others will receive from her.
It has already been said that Carolyn accepts and respects the role that images play within her day to day life. She also understands the important role of the voyeurs and at the object in which they gaze. Through narration Mendes relates her ideologies to her occupation. As a real estate agent Carolyn is in the business of selling, but more then that, she is trying to sell an image of a lifestyle which centres around the home. In the scene where Carolyn begins to clean the house before the open house, Mendes constructs the understanding that the image is representative of only the surface of an object. Carolyn believes that a clean image on the surface, is enough to sell something.
However this was not case and the potential home buyers saw through the image and knew the house was not what it had appeared to be. The potential home buyers deconstructed the images Carolyn constructed for the house. As the image of the house that Carolyn has constructed is deconstructed, Carolyn loses a bit of her control. Her image begins to deconstruct as she fights with her true self and the image that she tries to exude. This is what Mendes is asking us to do with all the images in film. Identify what the constructed images are and to look closer and attempt to deconstruct them.
Just as the potential home buyers did not buy into the image of the home, we as the voyeur are warned not to 'buy' into the images of the characters. Mendes implicates us and exploits our voyeuristic tendencies further through the use of cinematic techniques. From the opening shot of Jane, Mendes incorporates the use of a video camera. The use of the camera serves two important functions. In a way it validates Carolyn's obsession with always needing to project the image. The repeated use of the video camera establishes the theme that someone is always watching.
The use of the video camera confirms Carolyn's ideologies that image must always be at their best. As well since the video camera is able to into anything it validates Carolyn's reasoning for extending her images to include the house and everyone who are part of the house. The second way Mendes uses the video camera relates directly to the spectator's role as a voyeur. As the narration allowed the spectators to be guilt free voyeurs so does the video camera.
Rickey is the spectator's link to the video camera. The spectator repeatedly sees Rickey with his camera capturing images wherever they may appear. As voyeurs we are not only implicated in the act looking with Rickey, Mendes also constructs us to be implicated in the images it projects. By using the video camera Mendes, gives us two different images of the same situation. By doing such, demands us to see the construction of the image and asks us to deconstruct it, to look closer, to be active voyeurs within the film. Mendes renders two different approaches to one scene.
When Jane and Lester are arguing in the kitchen, there is so much colour that the perfect image is barely distorted. Yet seeing through Rickey's camera, the color is lost, the image looks stale and dull, lifeless. Mendes forces us to deconstruct the situation from a small disagreement, to a joyless existence and obviously troublesome relationship. There is no happiness between the two and the perfect American family image is beginning to deconstruct. The secret about the real family is beginning to unravel under the direction of the video camera. Mendes uses the video camera to reveal the truth within the characters and the images.
Just as the video camera in the first shot constructed an image of Jane the camera can be deconstructed by these images. Repeatedly throughout the film Jane does not want to be video taped. She has been given a constructed image as a youth that does not want attention or affection. Yet Rickey through the lens of the camera can see that this is not necessarily true.
After Rickey burns her name in the driveway, Jane turns around and walks away from the window, she is still partaking in the constructed images of herself. However this is a quite different image from the one that the spectator and Rickey see in through the video camera. Rickey uses the video camera to create a close-up shot, where it is revealed by a small smile on Janes face that she is not what she seems to be. The small smile across Janes face shows her own deconstruction of her image. Throughout the film Mendes has been asking us to look closer. Mendes is inviting the voyeur to look closer, to see past the images the characters are wearing.
The close-up shot is seen several times within the film and the amount of close-ups increased as the film draws to an end. The close-up shot allowed the voyeur to see past the superficial images the characters embody and discover some other layers within the characters. With Carolyn we that she is not only aware of voyeuristic tendencies but is also very active participant in a voyeuristic fashion. When Carolyn is having lunch with Buddy King, she pulls the menu up her face so that only here yes are visible to the camera. With the close-up shot the camera focuses on just the eyes, the spectator, is given an intimate look into Carolyn's emotions. In this scene the spectator confirms her obsession with images.
As the constructed images of the characters begin to be deconstructed, the image within the mise en scene reflects this deconstruction. Mendes ties together the images of the characters to the constructed images which exist within the mise en scene. When we are first presented with the dining room within the Burnham's home, the scene is carefully constructed with everything from the curtains to the candles and bowl of roses on the table. Everything had its placed within the dining room. The shot is perfectly symmetrical, as at the time so is their image. As Lester begins to deconstruct the images that surround him, the images within the mise en scene are representative of this.
When the spectator returns to the dinning room, the mise en scene has lost some of its structure. The candles on the table are out of line, and the centre piece of red roses has completely vanished. Jane is missing at first and arrives only to watch this particular room loose more and more order and control. The mise en scene is beginning to show the flaws that the characters are discovering about themselves. This technique is used early also when Carolyn is unable to sell the image of the house. We see Carolyn standing against the jumbled blinds of the sliding door.
The perfect symmetrical image within the mise en scene is erased in order to represent the failing images in Carolyn's life. In American Beauty, Mendes constructs his images in order to ask the spectator to deconstruct, by looking closer. This film represents the darkness that we have allowed to see pinto American culture. We have allowed ourselves to be overly concerned with the way we want to be or told we should be represented.
There are too many cases of the individuals soul being lost behind a maze of faulty images. Mendes begs the spectator almost in desperation to try to see the beauty that this world has to offer. However, he is not pessimistic in his conclusions. Like the flower the film is named after we can still bloom late and the appreciation for the beauty will last for eternity.
Yet to reach a point to appreciate the beauty we must strip away the complex layers which we have surrounded ourselves with. This is Mendes point, the need to deconstruct the permeating ideologies within our culture. Bibliography American Beauty. Dir. Sam Mendes.
Dreamworks /Warner Brothers, 1999.