The film I have specifically chosen for my micro-features analysis essay is Sam Mendes’s Academy Award winning motion picture American Beauty winning numerous Oscars and praise from critics. The narrative follows the miserable and mundane lives of the Burnham family consisting of Lester, a middle aged man who is facing a severe mid-life crisis and is extremely depressed, married to Carolyn who is an independent business women and housewife and their naive daughter Jane. The films promotional tagline ‘look closer’ subconsciously implies that the appropriate suburban lifestyle depicted within the narrative is not as ideal as initially perceived, therefore exploring the corrupt and dysfunctional Burnham family fuelled entirely by materialism. The brief sequence chosen for microanalysis is the exposition, otherwise known as the opening which establishes themes, characters, inner and outer presence and the world they inhabit. Sam Mendes, the director must specifically use a contribution of all micro-elements including sound, mise en scene, cinematography and editing in order to grasp the viewer’s conscious attention and propel the narrative forward efficiently, however the two micro-aspects I have chose for analysis consist of mise en scene and cinematography which create meaning and evoke responses from the audience.
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American Beauty immediately commences with Jane Burnham being recorded by an anonymous character, the conversation between the two is extremely personal based on her ultimate intention to kill her father. The uncomfortable atmosphere compliments the compelling dialogue as it the amateur recording technique is specifically used in order to create realism which grasps the viewer into a submissive position due to the nature of the camera shot shifting into an intimidating low angle shot which consists of Jane dominating the frame with direct eye contacts creating an overwhelmingly intense atmosphere. The lighting within the room is severely limited thus being partially illuminated which creates a room filled with sinister shadows creating an ominous mood which emphasises her monotone clothing creating a mysterious persona that is unconventional for her age, more specifically sixteen therefore contradicting the typical ‘cheerleader’ stereotype. Jane’s eye line match within the camera shot detonates determination, zooming at a subtle pace whilst staring in a sinister way into the camera engages the viewer based on the cameraman refusing to allow her to escape voyeurism.
Carolyn Burnham is seen doing traditional female associated activities based on her natural characteristics hence her growing and maintaining the flowers within her garden, more specifically the roses are often associated with love and romance which is reflective of her provocative image possibly fuelled by her intentions to find another sexual partner regardless of her husband’s consent however one could consider gardening mentally satisfies Carolyn which inevitably reduces her need for sex, although as an audience we seriously doubt Lester cares due to his lacklustre body language. Lester perhaps outcasts himself from which unfortunately makes him invisible and unnoticeable, captured significantly during the scene where he is seen eavesdropping on the conversation between Carolyn and the homosexual next door neighbour. The intentional use of a ‘cut in shot’ shows his lack of presence and participation within his wife’s life, master shot initially establishes the conversation which is predictably followed by shot-reverse-shot, the focus ruthlessly shifts between the dialogue where the previously distorted and blurred figure is seen in the window thus representing his fragmenting relationship with his wife and overall exclusion from society. Lester’s perspective shows his helplessness to achieve acceptance hence his much more laid back approach to life, rather than a mundane lifestyle adopted by the majority suburban population, possibly aspiring to occupy a more hectic lifestyle however according to his established motivational issues in the exposition this seems highly unlikely. The outside of the house is illuminated entirely by natural light thus being much more glamorous therefore more appealing however he still holds distain towards it, in contrast the interior of the house is fuelled by minimal lighting which is significantly more realistic. In addition the interior of the house is also impractically dark which coincides with Lester’s tone during the voice over narration thus displaying two conflicting worlds; unfortunately he occupies the miserable one alone.
Lester comments on the coincidental matching of Carolyn’s attire and gardening apparatus, ‘handle on those pruning shears matches her gardening clogs’, stating it is not an accident which can be applied to the significance of the door and its colour, more specifically being an intense shade of red which distinctly different from majority of white therefore standing out with exceptional prominence which denotes violence which is depicted ruthlessly within the exposition and can be considered an important theme within the narrative. Lester has already foreshadowed his imminent death via voice over thus establishing the climax, building constant anticipation which makes the viewer become emotionally attached to the protagonist thus evoking empathy towards him and his circumstance.
The explicit performance of Lester during the masturbation scene in the shower reflects the realistic approach to the film, the initial shock of this scene can be uncomfortable for less mature audiences, and however it entices the viewer into the realistic world of Lester which is uncountable to the majority of the population who indulge in similar activities. The claustrophobic experience within a shower cubicle can metaphorically represent a prison cell thus being imprisoned into a mundane suburban lifestyle. His body language during this scene is noticeably drained, the angle of his head on his own shoulders displays his lack of stability and main intention to sexually satisfy himself by his own means during the current moment regardless of anyone’s opinion, especially Carolyn thus referring to it as the ‘highlight’ of his day without sarcasm. Lester’s pleasured body language is due to the masturbation; however it could potentially be exaggerated based on the thrill of doing something against the norms of society hence the use of ‘highlight’. Undoubtedly the severe lack of intimacy and chemistry with his wife could possibly be the reason for the masturbation rather than traditional sex, perhaps he is probably bored with sex like the majority of other things due to his refusal to abide by social norms to maintain a stable relationship on order to satisfy one another’s needs.
Whilst the Carolyn and Jane are waiting impatiently for Lester to proceed towards the noticeably expensive yet convention middle class car, basic processes such as making sure the suitcase is shut correctly emphasises his severe lack of motivation and commitment to life. Lester is seen casually collecting his work from a high angle perspective, kneeling down in an inferior position to his wife puts significant emphasis in his subordinate role within the dysfunctional family, thus switching gender roles with his wife, which in the current society is acceptable although not predominantly for the traditional male ego especially for dignity and pride; however the behaviour displayed by him implies that his couldn’t care less. Carolyn’s performance such as the raising of the eyebrows displays utter disappointment since she is married to an individual who is such a useless contribution to society thus making him obsolete or otherwise redundant, as he is expendable. Her formal makes her seem significantly more financially independent, reinforced by the low angle perspective of Lester, making her seem significantly more intimidating and authoritative thus not requiring his assistance, potentially holding her back economically.
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The camera cuts to the family motionless within the car, unresponsive to one another with a significant lack of acknowledgement reinforced the extent of the families communicational breakdown, Lester is seen sitting on the back seat of the car slumped, possibly even asleep whilst his wife and daughter sit in the front eager to get on with their social life, whether it is work or school. Lester positioned between the two within the medium shot, displays his prominence however his physical existence is lacking, possibly lost during the recent years which he has been entirely consumed by the capitalist society. The clothing worn by Lester is representative of his social class; social indicators including his house, car and clothing coincide with the typical middle class individual. Natural light is present within the scene but is obscured by the tinted windows, thus being restricted to reach its full potential, therefore subconsciously representing his constraints metaphorically hence the muted tones emphasising the lifeless atmosphere.
In conclusion the micro-features within the exposition of American Beauty establishes key themes within the narrative, consisting of love, sexuality, identity, etc become more and more prominent as the narrative eventually progresses conveying numerous meaning during this brief sequence therefore dictating the characters personality and determining the choices they will make.
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