Throughout American Beauty, Mendes? use of set design and camera angles have been carefully structured to emphathise the ? lm? s theme of imprisonment. In the opening scene the audience? s introduction to the lead character is Lester Burnham taking a shower. Mendes (1999) states this is the ? rst jail cell the audience sees Lester in, a range of various jail cell type settings appear throughout the ? lm including Lester presented excessively behind glass, between frames and at work, where he is con? ned to a small cubicle in a very large of? ce (Appalachian, 2009).
The effect of Lester imprisoned suggests he is isolated and removed from the world around him. The camera angles used exaggerate this and highlight Lester? s de? ation of power against the signi? cant people in his life. This technique is shown to de? ne the relationship between Lester and his boss, Brad. During a private conversation about budget cuts at work, Brad? s superiority is enforced as he shot from a low angle, whereas Lester is shot from a high angle, this creates the effect that Lester is far away from Brad, which demonstrates to the audience the vast power Brad has over him.
Mendes (1999) describes Lester as “distant and isolated” in this scene. This technique is also replicated throughout the movie to emphathise Lester? s detached relationship from his wife, Carolyn and daughter, Jane. The scene where Lester is seen to delay his wife by spilling his briefcase on the pavement before entering the car, Carolyn, similarly to Brad is shot from a low angle again which enforces Lester? s lack of power and her superiority. Interestingly, as the ? lm progresses and Lester? relationships evolve, the camera angles also evolve in reverse and the audience begins to see Lester shot in a low angle and characters like Carolyn are shot in a high angle, indicating that Carolyn is now vulnerable. These altered camera angles give Lester a triumphant image. Another technique Mendes uses is colour. The use of colour is often an important technique utilised by ? lm directors to communicate themes and ideas to an audience. In American Beauty, Mendes powerfully uses colour to communicate that the characters are attempting to escape from their imprisonment.
Initially the characters are seen in environments that are very dull and nondescript, as Mendes (1999) states when referring to Lester? s work setting. As Lester? s quest for escapement gains momentum, the vivid colour of red is gradually introduced more into this ? lm through subtle furnishings in the Burnham house and particularly integrated with Lester? s sexual fantasies. The use of the vibrant, red rose petal is ? rst introduced when Lester and Carolyn attend Jane? s cheer performance, where Lester loses himself as he enters his ? rst “tunnel of fantasy” (Mendes, 1999).
Deschler (1999) states the rose is symbolic of American beauty, and the colour red symbolises passion and love. The signi? cance of the rose petal and the colour red is repeatedly seen throughout the ? lm in house furnishings such as a bouquet of roses on the coffee table and vividly in Lester? s fantasies about Jane? s friend, Angela, the increasing level of red in the ? lm is in conjunction with Lester? s progressing sexual drive and transformation. The ? ourishing presence of the colour red, acknowledges Lester? s ? erce lust and desire to be free.
This is effectively conveyed during the scene where Lester visualises Angela in a vibrant sea of roses, touching herself seductively on his bedroom ceiling, also when Lester buys the car “he has always wanted” (Ball, 1999), which is a 1970 Firebird and strategically, red. Music is a powerful medium in ? lm and Mendes uses the soundtrack in American Beauty to articulate the character? s evolving personalities and relationships, and to set the tone of each scene, particularly noticeable during Lester? s transformation. Composer, Thomas Newman? score is described as “lonely and melancholy” (Mendes, 1999), which is an appropriate expression for Lester? s existence at the beginning of this ? lm. This is similarly demonstrated and supports to de? ne the initial relationship between Lester and Carolyn, as shown by the dull music that
Carolyn chooses to play at the dinner table. When Lester? s journey to freedom gains speed, evidently his sense of self worth has increased as there is an optimistic lift in the genre of music that is played as the backdrop to Lester? s life. This melancholy music played at the beginning of the ? m, begins to disappear and is replaced by fast paced, rock music. Simultaneously as Lester? s lifestyle transforms into marijuana smoking and employment at a fast food restaurant, so does too his interest in listening to seventies rock music (Deschler, 1999). At the height of Lester? s transformation, an important scene where the soundtrack effectively communicates a liberating change in personality is when he is recklessly driving his 1970 Firebird, whilst singing along to Guess Who? s rock hit “American Woman,” he con? dently sings the lyrics “American woman, stay away from me” (Ball, 2009).
This rebellious choice of song supports Lester? s new found freedom from his corporate life and could even suggest that Lester is newly unaffected by his wife? s judgements and bounds by recreating his lost youth. In many of the fantasy sequences involving Angela, the music composed is seductive and trancelike, which mirror? s the effect Angela has on Lester (Huffstutler, 2009), the technique of soundtrack is effectively used here to set a strong tone for the audience. In American Beauty, director, Sam Mendes uses the Burnham family to demonstrate the breakdown of a suburban family and possibly to encourage his audience to ? ook closer? and past what often appears, to be a seamless, picture perfect life. American Beauty effectively employs the techniques of set design, camera angles, colour and soundtrack to convey the meaning of this ? lm, which is to escape from imprisonment.