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American Beauty

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 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, unaffectionate youth. The next scene is of

a high angle shot, with a voice-over narration. The voice-over goes to explain that this is Lester

Burnham'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


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




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