American Beauty

copyright J V Ward 14th April 2000

 "Work for windows"

Perceptions of reality in American Beauty 

No doubt the author wrote his script using windows operations for he seems to be inspired by windows, doorways and apertures and it is by this means that he portrays the contradictions of American life.

We can see a prime example of this 'windows operation' in the scene where the 'faggots' call on the colonel to welcome him to the neighborhood. The scene is literally framed by the doorway: notice how the camera alternately shows the colonel's view of the ‘faggots’ and vice versa. The dialogue is, of course, characterized by misunderstandings. The colonel, from his side of the doorway, which is his 'reality' demands 'you say you're partners. What business are you in?', failing to grasp the modern meaning of 'partners'. The ‘faggot’ responds from his perspective of reality 'he's a tax accountant, I'm a veterinary', choosing to ignore that 'partners' can have any meaning other than its euphemistic one.

Similarly in the scene where we see Lester and Richie smoking dope outside the kitchen door, Richie is called back by his employer to re-enter the world of work, which the audience now perceives as a charade to disguise Richie's dope business. The caterer is framed in the open doorway declaiming that Richie is not paid to do 'whatever it is that you're doing'. The caterer from his perspective of the world of work, chooses to deny to himself the obvious fact that Richie is smoking dope and as the door closes on the scene we hear his Parthian exclamation of 'asshole', a scarifying comment on Richie's denial of the caterer's traditional view of the world of work.

Perhaps the finest window scene is the basketball arena where the 'window' is created by the camera. Lester's view of Angela amongst the dancers is focused along Lester's tunnel vision of the particular dancer which he can see to the exclusion of all others. Eventually the window explodes leaving only Lester and Angela in the arena. This scene is characterized by red rose petals, symbolic of Lester's sanguinary death when his red brain tissue and blood are splattered against the bathroom wall. The roses can also be seen as symbols of eroticism. When Caroline is first introduced to the camera, again in a window scene from Lester's perspective from the house, she is pruning and cutting back the roses and it later transpires that she is also cutting away at Lester's conjugal privileges. The more loquacious of the ‘faggots’ commends to Caroline the virtues of manure, a scatological reference to his own sexual proclivities.

It is not only individuals but also the relationships between them that are ruthlessly examined by the windows mechanism. The colonel's total misconstruction of Lester and Richie's relationship is skilfully portrayed by the camera projecting from the colonel's window to show an exhibition of sexual intimacy. The dramatic irony that Richie is enamoured of Jane combined with the scene's dialogue being denied to the colonel create a misconstruction that is a source of humour to the audience. The scene appears in stark contrast to the take away food store where Lester abruptly appears at the Mr Smiley window to confront Caroline and Brad viewed behind the automobile window. It is here that the true state of Lester's marriage becomes apparent. The reality of the failure of the marriage appears in startling concrete terms when the dialogue is interspersed with banalities regarding 'french fries' and 'Mr Smiley sauce', the fatuous material symbols of the ostensible purpose of the 'Mr Smiley' window.

Just as the hollow relationship between Lester and Caroline is portrayed in a window setting, so the doomed and brief relationship between Lester and the colonel is shown at Lester's garage door. The colonel at the outside is bedraggled by the rain, weak and pathetic, old and fat, the complete antithesis of soldierliness. Lester, seen by the colonel inside the garage, is fit from working out, the apogee of manliness appealing to the colonel's latent homosexual instincts. When the colonel enters the garage, thereby closing the window, the relationship explodes as the celibate yet heterosexual Lester rejects the colonel's amorous advances, thereby provoking the wrath that will be his undoing.

Overall, the movie is a series of vignettes, subtly spaced out to display characters and relationships. There is, by contrast,  a noticeable absence of time scale. The audience is made aware, from Lester's opening voice-over, that the period of the action is one year but there is little to show time passing except by abrupt and unsubtle measures, as for example, when Richie suffers a mauled face but appears unmarked in the next scene, 'Tom and Jerry' fashion. Undoubtedly, the producer does not wish to disturb his vignettes with inappropriate time shifts. We can discover Richie's true feelings for Jane when we see her in the bedroom window as seen by Richie, ample breasted and voluptuous, features noticeably lacking in her other appearances. Camera trickery conveys more than yards of tedious dialogue. Also the colonel's declamation that 'There are no locked doors in my house' is portrayed for its hypocrisy when the Nazi earthenware is discovered behind the locked window of the cabinet. More can be said about the state of Lester's marriage by the scene of his 'jerking off' behind the shower window than by hours of video tape. Lester's concluding analysis that 'life is beautiful' has been shown in a series of windows which give the audience the opportunity to judge whether or not 'life is beautiful' or if American life is beautiful or is there such a thing as 'American beauty'.

Links to other essays
Sylvia Plath The Bell Jar
John Milton Lycidas
Brian Friel Translations
Shakespeare Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V
Shakespeare Henry VI and Richard III
DrydenAbsolem and Achitophel and other works
Virginia WoolfThe Use of Symbolism
Sir Walter Scott Heart of Midlothian and Waverly
Keats and Shelly Adonais and other works
Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice and Emma
Shakespeare Notes on Twelfth Night