Thursday, June 23, 2016

Directorial Debut: Sam Mendes' AMERICAN BEAUTY

Welcome to a new installment of DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS, where we look at some of the best, most interesting, and iconic directors and the films that started their careers. This week we take a dive into what I consider the cornerstone for directorial debuts, probably the most fantastic debut every crafted by a film maker...AMERICAN BEAUTY.

That's right, Sam Mendes' American Beauty just radiates with glorious subtext about suburban life in America. The film opens with the line "My name is Lester Burnham, this is my neighborhood, this is my street, this is my life. I'm 42 years old, in less than a year I'll be dead. Of course, I don't know that yet, and in a way I'm dead already." If that does just scream, shout, and roar the message that the next two hours of your life is about to be a heart wrenching, tear jerking, subtext filled cinematic experience, then I don't know what will.

The film revolves around Lester Burnham played by the immaculate Kevin Spacey, who is currently going through what we could describe as his mid-life crisis. The film also introduces us to many characters who have quite the substantial impact in Lester's life; his wife Carolyn, his only daughter Jane, his next door neighbor Ricky Fitts, and Ricky Fitts' father Colonel Frank Fitts. For the first act of the film, Lester is drudging through his life; he hates his job, his marriage isn't what it used to be, his daughter hates him, and the highlight of his day is masterbaiting in the shower. But this is all changed by one small moment in Lester's life. On a night where Lester and his wife attend a high school basketball game to watch their daughter perform a dance routine, Jane's friend; Angela. A skimpy blonde cheerleader who is so self obsessed with her looks and whorish facade. This one sight in Lester's life causes everything to change, and flip his world upside down.

At the very basic surface level, this film is simply about a middle aged man who has a very creepy pedophile fantasy about his daughters friend. But Sam Mendes is much more intelligent than this. The film is about the struggles of American suburban living, and how someone's life becomes completely flipped around. We delve into the personalities of all of these characters, how they go about their lives, and how the react to certain situations. Every character also deals with their own set of problems and endures their own suffering. For Lester, it's wanting what he knows he can never have, for Carolyn it's striving to be the next big name in real estate but continuing to fail, for Jane it's attempting to feel comfortable in her own skin, for Ricky Fitts it's to inhale everything in the world that holds beauty, for Frank Fitts it's to earn the respect of his only son and live his life with his closeted homosexual tendencies, and for Angela it's to put up this facade that she's this prissy slut who loves having sex, but it's all the image and none of it is true.

All of these personas consume each character and we get to see the downfall of certain characters, the rise of other characters, and the complete shattering of other characters worlds. As far as technologically and production wise, the film does not have any shattering extravaganzas. The film is very simple, in the way it's lit, the production design, the camera movements, nothing is too shocking or outstanding looking but I think that's very purposeful. Sam Mendes is a very smart director, and has continued to show that throughout his filmography. The cinematography is all very precise and enjoyable. The film is so simple, yet for some reason it's so in depth symbolic for things that every person can relate to. Not the pedophile side, but wanting something you can't have, searching for beauty, being confident, and wanting to succeed in what you do.

The symbolism involved in the film is very intelligent and almost Lynchian in nature. The roses, and the color red are very potent in the film. The roses have several meanings and the color red falls in the same category that the roses do as far as what they represent. The roses first meaning is the inexplicable beauty of life and it's fleeting quality. Roses are very beautiful but yet we can't quite explain why, something is just aesthetically pleasing about roses, quite like life. And just like rose, life eventually wilts away and dies, very similar to the progression of Lester's character. Another meaning that the rose represents, that shares the same meaning with the re-use of the color red is the theme of lust. Lust is probably the most prominent theme in the film, from revolving around almost every other person in Lester's life. From his wife, to Angela, to his daughter having sex with the neighbor Ricky, and Frank's homosexual tendencies that he refuses to show to anyone and it terrifies him. The final meaning of the roses is love, and Lester's search for purpose. We see very little red in the images before Lester notices Angela for the first time. Red does appear in a few images, but not prior to Lester's meeting with Angela, red is in almost every single image that is presented to us an audience. Lester clearly is searching for something in his life, and he takes comfort in the childhood reminiscent feelings that Ricky gives him, and the younger teenage years that Angela gives him when Lester talks about how all he did "was go to parties and get laid."

American Beauty is the golden standard for directorial debuts, and boy does Sam Mendes give us one of the most amazing pieces of american cinema to date. We're driven into the personalities of these characters that seem so deranged to us as an audience, but deep down we think we're afraid to admit that every single character that is presented to us, is one small slice of our own personality, and we have to learn to accept these things as humans, that's what American Beauty is all about.

Joshua's Score: 10/10

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