The unattainable ‘American Dream’ behind US mass shootings crisis

american-dream

Saw this article by Sarah Kaplan from The Washington Post on the Stuff website today and found it really interesting. Worth reading if you are revising American Beauty.

On 23 August, criminal justice professor Adam Lankford stood in front of a crowd of sociologists to explain how American culture contributes to the all-too-frequent American mass shootings. It’s not just that we have a lot of guns, he said – though he does believe that the high rates of firearm ownership are partially to blame. It’s the social strains of American life – the false promise of the American dream, which guarantees a level of success that can’t always be achieved through hard work and sheer willpower; the devotion to individualism and the desire for fame or notoriety.

Millions of Americans feel these strains and never commit a crime. But for a small handful, they breed the kind of resentment and fury that can explode into violence.

Read the rest here.

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Some background on American Beauty

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American Beauty was released in 1999 and it was popular with critics and viewers alike. The film was directed by Brit Sam Mendes and written by Alan Ball. The star of the film is Kevin Spacey (he won an Oscar for the role) and he plays Lester Burnham. The film has been described as a satire of the American middle class and its ideas of beauty and personal satisfaction. American Beauty has been analysed deeply and the film’s themes include; explorations of romantic and paternal love, sexuality, beauty, materialism, alienation, self-liberation and redemption.

Alan Ball began writing American Beauty as a play in the early 1990s, partly inspired by the media hysteria around the Amy Fisher trial in 1992. Amy Fisher was a 17 year old who became known as “the Long Island Lolita” when she shot and severely wounded Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the wife of her lover Joey Buttafuoco. When Ball realised that the ideas he had wouldn’t work on stage he gave up on it. However, he revived the idea in 1997 when he tried to break into the film industry.

American Beauty was acclaimed theatre director Mendes’ film debut; he got the job after twenty other people were considered and several “A-list” directors turned down the opportunity. Sam Mendes called American Beauty a rites of passage film about imprisonment and escape from imprisonment. The monotony of Lester’s existence is established through his gray, nondescript workplace and characterless clothing. In these scenes, he is often framed as if trapped, “reiterating rituals that hardly please him”. At the start of the film Lester masturbates in the shower; the shower cubicle evokes a jail cell and the shot is the first of many where Lester is confined behind bars or within frames. Another striking example of this is when he is reflected behind columns of numbers on a computer monitor, According to author Jody W. Pennington, Lester’s journey is the story’s centre.

American Beauty Essay

I have had lots of requests for examples of visual text essays and I will put a few more up. This one is on a film we haven’t studied but it is on a question that some of you have attempted.

To what extent do you agree that films offer an insight into society (past or present)? Respond to this question with close reference to a film you have studied.

Film directors can make a point of using film and cinematography to offer an insight into society and their perceptions. The film American Beauty, directed by Sam Mendes, is an example of a crafted piece of cinematography that gives a perceptive insight into society’s ideas on beauty. This film, in the role of a suburban satire, manages to portray all the stereotypical perceptions of beauty then paint the reality of it. Watchers of American Beauty cannot fail to recognise that society and its idea of beauty is false and unrealistic.

American Beauty shows what society traditionally associates with beauty to be superficial and false. The red rose is a running motif in the film, and is closely associated with the character of Carolyn Burnham who grows them. Carolyn Burnham is a frantic, cold and miserable woman, desperate to be seen as successful and happy by those around her. The red roses are continuously in the Burnham home because they symbolise to Carolyn beauty and perfection.

This idea is matched by society’s view on the beauty of the rose. However, American Beauty makes us realise that this rose is not a symbol of beauty, but in reality a symbol of falseness. In essence it represents Carolyn and her wasted life spent trying to be successful and present an image of impossible domestic perfection. It reminds us of the manufactured roses purchased for Valentines Day: these red roses are thoughtless and false. They have no scent and are ‘mass-produced’. Thus what we initially see as a symbol of traditional beauty becomes a plastic signpost for materialism.

The tag-line of American Beauty is ‘look closer’, which immediately makes us think that the characters we perceive to be good, perfect or beautiful are not all they appear. It comments on society’s tendency to judge people on outward appearance. This is shown in the character of Angela. A blonde and popular teenager she fits in with society’s traditional ideas of beauty and femininity. She reflects on many people’s fears when she says:

“I don’t think that there’s anything worse than being ordinary.”

To see that this apparently perfect girl fears the same things we do is a shock, and installs the idea that society’s ideas on perfection and beauty are not only wrong but also impossible. No one is perfect. This is made even more apparent when Angela is contrasted with Jane, who seems at first to be plain and unremarkable. This changes as Jane becomes involved with Ricky.

Ricky likes filming things he sees to be beautiful. His ideas of beauty are not in keeping with those of society. Often he films things which most people would find repulsive, like a dead bird. For him, beauty is more than just a face value, and we often look at things form his perspective because there are sequences taken from his camera as he films it. This gives us the unique opportunity to be inside Ricky’s head.

Ricky finds Jane beautiful. We see this when his camera zooms in on Jane’s face reflected in a mirror, completely ignoring the beautiful Angela’s strip tease. As Jane becomes more confident over the course of the film she wears less make-up. In the climatic scene where Jane agrees to leave with Ricky, the falseness of Angela’s beauty is revealed. Ricky informs Angela of her worst fear, that she is completely ordinary:

“Yes, you are (ugly). And you’re boring, and you’re totally ordinary, and you know it.”

This exposes to us that society’s idea of beauty is false and at the end of the day doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things. Society thinks that beauty brings happiness, but it is apparent that Angela is incredibly insecure and uses Jane to make her feel better about herself. Thus we realise that our idea of beauty is manufactured and is so common that is becomes ordinary and boring.

American Beauty is a film that opens our eyes to the way society perceives beauty. It is insightful because we recognise that there is so much more to life than the stereotypical looks that everyone associates with happiness. The film allows us to realise that much of the uncertainty and misery in the world is caused by people trying to be an image that isn’t real but manufactured and false.

A discussion of American Beauty

I don’t know where this discussion of American Beauty comes from but it is well worth reading for revision purposes.

When you have nothing to lose you might as well risk everything. The film American Beauty shows us from the outset that Lester Burnham is in a rut. In response to a midlife crisis Lester reverts to adolescence. His sudden irreverent rebellion enrages his wife and confuses his daughter particularly when he turns a lustful gaze toward her friend Angela.

From its first gliding aerial shot of a generic suburban street, American Beauty moves with a mesmerising confidence and acuity epitomised by Kevin Spacey’s calm narration. Spacey is Lester Burnham, a harried Everyman whose midlife awakening is the spine of the story, and his very first lines hook us with their teasing fatalism and like Sunset Boulevard‘s Joe Gillis, Burnham tells us his story from beyond the grave.

The film weaves social satire, domestic tragedy and whodunit into a single package, Screenwriter Alan Ball’s first theatrical script blurs generic lines and keep viewers off balance, winking seamlessly from dark comedy to deeply moving drama. The Burnham family joins the cinematic short list of great dysfunctional American families, as Lester is pitted against his manic, materialistic realtor wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening, making the most of a mostly unsympathetic role) and his sullen, contemptuous teenaged daughter, Jane (Thora Birch, utterly convincing in her edgy balance of self-absorption and wistful longing). Into their lives come two catalytic outsiders. A young cheerleader (Mena Suvari) jolts Lester into a sexual epiphany that blooms into a second adolescence. And an eerily calm young neighbour (Wes Bentley) transforms both Lester and Jane with his canny influence.

American Beauty is English theatrical director Sam Mendes first film and he expertly juggles these potentially disjunctive elements into a superb ensemble piece that achieves a stylised pace without lapsing into transparent self-indulgence. Mendes has shrewdly insured his success with a solid crew of stage veterans, yet he’s also made an inspired discovery in Bentley, whose Ricky Fitts becomes a pivot for both plot and theme. Cinematographer Conrad Hall’s sumptuous visual design further elevates the film, infusing the beige interiors of the Burnhams’ lives with vivid bursts of deep crimson, the colour of roses-and of blood.

Another question for American Beauty

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Here is another good essay question for American Beauty.

How does a feature film you have studied use narrative and other film techniques to examine the values of society?

Firstly, discuss the ‘values of society’ that are represented in American Beauty. Then, how is society, its structures and what it holds to be important conveyed in the film?

This might be through film techniques such as:

•      the situations characters in the film are faced with, and how they act and react.

•      the characters themselves (e.g. what they are like, how they are conveyed and developed, how they are contrasted). Lots of scope there!

•      the visual images, motifs and symbols used.

•      the dialogue

•      how characters relate to each other. Again plenty to discuss.

•      the settings used and the costumes worn.

Writing about Lester

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Discuss the ways in which the director of a feature film you have studied manipulates audience response to the characters and to what effect.

To answer this question think about how Lester is revealed to the audience, how is he developed? The sort of things to consider are:

  • costume
  • colours, music, motifs, symbols that are associated with Lester
  • body language
  • Lester’s vocabulary
  • the situations that he is involved in and how he reacts to them
  • the types of shots used on Lester