American Beauty: The Color Red and the Power of the Visual Image
Given we were told by Lester Burnham in the opening shot of American Beauty that he was going to die, the ending was, in some ways, already spoiled. However, it is much more than the action that sells the climax of the film, images and music come together to form a truly beautiful and poignant culmination of the various character arcs, without the need for explicit dialogue or torrents of exposition.
The late Roger Ebert once said this of the film:
All of these emotional threads come together during one dark and stormy night, when there is a series of misunderstandings so bizarre they belong in a screwball comedy. And at the end, somehow, improbably, the film snatches victory from the jaws of defeat for Lester, its hero. Not the kind of victory you’d get in a feel-good movie, but the kind where you prove something important, if only to yourself.
This is perhaps the telling trait of the picture; the ‘beauty’ in American Beauty. The film is heavy in its final act, when for the most part it had been an almost light-hearted and comical look at the trials and tribulations of suburban America. But the ease and mastery of such emotional significance is – not only a credit to the actors and director (Sam Mendes) – the mark of a razor-sharp script and a screenwriter that is really clued in on his craft. Taking his dialogue and wonderful narration out of the equation gives to such a statement, as story entirely capable of telling the story through visuals alone.
Perhaps the first thing to focus on first, is the use of color and motif. Throughout the entire film, the rose, the American Beauty, had often been a symbol of Lester’s lust and desire for Angela. In his fantasies, the girl is shrouded in the roses, covering her body, betraying the fact that these are, in fact, his passionate musings rather than reality. When Lester is killed however, the viewer can spot a bunch of roses set on the counter-top next to his body. The image is striking; because the flower had been so associated with sexuality and infatuation, it seems somewhat odd for it to reappear in death.
What does this suggest? What does it mean? Well, it could be any of a number of things. It has to be reminded that this is not the first time the audience sees these flowers, they’re a recurring motif throughout in fact. With them showing up again here, in a non-sexual scenario (and indeed, in real-life) it could be said they symbolize the contributing factor as to why Lester had to be killed. It was his lust. His dissatisfaction with a mundane existence. His desire to shrug off the responsibilities of a materialistic way of life, and the way he approached the task of weathering the storm that was a mid-life crisis. These are the feelings and emotions the American Beauty represents and its presence in this scene solidify the theory that these are the things that led Lester to his untimely death.
It’s almost like Lester’s lust for Angela lit the fuse on the entire downward spiral of events. If he hadn’t become obsessed with her, he wouldn’t have started working out. If he hadn’t started working out, Colonel Fitts wouldn’t have spotted him working out naked. If Colonel Fitts hadn’t spotted him, he wouldn’t have thought his son, Ricky, was sleeping with him. Then he wouldn’t have come out as gay and tried to kiss Lester; and if he hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have been driven to kill him. It was beauty killed the beast.
However, let us not forget, the significance the color red represents in cinema – danger. Why is this so? Is it because it’s the color of blood? Film writer Jim Emerson draws our attention to a Jean-Luc Godard quote ‘it’s not blood, it’s red’ in reference to his 1965 film Pierrot le Fou. Perhaps this is why the color works so well in that respect, it is symbolic of blood, and therefore, a subconscious indicator of death and danger.
That certainly is the case for the closing sequence in American Beauty. Not only does the color of the flowers, indicate the impending demise of Lester Burnham, but it also cements itself in a number of other shots to build suspense and string the audience along to subconsciously question which character killed the protagonist. Each supporting character in the aftermath of Lester’s death is wearing or near something that is red. An even further analysis could suggest that the amount of red shown in each shot strings us along as the murderer’s identity is slowly revealed.
For example, Angela puts on red lipstick in the bathroom when the shot goes off. Ricky and Jane are lying on red-colored bed sheets. Carolyn is wearing a red dress – and holding a gun – which leads us to believe it may be her. Finally, we see Colonel Fitts caked in blood with the murder weapon. The color becomes more and more prominent as we inch towards the killer, which could be read as ever-growing hints as to the likelihood of these characters being the executioner (Angela the least, Colonel Fitts the most).
Color and props however, are not the only things that really progress the story and more importantly, the message. One has to think of camera angles, camera work and editing and their ability to work in tandem. When the gun is pressed to Lester’s head, the camera pulls away from the gun and past the American Beauties before the shot is fired. Not only does this add to the ambiguity of the scene, it also sets up the cinematic guess-who that follows.
In a similar camera movement, the camera tracks sideways as each character here’s the shot, passing them by in that fleeting moment. Not only does this chronicle their reaction to the sound, it helps clear their name of any wrongdoing. However it also sets up the flashback sequence. As the camera drifts across the sky, it drifts across the cast of characters, their reactions and ultimately drifts to the killer’s identity. This is where the editing really helps tell the viewer what is going on. Scenes from Lester’s past are spliced with the current chain of events, indicated by a change of color palette to black and white. This gives a sense of what it feels like for Lester as his life flashes before his very eyes. He is looking back on his fondest memories in his closing moments.
However, does this perhaps say something more? These minute windows into a past we have never seen or been a part of until now. The only thing we have known throughout the film is Lester’s continuing dissatisfaction with the materialistic tendencies of ‘nineties America. This is what Ebert was alluding to in his critique of the film. As Lester dies, he snatches from life those few things that make you the happiest – or the most content. It was never about the couch, or the ass-kissing for him (‘it’s all just stuff’ he quips earlier in the film), no, for Lester it was about redefining yourself as something that matters, something visible but with a feeling so intangible. Just like the plastic bag floating through the wind in final shot, he is concerned with only existing, being whisked along on this thing called life – and he was there to enjoy the ride. Think of it like a Fight Club for the middle-class.
Alan Ball and Sam Mendes had something truly important to say with American Beauty – it’s just amazing that they were able to do so with nothing more than such beautiful imagery.
What do you think? Leave a comment.