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Lester Burnham The Catalyst English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1823 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In the film, American Beauty, Lester Burnham is a middle aged man living an unsatisfying life as a father and husband in conventional suburbia. Working an uninspiring office job and living in a household that has formed an artificial identity, Lester feels the need to break free from the sedated state that he has become imprisoned to. By later forming an infatuation for his daughter’s best friend, Angela, Lester finds life within himself. This reawakening changes Lester’s outlook on life which in turn creates conflict with the rest of his family. Through the tragic journey of Lester Burnham, the filmmakers of American Beauty examine frustrations of a contemporary family. By using Lester’s point of view and different methods in cinematography, Sam Mendes and Alan Ball use Lester’s role as a common thread to unveil the overpowering theme of self-discovery.

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The rhetors of this film use Lester’s narration and his point of view to describe the type of world that he lives in. By watching the opening scene, which shows a contemporary, American suburban area, it is easy to see that he lives in a society that judges its members based on wealth and outer appearance (Deacy 66). This dismal culture based on the image of success defines the behavior that the Burnhams have adopted. This fake identity in turn brings out differences between the Burnhams, which are exposed through physical spaces in which the characters are filmed at. In this scene, distant shots are taken between Lester and the rest of his family when he walks towards the car that his wife and daughter are already at. The deep focus that is used shows the detachment between the Burnhams physically and emotionally (Prunes, et. al, 2002). Despite how much of a family they may appear to others, an obvious reserve between them is evident. Through Lester’s journey of a typical day in his life, the rhetors are able to expose the fake identity that the Burnhams have gotten so used to. Consequently, Lester takes control of his life and is the first to break out of the image that has been created for him.

In attempt to recreate his lifestlye, the rhetors of the film expose the switch in gender roles between Lester and his wife, Carolyn, by filming through Lester’s point of view. In a typical family, the male often holds the dominant position as opposed to the female who holds more of the submissive title (Osmond & Martin 747). However, the role of being the leader and decision maker lies in Carolyn Burnham’s hands while Lester acts more like the “wife.” In the film, Lester’s first person point of view is used to tell the audience how his wife views him as a “gigantic loser.” His inner thoughts expose his feelings of how useless he feels to Carolyn and the rest of his family. His point is reiterated even more so when the scene shows Lester in the back seat of the car while his wife drives.

However, the switch in gender roles later makes its transition back to its cultural norm once Lester Burnham has an epiphany to reconstruct his life. He begins to take back control from his wife and makes it clear through his narration that he “has woken up from a coma that [he] has been in for twenty years.” Lester’s reawakening is best portrayed in the scene at the dinner table when he throws a plate at the wall when he is interrupted by Carolyn. Lester’s impulsive act and the ascending angle at which he is shot when he standing up shows the change he has made in his life and his unwillingness to no longer accept the role he has been given in the family. This in effect creates conflict between Lester and his wife, which ultimately leads to self-discovery to each their own. While Lester obviously longs to relocate his source of happiness, it pushes his wife to also reevaluate where she stands in her life.

Being directly affected by her husband’s sudden revelation, Carolyn also questions the quality of her life. As an unsuccessful real estate agent, Carolyn deals with a personal battle that has to do with her confidence issues. With constant pressure from society and herself, she strives to create an “image of success.” However, she is unable to maintain her composure when the weight of stress overcomes her. This is portrayed in one scene when Carolyn breaks down after she is unable to sell a house. The shallow focus on her face shows her feelings of despair and inadequacy due to her inability to meet the “standards of society.” Also, the lack of light in the room represents her true colors compared to the fake, brighter colors that masquerade her real feelings. While Lester’s story directs him to improve his standard of living, Caroline reacts to his new behavior by further fueling her obsession with success.

Along Lester’s journey, the complication of sexual frustration figures largely into his point of view. Lester, like many sexually frustrated males, trys to find an outlet to relieve his inner conflict (Kanin 428). While it is evident that Lester and his wife, Carolyn, have a weak sexual relationship, the moment Lester sees Angela for the first time is the moment the rhetors reveal the sexual frustration that is pent up inside of Lester. In this scene, the rhetors literally take us to Lester’s point of view and dramatize it to the point where everyone around him disappears except for Angela. The shallow focus on Lester’s face and the lighting that concentrates on Angela allows the audience to see his feelings of lust and desire that he is unable to feel with Carolyn. This pivotal moment in the film triggers Lester to act strangely, yet it directs him to see life in a new light from then on. The obsession that he forms with Angela serves as a purpose to relieve his sexual frustrations and at the same time drive him to rediscover himself.

The complication of sexual frustration is further magnified when Lester is caught masturbating in bed by his wife while he is thinking about Angela. By taking us into Lester’s dream, the audience is given a chance to see what is in Lester’s mind. This point of view allows the rhetors to draw attention to the raw truth of Lester’s sexual dissatisfaction with his wife. In essence, Angela is in control of Lester with her sexual influence even though in truth, she is a helpless little girl (Karlyn 87). His act of masturbating in bed also confirms the idea that Lester longs to reconnect with his youth. By looking to his past, Lester tries to relive moments of true content by remembering the spontaneity and freedom of his adolescence. While he has the option of relieving his sexual needs by making love with his wife, Lester resorts to the juvenile act of masturbation instead. This unhappiness in one aspect of his life leads him to discover other problems which fundamentally drive him to change his lifestyle and reconnect with his youth.

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Lester’s point of view as the only male in his family also complicates his role as the father figure. Because Lester has very little in common with his teenage daughter, Jane, he struggles to form a relationship with her as she becomes more mature. Instead, he finds more of an interest in her best friend, Angela, due to her ability to “sexually relieve” him. The scene in the kitchen when Lester and Jane discuss why they don’t speak anymore shows how distant they have become throughout the years. The use of the handheld camera that is shot from across the street and through the window further depicts the detachment between the two. An invisible barrier is created between Lester and Jane which makes it more difficult for them to reconnect into a normal father daughter relationship. While Jane wishes Lester was more of a role model, Lester has a hard time trying to juggle both positions as a father and friend.

Nevertheless, as Lester’s journey continues to make its way to his past, Lester begins to see a distinction in what his role really is. As he starts to see himself as a new, reestablished man, who lives a fulfilling life by doing what solely makes him happy; Lester finds that he cannot ignore his role as a father figure. This moment is defined when Lester finally gets the chance to physically be with Angela. In this scene, Angela admits that she is still a virgin, which leads Lester to discontinue his sexual pursuit to be with her. The angle at which Lester is on top of Angela illustrates the vulnerability of the teenage girl compared to the overpowering position of a much older, mature man. It is then when Lester is drawn back to his role as a middle aged father and realizes that not every aspect from his past can be brought back. This substantially leads Lester to understand the distinction between his role as a father figure and friend.

This eye opening moment for Lester not only affects him, but Angela as well. As a pretty teenage girl, Angela takes her beauty for granted and is very comfortable using her looks to gain attention and get what she wants. However, despite her eye pleasing looks, she has nothing more to offer. This self realization is pin pointed in one scene earlier when Ricky tells her that “[she] is boring and totally ordinary.” Once again, the downward angle at which Angela is shot while Ricky and Jane are shot at more of an upward angle shows the disparity in power and dominance in the scene. While Ricky and Jane are not afraid to accept themselves for who they are, Angela fears to admit that she is just as “ordinary” as everyone else. This ironical situation leads Angela to Lester in the living room where her insecurities are further exposed.

By basing the story around Lester Burnham, Mendes and Ball use his journey to unravel the insecurities of all the characters in the film. Lester recreates his lifestyle by reliving his time as a younger and more free spirited member of society. Through his journey, Lester’s character serves as the narrative backbone in which all characters can be linked to. Lester’s reawakening along with his exploits acts as the catalyst which inexplicitly brings about transformation of the various characters through self-evaluation. In the course of his self-discovery, Lester exposes frustrations that contemporary families similar to his own may face. By utilizing the tragic journey of Lester Burnham, the rhetors use his character as a filter which exhibits differences between clashing personalities. The use of Lester’s point of view and methods in cinematography further reinforces the overall theme of the film. The rhetors of American Beauty use all of these methods in unison to effectively communicate the overall theme of discovering one’s individuality.


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