American Beauty and the Gaze of the Second Camera

Eighteen years ago, the film American Beauty was released. The film celebrates no particularly important anniversary, so why this current moment to look into it? For this question, I have no answer other than American Beauty deserves at every moment a thorough analysis. The film follows the life and death of Lester Burnham, a upper-middleclass suburban father who gains a particular infatuation with his daughter’s high school friend. Over the course of the film, Lester attempts to return to the glory days of his adolescence, quitting his job, smoking weed, and working out. Eventually, he is murdered by his neighbor out of suspicion that Lester is in a relationship with his teenage son.

The aspect of the film that I would like to analyse is Ricky Fitts’s (Lester’s teenage neighbor) recording of everything that is around him, most notably Lester’s daughter Jane. The film at moments switches between observing through the eyes of the studio camera and the camera in Ricky’s hand. This discontinuity between the objective eye of the studio camera and the subjective eye of Ricky’s camera in essence betrays the fact that the studio camera itself is a subjective lense that does not contain the entire reality of the story. In most movies, the studio camera is presupposed to be an invisible subject, the object that allows the film to be recorded in the first place, but yet its existence is never brought to mind in the course of the film itself. American Beauty disrupts this presupposition, instead showing the subjectivity of both Ricky’s camera and the studio camera.

It is Ricky’s camera that drives a large part of the plot. It is only through Ricky’s consistent recording of Jane that they both come together, eventually dating each other. The film in fact starts out with a segment of Jane recorded by Ricky, of him asking Jane whether she would want him to kill her father, to which she responds in the affirmative. In this sense, Ricky’s camera does not merely act as another perspective, but a character in itself that is trapped in a first perspective view. This entrapment in the first person view can serve as a general message, readily applicable to the other characters in the film, in particular Lester’s wife Carolyn. Carolyn, a real estate agent, gains an ever more and more individualistic and success driven outlook on life through the course of the film. This mainly manifests in the conflict she experiences with her husband, leading her to cheat on him with the so called “King of Real-Estate,” but it manifests in smaller ways as well, for instance in her newly found obsession with guns.

But the most important aspect of Ricky’s camera is the fact that it is seen by Ricky himself as a way of capturing beauty. In the movie's most famous scene, we see Ricky and Jane sitting together, watching a video Ricky shot of a plastic bag floating in the wind. He goes on to comment during the scene: “Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

Notice how both the camera and the screen have the capability to take in this beauty, but Ricky does not. Thus, the camera represents an almost indestructible store for beauty. Similarly, the only other place that beauty is so vividly described and stored is when Lester describes his afterlife. In this ultimate scene of the movie, Lester describes all the beautiful moments and things in his life—watching shooting stars at boy scout camp, his wife, and, most importantly, his daughter.

Linking the two, Lester’s afterlife and Ricky’s camera, it is seen that the camera serves as a spectre of death—an object that, within its objectifying gaze, almost sends death upon the person or thing that it is pointed at. Not that the camera foreshadows death (if that were to be the case, Jane would have most certainly died), but rather, the camera, in it’s ability to store beauty, translates living human beings into dead images.

And this is why in the first moment of the film, Ricky’s camera records Jane expressing that she wants her father to be dead. Jane, the dead Jane on the screen and within the camera, almost screams to her father to join her in death.

In a world in which smartphone cameras and digital surveillance capture vast swathes of our lived experiences, consider the lesson that American Beauty had to offer. In a civilization that is based upon collection and categorization, with everything from prisoners, to museum artifacts, to language itself being pooled and organized—in our personal lives how much do we contribute to this ideology that at its core necessitates the death of our world, both in its physical and ideal form?