Sunday, June 17, 2012

TOP 10 SHOTS from "American Beauty"

Welcome to TOP 10 SHOTS, where we usually have a tendency to take up films of strong cinematographic prowess to look at the greatest choice shots of the affair. This weekend doesn't precisely evoke much visual wonder in terms of the films releasing, and in fact seems to exist basically to give people a breather from the more seriously inclined blockbusters and family-friendly animated charmers of the surrounding weeks. So I could bend over backwards to accommodate one of this weekend's releases, like a previous idea I had of sinking my teeth into "Burlesque", in correlation with "Rock of Ages", a film with similar theme and the mutual D.P. Bojan Bazelli.

But I'm not going to do that, since this weekend also has the occasion of being father's day, and usually when a holiday reels around the corner I feel more inclined to go with something that laughs at the holiday more than it exonerates it. It just so happens that it's father's day weekend, and though there are so many films that could fit the occasion well, I'm going for something that's quite hilariously unconventional. More than that, though, it is also a film that truly screams of massive cinematic value, with plenty gorgeous shots to pick from. Taking on "American Beauty" was quite a fun challenge to pit myself against.

It feels appropriate that the tenth iteration of TOP 10 SHOTS be such a distinct effort, and one that many have had important encounters with. Upon consistently renewed viewings, it may lose a bit of it's tang on occasion, but that first encounter is always a treat no matter who you talk to. Legendary cinematographer Conrad Hall packs so many indelible images into the film's tight and breezy runtime, and never without purpose. There are shots that inevitably fell out, like the ones depicted Lester in makeshift prisons, countless "found footage" shots, and that moving camera shot at that oh so crucial moment at the end. You know the one. Still, all these shots found their place on this list for their relevance to character, message, and pure cinematic beauty.

10. God looking down

The character of Ricky Fitts has a weird trajectory throughout our film, and it is one of third party observer to the trials, spats, and comical misfortunes of this suburban family. I strived for a shot that represented that, and this one seemed to encapsulate it more than moderately. At the midsection of the film, Jane and her friend Barbara come across him filming a dead bird on the ground. The way he's shot from underneath could be seen as to give him power, and the way he's juxtaposed against the sky gives him a further "other" quality, like nothing phases him. Not death, and he merely observes, and he only wants to observe.

9. Flower Bled Across the Ceiling

The sexual reawakening of Lester is such a simultaneously comical and quietly creepy tone of this film, and this shot really personifies the freshness of that. It's synchronized very closely to a similar shot of the first time we see Lester, fetal position on the bed. The use of color is very florid, but also so precise and semi-shivery. It's not just the red so painted across the ceiling, but it's the paleness of her skin, as if personality is drained by lust. It's the distance, as something that feels so unattainable but nonetheless voluptuous. It's the light streaming in ever so slightly across the petals. But it's ever so much her attachment to the ceiling, even as the petals fall down. It's an gravitational oddity, and all the more arousing because of that.

8. And Carolyn

"American Beauty" has the good fortune of powerfully cathartic ending to nicely wrap up all its baggage, and it does so without ruffling any rose petals. The realization of the beauty that is there in a man's life, all at the time of his death, isn't delivered with bitter cynicism, but universal hope. Lester's "ocean of time" realization of the moments in his life most relevant is a lovely, well-shot, and nicely timed bookend to this story. Of all the shots that touched in this segment, it was this of Annette Bening's conflicted and exhausted wife joyfully spinning on a rollercoaster, as Lester appreciatively and lovingly looks on. This last capturing look at her, as if for a post mortem photo album, is his ultimate take away, of something beautiful he saw in her, rather than her betrayals.

7. Ray of gold

This shot stuck out to me right away, and for the art of it, I simply could not end up throwing it away. It's so difficult to penetrate, because it is quite obviously at a distance, but it's the shot that pulls this scene together. With Lester and Ricky smoking pot outside this gig that Ricky is supposed to be working at, it was just a simply men-against-a-white-wall shot. Then the door opens, and color and shadow enter the space and make it complex. The party that these people are coming out of ever so slightly to bother these men having a good time on a blank slate (now the white wall makes sense), with this gold representing the upper crust of success and slavery, and the shadow just barely touching them. It's a magnificently constructed shot, and one they clearly prepared in terms of spacial adjustment.

6. Lester's Reflection

As is said in the song, "This is the end, beautiful friend". I hope I'm not spoiling too much with this shot, since you should know what befalls poor Lester within the first two minutes of the film. It is very much the road of how he gets there that makes the film so fantastic. I felt a hesitation towards this shot, simply because it's a major plot point, and at first glance is almost un-special. It's the reflection, however, in the pool of blood that has me heralding how effective it is. Kevin Spacey's expression is nearly impossible to pin down, somewhere between a smile and a simple straight line. Both are indulged in this shot, and it's made possible that both can even exist on the same plane.

5. Skin, Sweat, Paint, and Rain

I admit that I was sneaked up on with this shot, since upon Mr. Fitt's entrance into Lester's garage it just seemed normal. It was as the scene played out start to finish, however, that the shot made a second appearance at the close. It was then when everything just rushed to the fore. The rain plummeting down on the car and Mr. Fitts, to the sweat on Lester's bare back. Everything screamed potent sensuality, and Lester simply had his back to what we were seeing. He didn't realize it everything had played out. For the sake of not spoiling, even though there's a warning at the top of this and every piece, I won't reveal what occurs. Needless to say, this shot is dripping and loaded with detail.

4. Massive Rotation

In terms of sheer technical effort, I don't imagine there's much disputing that this is the tops. It's a shot that screams out publicly, and you're somewhat wondering if the people in the room can see what Lester is thinking. It's all so real to him, if fantastical, as dream-Barbara goes in for a sensuous kiss. Conrad Hall's camera suddenly goes for huge spin, with a certain amount of uncertainty over how fast the room is moving around them. Do they synch up? Is it even in the same direction they're moving. All rules are lost in this shot, and as it finally goes back towards being grounded, Lester pulls a rose petal out of his mouth. It's the moment where Lester truly gets back in touch with himself again.

3. Family Portrait

Another one of those "why the hell did you choose this shot?" kind of shots, but one I have ample explanation for. To be truthful, I was going to include for some the simply exactness and precision of its framing. It felt so perfect within the context of entering this family going through the motions, without even emotional investment. But if you peel back the layers further, it is a shot within a shot, of the two girls upright happily, and Lester with his head just slightly on tilt. That's a shot within this frame, placed up on a wall with others like it, with the frame of our film. We are peering into this family who is almost frozen in time, but it's still a family. It's a shot both warm and cold, and nonetheless powerful.

2. Carolyn Blinded

Annette Bening does play to a specific character set to the point of occasional repetition, but she fits it so well that you can see the slight shades she adds to each of her roles specifically. To say that part of the power in this shot doesn't belong to the by turns contorted and crazed look on her face is simply untrue. Coming in at very early point of the film, where we really do get to know her character and the desperation she feels at this point in her life, the only moment she really gets to herself is behind these pale blinds. And not any sooner does she express deep emotional pain as she splits against herself, shattered by self-contempt as she feels everyone must express towards her.

1. Invasion of Intimacy

For all "American's Beauty" calculated cinematic beauties, so accurately lit and detailed, it is this most humble and surprising of shots that truly delivers a drop-kick of unexpected emotion. At a very early sector of the film, the distance between the members of this family couldn't be wider and sadder. Somehow it's this third-party camera that is able to cut through all the bullshit, and manages to be deeper and closer to these people than they are on the inside. There are several layers of separation, like the windows trapping this family in their own world, and the lens of the camera Ricky Fitts is looking through. And yet, there's something so gorgeous and wordless about this simply magical shot.

So, what do you think of my picks, and what are yours? Comment below, and we'll be back again next Friday!


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