Camera angles in American Beauty

American Beauty is one those rare movies you can watch again and again and still find something new every time you watch it. Not a single word, sound, body movement, edit or camera setup is wasted opportunity to tell a story of a man going through a life change. There is intent, purpose and deeper meaning behind everything.

In this article, we’ll look at camera angles that help to portray the change of Lester Burnham, who, from a gigantic loser, becomes a man in control over his life.

Camera Angles

Camera angles do basically two things – they show someone’s:

  • power (and/or)
  • status

Now, let’s look what these angles generally do on the emotional and psychological level (the following three picture are print screens from Clash of the Titans 2 trailer):

High angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

High angle shot reduces the height of a character; this makes the character seem smaller and inferior. It seems like the character is belittled, looked down upon, helpless and insignificant.

Low angle

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

Characters viewed from low angle seem to be superior, dominant, bigger, powerful or ominous. Low camera angle gives them a symbol of authority and respect.

High and low angles work also on the emotional level – the audience tends to (most of the time) identify with the inferior character, that is, the one viewed from high angle.

 Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)
Clash of the Titans 2 (2012)

However, it is important to mention, that this works only when the camera is placed around the eye level. You could place the camera on the ceiling to get high angle (or on the floor to get a low angle), but this would be perceived as a creative camera placement, rather than portrayal of someone’s status or power.

American Beauty – examples

So let’s start from the beginning, I’ll show you pairs of opposite pictures and hopefully, you’ll be able to tell, who dominates the story at that point:

Lester starts to be in control over his life…

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

…and guess what happened… 🙂

American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty (1999)

This change is also nicely portrayed and documented in body language of Lester Burnham – thanks to amazing performance by Kevin Spacey!


9 thoughts on “Camera angles in American Beauty

  1. Excellent blog that concisely makes its point. I could learn a lot 😛

    There is a lot to discuss but one thing I did notice in one of your photos of Buddy and his tall blonde wife.. is that she is taller than he is. Here is the one exception to this rule of height=power in the film I think. We know what Buddy is like and how controlling he is. The fact that he as a short man is still able to nail a very tall (and pissed off) blonde who could have her pick of hunky men, is testament to his enourmous controlling personality. We think nothing of it at the time – we think she is merely a gold-digging whore. It only reveals something about his character later in the movie when we realise what a dynamo of energy he is, and then we can think back to it.

    1. Thanks Andrew!!

      I originally wanted to write, that you mixed up two different things – height of the camera and height of a person. But now when I think about it, you are actually right! They are the same.

      The low and high angle technique comes from real-life experience how we feel, when we are next to someone who is taller than us. We see the person from low angle and feel (generally) less powerful than the other person. Typical example would be a child and his parent.

      And of course, there’ll be always exceptions to this rule. The gold-digging whore (hey, we have a cool word for this in Czech – “zlatokopka”) is less powerful than Buddy, even though she is taller.

      1. I love that word zlatokopka, I am going to start calling everybody that now, hahaha, it’s fantastic.

        And now, just when you thought I couldn’t possibly have any more symbollic shit to say, let me go REALLY deep on you. Think about this. The point of the film is “Look Closer” and generally that things aren’t what they seem at first. Not only do we see various things explored using the height=power principle you have so clearly elaborated, but I would say what I might call “emotional height” (aka maturity) is tied up in all this too.

        Think of Carolyn’s relationship with Lester to start with. You have included that great shot of her looking down her nose at him in your post above. The sub-text is indeed clear; she has the power in the relationship. But the SUB-sub-text is slightly different, and not what it appears to be at first. The only reason she has power is because Lester is too frightened to challenge her. He eventually starts standing up for himself and reverses things by taking whatever he wants (as my blog clearly argued) and suddenly the power shifts to him, and he begins to become taller than her.

        I think however another deep and meaningful point of the film is that when people act with emotional height/maturity and self-awareness of their duty to love others, then all the crazy height=power games disappear.

        I am thinking of Jane and Ricky always being exactly on each other’s level, whether sitting and walking side by side, or simply taking turns being filmed naked. I am also thinking of Lester having his *clang!!* moment of mature awakening when he finally gets to be alone with Angela. No longer is HE taller than her, about to go DOWN on her and take control. When they finally confront their honest insecurities (as opposed to earlier when Lester merely projected his insecurities onto his family to cheer himself up) THEN they embrace and hug and the height differences and camera angles, I believe, tend not to feature anymore. At least not so much that I can remember them. Because they have moved past needing power to pretend to be what they aren’t.

        I can think of more examples but it all tends to head into a different debate, about symbols of power. For example the SUV 4WD vehicles that Col Frank Fitz and Carolyn both drive, and then Lesters T-bird.

        So, I will call that quis. Hope I made a scrap of sense with all that!

        Thanks for your blog it has been provoking and next time I watch I will definitely be paying close attention to the height, power, maturity relationships going on here.

        —OK I can’t resist saying ONE more thing that supports both your blog and what I have just said now too.

        Carolyn. She NEVER stops playing the height=power games. She is a total control freak and needs to exercise complete power over everything trivial to cover her insecurities (i.e. the fact that she is human and loves her family). This gets to such a ridiculous point that we recall Lester saying “this is just STUFF! And it’s become more important to you than living. Well Honey that’s just nuts!”.

        BUT, at the VERY end of the film, she finally lets go the power games and reveals her insecurities. She drops to her knees in final surrender to Lesters CLOTHES. She gives in and admits that she loves him and now that he is dead she will miss him and be alone. She gives up her power finally.


    2. Haha, you are welcome! 🙂

      Yes, completely agree with you! The theme of the movie is LOOK CLOSER! Everything is different from what it seems to be (I think the best example is Angela, when Lester finds out, that she is not the mythically carnal creature of his fantasies). There is a great line by Carolyn when they go to some kind of business meeting/party and she says:
      “As you know, my business is selling an image and part of my job is to live that image.”
      So here it is, she basically said, what is the movie about.

      Some screenwriters have a sticker (with the theme of the movie written on it) on their monitor when they write a screenplay, so when they get stuck, they can look at the sticker and get some inspiration what to write next. I wouldn’t be surprised at all, if Alan Ball had a sticker on his monitor which said “LOOK CLOSER” as a theme of the movie.

      Anyway, I love the idea of emotional height. At the beginning, it might seem (and thanks to camera angles it seems) that Carolyn is more powerful than Lester, but if we LOOK CLOSER (=SUB-sub-text), the only reason why Lester seems less powerful than Carolyn is that he hasn’t challenged her yet – exactly as you wrote.

      Now, the SUB-sub-text is I think just another word for the theme of the movie. I mean, you have to go really deep to discover the SUB-sub-text, but the same applies to the theme of the movie. They are not visible unless you go really deep. What I wanted to write basically is that SUB-sub-text and the theme of a movie are exactly the same…

      Anyway, thanks for your comments Andrew! Really appreciate it!

      P.S. Jane and Ricky is a great example of equal emotional height. But also Buddy and Carolyn (when they start dating each other) or, as you wrote, Angela and Lester at the end.

      P.P.S. This movie symbolic sh*t is hurting my brain a little bit, cos I really have to think about it, but it’s fun and really exciting! Cheers! 🙂

    3. Sorry let me restate that, because I dont think I was very clear.

      What I was meaning to talk about wasn’t the theme. I meant to talk about the moral of the story. (Or one possible interpretation of it, according to the evidence this discussion is highlighting).

      I was thinking, more in line with my depression/denial thesis in my own blog, that the moral of the story is that only when you give up the struggle for power to dominate others, let go and love, honestly, and feel that whole benevolent bag in the wind connection to all humanity, only then can you be happy. In my next blog about Jane I am writing that she is in fact the only one in the story who has a real shot at being happy because her power struggles (wearing makeup and breast augmentation) are only skin deep and she is mostly honest, and hurt by the continuing power struggles she is dragged into. As I said very poorly about Carolyn, because she absolutely refuses to ever give up the power struggle, the only possible and inevitable outcome for her is that she “loses”, since Lester is dead and gone and she cant win ever again, on the very night she was going to shoot him to prove how powerful she was.

      And then you think about when people are on the same level and confronting bare naked honest love and uncertainty and grailty and basic humanity. Jane and ricky are on the same level. The gay guys living next door do everything like jog together on the same level. Lester and Angela hug on the same level (after they realise that hooking up would be a pathetic struggle to “win” and be who they naturally want to be: a father and daddys little angel respectively). Hahaha, hell, even Col Frank Fitz is on the same level as Lester when he kisses him.

      Holy crap this is exciting me, you have helped me unlock a while new way of thinking about the film 😀

      So thanks, hope that was more clear and constructive, and that there is more to come. Sorry too if ur comments are a bit screwed up out of order, I wrote all this on my ipod!

    4. Yes, it was, and thanks!

      So now it’s up to you to finish your essay about Jane and post it online! So we can talk more American Beauty! 🙂 Hurry up, really looking forward to it!!

  2. OOOoo hey, I just thought of something else. Don’t quote me, but I believe that Mrs Fitz is quite a tall lady too, and Colonel Frank Fitz is a medium man. But the power in their relationship too also tilts unevenly towards Frank, since he also has a controlling and dominating personality and she has no power to resist. Next time I watch I will check these two out.

    PS: I had not noticed that sign on Lester’s desk that blatantly says LOOK CLOSER! Haha, way to go Sam.

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