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Focusing on the Use of Symbols in Film: Why 'American Beauty' Works

By David Freeman

There are many ways symbols that can be used in a movie. Today I will examine one of them.

Alan Ball, the screenwriter of 'American Beauty,' makes riveting use of the color red throughout the film. The first time we see Annette Bening, she's cutting bright red roses.

What does the color red mean in this movie?

The way Ball uses it, it refers to a concept: the life force, which, by nature, tries to defy the suppressiveness of suburban life. That's why, the first time we meet Annette Bening, she's cutting red roses. She's cutting the life force. Shortly thereafter, we see her emotional and spiritual control in action, such as during a painfully stilted family dinner.

Back to the life force... For Kevin Spacey, the life force which suburbia can't repress is sex. And so, in his fantasies, Mena Suvari, his object of lust, floats on a bed of red rose petals, or soaks in a tub covered in roses. In their final, near-sexual encounter, a vase of red roses is evident.

Peter Gallagher's (The 'Real Estate King') bus stop posters have a red background, for he unleashes Annette Bening's pent-up sexuality.

For Spacey, red also symbolizes rebellion (a.k.a. the assertion of his individuality), another uncivilized impulse. When he buys the hot-rod of his boyhood dreams, it is, of course, bright red.

For Chris Cooper, the psycho ex-Marine, red is both sexuality and also the assertion of individuality. When he kisses Kevin Spacey, Kevin's bright red car is in the background.

This film has a lot to say about the assertion of one's uniqueness. Not everyone survives the quest for freedom from control. Some end up violent, like Cooper. But this is a subject for another article. Let's go back to red.

For Thora Birch, Spacey's dark-haired daughter in the film, red also is related to the assertion of individuality. When she storms away from the stilted dinner after telling off her parents, she wears a sweater with red flowers.

There's a scene with Cooper's near-catatonic wife, Allison Janney, where she's cooking. On the wall, hanging on a nail, is a red oven-pad. It flashes by fast. Is it heart-shaped? In any case, that's her soul hanging on the wall.

For Wes Bentley, the young man with intense eyes, red means transcendence, another force which defies the emotional and psychological strictures of suburban society. He shows Birch his video of a plastic bag dancing in the wind as an example of the mystical continuity behind all life.

The wall behind the bag is red. Red also reappears as transcendence when Kevin Spacey dies. Though he has bled profusely, there's a slight smile on his dead lips. And his voiceover lets us know he's reached a kind of Nirvana.

Sex -- the assertion of one's individuality -- transcendence - and the soul -- all are examples of the life force. For some of the characters, the life force leads them to freedom; for others, not.

So, if you want to add depth to one of your scripts, consider having a symbol represent a concept. If there's any rule about this, it's just that you should be artful in a symbol's use.

Meet the Author: David Freeman

David Freeman is a screenwriter, and teaches screenwriting and script development internationally.

A long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America, he has sold and optioned scripts and ideas to Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, and other major film and television companies. He works half time for News Corp (which owns 20th Century Fox and television networks around the world), developing television dramas.

He has taught screenwriting and script development not just to writers around the world, but at Pixar, Disney, to many executives of the BBC, at various film studios in China, and to many other film and...