Thursday, May 20, 2010

American Beauty Analysis - Lester

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Now in my analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) I turn to character. We’ll start with the main character of the movie: Lester.

The first thing I look for in a character is their want and need. Want is the motivating force that is driving the external story of the movie. Need is what the character needs to change about themselves in order to achieve happiness or success. Need drives the internal story (often called the character arc). Occasionally a character’s want and need are the same, but in most good movies they are different and often even in opposition to each other.

If you look at how I broke down the structure of American Beauty Lester’s want is pretty obvious: sex with Angela. This is the kind of good, specific want that’s useful for a writer.

You can also see a broader want for Lester in the scene where he buys pot from Ricky and describes how happy he was at eighteen, working in a burger stand, screwing around with girls and generally having no responsibility. It would be true to say that Lester’s want is to be eighteen again, or at least live like he did at eighteen.

That would also be a serviceable want for a writer to use. But finding one specific goal to illustrate the broader want is helpful. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to come up with scenes. American Beauty uses Angela as the illustration of Lester’s broader want. This leads to such scenes as him spying on the sleepover and starting to exercise when he hears Angela would be more attracted to him if he were in better shape.

You could also argue that what Lester wants is happiness. That’s true but it’s not very useful to the writer. Everyone wants happiness. It’s too broad and non-specific to lead us through the writing process.

Lester’s need is a bit subtler which is appropriate for a movie that is exploring character. You want your character to be complex if you’re going to sustain this type of movie for two hours.

You could say Lester needs to take responsibility. In the beginning he doesn’t accept responsibility for anything. His daughter feels he’s ignoring her and he makes excuses. He resents having to go to her performance. He whines about how he’s being treated at his job but doesn’t do anything about it. As the movie progresses he becomes more selfish, unconcerned with hurting his family or Angela. Then at the end when he finds out Angela’s a virgin he finally makes the responsible decision.

Not bad, but it doesn’t feel reflective of the positive changes Lester makes in his life. In truth, some of his "irresponsible" behavior is justified. We could also make the case that he needs to appreciate what he has. This is shown in how he finds parenting his daughter a chore in the beginning of the movie, but in the end he realizes how much he loves her and how important her happiness is to him.

But Lester also clearly needs to stand up for himself. He’s pushed around a lot in the beginning and we root for him to tell his boss off and to stand up to his wife’s bullying and materialism (even as we’re also somewhat sympathetic to her.)

I think all three of these needs – to be responsible, to appreciate what he has, and to stand up for himself – can be summed up in one: He needs to own his life. In the beginning of the movie other people are making the decisions for him. Over the course of the movie he starts to make decisions for himself. At first they’re selfish. But as he takes more control of his life he finds the responsibility that comes with ownership.

The want is illustrated in the progression of the structure, which I’ve already discussed. Let’s look at how the need is illustrated. Bringing the internal story into the external world is one of the challenges of writing for film, which is, after all, a visual medium. (This movie uses voiceover, of course, which is another way to explore the internal. I’ll discuss the voiceover in detail in a later post on narrative techniques.)

In the opening of American Beauty, like most movies, we see the character’s status quo. I generally avoid opening with my character waking up and getting ready for their day. I believe that you should show the most interesting part of the character’s status quo and that’s seldom their morning routine (think of Raiders of the Lost Ark…we meet Indiana Jones deep in the jungle going after an idol in a trapped cave. It’s his status quo and it’s interesting as hell!)

American Beauty, of course, introduces Lester going through his morning routine. But part of the point is that his life is boring. And they do give us something we don’t often see in these kinds of openings – he masturbates in the shower. That’s a way to make his morning procedure more interesting to the audience! This opening also allows Lester to introduce us to his suburban world and the characters in it.

As the family loads up the mini-van we see Lester as a schmuck whose briefcase spills. He gets into the back of the van and sleeps on the drive to work – almost like he’s the child of the family. From there we move to his depressing job in a cubicle, and the threat that he might lose it. After work he fights with his wife then fights with his daughter. Then we learn that he would rather watch a marathon of old James Bond movies on TV than watch his own daughter doing a dance performance.

In short, we learn that he is miserable and ineffectual.

Contrast that to the end of the movie when he’s in the kitchen with Angela. He asks Angela how Jane is and we see that he really cares about the answer. When Angela asks him how he’s doing, he responds, “I’m great,” repeating it after she leaves. Then he looks happily at a picture of his family. A brief time later when he’s describing what flashed through his mind before his death, he ends the montage with Jane and Caroline.

In short, after the journey of this movie, Lester is happy and he’s rediscovered his love for his wife and daughter.

I want to point out two particular scenes: the dinner table scenes. The first one comes in the status quo part of the movie. The second one comes around the middle of the movie.

In the first, Lester gets no respect from his wife or daughter. Jane walks out when he tries to engage her. And Lester avoids confrontation with Caroline. At the end of the scene he insults her under his breath and when she demands to know what he said he goes to get ice cream.

In the second scene Lester stands up for himself. When Jane tries to leave this time he orders her to sit down and she does, shocked at his harsh tone. When Caroline is berating him he throws the plate of asparagus against the wall. This is not the same Lester from the first scene.

This is a great way to illustrate character change. Set up two similar situations and show how the character reacts differently to them at different points in their journey. You can see the same thing in scenes with Angela. Early in the movie she flirts with Lester and he acts like a puppy. But when she feels his muscles in the kitchen at the end, he comes on to her in a way that is clearly more serious. Both Angela and the audience sense the change.

Next post I’ll talk about some of the other characters in the movie and about how the different character perspectives are used to explore the theme.

1 comment:

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