Monday, May 24, 2010

American Beauty – Character Introductions

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ll continue my discussion of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) by looking at the character introductions. The way a character is introduced is crucial for a variety of reasons. First impressions matter. In the relatively short time we have to get to know a character in a movie we need to reach conclusions about them quickly.

Let’s take another look at Lester’s introduction. At first glance it’s not the greatest. We see him wake up and start his relatively boring day in a fairly cliché way. Lester’s voiceover is really what makes this work. It puts some of the mundane material in perspective – such as when the VO says masturbating in the shower will be the high point of his day. This contrast of the wry commentary makes the more commonplace events interesting. (I’ll discuss voiceover more in a later post.)

The voiceover also helps establish Lester as the main character. Though we can’t always assume the person doing the voiceover is the main character, it focuses our attention in that direction. Another hint is the opening videotape segment where Jane talks about her Dad’s obsession with her friend and asks Ricky to kill him. This is known as “advertising.” We become interested in who the object of Jane's hatred is before we see him.

Perhaps the most revealing scene of Lester early in the movie is when he gets called in to Brad’s office and told he’s going to have to justify his job. When showing a character’s status quo you want to give us a little conflict. Conflict, as they say, is drama. The period of the movie before the catalyst is a potential danger zone. You need to find some drama to grab the audience.

The other nice thing about this scene is that it helps us sympathize with Lester. We like underdogs. In this scene he’s being unfairly hassled by “the man.” Up until now he’s not a particularly likeable character, but suddenly we’re rooting for him. (The witty voiceover also helps us like him.)

Let’s look at the introduction of some of the other major characters.

Caroline is introduced briefly pruning roses with shears that match her gardening clogs. That’s a nice detail that immediately tells you she’s both a perfectionist and concerned about appearance. There’s a lot of other good details about Caroline in the early scenes (her discussion of the tree that she claimed part ownership of because a substantial portion of the root structure was on their property is a particular favorite). The more specific you can be with your characters the more they will feel like real people.

Caroline also gets her own private status quo scene when we see her trying to sell the house. That scene gives us nice insight into the character by showing us her behavior when she’s alone. We get to see both her type-A determination and her insecurity and vulnerability.

Jane is first introduced in the video opening the movie. The clip we see implies that she wants to have her boyfriend murder her father. Later, of course, we learn this is a false impression. So we’re being misled by this introduction – which plays into the theme of the movie that seemingly normal people are not always what they appear to be.

Jane is reintroduced in the opening “morning routine” sequence looking at a web site for breast augmentation. The voiceover describes her as angry, insecure and confused. This seems to be a pretty accurate description.

Angela is introduced in the dance scene. We get a few typical teenager lines (“gross”) before we switch to Lester’s fantasy image of her. For the bulk of this scene and the parking lot scene that follows we see her mostly as the object of Lester’s lust. Her button* line to Jane that she thinks it’s been a long time since Jane’s Dad has slept with her Mom gives us a hint that Angela is wise about sex. We will later learn this is also a false impression, but it’s important at this point for us to see Angela as a sexual being for Lester’s arc to work.

Though we hear Ricky’s voice on the opening video, we don’t really meet him until later. Our introduction to him is while he’s filming the goings on in Lester’s house through the windows. The next time we meet him, Jane catches him filming her. He comes across as both creepy and dangerous. And I think it’s significant that he’s introduced as someone who doesn’t fit into this world of Americana. Eventually we’ll see him as perhaps the wisest person in the movie, though not totally sane.

Ricky's first dialogue scene is in the introduction of his family – the Fitts. The entire family and their relationship are defined here. Ricky’s mother, Barbara, is not mentally present – she makes bacon for Ricky who gently reminds her he doesn’t eat it. We also meet his father, the Colonel, a gruff, straight-to-the-point hard ass.

It’s important here that the scene revolves around the gay neighbors bringing a welcome basket. It allows the Colonel to express his disgust toward homosexuals – another false impression (or is it?) that will become important as the story progresses.

Meanwhile we see that Ricky placates both his mother and father. We get a much more telling scene when he comes up to Jane and Angela at school. Again he’s advertised as Angela informs Jane that Ricky spent time in a mental institution. But Ricky is confident and unflappable. This arouses Jane’s curiosity…and ours.

Next I’ll continue the exploration of these characters by talking about their individual voices. After that I’ll get to how they reflect the theme of the movie.

*We call a final line or gag that ends a scene with a little zing a button.


Sanket said...

Cool post.

Thanks for writing.

Could you plz recommend a good book on screenwriting where it talks about all the terminologies with examples? Such as 'advertising', 'button'. I'm sure there would be many other terms like these.


Doug Eboch said...

I don't know that there's one book that covers all of it. "The Tools of Screenwriting" by Howard and Mabley and "Save the Cat" by Snyder would be good places to start for terminology. Some of this stuff is kind of industry slang that you just pick up over time.

Nishant said...

Thanks for writing.
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