Thursday, May 13, 2010

American Beauty - Further Thoughts on Structure

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Last post I analyzed the three-act structure of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball). But this is a blog on writing movies, not analyzing them. So I’d like to continue that discussion with a more critical analysis of how effective the structure is for the movie.

I have no idea what Alan Ball thinks of three-act structure or if he wrote with the beats I outlined in his mind. However he did choose to have Lester’s midlife crisis start when he falls for Angela and concluded Lester’s arc with his decision not to sleep with her. So consciously or subconsciously he decided to make that tension the framework for his story.

Now, I don’t want to imply the movie would have been better if I wrote or rewrote it – I doubt that’s true. But let me describe what I likely would have done differently if I had written it and, like Mr. Ball, decided to use the Angela relationship as the primary structural element.

The “weakest” point of the movie from a structural theory standpoint is the midpoint so let’s start there.

There is no real interaction between Lester and Angela in the center of American Beauty. The challenge is that there isn’t a whole lot of room to develop their relationship. Lester is really only interested in sex with Angela and we can’t let the story get to that point until the resolution. So adding more scenes between them could get repetitive

I would have still tried to create some kind of scene between them. The midpoint should parallel the ultimate resolution, so I’d want something where Lester’s chances to sleep with Angela seem in jeopardy (since he doesn’t sleep with her in the end). Either she’s less interested or he shows some moral doubt.

Ideally I would try to tie it to Lester quitting his job. Maybe Angela could come into the burger joint where Lester decides to work after quitting. She could look with disdain on a middle-aged fast food worker, maybe mocking him to her friends. This is also about the time Jane ditches Angela to hang out with Ricky. I might try to use that in the scene as well.

You can decide for yourself if you think this would be a good scene to have included. I think the movie works without it because we do see big changes in Lester’s life. His character arc is progressing and things are happening even if there’s no change in his relationship with Angela for a while.

Ultimately the primary purpose of the midpoint is to provide a twist to the story and increase the stakes so it doesn’t get boring. Lester quitting his job serves that purpose adequately.

The other part I might have changed is the end of Act Two. I probably would have made Lester more lecherous and Angela’s rejection of him bigger. But that might not have been better…this is a fairly realistic movie and subtlety can be the better way to go.

I suspect Alan Ball used the character arc to outline the story milestones more than the structural beats of the plot. American Beauty is really a story of character arc. Most movies have character arc of course, but in this case the stakes for Lester are almost purely internal. They are about his happiness and his relationship with his family. The external plot is a way to make this internal journey visible (see my post on want and need for more on internal and external stories.)

I think it is always critical that a clear dramatic question be laid out at the catalyst and resolved at the resolution. American Beauty uses Angela as a device to create an active, external dramatic question that reveals Lester’s internal journey. Though that dramatic question may sometimes fall into the background, the movie succeeds anyway by finding other ways to reveal that internal journey.

1 comment:

True Pizza said...

Adding a scene that has Angela accidentally bumping into Lester at the burger joint and discovering to her embarrassment and pity that a 40 year old man who she thought was sexy works as a fry cook....well this would add interest and more development between Lester and Angela and would improve the movie. I don't think Randy 's filming is necessary. A sketchbook might work better. And the marine's relationship with his wife and boy could use another scene for development.