Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Structure of American Beauty

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

I’ll begin my in depth analysis of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) with a discussion of the structure. This is an extremely interesting movie from a structural standpoint. I’ve heard many people say – either with acclaim or derision – that it doesn’t follow traditional three-act structure. But I disagree. There’s a definite beginning, middle and end to the movie so it must have some kind of three-act structure.

One of the things that may confuse the issue is the amount of time the movie spends on each character. Lester is clearly the main character – he has the biggest problem and his decisions drive the story – but we spend a significant number of scenes following his wife Caroline, daughter Jane, and the family next door with Lester nowhere in sight. Doesn’t matter…it’s Lester’s story so we must look to him for the structure.

I believe any coherent story follows some form of three-act structure. It’s possible, though, that American Beauty doesn’t use the standard screenwriting book approach to that structure. I believe, as I’ve said before, that the only rule in screenwriting is “don’t be boring.” All the rest are simply guidelines. Of course it’s possible that American Beauty might be worse off for violating some of those guidelines. Let’s see what we think.

To me the most critical part of the structure of any movie is the Dramatic Question. It’s what binds the story together and tells us where the story begins and ends. It’s the question asked at the Catalyst and answered at the Resolution.

American Beauty is about the false masks the seemingly ordinary suburban dwellers hide behind. But that’s theme. It’s also about Lester trying to regain the joy that’s gone out of his life. But that’s character arc. The dramatic question needs to be something more active.

I think the dramatic question of the movie is this: Will Lester sleep with Angela (his daughter’s friend).

The catalyst then is when Lester sees Angela for the first time and immediately falls for her. As he says in voice over afterward, he feels like he’s just waking up from a twenty-year coma.

The catalyst is the moment where our character has a problem. Some would argue the catalyst of American Beauty is when Lester is asked to fill out a job description to justify his position. That’s a potential problem, sure, but really it’s just part of the miserable, unfulfilling life we see in the opening sequence – Lester’s status quo. He doesn’t actually do anything about it other than complain. At this point we probably assume he’ll write something pandering enough to keep his miserable job.

When Lester sees Angela he has a problem he can’t ignore. He’s fallen for someone who is not his wife. Even more, she’s underage. It’s a completely inappropriate fantasy. But it leads him to take actions to change his life. This moment inspires his mid-life crisis.

The resolution then is when we have the answer to our question: Angela agrees to sleep with Lester but he calls it off at the last second. Which is nearly the end of the movie…right where the resolution should be.

It’s an interesting choice for dramatic question because, though the tension of what Lester is going to do about his attraction to Angela is maintained throughout the film, much of the action involves other issues. I’ll touch on why this works more when I discuss character (probably in the next post.)

This dramatic question also does an interesting thing to the audience’s hope and fear. We want Lester to break free of his stultifying life but we definitely don’t want him to sleep with this teenage girl. Despite her apparent sexuality, we are never made to feel that anything good would come out of actual consummation.

So with that in mind let’s look at how the movie might fit into typical three act beats.

Domino: The argument between Lester and Jane over dinner. This leads to his need to see her dance performance, which leads to his first encounter with Angela.

Catalyst: Seeing Angela for the first time.

End Act I: When Angela comes to sleep over Lester spies at the door and overhears her say that she would sleep with him if he “built up his chest and arms.” This prompts him to start lifting weights. Also just before this scene Lester meets Ricky, smokes pot with him, and watches him tell off his boss. Lester is inspired by all these events to start making changes in his life. The concrete goal of these changes is to be able to sleep with Angela.

Midpoint: At the midpoint we’d normally look for something that reflects the resolution. There aren’t really any scenes with Lester and Angela in the middle of American Beauty, though. Not every movie has a strong midpoint, of course. But I’d identify the scene where Lester quits his job and blackmails his boss for severance. This is a major event in the arc of Lester taking control of his life, and it also shows that he isn’t thinking much about his responsibilities to others (particularly his family) anymore. In that sense it has considerable thematic relevance to the dramatic question.

End Act II: Comes in two pieces. In the first, Jane tells Lester that she hasn’t been inviting Angela over because she’s embarrassed by how Lester stares at her. Lester blows up at his daughter, revealing he may not be as laid back and in control as he thinks. Then, when Angela comes over that evening she playfully flirts with Lester, but when he flirts back she quickly retreats. Combined these two scenes show the “lowest point” of the dramatic question. Lester has decided to sleep with Angela no matter who it might hurt, but it may not be as easy as he assumes.

Twist/Epiphany: On the verge of Lester and Angela finally having sex, Angela tells Lester she’s a virgin. Immediately he realizes how much damage he could do to this young, innocent girl who is not at all what he thought she was.

Resolution: Lester decides to do the right thing and not sleep with Angela. But his life has changed. He’s happy. And he realizes he does love his family. And then of course moments later he’s dead.

So I would conclude that American Beauty does follow a fairly straightforward three-act structure. It’s just that this structural skeleton is kept thin to allow for more emphasis on character and theme.


Sanket said...

Dough, It's a great start of in-depth analysis.
Would like to share some of my thoughts on this.
Plz know I'm not disputing anything. Just putting out my thoughts. I may not know well. -
Here goes, I completely agree it follows three act structure as it has a strong beginning, decisive middle and resolving end.
- Film begins with Lester's narration where he says among many things that he has lost something but he doesn't know what it is. And, it's never too late to get it back.
- This is the instigating incident where audience sees Lester has some problem and is determined to get back on track.
- ***So, the dramatic question should be what it is that he has lost and how he would get it back?***
- When Carolyn takes him to see Jane's dance performance, He does not go there out of his free will as he says he's missing James Bond marathon on TNT.
- But, when he sees Angela, she kindles his mojo. He sees her more like a se-x goddess than as an object [Considering rose petals and the way she appears in her dreams. He doesn't fantasize about her body, but he fantasizes about her divine persona].
- Later on, Ricky gives him weeds. And, that makes him feel good, so he continues doing that. While buying more weed, He reminisces flipping burger in teen years which was great and all he did was party and get laid.
- This instigates him to break free from a dead-end job and to retaliate with his boss.
- He finds a job as a burger flipper and parties by smoking weed.
- ** Maybe he is realizing gradually whatever he had lost (happiness and control?). And, he is getting them back. This could be a Midpoint. **
- He explodes at Carolyn at the dining table and tells her not to bother him. Gains control again.
- He also buys firebird that he always wanted. He thinks he rules.
- When he confronts Carolyn-Buddy at Mr.Smiley's, He again controls the situation and startles Carolyn.
- ** This could be beginning of end of Act II for film, as it involves other characters too with their subplots ending their ACT II simultaneously.**
- In ACT III, he continues working out in garage[cuz that's how he will get Angela] and gives Colonel a reason to suspect him by calling Ricky.
- He gets a chance to sleep with Angela. But as it's an epiphany scene he cannot do an immoral thing by sleeping with an underage person.
- ** Resolution - After choosing not to sleep with Angela, He feels better about himself. By far, audience knows what he was talking about in the beginning that he lost something. And audience knows, that he has definitely gained back that 'something'.
- He becomes concerned for Jane. Looks at the family picture and misses the daughter and wife, and the times how happy once they were.
- As he told the audience in the beginning, he dies now at Colonel's hand.

Gary Cottontail said...

"American Beauty is about the false masks the seemingly ordinary suburban dwellers hide behind. But that’s theme. It’s also about Lester trying to regain the joy that’s gone out of his life. But that’s character arc. The dramatic question needs to be something more active.

I think the dramatic question of the movie is this: Will Lester sleep with Angela (his daughter’s friend)."

This distinction of theme, arc, and dramatic question is helpful. Thanks!

Doug Eboch said...

I don't think the initial narration can be the source of the instigating incident/catalyst because it is clearly coming from after the events of the movie (since the narrator already knows Lester will die within a year.)

In the story on screen Lester doesn't realize his life is off track until he sees Angela. He isn't doing anything to change his life in that opening sequence. It's Angela that sparks him to change things and set the story in motion.

Regarding the scene with Ricky, I think Ricky is the "mentor" character. He teaches Lester how to live without responsibility and how to see the beauty in life. Lester idealizes Ricky. But it's Angela that inspires him to action.

Unknown said...

Pretty good analysis. I agree with Doug - the initial narration is straight exposition/setup. The inciting incident IS Lester fantasizing about Angela at the game.
I agree with every point except for the low point. In my opinion, the low point is when he finds his wife is cheating on him. He says, "you don't get to tell me what to do ever again." His marriage and family are officially over at that point. Even though Angela's plot line is what got the story snowballing, he did try salvaging his marriage. He attempted to make love to his wife a couple scenes earlier. On top of that, each character reached a low in the following scenes: Buddy breaks up with Caroline, Frank kicks Ricky out of the family.
Good job.

M. Basso said...

Sam Mendes quite clearly indicates a three act structure on the DVD commentary of the movie with Allan Ball. It's a really good, director-centered commentary, but it's a real pity that he does 99% of the talk and there's not much time at all for Alan Ball to illuminate us on his classic script. To top it all, the sound editing doesn't allow for any of the dialogue to be heard, so 'the script' is basically absent from the commented version. Thankfully there are these interviews with Mr Ball as an alternative:

It's not the same as listening to him over the movie, but it's very interesting insight from him. On second thoughts, perhaps he didn't want to be talking over his masterpiece!