Friday, June 18, 2010

American Beauty – Fantasy Sequences and Narrative Point of View

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

There is one narrative device in American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) that I completely forgot to address last time – the fantasy sequences! Several times in the movie we move in to see Lester’s fantasy sequences related to Angela (at the basketball game, the bathtub fantasy, and when she touches his arm while getting a drink from the refrigerator, for example).

There isn’t all that much to say about these sequences particularly. In the film they are often indicated by music and lighting changes (which are indicated in the script). We might also note the use of rose petals in many of these scenes as a visual metaphor for perfection.

It’s also interesting to note how in these fantasy sequences Angela is much more mature, self-possessed and sexually aggressive than in the “real” scenes. This gives us an idea of how Lester sees her and ties into the thematic element of the gap between perception and reality. However from a writing technique standpoint that’s the kind of thing that comes naturally from understanding your character’s mindset.

I think the most noteworthy thing about these scenes is that we only get Lester’s fantasies. In a way, this is a related device to the videos. The videos put us inside Ricky’s head, but in a tangible way, via a physical medium as opposed to the subjective fantasy scenes that put us literally inside Lester’s head. This works hand in hand with Lester’s voiceover. We are seeing this story from Lester’s point of view.

When I use point of view in this way I mean narrative point of view as opposed to a POV shot from a particular character’s visual point of view (as I used it in the last post.) You may recall the narrative kind of point of view from literature classes.

Other than a few experimental movies film is almost always in the third person point of view, meaning that we have an omniscient viewpoint on the proceedings. However the filmmakers do guide that point of view by choosing where the camera looks and what gets included and what doesn’t.

I don’t want to go too deep into a discussion of literary theory here. For the screenwriter, it’s mostly important to note that we can limit this third person point of view. In many films, for example, we only see what the main character sees. This causes us to identify more forcefully with that main character.

American Beauty would be a logical candidate for this kind of limitation, but Alan Ball chose to expand the point of view. We get scenes with Caroline by herself, with Jane and Angela, with Jane and Ricky, inside Ricky’s family – all without Lester anywhere near.

Yet by using Lester’s voiceover and by giving us Lester’s fantasy sequences it seems that Lester is telling the story. Does this work? I suppose that’s a matter of opinion. I think the fact that the voiceover is coming from “beyond the grave” helps. We believe that the ghost of Lester can know more than Lester knows in the story world. It’s really this ghost that’s doing the story telling.

In that way, American Beauty has its point of view cake and eats it, too. It allows Lester to be the storyteller, giving us insight into his character, while also being able to show us scenes that he is not in.

Perhaps the thing to take away from this is that one of the most powerful tools you have as a screenwriter is controlling what the audience sees and when they see it. Narrative devices are all just ways to exercise that control. You should be making these choices consciously in your screenplays.

(Terry Rossio wrote an excellent article on using narrative point of view on the wordplayer website. Favorite quote: when a film is about everything, it's hard for it to be about anything.”)

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