Thursday, June 10, 2010

American Beauty – Narrative Devices

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

For the most part American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) is told in a straightforward manner. The story unfolds mostly chronologically. But it does employ two noteworthy narrative devices: the video P.O.V.* shots and Lester’s voiceover.

The video P.O.V. shots allow us to see the action from a particular perspective – usually Ricky’s. Often this means we don’t get all the information in the scene, such as when he’s filming the argument between Lester and Jane in the kitchen, or when he films Lester working out naked. The video illustrates the movie’s themes that things are not always what they appear.

The movie opens with a video P.O.V. shot that is unique because it lacks any context. We don’t even know who’s operating the camera. This shot seems to indicate that Ricky and Jane are going to murder Lester. But later when we do get the context we learn that is not the case at all. This again reinforcing the idea that things are not always what they seem. In the original script, it is this video that is used to wrongly convict Ricky for Lester’s murder – illustrating the danger of accepting things at face value. In the final cut we are left to make this connection ourselves.

Then there’s the time Jane and Angela catch Ricky filming them through Jane’s bedroom window. Jane is put off and wants to close the drapes, but Angela poses sexily for Ricky. However in the video P.O.V. we move off Angela and zoom into a reflection of Jane in the mirror. This lets us know whom Ricky is really interested in. The video shots, like any P.O.V. shot, give us one particular character's perspective. Video has the added benefit of being able to show that perspective removed from the original time of viewing.

I’ve already mentioned the use of voiceover in American Beauty in several of my previous posts. Let’s take a closer look at this device.

In this case the voiceover comes from an onscreen character – Lester – implying that he is the one telling the story. Sometimes when used this way the voiceover gives a film an unreliable narrator, but this doesn’t seem to be the case in American Beauty.

In fact Lester doesn’t really narrate the whole movie. The voiceover only appears in three places – the opening sequence, briefly at the beginning of Lester’s last day, and at the very end of the movie. Used this way I see it serving three primary purposes:

First, it helps us to identify with a character that starts the movie largely unlikeable. The wit of the voiceover mitigates Lester’s on-screen lameness. And we learn something about Lester’s attitude about the people in his life in the process, which colors our attitude toward them.

Second, the voiceover advertises Lester’s upcoming death. I actually think this is the primary importance of it in this movie. In the opening voiceover we learn that Lester will be dead in a year, and when the voiceover pops up briefly about two thirds of the way in, it simply notes that this is the last day of his life.

Letting us know that Lester will die adds another layer to everything that’s going on and, along with the opening video shot, sets up the mystery – how will this ordinary suburban story end in murder? This engages us more fully with the story and gives us something to anticipate.

And the mid-story reminder of his impending death comes immediately after we discover the opening video is not what we thought. Now a new twist on the mystery is introduced – who is going to kill Lester if not Ricky and Jane? This advertising pulls us through the story as we build to the climax.

The final voiceover serves a different purpose. It allows Lester to wrap up his philosophy on life from the moment of his murder. Instead of ending with Lester lying in a pool of his own blood we learn how great he thinks his life was. It completely changes the tone of the movie.

And having voiceover at the beginning and end serve to bookend the movie with contrasting impressions of Lester’s attitude. This illustrates his character arc. In the beginning he sees his life as pathetic and trivial and unhappy. But by the end he’s learned to appreciate the beauty of those trivialities and realize how happy he really was.

Some consider voiceover a weak device – and it can be when done badly. But American Beauty uses it sparingly for very specific purposes and I think the result is quite effective.

*P.O.V. = Point of View

(P.S. - I'm starting to study voiceover as a device more fully. If you'd like, please suggest any movies that you think have particularly good or particularly bad uses of voiceover in the comments section.)


Sanket said...

I think 'Layer Cake' had quite an interesting voice over. Until the end, audience doesn't realize that the protagonist's name has never been revealed.

Voice over was at its finest in 'Taxi Driver'.

'Shawshank Redemption' & 'Million Dollar Baby' were passable.

Nishant said...

Voice over was at its finest in 'Taxi Driver'.
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melaniehaynes1 said...

There aren't any choices here that I would disagree with.

And I think it's okay so long as you're getting something witty and/or insightful that you can't get IN THE STORY.

Am I wrong?
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