Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Theme/Minor Characters

(SPOILERS: American Beauty)

Movies can engage us in different ways. American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) primarily engages us on a philosophical (or intellectual) level. For this to work the movie needs to have a complex theme. If the theme is simplistic or pedantic we will quickly become bored.

The theme of American Beauty has to do with the devastating effect the pressure to be normal has on suburban Americans. Note, a theme does not have to take a particular point of view (see my post on theme and thesis). In this case the movie does seem to have a bias toward the need to be true to oneself, but it doesn't so much advocate that position as explore aspects of it.

For me the most organic way to approach theme is through character. This makes the issues at hand personal. We care about the character so we care about the philosophical issues they're wrestling with. We don't care if those issues are simply discussed in a dry, hypothetical conversation. Let's look at how American Beauty explores its theme through the main character, Lester.

In the beginning of the movie Lester is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl.

Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible. Of course the fact that he is then killed might suggest that the suburbs won't tolerate someone who has found this healthy balance.

You can use the characters surrounding your main character to explore different aspects of the theme. Let's look at how American Beauty does this with the other major characters:

Caroline - Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose - witness her carefully coordinated dinners, attention to landscaping and behavior at the realtor event. She becomes unhappy when she fails – such as when she can't sell the house despite doing all the things she believes should result in a sale. Ultimately she indulges in such rebellions as having an affair and firing a gun. But mostly Caroline has happily embraced the suburban lifestyle.

Ricky - Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. In the original script he goes to jail for murder, though the movie cut that out. In the script it reinforces the idea that society will punish those who don't conform. In the movie Ricky serves more as an example to Lester (and also to Jane) of a different way of life, one they hadn’t dared to consider before.

Angela - Angela is playing the role of a sex object. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype. This makes her an ironic figure thematically.

The Colonel (Ricky’s Dad) - Here's the guy with the ultimate secret. He's a moral conservative who condemns anyone who steps outside strict societal norms. In fact, as a military man, he's actually a defender of those norms. But he's also gay – something that he can't tolerate. And it is his attempt to protect this secret that ironically leads to the destruction of any normalcy that might have existed in this little corner of suburbia. The Colonel is a demonstration of what happens when we try to deny our individuality.

Barbara (Ricky’s Mom) - She is a grim vision of what will happen to Caroline if Caroline doesn't protect her individuality. Barbara has lost all sense of purpose in herself, though she adheres to the domestic requirements of a suburban housewife with tenacity. By being simultaneously completely normal and completely empty she reflects the emptiness of suburbia.

Each of these characters approaches the issue of suburban society in a different way. Few of the characters are completely bad or completely good. They’re each just taking their own approach to the question. This allows the writer (and we the audience) to explore the thematic ideas in the film more fully.