Oct. 9, 1999
Having spent the greater portion of my life studying story structure, when I see an improperly structured script it’s like seeing a house with no roof or no walls -- it’s very apparent and there’s no missing it. Since most people -- including almost all screenwriters -- know nothing about story structure, when the structure collapses and the story stops functioning properly they become somewhat to very confused. This to me is the interesting part: instead of knowing that what they’re watching is malfunctioning, they will immediately attribute the problem to their own lack of intelligence. “It’s over my head,” they’re thinking. I guess I’m lucky because this never occurs to me. If I’m sitting in house without a roof and the rain is pelting me in the face I never for one single second believe it’s my fault -- somebody should have put the damn roof up.
Thus I arrive at “American Beauty,” which may be the best film of 1999 so far. But that doesn’t make it a good movie, nor a well-structured one, either. In fact, it has no structure at all. What it does have is well-observed characters, which is not something we get very much of anymore. But just having well-observed characters does not make a good movie.
Kevin Spacey has hit the end of his rope with his life, particularly his wife, his daughter and his job. He tells us right away in the narration that he’s dead -- just like William Holden in “Sunset Blvd.” -- and now, basically, we’re just going to wait the entire film to find out who kills him. Since neither act two nor act three ever begin or end, what we end up with is a series of red herrings -- “Oh, she’s gonna kill him,” “No, he’s gonna kill him,” etc.
Along the way there are a number of laughs, however about 35-40 minutes in, when act one was supposed to end and didn’t, I started to become annoyed. About 80-90 minutes in when act three was supposed to begin and didn’t, I lost interest. And since there is no structure the writer, not knowing where he was going or why, simply repeats every scene at least twice, sometimes three times.
After the film I went out to eat with two friends, both of whom liked the movie very much. When I stated my opinion one of my friends got slightly angry and stated a line I’ve been hearing since I was about twelve, “That’s your opinion!” Well, yes, of course it is, I just said it. What she found disturbing, I suppose, was the authority in my tone when I stated that the script was a structureless mess. My friend said, “I don’t give a damn about acts one, two or three! I liked it! Is it possible you just didn’t understand it?” I replied very promptly, “No, that’s not possible. I don’t give anyone that credit. The minute I stop understanding is the minute they’ve failed. Nobody is going over my head.”
I have a quote on my website by Thomas Fuller from 1732 that says, “Things not understood are admired.” I think for most people this is very true. The second they become confused they attribute the problem to their own lack of intelligence and consequently begin to believe that what they’re watching is smarter than them. I used to feel that way when I was a teenager watching Jean Luc Godard films, but I got over it. However, Godard is being confusing for the sake of confusion, whereas the makers of “American Beauty” are being confusing and obscure because they know no better.