Thursday, September 9, 2010

Day 154: “Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world...”

Ricky Fitts: “I did see this homeless woman who froze to death once, just lying there on the sidewalk. She looked really sad. I got that homeless woman on video tape. ‘Cos it’s amazing. When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, for a second. And if you’re careful you can look right back.
Jane Burnham: “What d’you see?”
Ricky Fitts: “Beauty”.

I’m sure that a gazillion (I heard that word somewhere the other day) pieces, theses and doctorates have been written on American Beauty, it’s that kind of film. I came a little later to Sam Mendes’s and Alan Ball’s love letter to Billy Wilder than most of my friends. I’d been “locked away” in the rarified atmosphere of a scriptwriting hothouse - the now defunct Tropnest in Sydney’s Fox Studios precinct - and had purposely banned myself from seeing anything, whilst I was working on the first draft of the my first feature film screenplay, The Comedians.

I didn’t want to disturb the finely balanced wheels and cogs of my writer’s mind. You see, I knew myself well enough to know that the minute I see a film that I love or really enjoy, I leave the cinema wanting to abandon the ship of my own script and write a film like the one I’d just seen and I couldn’t afford to derail myself like that this time, too much work, time and energy had been invested.

However, all through my filmless hiatus, friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues and strangers kept saying to me “you’ve got to see American Beauty”. So what did I do, the moment that the quittin‘ time bell rang on the script development hothouse? I headed to the cinema, that’s what I did. I went straight there and stumped up my hard-earned to see.....Magnolia. There was obviously a floral thing going on in the cinema.

When so many people badger and hassle me to see a film, my instinct is to turn in the other direction, I think it;s an ego thing, I just don’t want to be the last person to get on board, I guess. Here’s the thing though, I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, still do. I loved it so much that I went right back the next day, dragging a friend with me saying “See?! See?! Everyone’s raving on about American Beauty, but see how brilliant this is?” Thank God the friend agreed.

So, whilst the rest of the world was raving about The Beatles-of-a-film that is American Beauty, I’d found my Rolling Stones in Magnolia (edgier, a little more hip and, tougher terrain) and whilst I wasn’t totally alone in my love for this film, Magnolia certainly didn’t have the legion of followers that Lester Burnham’s story had. No Academy Award prizes for those guys, however, Tom Cruise did get nominated for his role of Frank TJ Mackey, and boy was he worth it; he was nothing short of sensational.

Fortunately, for me, over the years, I too have come to think American Beauty a fine fine piece of work. But back to how I opened this piece. The film begins with a character - Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) - talking to us from beyond the grave, just like Joseph C. Gillis (William Holden) who we find floating face-down in the swimming pool at the start of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (remember, American Beauty is an homage).

Lester’s voice-over tells us that he’s “already dead” even though, paradoxically he’s alive. By film’s end, however, Lester is dead, but appears to have not been so happy in a long time?! Surely we are deep in the world of spiritual, esoteric and philosophical matters here, are we not? Maybe. But, just maybe, we are also in the everyday minutiae of life, the ordinary, which Mena Suvari’s character so detests. The irony is, that the “beauty” of life for most of the characters, especially Lester, lies in the minute by minute occurrences of this “mortal coil”, the obvious and the not-so obvious, after all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Thank goodness then that young Ricky Fitts (the center of good in this story) is on hand to point out to Lester and others just what beauty is: a dead bird, a plastic bag dancing in the breeze or even to some (his father) a piece of Nazi tableware.

Day #154 Tip: There’s always beauty, there’s always good
Here’s an exercise: watch any film, read any screenplay and, scrutinising all of the characters as though they were all in a line, look for the “centre of good”.

Like some sort of spirit level that you can lay across a dvd or the 100 pages of a script, think of any movie that you’ve either seen or read and see who the character is that is “the most good” (I know, sounds very clunky). In thinking of your cast design, make sure that no two characters share the same value and virtues, for if they do, they you’re running the risk of duplication.

Maybe draw an imaginary circle in your mind and put the character in the middle of that circle who you think is the “centre of good”; who orbits around around them and just how close, just how good or not good are they, who is the furthest away from the centre and how do we define good?

In some genres and some stories this can be a very tricky exercise, but it’s something I, as an audience maybe can feel, even if I can’t articulate it or would ever think of doing so.

All those that orbit around Ricky Fitts (Ferris Bueller’s serious brother) learn and gain insight from him; not only is he the “center of good”, he is also an “agent of change” and, most importantly, he’s seen God.

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