In a culture of detritus, "American Beauty" screenwriter Alan Ball discovers heartbreaking beauty in garbage.
A crummy old plastic bag floating in the wind above a dirty sidewalk. It’s not an image that one might immediately think of as beautiful, or moving, or important. But it is perhaps the most beautiful moment in this year’s most beautiful film — “American Beauty” — a moment that sums up the lyrical grace of the film, and embodies the idea that fate does what it wants with us, and even if we are going around in circles on a dirty street, ultimately, if seen from the outside, there is a beauty in our little dance.
I went to a script-writing seminar a few weeks back that was attended by six of the year’s best screenwriters, three of them Oscar contenders — Charlie Kaufman, who wrote “Being John Malkovich,” Eric Roth, who co-wrote “The Insider” and Alan Ball, who wrote “American Beauty.” Much of the attention in the seminar, both from the audience and from the other members of the panel, focused on Ball, for obvious reasons. Not only is he the front-runner for the Oscar, and not only will “American Beauty” most likely win best picture, but there is a kind of newness to the tone of “American Beauty” that makes it almost seem like a landmark film, a kind of paradigm shift in the portrayal of the pain and despair of everyday life in ways that recognize both its comedic and tragic aspects and make it seem, ultimately, all worth it.
Ball was asked about the plastic bag scene, but not by one of the audience members. It was illuminating, actually, that the question came from another writer, David O. Russell, who wrote another of 1999′s most innovative films, “Three Kings.” Russell leaned forward into the mike, looked Ball right in the eye, and asked, as if he were asking a telepath how he had managed to bend a spoon, “How did you come up with the plastic bag scene?”
For those who have not seen the film, the scene is simple — a white plastic bag is caught in the wind in front of the kind of graffittied metal doors that come down at night in front of liquor stores in tough neighborhoods. The scene is shot in slow motion. The bag goes up and down and left and right and around and around. It could be a bird, or a butterfly, or a cloud. But it’s not. It’s a piece of litter on a dirty street. And as such it’s a metaphor that even in the toughest place, and perhaps most often in tough places, beauty happens.
Ball answered the question directly, with no emotion. He said that he wanted a scene of grace to balance out the heaviness of the other scenes, to provide a quiet moment. “I tried to think of the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” he said. For him, it wasn’t some schmaltzy sunset in Hawaii. He remembered walking past the World Trade Center at a time in his life when he was working as the art director at a magazine, and writing plays at night for a theater company that was disintegrating. Most of the people in the theater company were hitting their mid-30s and moving on. He felt a little stuck. A plastic bag was caught on the wind and it seemed to float around him, as if it were a specter, as if it were alive and talking to him. There was something so profound in the simple beauty of the moment, he said, that it brought him to tears.
I called Ball after the script seminar to talk to him in more detail about the plastic bag moment. “It was in the early ’90s, towards the end of winter, the beginning of spring,” he said. “It was kind of cold and overcast but it wasn’t raining. It was a Sunday. So the whole financial district was deserted. But it was kind of one of those days that after months of it being freezing, it was warm enough to walk. And so I just decided to walk from midtown down to the World Trade Center to catch the train back to Brooklyn. I was in front of the World Trade Center, and I noticed this plastic bag in the wind, this white plastic bag. And it circled me, and it literally circled me, like, 10 or 15 times. And after about the third or fourth time I felt very, um, I started to feel weird. And then, I don’t know, there was something striking about the experience, and I really did feel like I was in the presence of something.”
Ball used to be a television writer, a job he loathed. Just like Lester, the “American Beauty” character played by Kevin Spacey, he yearned to change his life, to escape from the trap he had found himself in. And the way he changed his life was by writing “American Beauty.” “That script was fueled by anger,” he said — anger at having to write television characters over and over who did nothing more than “trade insults.” Just as Lester was essentially freed, in a way, in the movie, Ball freed himself by writing it. In what could be considered a minor miracle in today’s bloated Hollywood script development world, his script sold eight days after he put it on the market, and it was in the theaters 18 months after that. Along the way, director Sam Mendes allowed him to be on the set every day, and to help shepherd his script through the filming process, which is another impossible dream for a writer. Although Ball is still fulfilling some television contracts, when that is completed, he will most likely never again have to write dialogue about people trading insults.
Ball is a lanky guy who still wears beat-up old Dr. Martens and has a classic writer’s face — somewhat withdrawn, world-weary, bags under the eyes. You can see that he’s been through it. He’s no slick, amped-up script machine like Ron Bass. The character of Lester, he said, had been “floating around in the back of my mind for years.” Of course, so had that plastic bag. When you watch “American Beauty,” the plastic bag scene comes when Lester’s daughter asks to see her boyfriend’s video footage. The boyfriend lives in an emotionally dangerous world inhabited by his psychologically incapacitated mother and his violent, repressed father. The boyfriend shows the girl his footage of the plastic bag going round and round. Mendes lets the audience watch it for a long time. The longer you watch, the more mesmerized you become until the bag begins to speak to you the same way it did to Ball. A friend of mine in New York, a hardened entertainment journalist, cried at this scene, and so did I.
“As children we come into the world with eyes that are wide open and we can see beauty in the most surprising places and the miraculous in the mundane, and that gets sort of conditioned out of us as we are socialized,” Ball said. “But there was something about the poetry of that bag in the wind. The lyricalness of it was incredibly overwhelming to me on that particular day. I think there is a part of us that longs for that way of seeing the world. I think that’s what people talk about really when they talk about the loss of innocence. So just to be reminded of that, and that it still exists within all of us is very moving to people. Because it’s so easy to be so cynical.”
And so, on Sunday, when Ball walks up to receive his best screenplay Oscar, you can know he will be doing so in part because he told the truth about the most beautiful moment in his life. The plastic bag scene works, as does the entire movie, because Ball was so pushed to the edge by the circumstances of his life that he found the courage to make a little pearl and to share it with the world. And in a world of contrived scripts and cobbled together Hollywood schlock, it is refreshing and encouraging that Ball’s “American Beauty” will be the big winner. It’s real. It’s about time.
Russ Spencer is a Southern California freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Outside, Book, Icon, the Los Angeles Times and online magazines New Media, Shift and IFILM. More Russ Spencer.
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