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Volume 10, Issue 3: Poetics

Tragic Pleasure: Aristotle on film-Pt. 1

Daniel Lee

Aristotle's Poetics gives the first systematic critique of dramatic art and literature. More than understanding the divisions of the art, Aristotle wants to understand what makes a great story work. He presents a critique useful to the author and spectator. His comments apply directly to film.

If American evangelicalism were surveyed about what makes a great movie, most would say, "When the hero is worth emulating, or when the movie teaches me something good." But according to Aristotle, the purpose of poetics is pleasure.
Heroes and aphoristic story morals have a place. But literature without literary value is like a man without a pulse. Christians may say that in a film the "teaching" is most important to them, but look at their movie watching habits. Most Christian college students cannot quote lines from the latest Billy Graham film, but many can do large sections of The Princess Bride. As a work of dramatic literature, The Princess Bride is better than most "Christian" movies, even though Wesley did not exactly follow the courtship model in winning Buttercup.
In Defense of Poesie, Philip Sydney states that the purpose of literature is to please and to instruct, but its first goal is to please, as a sermon must first instruct. Christians know that film will always teach, but film teaches as it reflects the delights of the filmmaker and his insight into the delights of his audience. The pleasures of the author communicate his worldview.
The pleasure of the play or tragedy is entirely unlike a back rub or a box of chocolates. One may dislike the setting and characters in the story, yet desperately want to know what happens next.
Aristotle's view of "tragic pleasure" refers more to that cathartic thrill you got at the end of Braveheart. No giddy laughter or bumptious applause from audiences at the end of that movie. Instead, a tragic story had played to its end, and the cathartic thrill of tragedy punctuated freedom, bravery, and the command of one's convictions.
Aristotelian tragic pleasure can be simplified but also expanded. Think of it as story grip. One can be afraid for a character and love every minute of the ride. The pleasure is that horror and fear that builds with anticipation in a Hitchcock film. The same genus of pleasure is built and released for humor. In comedy it can develop as two enemies war but release as they walk away friends like Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.
Aristotle categorizes the six basic parts of any tragedy as: Plot, Characters, Thought, Diction, Spectacle and Melody. He says that there are no more than these six. In considering these six elements we begin to understand the causes of tragic pleasure and judge the artistic achievements of various types of literature.
Plot refers to the combination of incidents in the story. Aristotle thinks this to be the most important feature of the tragedy. Characters clearly are those whose actions and decisions move the plot. Thought refers to two things: first, to the content of the dialogue, but also what is communicated by the several parts of a tragedy as a whole.
These first three parts of a tragedy are primarily the labor of the writer. Responsibility for the remaining three fall to those involved with the physical production of the dramatic art.
Diction, the fourth part on Aristotle's list, describes the actor's delivery of his lines. Spectacle encompasses all physical, visual manifestations of the drama-the faces of the actors, the sets, costumes, lighting, special effects, and any thing else you can see. Even some sound effects may fit in this category. Finally, Melody points to the music used to underscore and highten mood in the production.
Now when we take Aristotle's list and hold it up to film, we see that film is merely a different type of Spectacle, a greater form of Spectacle. Following all of Aristotle's canons, film Spectacle beats tragedy Spectacle because of its shear complexity and versatility. Consider Shakespeare's Henry V on a stage compared to Branagh's achievement. Just the battle scene alone should make the point. With film Spectacle, the potential for a greater effect waits for the right hands. If there is still doubt in the reader's mind, just imagine if Aristotle, fresh from the best Greek production of Oedipus Rex, was then transported to the 20th Century to see 12 Monkeys.
Speaking of comparisons, how would Aristotle compare film with other literary arts? At the end of The Poetics he gives his reason for thinking that tragedy is better than epic poetry. Chief among his reasons: epic poetry has Plot, Characters, Thought, and Diction, but no Spectacle or Melody. And film clearly beats the play for Spectacle and in most cases Melody. The tragedy or play can produce great tragic pleasure in a shorter time. In fact, one can make many tragedies using different portions of the same epic story, thereby increasing tragic pleasure.
We also must conclude that the epic poem is a greater art form than the novel. Compare The Odyssey, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Beowulf to Austin's Pride and Prejudice, which some have lauded as the greatest novel ever. The epic poem is a greater achievement because of its greater complexity, order, and richness in achieving the same goal of tragic pleasure, if we follow Aristotle's canon.
So it follows: epic poetry is greater than the novel, and tragedy is greater than epic poetry. Film is a higher art form than the tragedy, so it logically follows that, as an art form, the film is greater than the novel. Or at least Aristotle would tell us so.

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