Volume 11, Issue 1: Poetics
Aristotle on Film-Part 2
The last Poetics Column featured an article applying the categories of Aristotle's Poetics to film. We can understand the causes of tragic pleasure by examining the six parts of a play: plot, characters, thought, diction, spectacle and melody. Plot, the most important part of the film according to Aristotle, has a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the film should have no point before, and the end should have no point after. It must be a self-contained unit, as the Iliad is a complete plot unit within the Trojan War.
Aristotle's insights on plot are timeless. In the late seventies Syd Field, a script reader in Hollywood, discovered that generally films with a three-act structure did better at the box office than films without a structured beginning, middle, and end. Field argued that the first act for a movie begins with an inciting incident, a happening that starts the plot. This inciting incident asks a question that the rest of the film should answer. About thirty minutes into the film, something happens that changes everything. This first plot-point sends us into the second act, a middle, which after an hour ends with another plot-turning action or event. Now, an hour and a half into the movie, we enter the third act. The plot heads toward the last five minutes of the story, which answers the question posed at the opening of the film. The Bible itself has an inciting incident: not creation but the fall. The question asked is, "Who is the seed who will fix everything and crush the head of the serpent?" The rest of the book answers Who this will be. At the end He fixes everything.
Almost any film you see will have a three-act structure. Braveheart, a movie most of our readers have seen, begins with young Wallace experiencing the treachery of the English. He tries to live in peace, but then one-fourth of the way through the film, his wife is killed. Wallace goes on a triumphant struggle to gain Scotland's freedom. At three-fourths of the film, Robert the Bruce breaks Wallace's spirit by betraying him. Wallace is captured and tortured. The question is: "Will he give in, or will he die for Scotland like his father?"
Some films, though, do not fit the three-act structure. To Kill A Mocking Bird comes in halves. The first is a story about some children and their perspective of Adicus's fight for the accused black man. The second half is a gritty court-room drama. Pulp Fiction, a film with depraved plot and diction, is another film that doesn't fit the three-act system. Tarantino's film retains structure by the use of Hebrew-type literary devices, like chiasm and repetition of time (Genesis 1 and 2 or Judges 1 and 2). In fact, Tarantino combines the two by making the apex of the chiasmic structure a discussion about a watch, while basing his storytelling structure around the disjunction of time. Too bad this brilliance of order was wasted on crass trivial content, like laboring the musings of a drill seargent to St. Matthew's Passion.
Aristotle categorized any segment not directly essential to the plot as episode. The plot of Gattaca, a recent release, followed a self-contained week in the main character's life, during which he evades authorities who falsely suspect him of murder. After the inciting incident, the murder, the film gives a history of the hero's life, an episode that becomes the first act.
Aristotle argues that plot, not spectacle, causes tragic pleasure. You should be able to tell someone the story and stir tragic pleasure in his heart. Filmmakers often rely on gore and death to create horror and fear. Spectacle, though less artful than written poetry, can mediate poetry for a staggering artistic achievement. Compare Mission Impossible and The Usual Suspects. Mission Impossible spent more money, but The Usual Suspects produces far more tragic pleasure because of its amazing plot. Aristotle believed that plot shows the labor of the poet far more than the sound and effect of his words.
The plot must not be enormous. To recognize the beauty in a creature of vast size-say 1000 miles long-is more difficult since the unity of the whole is lost to its beholders. For this reason novels rarely translate well to films, not necessarily for superior literary value, but because they contain enough material for several films. Even the six-hour A&E version of Pride and Prejudice focuses on the last one hundred pages of the book.
The plot also need not follow only one character. The Odyssey follows the story of both Penelope and Odysseus. The Fugitive follows the plight of both Richard Kimble and the marshal, and both plots resolve in success for the two characters.
According to Aristotle, plots are either simple or complex. Simple means they follow a gradual course. Complex means they move in either peripety or discovery, or both. Peripety is the immediate change from one state of affairs within the play to its opposite. This device is used all the time. Even in Mission Impossible, when Ethan Hunt loses all of his team in a botched mission at the beginning of the movie, his circumstances go from one state of events to the opposite.
The final element of plot in our discussion, discovery, is "a change from ignorance to knowledge, and thus to either love or hate in the personages marked for good or evil." In The Game, millionaire Nicholas Van Orton plays a game given to him by his brother. Through the course of the story, Van Orton makes discoveries which alternately support two conclusions: (1) the strange events in his life really are a game or (2) the game is just a front for a plot to steal his fortune of six-hundred million dollars. With each new discovery, Van Orton sways between trusting and distrusting the people in his life. The plot answers the question it asked but not till the last couple minutes of the film. And the journey toward the answer is a great ride.