Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

ARISTOTLE: On Tragedy (Watching Movies With Aristotle)

Imagine going to a movie with Aristotle.  He says things like, “A tragedy (movie) must include (a) the Spectacle, i.e., the stage-appearance of the actors, because they act the stories…” and so on.  We don’t know if he really talked like that but that’s the way he writes.  And this is what Aristotle would expect from a good movie.  “Every tragedy (movie) must contain six (and only six) parts which determine its quality.  They are Spectacle, Melody, Diction, Character, Thought and Plot.”  Wow.  Aristotle has very clear notions about what he expects.  But he goes even further and ranks them in order.  “Plot is the first essential; the very soul, as it were, of (Tragedy) a movie.  Character comes second… third comes Thought… fourth among the literary elements is Diction… As for the remaining parts, Melody is the greatest of the pleasurable accessories.  Spectacle is certainly an attraction, but it is the least artistic of all the parts and has least connection with the art of poetry.”  There you have it.  All you need to know to analyze a movie.  How does this theory actually work with a modern film?  Let’s try one and see.

O Brother, Where Art Thou would be a good movie to take Aristotle to.  The plot is based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey and is a story he would be familiar with.  The “hero” of O Brother is Ulysses Everett T. McGill and like the ancient Greek hero Ulysses, Everett is trying to get back home to his wife and children.  The plot is summed up this way on IMDb: “Along the way, they meet a contriving one-eyed Bible salesman, a blind prophet, a trio of sexy sirens, and a man who sold his soul to the devil. In their race to reach the treasure before it's flooded, they end up crashing a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, help a sensitive Baby Face Nelson rob three banks in two hours, and even have enough time to put out a best-selling record as The Soggy Bottom Boys.”  That’s the basic plot. 

How about the second part, Character?  Everett, again like the Greek Ulysses, is a slick talker but unlike Ulysses “He is chained to two other prisoners, slow-witted Delmar and hot-tempered Pete.”  Aristotle says we come to know an actor’s Character by the way he acts and the things he says.  We know Delmar is slow-witted and Pete is hot-tempered by watching what they do and listening to what they say.  Thought is the third part of Aristotle’s dramatic theory and we get a pretty good notion of what Everett, Delmar and Pete are thinking by listening to what they say.  Diction is the fourth part of Aristotle’s theory and Delmar and Pete talk the way we would expect men to talk in Mississippi in the 1930s.  Everett speaks with an eloquence that would be unusual in any age.  But so did Ulysses.  So Aristotle would think this is entirely appropriate for the movie.  He would argue “Diction” should fit the time and place for the story.  The fifth part of Aristotle’s theory is Melody.  “Melody” in modern films consists mostly of the soundtrack.  The music is there primarily to support the story, not the other way around.  In opera music takes center stage.  In most films music is there to set the background for the action on the screen.  It just so happens in O Brother that music is an integral part of the story.  But these characters don’t suddenly burst out with arias from a Verdi opera.  That would be inappropriate.  The Soggy Bottom Boys sing (appropriate) gospel music.  The final part of Aristotle’s theory is Spectacle.  Modern special effects would dazzle Aristotle, as they do us.  But his question would be do they enhance the three main parts; Plot, Character, and Thought?  Reading Aristotle won’t turn us into professional film critics.  But it’s always interesting to take his theory out to the movies with us. 


Blogger EGrimm said...

Hello, may I use this in a high school class I am teaching and have my students read it? Along with one of your other pieces about Aristotle and film?

Thank you so much.

5/04/2017 5:32 PM  

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