Thursday, March 24, 2011

Rediscovering Tragic Film

One of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's early works was called The Birth of Tragedy. Taking his cues from classical Greek tragedy, he presented modern (19th century) readers with the idea that tragedy is "an art form that transcends the pessimism and nihilism of a fundamentally meaningless world."* Spectators, by looking deeply into the depths of human sorrow, were affirmed in their own existence, and thus could see themselves not simply as petty peons in a pointless existence but as fuller, more complex persons.

Many there are who misunderstand tragedy in the arts. Hence the films we entertain ourselves with often tend to have tidy upbeat endings, such as the Hollywood version of The Natural, which produces a heroic end rather than the tragic one played out in the book.

This conflict regarding how to end films in Hollywood is a comical undercurrent in The Player, with Tim Robbins (1992). So it is that an analysis of the top 250 films of all time in most lists will reveal that tragic stories are a small minority.

Last night in a periodical called The City I read a fascinating essay by Paul D. Miller called Rediscovering Tragic Film, dealing with the films of Christopher Nolan. Nolan's name is no doubt familiar to movie buffs because he seems to be really connecting with the films he's been cranking out, most recently Inception starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was probably Memento that first caught the public's attention, and a string of hits have followed including Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Night. Miller notes that five of Nolan's six big films are are built around the elements of tragedy, yet the sum total of these films has generated 2.5 billion dollars in revenue, no small potatoes.

Miller writes, "A tragic plot is especially effective if it incorporates four elements: necessity, surprise, reversal, and recognition. Aristotle argues that the plot must proceed along a necessary chain of cause and effect, not by chance or randomness. 'The effect is heightened when, at the same time, [the outcome] follows as cause and effect,' because the tragic conclusion could not have been otherwise. A terrible but random event -- say, an earthquake -- inspires pity but also detachment, while a terrible event resulting from human choices and happenings that followed necessarily from them are terrifying because we can see how it could happen to us."

So it is that Chinatown, a Roman Polanski masterpiece, (spoiler here if you have not seen this movie) captivates us with its surprises, reversals and the plodding inevitability of its tragic end. Jack Nicholson sees it all coming, sees his part in the destruction and sees, in retrospect, how it all happened.

According to Dr. Miller, Nolan's successes as a director and screenwriter reveal a thirst amongst movie-goers for real stories. "Real stories," he writes, "are ones that reflect true things about life, human nature, and the world we live in. Most films depict cardboard charicatures, not human beings, and take place in a fantasy world where good always triumphs. That Nolan's films make money and win praise shows that movie-goers sense something true in them."

Though I was unable to find this essay onling at the moment, a Google search can lead you to more of Dr. Miller's work. This essay was satisfying and thought provoking.

The City is a publication of Houston Baptist University.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know this is an old post but thought I would leave a link for anyone who wants to read the article referenced.