During the last century, an astounding phenomenon has occurred: the world, particularly the Western world, has developed a universal language. This is the language of films. Since the 1920s and 1930s, French, Italian, German, British and American films have been mainstays of international cultural and artistic expression. American movies, in particular, have been enormously successful, appealing to audiences worldwide. Internet media, broadcast media, and print media carry stories about the latest Hollywood releases in addition to the all-important trivia surrounding the lives of the various stars. Cultural differences begin to disappear in the melting pot of the universal language of film narratives.
It is the enormous international popularity of American films that have led some to conclude that this must be the result of the dread scourge of the late 20th and early 21st centuries: cultural imperialism. Guilt by virtue of success. This kind of thinking is shallow at best. The narrative structure of popular dramatic art forms has not changed essentially since the days of Aristotle. It is by virtue of adherence to formulaic artistic criteria and the judicious use of defined narrative elements that all films, American and others, achieve their success. Good popular films are art forms like odes, sonnets, or fugues: they have specific formal requirements. Their artistic merit – and their popular success – is a result of meeting these formal requirements.
To understand the formal elements utilized by the contemporary film industry, it is useful to review the elements of drama introduced by Aristotle.
ARISTOTLE’S SIX ELEMENTS of drama are Spectacle, Character, Fable (Plot), Diction, Melody, and Thought. These elements (slightly modified and re-interpreted for contemporary audiences) remain essential to modern films. Aristotle claims that, contrary to what one might expect, Plot or “the form of action” is the most important element. This is because, in Aristotle’s view, the purpose of life “is a certain kind of activity” and drama ought to depict certain kinds of activity that we may learn the results of these forms of activities. Aristotle would reject the contemporary view (supported by insidious propaganda that acting is a high art form and by the public’s fascination with the lives of actors) that the depiction of Character is central or most important. Aristotle’s arguments for the primacy of Plot over character include the following:
“Character gives us qualities, but it is in our actions — what we do — that we are happy or the reverse” (Poetics, 1450a18).
“In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the Characters for the sake of the action” (Poetics, 1461a15-20).
He concludes that Character is of second most importance (Poetics, 1450b1). Character does interplay with the other elements, but its primary importance (especially in films) it that it introduces morality. As Aristotle says, “…character is what makes us ascribe certain moral qualities to the agents” (Poetics, 1450a4). The third element is Thought. One must be careful in discerning this element, for this is not what the character says that may reveal elements of the character, but what a character says regarding important intellectual themes — or, as Aristotle puts it, “all they say when proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition.” [In contemporary films it is sometimes asserted (with justification in some instances) that the director of the film actually controls “what is said or asserted.” This is done not through the dialogue, over which he has limited control, but through subliminal suggestion through the language of images alone. This idea of the correct way to determine the ultimate meaning of films is often referred to as the auteur theory. I reject, in part, this theory. See my Seven Mistakes.]
Below is a summary of the above three elements and the remaining four elements, with examples, as they apply to contemporary films:
1. Plot: The Searchers — Horrible event befalls man; man initially chooses revenge, but finally chooses redemption and forgiveness.
Note: It is not always easy to describe how plot relates to theme and what I call story. It has been argued, correctly, following Aristotle, that there are only a few basic plots. If we state the plot of The Searchers as “man chooses revenge against INDIANS,” we have a different, more specific, understanding of the plot. Such a specific understanding cannot be considered a basic plot. A basic plot introduces THEMES. In this case, the basic plot of “horrible event befalls a man” introduces the theme of the POSSIBILITY of forgiveness. It does not introduce forgiveness as a narrative actuality, until that point in the plot where the character makes a moral choice. It remains as true today as in Aristotle’s time — and Hollywood writers generally accept it this — that a good story (film) MUST have specific “plot points,” or moments when the character makes a moral choice. By adhering to this rule, Hollywood writers can be said to accept Aristotle’s idea that plot, rather than character, is central. Further complexities of this issue go beyond the scope of my comments here. See my Seven Mistakes for more information.
2. Character: Rocky — Following Aristotle, we could ascribe moral characteristics to Rocky and how his character fits into the action as follows: Rocky is a man who has lost his self-respect. Fate (being selected by Apollo Creed as an opponent) allows Rocky the chance to regain his self-respect by working hard and taking on a seemingly impossible task (going the distance against the world champ). It is only through actions that Rocky can rebuild his character; he cannot simply will himself to have more self-respect. Hence, Rocky demonstrates Aristotelian character-building through action.
3. Thought: Forrest Gump — an example of a film showing how a character who has limited cognitive abilities may nevertheless be used as a mouthpiece for ideas relevant to a philosophy of life. Forrest says, “Life is a box of chocolates,” meaning “you don’t know what possibilities life has until you embrace them” or “do not despair because life seems to be a game of chance — that’s where the fun comes in!” Forrest Gump is, in fact, a metaphysical speculation on the role of chance in the universe (see Seven Mistakes, item number 4). Sometimes the hero states a more profound philosophy, such as the reasons we might have for self-sacrifice, as Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) does at the end of Casablanca. Another technique used by writers is the use of “throwaway lines,” in which characters can provide thought, or a conceptual background, in a film that may otherwise seem devoid of it. The Avengers (2012) has a number of these lines (see current home page). Additional reflections, largely from a Platonic rather than an Aristotelian perspective, on how philosophical concepts can be expressed in films are provided with my Mind Map of Narrative Structures.
4. Diction: In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle calls for finding the “mean” or “middle” between extremes of character. In a similar fashion, in his Poetics, Aristotle suggests that extremes in diction be avoided. He calls for a mixture of poetic speech (use of metaphors, etc.) and common speech. Poetic speech adds interest and common speech provides clarity: “We need then a sort of mixture of the two. For the one kind will save the diction from being prosaic and commonplace, the rare word, for example, and the metaphor and the ‘ornament,’ whereas the ordinary words give clarity” (1458a25). Most films use prosaic speech throughout. In this sense, they probably fail to reach Aristotle’s standards for high art. A few films have adopted stylized speech throughout, such as True Grit (A). Some film adaptations of plays may represent what Aristotle had in mind, for example, Night of the Iguana (A), with Richard Burton. While we regard almost any film adaptation of Shakespeare as an example of high art, the language used is probably too inaccessible to current audiences to meet Aristotle’s “clarity” criterion.
5. Melody: Can be unnoticed (most films), or central to the impact of the film, e.g., the title theme from Star Wars (A). Today, composers of film scores are often considered major artists in their own right (John Williams, Max Steiner, Bernard Hermann, Elmer Bernstein) and some film scores are evaluated independently of films (see Digital Dream Door, Wikipedia’s 100 Years of Film Scores, or Classical Music at About.com). The best films seek integration of the music with visual impact and major plot points. In many recent films, music often telegraphs emotional content, often to the detriment of particular scenes. Actors, directors, and producers rightfully fear having music overwhelm scenes or even entire films, throwing the film out of balance from an Aristotelian point of view. Major plot points are sometimes punctuated with specific musical events. For example, a bell chimes when Rocky (in one of the subsequent films) announces that he will fight again. Older films often utilize the power of silence: when a distraught mother calls her daughter’s name in M (1931), we only hear an echo from cold brick walls and see the child’s balloons drifting silently away. Musicals fall into a different category and deserve a more detailed discussion than can be provided here.
6. Spectacle: Visual Impact, the feeling of participating in large, grand events. Lord of the Rings, Ben Hur, Spartacus (Spartacus is an excellent example of a film in which all six elements are of high caliber). Currently, many films promote spectacle as if it were the most important element and the primary reason to see films. Dialogue (i.e., expressions of Thought) often recedes into the background, as screentime is dedicated to special effects. It is instructive to compare contemporary films with some of those in the past that succeeded in developing effective drama with minimal spectacle. Lifeboat (1944) is an excellent example of an artistic tour de force achieved without spectacle. Additional commentary and screenshots from the visually spare landscape of Lifeboat are available here.
Additional comments on some features of popular culture, with examples from films and comics, are available here.