Narrative Structures in Films: A Mindmap

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Recent Best Films
200+ Great Films
Thomas Mann on film: Text from “The Magic Mountain”
Mistakes in Film Criticism
Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama

Narrative Structures in Films

The diagram below indicates relationships among various factors present in the context of film narratives. Some of the considerations used to describe these factors derive from Plato’s conception of what guides (or ought to guide) the production of narratives in a social/political structure.

The main idea here is perhaps a rather obvious one: films, like other art, derive their creation, meaning, and purpose from multiple factors — but these factors are structured by systematically connected social, moral, and intellectually accepted “rules.” On the other hand, this is not an idea that the film industry itself seems to want to encourage since it takes away from the mystique of such keywords as “director, star, spectacle, and social relevance” that Hollywood uses to promote the idea that these elements, rather than a more complex web of multiple factors, are the key to understanding its creations. The diagram indicates not only “concrete” factors such as the requirements of proper narrative, but also some abstract concepts, such as Justice, that drive the production of socially useful narratives.

Below, some of the nodes are discussed. This work is in progress. A complete commentary on each node in the diagram and all the relationships shown in it is not finished at this time.

The Good WJ CJ Writer Fate Pre-existing Narrative Character Actions Narrative? Self? Aesthetic Universe Viewer Theater

The Good


Let us say that there is a source of inspiration that causes man to realize his higher nature. Let us call it “The Good.” Narratives structured in observance of the ideal of human self-transcendence will be a positive influence on individuals, as well as existing social and political structures.


In the analogy of the Cave, Plato apparently argues that media moguls, politicians, and narrative artists are uninformed and ill-intentioned. They have no access to truth (The Good) and their primary motivation is to keep the masses ignorant.

But Plato (again, apparently) underestimates or intentionally minimizes the potential of well-intentioned writers and artists to provide narratives that will, in fact, have a positive influence on the majority of media consumers.

Plato likens The Good to the Sun, an apt metaphor for a source of illumination that uncovers the reality by exposing it to the light of truth. Plato’s Good also causes changes in the human soul. In the analogy of the Cave, Plato explains how the Good inspired, even forced, one of the escaped “prisoners” to return to the realm below (our world) to tell others of the glories of The Good and the world above ours.

Plato’s metaphor of the Cave describes a method of social control through the manufacture of narratives and images. Plato’s metaphor of a captive audience being controlled by image-makers bears a striking correspondence with the role of media in our contemporary lives. If that were the entire substance of his metaphor, it would not be a stunning observation of the human condition, since we all know that we are limited by existing moral and political narratives. By adding the realm above the Cave and The Good, Plato creates an icon of hope — hope that we can escape these mundane narratives. Hope is the power behind narratives.

Hence, without some aim toward improvement, self-transcendence, overcoming existing social/political structures, and, ultimately knowledge of universal truths, there is little point in creating or paying attention to contemporary narratives (films, literature).


The Truman Show – An blow by blow model of Plato’s Cave, complete with escape.

The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy posits a “realm above” where everything is brighter (in color) and more pleasant. After having been educated in the realm above, she must return to the “realm below,” in the process discovering that the realm below also has its charms, once one is enlightened. (Plato provides a similar narrative structure in The Myth of Er.)

Cosmic Justice

Cosmic justice is the ultimate reward or punishment we receive for our deeds. One of the principal aims of social/political narratives (drama, media) is to:

  • Defend the idea that Cosmic Justice exists.
  • Demonstrate (via showing or telling) the play of Cosmic Justice in the human world.
  • Indicate the nature of Cosmic Justice: Is it guided by the will of a caring and just God? Is it something we can comprehend?

Example: The feather at the beginning of Forrest Gump tells us that the film will be thematically centered on the role of Cosmic Justice.

Every religion entertains some notion of cosmic justice. Probably the single most powerful notion of cosmic justice in the Western tradition is that developed by Jesus. Who can be saved? Who can expect a reward? Who can expect forgiveness of sins? Who has the potential to remake their life? “Everyone,” is the astounding answer given by Jesus. Hence, we have not only one of the single most powerful spiritual ideas in human history — but one that can supply that can fuel narratives in an effort to constantly support this.

The possibility of redemption is one of the master narratives played out over and over in popular narratives. “Redemption” need not have an explicitly religious connotation in the narrative, however. For example, Rocky remakes his life for the sake of obtaining both self-respect and the love of Adrian.

Cosmic and worldly justice need not be shown to match. See node on Worldly Justice. Indeed, a mismatch, or the possibility of a mismatch, is the crux of some stories…e.g. Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Worldly Justice


There are two, related, suppositions about this topic we might hold.

First: Worldly Justice is justice as it understood according to the norms of a social/moral/political system.

Generally speaking, films destined for mass audiences are not going to challenge these systems. See node on Pre-existing. The “natural” supposition of the public is that Worldly Justice more or less coincides with Cosmic Justice

Second: Worldly Justice shadows or replicates Cosmic Justice.

For example, those who commit heinous crimes are generally shown to suffer the consequences. This is often the entire point of a film: we are waiting with expectation for this event to be shown.

One knows, presumably, that such crimes violate the cosmic order and offenders will suffer justice in the afterlife, but the point of popular narratives is to show how such offenders suffer in this life — to show, in other words, the coincidence of Worldly and Cosmic Justice. This, of course, is to be expected of a commercial entertainment industry that seeks to reinforce, rather than subvert, the existing moral preconceptions of its customers.

CONFLICT, however, is necessary for every drama and great dramas draw into question the current norms of Worldly Justice and/or its coincidence with Cosmic Justice. This is particularly effective when the public perception is that the harmony between Cosmic and Worldly Justice has somehow broken down.


Dirty Harry is a film that derives its energy from the presupposition that Worldly and Cosmic Justice cannot be brought into harmony because the legal system has deteriorated. Hence, Dirty Harry struggles to correct the balance by pursuing his own brand of justice — even if it means going outside the legal system.

Death Wish was a hugely popular series based on the same premise.

More deeply metaphysical films pose this question:


OR, Is there a God who cares about human behavior?

These questions lie behind a film such as Mystic River (there was once a video commentary on this film on the original home page for films at ( since deleted…but it may come back).

Such questions seem to receive a resounding “NO” for an answer in very few films. But Woody Allen (if he can be counted as part of commercial entertainment), in Crimes and Misdemeanors, tells us a story in which the murderer does NOT pay for his crimes — at least in this life.

Draft…in progress.

Writers – Do Writers Know The Good?


Writers are not philosophers, but they may (unwittingly) express important metaphysical or moral dilemmas. It is trivially true that the study of narratives allows us to mine the collective unconscious of a time and place. In this sense, writers are mere landmarks. But even one who is skeptical of the narrative arts on philosophic grounds might admit that most artists share the philosophic aspiration to be ennobled by the Good, and in the process of that pursuit, they may help others to be ennobled.

Moreover, expressing a truth is often enough. We do not need to require that the one who expresses it also knows the depth of the truth expressed.


Text in progress…

Plato doubted that artists had knowledge of The Good. That is not to say that artists could not be inspired by The Good.

Although artists lack the critical facility to either understand or rationally defend what they say, Plato thought they could still express, through inspiration, things that were true. Although The Republic is usually considered to be one of the most sustained criticisms of poets* in the history of philosophy, a careful reading of it shows that Plato does not utterly condemn all poets. He acknowledges that he admires some poets, such as Simonides. His conclusion seems to be that artists might articulate correct moral values, and, in some cases, actually help the political communities of which they were a part, but that is no reason to grant them any particular honor — especially any honor higher than what should be accorded to philosophy.

Plato’s analogy of The Good as the sun leaves open the possibility of its indirect influence on those souls who have some ambition to know the truth and see the world as it actually is.

Aristotle criticized Plato on the grounds that making knowledge of the good mystical serves no purpose. “Good” things are things in this world, not things in some transcendental realm. Besides this, Plato seemed to discount the value of artists’ insights, due to the unreliability of “inspiration” as an epistemic technique. Aristotle argued that since it is undeniable that artists do often open our eyes to the truth, we ought to respect and honor them. Aristotle might agree that artists do not deserve a higher honor than philosophers, but Aristotle thought that Plato’s withering criticisms of the poets seem to imply that they usually do more harm than good.

Whether one takes a transcendental view or not, we should side with Aristotle’s basic point: writers can provide us with emotional events and intellectual insights that can help us become better human beings.

*Poets, for Plato, includes not only Homer, other, contemporary Greek poets, but also playwrights (Aristophanes, especially), the “screenwriters” of his own time.

Fate – The Fate of Characters in Film Should Correspond to Conceptions of Justice

“…and they lived happily ever after” is the verbal narrative equivalent of (for example) a final romantic embrace at the conclusion of a film. Just as short stories or novels conclude with a message about the fate of its characters, commercial Hollywood films offer us a conclusion to an extended moral argument about the just fate of its characters. This argument takes the form of “Characters who act in such and such ways deserve this reward (which you are now witnessing.)” The ultimate fate of the principal characters can imply:
1. Shared understandings of the pre-existing notions of justice in the culture
2. The writer’s understanding of those notions
3. Moral contradictions or competing notions of justice

The primary requirement for the entertainment value of mass media productions is that the fate of the characters be consistent with pre-existing notions of justice.

When pre-existing notions of justice contain contradictions, the artist may be instrumental in initiating a new narrative that seeks to resolve them. Hegel claimed that the Greek playwrights forced Greek culture to become more philosophical.

Example: Kramer vs. Kramer is often credited with having changed the legal landscape of divorce cases. After that film, husbands retained custody of the children more often.

Pre-existing Social and Political Narratives

…in progress

That new narratives derive from pre-existing ones is trivially true.

Industries cannot afford to seriously challenge existing social/political structures.

It follows that the entertainment arts will be fundamentally conservative in nature.

By “conservative in nature” we mean:
1. Fundamental notions of Worldly Justice will be upheld.
2. Fundament notions of Cosmic Justice will be upheld.
3. The fate of the characters will not be seriously out of line with existing expectations of Justice.
4. The Moral/Social/Political Parallel Universe created by the narrative will not be wildly different from the contemporary universe.
5. The Writer will work within the confines of these restrictions.

But unless the goal of the arts is to maintain a perfectly static society (cf. Plato’s Laws) pre-existing narratives must only be a starting point. Change derives from at least these sources:
1. The Transcendental Imperatives. (Kant)
2. Spiritual Evolution (Hegel)
3. Open-ended social/political structures (Democracies). (Since Plato objected to Democracies, he objected to the kinds of narratives they tend to generate. Aristotle was more open to democracies.)

Actions – The Conclusion of a Moral Syllogism

Aristotle says that the conclusion of a moral syllogism is an action. Unlike novels, films generally do not bring us an extensive version of the verbal internal life of its characters. As a result, the internal life of a character in a film is partially a hypothesis on the part of the viewer (see Viewer node). We see how the character acts, allowing us to
1. Understand (via retroduction) the syllogism causing the action;
2. Judge the validity of the character’s conclusion;
3. Compare this understanding and judgment about the character to the same understanding and judgments developed in the Shadow Narrative by the Shadow Self;
4. Expect that the action, in a moral universe, will have certain consequences.

Example: In The English Patient, Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) is suffering horribly and is sustained only by morphine injections. We can see him reach a moral decision when it comes time for his next injection. He nods to his caretaker, indicating that it is time to receive the overdose that will kill him. There is no dialogue indicating the moral reasoning behind this. We see the conclusion of his reasoning, and, presumably, we are tempted to believe that we would reach a similar decision under like circumstances (our own Shadow Narrative).

Example: In The Grapes of Wrath, we see the moral decision of George Milton (Burgess Meredith) who must, tragically, end the life of Lennie Small (Lon Chaney Jr.). Again, there is no dialogue here, except the misdirection George Milton uses in his speech and his covering of the gun.

Narrative – What Makes a Narrative?

Summary: Narrative structures are in part social/political conventions. What we find intellectually convincing and emotionally satisfying depends on pre-existing narrative conventions. It is now customary to refer to pre-existing narrative conventions as metanarratives and as “new” narratives as but pale reflections of these metanarratives. But this distinction can be overworked. Because every narrative refers to pre-existing narratives, every narrative is also a commentary on these pre-existing narratives, redirecting it to form new aspects of the pre-existing metanarratives. Narratives can, therefore, fulfill important social/political functions and often deal with transcendental questions because transcendental questions (the workings of God in the world, the nature of love, the true nature of various virtues, the nature of reward and punishment) are intrinsic to narrative formation.


Hollywood film narratives follow an explicit structure: the film consists of 3 “acts” or segments that contain prescribed elements. In Act I, the protagonist encounters some problem or dilemma that requires some action or decision. In Act II, the protagonist follows his course of action and fully engages the problem. Difficulties are encountered, deepening the problem, and requiring a further commitment by the protagonist. The protagonist engages the antagonist during this phase. In Act III, the full force of all the actions and decisions made by the protagonist come to fruition. The plot inexorably moves toward a final moment in which the success or failure of the hero hangs in the balance, on the basis of some final decision or action. Finally, the action reaches a climax and the narrative follows with a short section during which the elements of the narrative are resolved and consolidated.

Aristotle gave us much of this fundamental structure, and his text is still used today in film schools. Aristotle argued that specific elements of narrative that he discerned in Greek drama were essential for its cathartic power.

The Wizard of Oz Act I: Dorothy has conflicting feelings about life at home. Although she partly understands that people love and care for her, she is lonely and wants to leave on an adventure. She gets the chance when a hurricane deposits her in a strange land.
Act II: Dorothy decides to follow the Yellow Brick Road. She encounters difficulties in reaching Oz. When she reaches Oz, she discovers the Wizard cannot help her unless she kills the Witch.
Act III: Dorothy decides to try to kill the Witch. After many difficulties, she succeeds. Shortly thereafter, she returns home where she learns that indeed everyone cares for her and “there is no place like home.”
Reflections on transcendental questions and metanarratives: Is there another realm in which everything is pleasant and evil does not exist? No. Even in Oz, it is necessary to fight evil. What is the nature of such virtues as kindness and courage? They are inner strengths we may not be aware that we already possess and they can be developed through facing personal trials and learning obey one’s better instincts.

Draft….in progress

Character – Are there Rules for Character?


Aristotle argues that the protagonist in the best dramas (tragedies) must have flaws — or such is the generally received opinion about what Aristotle is supposed to have argued. In any event, these “flaws” result in the character’s undoing, i.e., result in a tragic ending. Since most popular films are comedies — meaning that the character triumphs over adversity — interest in the character and in the narrative can be best sustained by having characters with flaws who are nonetheless successful.


The overwhelming majority of popular films are comedies. As defined in the classical sense, a comedy is simply a narrative in which the protagonist succeeds in some worthy goal. Dante’s Divine Comedy is often cited as the archetype for a comedic story. Thus, many contemporary films classified as dramas — those which are in no sense humorous — can be classified as comedies if the protagonist is ultimately successful. Frequently, however, there are strong, sometimes overpowering, elements of tragedy in film dramas. These tragic elements sometimes involve the suffering or death of a secondary character. In some cases, the protagonist dies and another character, who embodies the protagonist’s life force, lives on; this is a way of providing both tragic and comedic elements.

The above considerations apply to the overall structure of the narrative. How, then, do these relate to character? Characters must be complex in order to support both comedic and tragic elements of the narrative. They must have virtues that enable survival and flourishing in the story in which they are found, but also flaws that provide an undercurrent of tension.

The balance of virtues and flaws provides the ground for what screenwriters call “inner conflict” which should be reflected in the outer conflict in the story.

This allows partial identification with the character and allows the viewer to make moral judgments that may differ from those of the protagonist.

This provides the basis for extending Aristotle’s ideas somewhat by giving them a modern, psychological flavor. See the node on the Shadow Self.


Action films are a good example of this. In Rocky, the protagonist has both virtues and vices, but lacks self-respect; he must resolve the inner conflict through the outer conflict of participating in an unwinnable contest. In Die Hard, the protagonist has great physical skills (as well as impossible luck) but suffers from estrangement from his wife; the outer conflict reflects inner conflict.

Cool Hand Luke is an example of the death of the protagonist, followed by his ultimate success through the survival of his life force in a disciple.

Draft….in progress.

Universe – A Parallel Universe?


In order to be satisfying, Narratives must simultaneously conform to and challenge our expectations of ultimate social, political, psychological, and metaphysical conditions that are thought to structure our world. Narratives are a sort of parallel universe into which one may enter through willing suspension of disbelief, in order to address the conditions that in fact structure our world.

Some Postmodernists assert that there a master narrative underlying most modern narratives, and that this master narrative is either evil or suspect. While the Postmodern view is correct in holding that metanarratives underlie narratives, it mistakes metanarrative for master narrative. It does not follow that metanarratives are master narratives or that they are either suspect or evil.

In order to question their metanarratives, films can question their own narrative devices and conventions, and challenge the viewer to assume a second-order awareness. This is sometimes done, as in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Yet, even the simplest films for mass entertainment posit a parallel universe, a lens through which the viewer can judge and experience the “real” world once the lights go back on. And, in the spirit of Aristotle rather than Plato, one can hope to learn in the process.

Draft…to be continued…an issue that must be covered here is the logical consistency and believability of the alternative universes posited by popular films, particularly in science fiction.

Aesthetic – Does the Aesthetic Response Exist?


Is a work of art more than the sum of its parts? Is there, in addition to the intellectual comprehension of the narrative and the psychological process of identification, a separate sort of human response to art that we may call the aesthetic response? Kant seems to have thought so. And empirically, there are some works of art that have a profound impact on us.


Many have argued that film is the greatest art form because it is the most thoroughly absorbing. But it can be objected that 1)verbal narrative can actually diminish the impact of visual art; 2)the ability of a medium to absorb a subject is not itself a measure of aesthetic quality; 3)there is no transcendental aesthetic response –our reactions to “art” is merely a function of temporary and contingent social/psychological conditioning.

Perhaps not enough time has gone by to determine whether films count as lasting aesthetic creations or merely temporary historically conditioned narratives that will be forgotten.

Draft…in progress.

Self? – The Shadow Self

Aristotle argues that the reason the tragic hero is important is because we can learn from him. This fits with Aristotle’s dictum that “all men by nature desire to know.” Hence, Aristotle’s view (as well as our contemporary view) appears to be that popular media do fulfill an epistemic function.

We learn from the tragic hero because although he is better than the average person, he has a tragic flaw that causes his downfall and also makes it easier for us to see how we are like him. We can identify with the character and so learn from him how to deal with obstacles and our own flaws. Aristotle uses the example of Odysseus.

Contemporary cinema uses many sorts of heroes and usually takes the form of comedy (success) rather than tragedy. However, the process of identification is still much the same.

To objectify this process and give it a name, we call it the Shadow Self.

Through the Shadow Self, the world of illusion becomes a window through which reality may be perceived.

….in progress.

Narrative? – The Shadow Narrative

NOTE: Can the Shadow Narrative override, rewrite, obscure, dominate actuality?

After the publicity he received from surviving attempted murder, Andy Warhol remarked that it is not as though film is a less involving, less emotionally compelling version of reality. Rather, reality seems like a less compelling more emotionally distant version of a movie.


Film is like consciousness in that it can instantly transport the subject to any imagined place or time. An imagined place or time is a narrative structure in consciousness, shadowing the functions and narrative structure of consciousness in the world of actualities. So, in watching a film, one replicates the structure of consciousness in the imagination — but (oddly) it does so in the space of the actual world — an actual theater that replicates the “theater of the mind.”

When one enters that world (by accepting it a narrative structure for consciousness, for consciousness), one creates a shadow narrative that is (momentarily) more compelling than that of actuality. The fact that one is merely viewing unreal events is displaced, as Coleridge remarked, by willing suspension of disbelief. It is through this act that learning can take place at little risk to the actual self. The Shadow Self, participating in the Shadow Narrative, takes the risks and participates in the actions.

in progress…


Lifeboat – Film Genius without Spectacle

This tour de force gives the auteur theory meaning. The visual art of this film spells “Intellectual European Auteur” — one would never guess “Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense.” This is a masterpiece of film art, which demonstrates how brilliant direction can give a superb script additional force.  Unlike so many current Hollywood productions that concentrate on spectacle (one of Aristotle’s “essential” elements of drama), this film concentrates on creating a psychological space that provides a context for a profound meditation on war, faith, the nature of evil, and the brevity of human life.

Lifeboat Image

A torpedoed ship during the WWII leaves only a few passengers alive in a lifeboat. A German soldier is also saved, but two of the passengers suspect the German is actually captain of the submarine that sank their ship. Here the two conspire to find out the identity of the German.
Lifeboat image

The captain responds brightly to “Herr Capitan,” thus revealing his identity.

Lifeboat image

William Bendix, in a great performance, plays the part of a well-meaning, but ill-educated “common man” who symbolizes the victims of Nazi brutality. Clearly suspicious in this shot. Every shot in the film is carefully composed to demonstrate what characters are thinking and feeling as well as to indicate thematic context.
Lifeboat image

Who would think that a “glamour shot” would make its appearance in a lifeboat? Here, we see Connie Porter (Talulah Bankhead) become the object of desire for Stanley Garett (Hume Cronyn). The soft focus glamour shot transforms the psychological space for both the characters and the audience.
Lifeboat image

At the climax of the film, there is a moment of decision. Note the forward leaning and expression of the character on the right, who precipitates the group’s action.

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Mistakes in Film Criticism

1. THE AUTEUR THEORY. An idea popularized some decades ago by French intellectuals — basically, the idea that the meanings of films can be derived from their original intent, and this intent is controlled and manifested by the director of the film. The most often cited example is Hitchcock, who transformed “B” pictures into great works of art reflecting his own view of the universe. A more recent example: Tim Burton turned Pee Wee’s Big Adventure into something quite a bit more than a mindless kid’s movie. Hollywood and the general public continue to believe the auteur theory. Directors who do a surprising job with mediocre material (e.g., as Dennis Hopper did with Easy Rider) are often rewarded with more ambitious projects. The director’s reputation is sometimes a factor in getting the public to see films that might otherwise be ignored (e.g., Steven Soderbergh’s remake of Oceans 11 or Ang Lee’s Hulk).

The problem with the Auteur Theory is that it simplistic. While it is undeniable that the great directors leave an indelible stamp on their pictures, their input is only one of many factors that contribute to a great film. (See Aristotle’s list of elements in drama, elsewhere on these pages.) Most frequently overlooked is an obvious factor: the script. While the industry, and most film critics, have recognized the role of directors, screenwriters have been virtually ignored. The Screenwriters Guild went on strike over the issue. The strike (1999 or 2000?) lasted until the industry finally gave in to demands for increased public recognition of writers’ creative role in the production of films. During the strike, a member of the guild appeared on the TODAY SHOW. He said that we are in a culture that celebrates actors in stories rather than the creators of stories — and he implied (quite correctly) that there is something fundamentally wrong with this.

Directors do not (in their role as directors) create the basic narrative. Their role is more akin to that of a musician who plays and interprets a composition. By “basic narrative,” I mean the linguistic narrative. Defenders of the auteur theory might argue that film is essentially a visual narrative, and since the director controls the visual interpretation of the script, the director becomes the “author” of the finished product by default. First of all, any visual interpretation, while it can embellish (or even be at odds with) the series of events depicted does not itself constitute a new and independent narrative. The script, not the images associated with it, contains the essentials of the moral life posited by the characters. In my view (again, just following Aristotle), the structure of the plot, and the moral choices of the characters in the plot comprise the most important messages of a film. Second, as I (and many other philosophers) have argued elsewhere, the concept of a purely visual narrative simply does not hold water. Images have no meaning in an of themselves. They are given the potential for meaning by a narrative or story structure. Unless the director also writes the script, there is only a limited sense in which he is the auteur of the story.

One can respond, I think, to my comments above as follows. This is not the auteur theory at all. What we mean by the auteur theory is that the director transforms a written script into a visual language and creates a new level of meaning over and above the original narrative. And this is what is both interesting and creative about the role of the director in a film.

A response to this objection: True, a director can do these things. And in some cases, the role of the director, and the new levels of meaning introduced are the most important elements of the film. The works of many of the great directors (Ford, Welles, Hitchcock, etc.) usually cited as auteurs demonstrate this. But is it true in every case? Is this the only factor we need to look at? Do we need to get inside the director’s mind rather than the writer’s mind to understand a film? My objection to the auteur theory is not that directors cannot or do not introduce new levels of meaning, but that (1) this theory cannot serve as the only tool for criticism; (2) the fundamental moral meaning of a film derives from its script; and (3) the messages delivered by films are not essentially visual — rather, the messages delivered are due to a complex of factors (again, see Aristotle’s list of elements in drama) over which the director exerts only limited control.

2. THE THEORY THEORY. This is the idea that some specific perspective, generally one founded on some scientific, cultural, religious, sociological, moral, or intellectual ideology, is required for the correct criticism of all cultural manifestations expressed through the arts. The auteur theory (above) is similar in that it demands a certain perspective, but the theory theories are grander in scale. They are derivative of some total theory — one that purports to encompass virtually every aspect of social and political life. Examples include Marxist theory, radical Feminism, or any of the myriad other similarly inspired approaches. All these share a common thread: they posit that all cultural events, especially the productions of popular media for mass culture, are essentially a form of conspiracy to control the shape of human development in according to a some (evil) master plan, and it is the duty of the critic to expose this plan in order that cultural enlightenment will be brought about (according to the critics own vision of the good).

Such theories, in so far as they are applied to criticism of the arts, suffer from several flaws. First, like the auteur theory, they are simplistic. Theory-driven critics tend to lament the fact that popular media simply supports the prejudices of the status quo. It is, of course, true that the productions of mass media reflect the norms of the culture. But it is, in a sense, trivially true. What should we expect from popular media? Surely not anything that essentially calls into question all the presuppositions and prejudices that are built into the culture in which it exists! Cultures, and the popular media that run through them, generally seek some sort of stability; they do not try to commit intellectual suicide by trivializing or renouncing the values that they hold sacred.

Second, the theory-driven critic tends to become a soldier in a cultural war rather than a critic of the arts. Theory-driven critics are right to point out that evil cultures produce popular entertainment to support their value systems. After all, Nazi Germany produced films to support its agenda. This, however, is not the point of criticism of the arts. We can distinguish between propaganda and cultural artifacts (artistic productions) that exemplify both cultural and universal truths. The theory-driven critic tends to regard all popular media as propaganda — and he tends to pit his own vision of what reality should be against that propaganda.

Third, criticism driven by grand theories tends to develop its own “principles” of criticism, based on its own version of what would be best, according to the utopian vision of the critic. For example: “this image does not support the liberation of workers,” “this image retains the aura of a male-dominated society,” and so on. Eventually, these principles become so flexible that they evaporate into an empty repetition of formulas. Examples: Freudian psychoanalytic principles as an explanation of every form of human behavior; feminist principles as an explanation for every moment depicted in every film.

When “complete” critical theories are applied, they tend to subvert an authentic search for the good, the true, and the universal that may be embodied in the productions of popular media.

3. THE NO THEORY THEORY. The fall-back position from the theory theory is to take a diametrically opposed view. The “no theory” advocates say that finding the “correct” theory of criticism is not the problem. They assert there can be no “correct” theory because the concepts which underlie theory construction are flawed or outdated. The no theory advocates question (1)any type of universal theory of interpretation, (2) the idea that there are specific, original, or authoritative meanings to be uncovered by criticism, and even (3) the concept of truth itself. According to this line of reasoning, the idea that films (among the many other human productions that can be interpreted) actually have a meaning is false. A version of the no theory theory is reflected in an interesting article by Jo Smith. She states: “There is no lack or absence in a filmic encounter, no hidden meaning to be unearthed, no abstract body of knowledge to reach for to re-insert a meaning.”

The no theory theory is inherent in Postmodernism, which asserts that we should acknowledge the “death of the author” because readers (or spectators), conditioned as they are by pre-existing meta-narratives that define their social, political, and intellectual horizons, clearly contribute just as much in the production of meaning as the reputed “source” of meaning, the author. Postmodernism capitalizes on the contemporary fear of “totalizing influences,” that is, of meta-narratives that control our thinking. I believe this view, while it has the benefit of making us conscious of our preconceptions, simply ignores the structure of the creative process in contemporary story writing, which follows well-known principles. One may question those principles, of course — but that is hardly the main job that needs to be done when one is intellectually engaged in appreciating a film. One does not need to question the rules of sonnet making when one reads and interprets a sonnet. The no theory theorists, are, perhaps, more in the right than the auteur theorists in recognizing that except in very rare cases there is no single author of a film, and they are right to caution us against over-reliance on conventional methods of interpretation. But by attempting to abolish truth and meaning they leave little in the way of possibilities for critical response other than a form of free-association with images and text. Furthermore, there seems to be a confusion in the no theory theory between having many levels of meaning and no meaning at all. To say that a sonnet has many meanings is not to say that it has no meaning, nor is it to exclude the possibility that some meanings gleaned through interpretation are better than others. Finally, the postmodern approach, in my view, is a kind of defeatism. It implies that we should give up searching for truths about the human dilemma that are expressed through art — or, worse, it implies that we should substitute our own “truth” for that of the artist’s. For additional arguments against the postmodern or no theory approach in the arts, see A. D. Coleman’s article on Cindy Sherman.

4. CONFUSING STORY CONTEXT WITH THEME. The story context of Forrest Gump is “a slow-witted man makes his way in the world.” The theme of the film, on the other hand, is a profound metaphysical issue: do we live in a world guided by chance or does God’s grace influence or control certain events? Do we live in an uncaring, mechanical universe, or is there something more complicated involved? The theme is introduced at the beginning of the film as a feather floats through the air (obeying chance and the laws of physics) and finally lands (by chance?) near the hero. Many people, even professional critics, mistake what is immediately presented (the action, setting, or context) for the theme or message of the film. Some critics, for example, objected to Forrest Gump as “a celebration of stupidity.” Such criticisms clearly miss the point. We can make the distinction another way: at one level in any narrative, there is a storyline or setting; at another, there is what the author is writing about at the deepest level – his theme. The setting of The Iliad is the Trojan War, but the poem is not about the Trojan war per se. The poet uses the context of the war to address his themes: the consequences of uncontrolled anger, the folly of human pride and jealousy, and the involvement of the gods in human affairs. Similarly, Dirty Harry is the story of a cop who steps outside the law in order to track down a psychopathic killer, but one of the themes concerns justice in general: can we trust our system (or God) to bring people to justice? Now, one may argue that the vehicle chosen by an author is inappropriate to the theme. Hence, some people may think that both The Iliad and Dirty Harry seem more like celebrations of violence than serious treatments of important themes. But this is a different sort of aesthetic judgment, and it cannot take place until we have at least first attempted to differentiate story context from theme.

5. “POLITICAL” THINKING. A professor at Columbia University once informed the class that Rising Sun was a racist, politically-motivated film. The professor had not seen the film, nor had any members of the class. This fact stopped no one from passing judgment. The entire class agreed the film was racist. There should be, the professor went on to say, a review panel that would check the “messages” of any film before it was released. This “classroom moment” should have been televised: it might have later been enshrined as a defining moment for political correctness. Plainly, this brand of PC revealed itself as the worst sort of absolutism, with a strong attraction for people interested in obtaining moral and intellectual domination through mind control and social engineering.

This warped political consciousness is the foundation of one of the most pervasive styles of criticism in the United States. Examples abound: “this film carries the wrong message for contemporary women,” ” this film depicts black Americans in a negative light,” “this film glorifies violence,” and so on. Indeed, for some, how a film depicts blacks, women, or gays is the essential litmus test of the “quality” of a film. In any given case, such critical comments may, in fact, have some merit, but if that is the end of the analysis, then it is a mistake. One must first do justice to the essential questions relevant to the analysis of narratives:

1. What is the nature of the human character development (regardless of race or gender) that takes place in the film?

2. What is the nature of the conflict between good and evil?

3. Was the protagonist correctly motivated?

4. What did the protagonist learn as a result of his struggle?

5. What happens in the subplot? (As far as the message of the film goes, this may be more important than the plot.)

6. What universal themes are at issue?

These, among others, are questions essential to answer before one can begin to interpret the political messages that may be contained in a film.

6. EMOTIONALISM.“I liked it.” “It made me laugh.” It made me cry.” These and other similar reports on how a movie made us feel are sometimes mistaken for criticism. But reporting one’s emotions is not the same sort of activity as reflectively judging the overall quality of an artistic production. Critical, reflective, activity is always at one remove from emotional involvement. Of course, how an artistic production makes us feel is an essential part of criticism, but it must be part of other considerations. It is perfectly possible, for instance, to accept that a film has profound emotional impact (because, for instance, of powerful imagery or the sentimental nature of the story), but judge that the film is not, overall, a good film (because of lack of nuance, poor acting, predictable story, etc.). On the other hand, a film might lack emotional impact, but still be a very good film in most other respects. Confusing these issues is, perhaps, a less common mistake than others.

7. ELITISM. There is, for some people, a temptation to believe that whatever the hoi poli enjoy and endorse should not be enjoyed or endorsed by a “certain class” of people. So, for example, some people judge European films as invariably better than American films — simply because (so they believe) such films are not produced for a mass market, but are specifically intended for intellectuals. This attitude overlooks several important features of popular media, and of American films in particular. Many (if not most) great works of art have always been, and continue to be, produced with the intent of creating popular (as opposed to “class targeted”) art. In particular, the narrative arts are usually intended to be appreciated on many levels, by every “class”(Shakespeare, anyone?). While European “art” films that make it to this country often appear (on the surface) to be more intellectually sophisticated, it is not true, as a rule, that popular American films are always less sophisticated (and therefore for a lower “class”). The apparent differences in sophistication between American and European art films is often more a matter of how the films present their themes. The intellectual issues addressed in the themes of American films are usually covered over by more tangible elements that tend to increase audience involvement, such exciting plots, grand spectacles, or convincing demonstrations of the techniques of method acting. For those who wish to make the effort of analyzing the deeper layers of meaning present in many American films, there is plenty of material to satisfy the intellectual. The Auteur theorists, to their credit, accepted this truth and developed many techniques for the appropriate analysis of American films.