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Anatomy of Tragedy #6: Modern Film

written by the Judge


A more ‘proper’ study of these genres would have seen me writing about tragedy and comedy simultaneously, drawing examples from each in turn and constructing a single argument for both. In reality, though structurally very close, tragedy and comedy are historically so distant that they are best studied separately.

My choice was to focus on tragedy because it is, by and large, an easier subject. Since tragedy has always been identified as ‘high’ culture, even by Aristotle, dramatic traditions have generally striven for greater and greater purity of the genre. Playwrights were interested in writing true, classical, eternal tragedies. Comedy, by contrast, has always been seen as a ‘low’ genre – and it does not help that Aristotle’s book on comedy should have been lost, resulting in a millenarian scholarly slant in favour of tragedy (famously fictionalised by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose). As a consequence, writers of comedies have liberally moved away from – rather than towards – formal purity. Classical plot structures have been sacrificed in favour of (or contaminated by) contingent humour, slapstick and vulgarity. The precept was, and still is, to use anything in order to please the immediate crowds, rather than the eternal reader.

Modern film reflects the disparity in the historical fortune of tragedy and comedy very well. Modern comedies, in particular family and romantic comedies, are usually classical in their format. Family comedies have a hero, typically a father who is somewhat foolish, irresponsible or down on his luck, and an anti-hero, some bad guy who represents a corporation or another collective group. Once the interests of these two characters collide, the hero ‘finds himself’ and is reconciled with his family (sometimes, by metonymic extension, he gains the admiration of an even wider group, like having all of his friends or colleagues applauding him), while the anti-hero is deprived of his power or status. In love stories, the structure is not dissimilar, though the triangles are a little different – instead of the father who must reconcile himself with the family, we may have a single girl who must get together with the ‘right’ guy, and who succeeds in doing so as she overcomes a number of obstacles in the form of nefarious social pressure: other guys trying to seduce her, her family opposing her, her career choices clashing with the sentimental ones, and so on.

There are many other types of comedy in film, some of which are utterly modern and have nothing to do with the ancients. Certain unbridled comedies along the lines of the Naked Gunor Scary Movie series are little more than a string of all sorts of gags, held together by a pretext narrative. The old Disney and Warner Bros cartoons are entirely based on visual slapstick and they all have the same story (a morality tale in which the bully gets punished, whether his form be that of a cat, a coyote, a duck or whatever else), or else they have no story at all – some of them simply stage an isolated episode in which a character or a group of characters are doing something (examples include building a ship, trying to put out a fire, cleaning a car, taking a train, skating on ice, and many more). Artists such as the Monty Python group have developed entire feature-length films which are based on an absurd type of humour which has nothing to do with classical comedy. Indeed, comedy has genuinely exploded in the last century, as the classical format has established itself and been taken to new heights, while new modes and genres have developed alongside it (I say this with the qualifier that a great deal of comedy from the past has simply not survived – for all we know there might well have been such a thing as an equivalent of the Naked Gun films in Classical Athens, but one understands why they may not have been recorded for posterity).

On the other hand, tragedies have not flourished at all in cinema. There are some genuine representatives of the genre, but they are few and far between. The only ones I can think of are Coppola’s first two Godfather movies, De Palma’s Scarface, Woody Allen’s Match Point, and George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith (the latter being quite possibly the most dreadfully written tragedy in recorded history). Other than that, there is no such thing as an established tragic genre in cinema. The movies that we file under the official genre of ‘Drama’, from Spielberg’s Schindler’s List to Mendes’ American Beauty, are works of considerable merit and undeniable moving power, but they have nothing to do with tragedies. If anything, they are closer in form to the novel, a story-telling mode in which signifiers of the I and the O are used freely, without being organised into coherent structures. This is true even of films that stage apparently ‘tragic’ plots, like Scott’s Thelma & Louise, which is not a tragedy for the simple reason that the death of the two heroines is an act of ultimate affirmation, not one of surrender.

The only time that something like an incipient tragic tradition developed in cinema was in the 1940s, when the genre of film noir made its appearance in America. These dark brooding films consistently play around with tropes belonging to classical tragedy (broken dreams, forbidden love, inevitability, violation of the law, murder of kin), and a drive towards reviving the old dramatic tradition – whether deliberate or not – can be read everywhere. A few of the films are successful in executing the tragic effect, such as Billy Wilder’s unforgettable Double Indemnity, which is as impeccably tragic as anything by Shakespeare. Most of the others start out by establishing a tragic premise, but they abort it halfway, or are simply unable to sustain the tension between Achilles and the sea over the complicated structure of a feature-length film. The decline of film noir after less than a couple of decades meant that the genre never had the time to evolve into a real continuity – so that North America does not (yet) have its own tragic tradition the way that the European countries do. There have been attempts at reviving or simply referencing film noir, but even when the results were gorgeous (one film to bind them all – Scott’s Blade Runner) the elements that were reproduced were those of lighting, frame, character or tone. In other words, it was always primarily a visualrevival. The tragic tension that characterised these early films has been all but forgotten.

This cross-contamination of genres in cinema is in fact a good thing; it allows for an enormous variety and freedom of expression. But it does mean, at least for now, the death of tragedy, in a way which even George Steiner (author of a book called Death of Tragedy) would not have anticipated.

A coda to wrap it all up next week and then we’re done, ladies and gents!

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