Aristotle Goes To Hollywood 11-06-09

Uploaded by gonzagau on 19.05.2010

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>> I would like to welcome you to the second lecture, in this,
our third annual Faith Film & Philosophy public
lecture series.
I'm grateful for the support, financial and otherwise,
of Dr. Thayne McCulloh, the interim president
of Gonzaga University, Dr. Dale Soden,
director of Whitworth's Weyerhaeuser Center
for Christian Faith and Learning.
Is Dale here?
Raise your hand, please, Dale.
Thank you.
My counterpart out at Whitworth.
And the many friends and supporters
of the institute have made possible this event.
I would like to express publicly my thanks
to Dr. Richard McClelland, my philosophy department colleague
who has gone above and beyond the expectations
of ordinary collegiality in his contributions
to this week's activity.
Finally, I would like offer very public and heartfelt thanks
to Ms. Margaret Rankin who is the Faith
and Reason Institute program coordinator
and without whom the many details associated
with this event would have been neglected.
Thank you, Margaret.
I wish also to acknowledge the presence of a number
of distinguished scholars from across the country and indeed,
from around the world who [inaudible].
These scholars are here to participate in a seminar
in which we share our mutual enthusiasm for movies
and for philosophical reflection on this art form in the context
of the concerns of faith.
Among our guests is Dr. Roy Anker, who spoke last evening
at Whitworth University
on Terrence Malick's film, The Thin Red Line.
These public talks and the seminar are part
of an initiative that the Faith and Reason Institute
and Weyerhaeuser Center have undertaken
to explore the intersection of faith,
reason, and popular culture.
It is our conviction that Christian institutions
of higher learning such as Gonzaga must engage popular
culture if they are to respond properly to their charge
to be places where faith seeks understanding.
Our speaker this evening is Dr. Dan McInerny, who comes to us
from Baylor University where he is associate professor
of philosophy in the Great Texts program in the honors college.
Doctor McInerny earned his undergraduate degree in English
at the University of Notre Dame and his master's
and doctorate degrees in philosophy
from the Catholic University of America.
His doctoral dissertation was entitled "The Place of Luck
in Ethics and Aristotelian approach."
And he has published and edited numerous works [inaudible]
matters from the perspective both of Aristotle and of
that great Christian Aristotelian,
St. Thomas Aquinas.
Dr. McInerny continues his reflections on Aristotle
and the Aristotelian tradition
in tonight's lecture entitled Aristotle Goes Hollywood:
Popular Film and Moral Persuasion.
Please join me in welcoming Dr. Dan McInerny.
[ Applause ]
>> Dan McInerny: Thank you, Brian, appreciate it.
I should turn this off.
Is that good.
Well, thank you, thank you all and thank you, Brian,
for that very generous introduction.
I'm very pleased to be with you all here this evening.
I want to that Brian and Dale, my hosts for this evening,
my colleagues who are participating the seminar
that went on all day today and will go on all day tomorrow
on Faith, Film, and Philosophy.
Thank you for the invitation and the opportunity
to be here with you tonight.
It's really a special pleasure.
And I'm very excited to see all the students
who are here tonight.
This is the art form, really, of all our culture but perhaps
in a special way of the young.
And I hope to say some things tonight
that will help you reflect on an art form that we're all immersed
in all the time and in a more deeper way,
at least that's my aim.
So let me start with an outrageous claim,
probably the first of many outrages tonight, and it's this:
if there is any place in popular culture
where not just the thought but the actual text
of Aristotle plays an explicit role in practice,
it is ironically enough in Hollywood.
Now, I know that those living, teaching in universities
such as Gonzaga, especially one
that has a rich liberal arts tradition would want to contend
with that claim and I think they would have good reasons
to do so.
But forgive me, let me just be outrageous --
at least the university aside, liberal arts education aside --
if there is any pocket in American culture
where Aristotle is playing an explicit role,
it's in Hollywood.
Now why do I say that?
Well, it's because professional writers,
professional screen writers in particular,
are turning to Aristotle's work for inspiration.
So let me give you a little sense of who I have in mind.
What you see up on the slide are some covers from some
of the best-known screen writing manuals around today.
Probably perhaps the best known
up the upper left-hand corner is Siegfield's screenplay,
rivaled perhaps only [inaudible] McKee's Story.
But we have also two Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey
and Linda Seger's -- well, her whole corpus
but perhaps especially Advanced Screenwriting.
All of these screenwriting manuals sometimes very
explicitly refer to Aristotle, most particularly,
his work, The Poetics.
If they don't refer to Aristotle explicitly by name,
they're referring to ideas, mostly his sense
of what these writers call his three-act structure,
which is not a phrase that Aristotle ever quite uses.
But they're drawing it from Aristotle.
Sometimes they refer to the ancient Greeks, right?
But it's Aristotle that they have in mind.
And this is interesting.
But I'm not evening mentioning perhaps two
of the most interesting screenwriting manuals
around today -- Michael Tierno's Aristotle's Poetics
for Screenwriters and Ari Hiltunen's Aristotle
in Hollywood, perhaps especially Michael Tierno's work
goes into the most depth into Aristotle's text
and in a pretty thoughtful way.
I'm not saying that any of these writers
of screenwriting manuals are doing hard-core scholarly work
into Aristotle's text but they are surprisingly thoughtful
in what they have to say about Aristotle.
And they surprise you in other ways as well.
It's Michael Tierno that says that Aristotle was, in fact,
the first movie story analyst: he gave us the first set
of tools in which to understand what makes for a good story
and screenwriters can learn a lot from him.
And that's what I want to explore with you tonight.
It's interesting to think, though, why there is
such an affinity between screenwriters in Hollywood
and an ancient Greek philosopher living and writing
in the fourth century B.C. There's a cultural reason,
perhaps, for that because there's such an affinity
between the Hollywood movie
and the Greek tragedy, culturally speaking.
And this connection has been brought out in a little-known
but I think wonderful book by a philosopher --
many you have perhaps have heard of Mortimer J. Adler.
This is a book called Art and Prudence that I just kind
of stumbled on in the last month or two.
It's a title I had seen around.
It's a big fat tome.
And I just never really got into it before and when I did,
I was very surprised to see that what it is, it's about 500
to 600 pages of Aristotelian analysis
into the movies written in 1937.
This was two years before the big year of 1939,
which gave us The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind,
and Wuthering Heights.
This was before.
I mean, he must have been writing it in the mid-30s.
It's a fascinating, relentlessly Aristotelian look
at what the movies are as an art form
but also morally and politically.
In any event, it was Adler who was making this connection
between the role that the movies play
in American 20th century culture and the role
that Greek tragedy played in ancient Athenian culture.
And the connection he wanted
to make was they're both a very democratic art form.
They appeal to a heterogeneous audience, both the high
and the low cultured alike.
Adler went onto say, "The motion picture theater is the theater
of democracy.
And the motion picture is its most popular poetry."
You can say the same, perhaps about tragedy.
That's a cultural connection.
But I also think that the screenwriters writing the
manuals are also seeing
in Aristotle something that's true, right?
And I think it's because they're professional writers
and they're really engaged in the craft
of writing real screenplays that they have an insight
into what Aristotle is doing that is special.
Their instinct is right; it doesn't always go very deep
in a scholarly way but there's an intuition
that this is a guy that's on our wavelength.
I think that intuition is right.
And I think they have some rich things to say
and that's what I want to bring forward tonight.
But also, I want to deepen their reflection.
I want to appreciate it but I want to push it even more
because I think if we push them a little harder
on what can be learned from Aristotle,
we can appreciate what the movies do,
especially very popular Hollywood movies do even more.
And I think we can understand them even more as works --
essentially works -- of moral transformation.
The story I want to tell has this thesis:
the Hollywood movie is popular
because it gives us an extraordinarily heightened,
attractive, and persuasive moving picture of the only good
that can satisfy our heart's desire.
That's what I want to argue here tonight.
The story I want to tell will take place in three acts.
And in the first act, we're going to think
about what exactly a screenwriter does when he sits
down to write a story.
And so a lot of what I want to do
in this very first part is talk about the mechanics
of writing a screenplay.
And we might think, "Well, what does that have to do
with moral transformation?"
Well, as we go deeper into the talk in the second
and third parts, I want to make this kind of claim:
that the very structure of a movie, the very structure
of a Hollywood screenplay is inherently a moral argument.
So what will seem as just a talk about a lot of technical stuff
about writing actually has an essential moral dimension.
So let's go ahead and plunge in.
The first act: the long, lost secret of the Incas.
What is the long, lost secret of the Incas?
It comes down to three questions that every screenwriter has
to relentlessly ask him or herself on every page
of the screenplay: who wants what from whom, what happens
if they don't get it, and why now?
I get the long lost secret of the Incas from the playwright,
director, and screenwriter David Mamet who wrote another --
it's not quite a screenwriting manual but a book on Hollywood,
charmingly titled Bambi versus Godzilla on the nature,
purpose, and practice of the movie business.
It's an exercise in vitriol.
It's a very funny and insightful book about the movies.
And he has several chapters in there
about what makes a screenplay tick.
And a very short chapter a couple pages long is What Makes
for a Good Screenplay?
And he says, "Keeping your eye on the long lost secret
of the Incas, those three questions.
If you can do that, you can tell a story."
Mamet goes on.
He says, "The filmed drama, as any drama,
is a succession of scenes.
Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit
of his goals so that he is forced to go
on to the next scene to get what he wants.
He is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants.
And if he is forced, the audience,
watching his progress" -- and I underscore --
"wonders with him how he will fare in the upcoming scene
at film is essentially a progression of scenes."
Lose focus on the readers or the spectators,
wondering what will happen next
and the story's going to lose its punch.
So let's take a look at a few representative popular films
and ask our three main questions.
In Saving Private Ryan, who wants what from whom?
Well, Tom Hanks, playing -- is it Captain John Miller?
-- and his men, they need to find Private Ryan,
that's what they want and they need to find him right now
because if they don't find him right now, he may get killed
and they won't be able to return him home to his mother
who has already lost three sons in the war.
That's the movie in a nutshell.
Or the more recent Amazing Grace.
Who wants what from whom?
Well, British MP William Wilberforce,
he needs to end the slave trade in England.
And he needs to do it right now
because if he doesn't do it right now, well,
who knows how many hundreds of African slaves are going
to lose their rights, their dignity,
and perhaps even their lives?
Amazing Grace.
Star Wars.
Who wants what from whom?
Luke Skywalker, he needs to destroy the Death Star
and he needs to do it right now or else the empire will gobble
up everything that is good in the galaxy.
It's two-dimensional to boil movies down in this way.
But I think Mamet is right --
if you lose focus on that essential core
of what a movie is, you lose your movie.
Here's Mamet again, "As a writer your yets are high,
your evil inclination will do everything in its vast power
to dissuade you from asking these questions of your work.
You will tell yourself in order
to save a scene the questions are irrelevant
as the scene is interesting, meaningful,
revelatory of character, deeply felt, and so on,
all of which are synonyms for it stinks in ice."
[ Laughter ]
Steve Martin -- if you see Mamet's book and you look
on the blurbs on the back,
Steven Martin wrote a wonderful blurb, he said,
"This is a wonderful book, it's exciting.
I'm sure Mamet will find work in the future,
just not in the movie business."
He takes shots at everybody, that's wonderful.
All right.
Let's take a look at how all of this jibes
with the text of Aristotle.
Going to The Poetics, chapter seven.
Mamet and others are all drawing wittingly or not upon this text
in chapter seven of The Poetics
where Aristotle says this about tragedy,
in which I think we can extrapolate
into every fictional story: "We have posited tragedy
to be an imitation of complete
and whole action having some, magnitude.
What makes an action a whole?
What makes an imitated action a unity?
Simply it has a beginning, a middle, and an end."
Sounds trite but everything in what I want
to say tonight rides on that, right?
And it's because screenwriters are grabbing onto that thought
that I think it's so interesting what they're doing.
And that's what they refer to, I think, when they refer
to Aristotle's three-act structure when they refer
to "the beginning, the middle, and the end."
"Well-put-together stories," Aristotle goes on,
"ought neither to begin from just anywhere,
nor end just anywhere."
So where do they begin?
Let me go to explain that to Robert McKee, who we're going
to talk a lot about this evening,
wrote a very famous screenwriting manual published
in 1997 story.
He tries to capture Aristotle's thought in this way:
"A story's beginning is in its inciting incident.
This is incident at the beginning of the movie."
And it's fun to think about your favorite movies and try
to identify the inciting incident.
This is the incident that gives you the story
without which there would be no story.
This is the event that breaks into the mundane world
of the hero or the heroine that radically upsets the balance
of forces in the protagonist's life.
Perhaps in sentence one, page one, chapter one,
the story is just giving you "Once upon a time," right?
It's just giving you the world of the hero
or the heroine in its status quo.
But then something radically happens to upset
that world, "Then one day."
That's what you're looking for in a story is the
"then one day," or else you're going
to lose interest, nothing happens.
What's the inciting incident in Zach Helms' Stranger
Than Fiction -- came out a few years ago,
starring Will Ferrell?
Well, one day, Harold Crick,
Ferrell's character starts hearing a woman's voice
narrating -- in his head -- narrating his life.
So he's at the sink brushing his teeth in the morning
and the narrator is saying, "And so Harold Crick stood there
on Monday morning brushing his teeth," etc., right?
That's radically upsetting to his world.
We'll return to Harold Crick.
Galaxy Quest.
Rent it tonight.
What's the inciting incident in Galaxy Quest?
Real aliens come to the sci-fi convention.
Without that radical upsetting of the world
of our has been-T.V. actors, you don't have a story, right?
Oops, wrong button.
Well, I guess I did have to, okay.
So what we're beginning to see emerge here
with the inciting incident and the story being launched
from its beginning and into its middle is the logic
of the story.
From the inciting incident on,
the hero of the story identifies a central desire.
In fact, I think it's true to say
that even before the inciting incident, the hero's going
to have some central want, some central desire.
But what the inciting incident does is it raises the stakes,
And it creates a kind of crisis for the hero to see whether
or not he or she is really going to be able
to get his central want, right?
So Tim Allen's character in Galaxy Quest for example,
he doesn't want to be a has-been.
He knows he's a has-been.
He wants something more.
And so when the aliens really land,
what does that give him an opportunity to be?
It gives him an opportunity to be more,
to find some more meaning for his life.
So the [inaudible] of the hero toward his central want,
the sequence of events with the beginning, middle,
and end is held together by a special brand
of the fictional causality that Aristotle refers
to by the made-up expression, the hybrid expression
"probability and necessity."
This is very important.
Aristotle in the poetics distinguishing poetry
from history: history give us a particular fact; philosophy,
on the other extreme, gives us abstract concepts.
We want to think of stories
as giving us something kind of in-between.
And I think that's what Aristotle is trying to capture
by this strange kind
of fictional causality probability and necessity.
Because what a story does is tells you what will likely
happen to this sort of character encountering this sort
of problem, right?
Likely within the fictional world, right?
So it can be a wild sort of fictional world,
it can be the world of the The Matrix,
it can be a silly sci-fi world like Galaxy Quest
or it can be a very serious drama.
But there has to be a logical interior to that world
where the actions of the hero kind
of have plausibility to them.
But that plausibility, that likely mode
of acting, is not the same.
I mean, it takes us above the brute particulars
of the historical world but it doesn't take us way
into the abstractions
that philosophers are primarily concerned with, right?
It gives us something kind of in between history and philosophy.
It gives us something that will probably be the case.
And that probability is what works as the kind of glue
that hooks the sequences of scenes together
in a screenplay, right?
But a story is not held together just by that kind of causal glue
of probability and necessity --
that I don't think is quite enough to hold our attention.
We also need something that's marvelous, right?
Aristotle tells a little story in The Poetics
about the store of Mitys' statue.
There was a statue of a man named Mitys that happened
to topple down and fall on the very person
who killed Mitys, right?
So there was kind of a cosmic revenge.
And Aristotle reflects on that and he thinks,
"That in a way is what you want in a good story."
You want the marvelous, you want the uncanny like that, right?
You want aliens to show up at the sci-fi convention, right?
You want a little kid from an unknown corner of the galaxy
to lead the rebel forces against the Death Star, right?
You want Oedipus, looking for the source of the plague,
to be the very source himself, right?
You need the twist.
You need that which makes us wonder, right?
You get this most in a thriller or in a mystery.
You want to know whodunit.
You want to know what happens next.
You want the marvelous, right?
Right. So Aristotle's point about stories that plots work
in a similar fashion
by combining the marvelously unexpected
with a sense of inevitability.
So you have that plausibility likelihood that I was talking
about earlier but combined with marvelous.
You want the highly improbable probability
in a story, in short.
That paradox, I think, is what drives a story.
So here are our friends from Galaxy Quest, right?
Again, in one sense, it's wildly implausible
that aliens would land at the convention
and that they would take old episodes
of a sci-fi television show as historical documents --
widely implausible but within that world,
it makes a certain sense, right?
It's plausible, given the premises of this comic world.
So the plausibility isn't linked to actual fact;
it's linked to the world that the writer has created for us.
So here's a schema -- this is from Siegfield's screenplay
of the basic structure of a screenplay plot.
We've been talking lot about the beginning,
about the inciting incident, we've talked about the sequences
of the plot being held together by probability and necessity
but also by the sense of marvelous.
I want to say a quick word here, too, about what Field calls
"plot points" but other screenplay manualists refer
to as "turning points."
Here's Linda Seger.
What a turning point does -- and there's basically two of them,
two main ones in a story --
is it takes the story in a new direction and opens
up further explorations of theme and character and conflict.
It's not an arbitrary turn;
there has to be plausibility to it.
They must integrate with all story elements,
maintaining a story's inner logic again, while providing --
here's the marvelous -- while providing surprises and a sense
of organic movement from act to act.
See, there's a combination.
You need the surprise but you also need an organic movement.
It can't be a random surprise, right?
It has to make some sort of sense, like in the way
that Mitys' statue falling
on his murderer makes some sort of ironic sense.
I don't know if you didn't see the bottom, Seger goes onto say,
"A turning point implies the action that follows."
That's the causality moving it through, right?
So you have the first turning point at the end
of the first act where the hero's pursuit
of a central want pivots around an unforeseen circumstance.
Here it is right here, right?
Plot point one.
This is, again, different from the inciting incident
which gets the story going, right?
Pivots around an unforeseen marvelous circumstance
which forces a fresh decision choice
on the hero is imperative.
It's not that just something happens to the hero.
Something does happen unexpected but then the hero has
to make a choice -- a choice about that central want, right?
A choice to confront some obstacle, right?
Maybe the very nature of the central want is it transformed
in the first turning point.
They take different forms, right?
Again, it's fun to think of your favorite films and try
to identify the first turning point, right?
In Stranger Than Fiction it's the point where Harold Crick,
Will Ferrell's character, realizes that, "Okay,
I may be going crazy hearing this woman narrating in my head
but I have to try to figure it out."
So he goes to a literature professor,
played by Dustin Hoffman to try to get some insight
into what the story is that's being told in his head.
And the basic question is: is it a tragedy or a comedy?
And that becomes a central question.
The second turning point at the end
of the second act is really the same thing again
but raising the stakes even higher.
The hero must make a decision
which will ultimately compel him toward a confrontation
with the largest obstacle yet to his central want.
So the second turning point propels the hero
into the third act and toward that ultimate climax,
which is going to decide the question whether or not he
or she gets the central want.
Now again, I should have said at the beginning I'm not saying
that absolutely every Hollywood film conforms
to this structure; they don't.
But I think this is the conventional structure
that one finds in most --
though not all, certainly -- Hollywood films.
Okay. The second turning point, just for example
in Saving Private Ryan is the point
where they find Private Ryan.
But then we get an unforeseen circumstance -- a surprise.
What is it?
What is it?
Private Ryan doesn't want to go home, right?
He doesn't want to leave his buddies.
"Why him" is his question.
Why should he get to go home and be safe
when all his buddies are risking their lives
in the most important offensive of the war?
He doesn't want to go home.
So Tom Hanks and his men and Private Ryan,
they have to make a fresh decision about what to do
and they decide to stay in this little French town of Ramelle
and defend a bridge against an oncoming German force.
And that is the climatic confrontation
of the film, right?
Okay. Let's sum up this first part, then.
It seems very technical, very much about writing,
not much having to do -- so it seems --
with moral transformation.
But again, I want to deepen that as we go on.
But so far, what we've got is the hero's pursuit
of a central want, one which moves from a beginning,
into middle, and toward an end
in which each part implies the next by the inner logic
of marvelous inevitability.
Let's go onto Act Two: What's That Stain on the Stucco?
The movie as a Mode of Moral Persuasion.
And I hope to make that question clear as we go on.
So far it seems that stories are just kind
of daisy chains of sequences.
You know, you set up the hero with a central want and you kind
of take them through a sequence of actions
with a couple turning points --
beginning, you get to the middle, you get to the end,
and that's all you need in order to tell a story.
But we wouldn't follow a story of someone who wanted
to do something utterly uninteresting
like collect the caps off of plastic water bottles.
That's not going to be an interesting story.
The story has to some way compel us as spectators
in the theater, right?
We have to want to go along with the protagonist.
In some way, the central want of the hero has to be --
at least provisionally during the two hours
in the theater -- our want.
So now we want to go from the hero's pursuit
of the central want to our being persuaded to go along
on that journey with him.
We have to see that central want as something worth pursuing,
as something that provokes our wonder to see how it will turn
out to pursue that want.
Let me impact this a little more.
As imitations of men in action --
that's what Aristotle says poetry does,
poetry standing in for fiction here.
As an imitation of men in action, the movies play
on sameness and difference, right?
I mean, imagine someone up here, let's say a play was going
on tonight, someone's playing a part --
they're imitating human beings in action front of you.
In that experience, there's sameness and difference.
In an obvious sense, there's difference,
especially with a movie.
That character on the screen is not me; that character
on the screen is not even real in a sense.
So there's difference.
But more importantly, perhaps, there's sameness.
The character on the screen is me in an analogous sense,
not literally of course, but an analogous sense.
That's a human being in pursuit of a want, a want that I can
at least plausibly identify as a want that, in a similar set
of circumstances, I might want.
And so I draw that analogy with my mind but also
with my emotions when I watch the film.
And that's how an identification --
as we often call it with the characters in the movies --
gets up and going, right?
I want to turn to Robert McKee now and his really wonderful
and insightful book Story in order to talk a little bit more
about how Hollywood screenwriters are seeing movies
as works of moral persuasion
so that the hero's stories are being persuaded
to undergo a moral transmission but also we
as the spectators are undergoing something
of a transformation as we watch theirs.
Robert McKee.
Some of you might remember him from a film that came out --
when did Adaptation come out?
Maybe five years or so ago, a movie with Nichols Cage,
Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper from a Charlie Kaufman
and Donald Kaufman screenplay.
And the British actor Brian Cox down there
on the right played real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee;
spoofed him in the movie.
Nicholas Cage's character is trying to write a screenplay
and he has writer's block and he goes
to this famous screenwriting guru, Robert McKee,
for help on the screenplay.
McKee, probably more than any of the screenwriters
that I have mentioned tonight gets, I think,
closest to the heart
of an Aristotelian approach to story-telling.
He mentions Aristotle by name but it's not always mentioning
by name where he makes the deepest connection,
but I think it's in the thought.
His instincts are really wonderful.
McKee wants to say that the very structure of a screenplay
that I was outlining very quickly
in act one is in itself rhetorical.
Aristotle called rhetoric "persuasive speech."
Now, a movie involves speech but it's certainly not only speech.
Movies are distinguished not by the fact that there's dialogue
but by the fact that they're moving pictures --
that's what makes a movie a movie and not a short story.
Nonetheless, McKee asks us to think about movie plots,
the very structure, the inciting incident, the turning points,
etc. as rhetorical, as a way of persuading us, the spectators.
The movie is analogous to persuasive speech.
It does this, the movie persuades most of all by trying
to prove what McKee calls the
"controlling idea" what he calls the
"living philosophy of a story."
He's quite forthright about that.
A story is a philosophy that can be embodied
in a controlling idea.
The controlling idea, which can be expressed in a sentence,
describes how and why a life undergoes change
from one condition of existence at the beginning
to another at the end.
Here's some examples: Groundhog Day we're talking
about this afternoon at the seminar:
happiness fills our lives when we learn how
to love unconditionally.
One sentence: Groundhog Day.
Our three questions from the beginning can be found packed
into that idea, right?
That idea in a sense summarizes the answers
to those three questions: who wants what from whom,
what happens if they don't get it, why now?
Galaxy Quest.
Life takes on a new meaning when we don't run from the adventure
of helping those in need -- that's my free stride summary,
maybe you have a better one of Galaxy Quest.
Saving Private Ryan: a good life is one
in which one sacrifices one's self for one's country
and one's brothers in arms."
Now, I understand once again that if you encapsulate a movie
that one-sentence way, it's like turning a sumptuous dinner
into a Hungry Man frozen T.V. dinner --
it's not the satisfying experience
of a movie that we want.
Nonetheless, I think it's fair to do this:
to think about a movie as trying to prove a certain idea,
what McKee calls the "controlling idea."
I think, again, this jibes with some things in The Poetics.
I mentioned earlier, Aristotle says
that poetry is more philosophical
than history, right?
It's not philosophy on one extreme
but it's not history on the other.
The logic of probability and necessity kind of puts it
in the midpoint of those extremes.
Aristotle says the universal is that it comes to pass to, again,
a certain sort of man --
not this particular historical person necessarily,
though you could tell a story of a historical person --
but the story really focus in on what a certain sort
of man might say or do or do certain sorts
of things according to probability and necessity.
Again, that's raising story-telling
out of the quotidian details of history, right?
And I think that's sort of the ancient analog to McKee's idea
of the controlling idea.
You can break it down into two parts:
controlling idea has a value and it has a cause.
The value is the positive or negative charge
of the story's critical value at the last act's climax, right?
Does the movie end positively or negatively?
Does the hero get that central want
and is it a good thing or not?
And the cause is simply: what brings that about?
The chief reason that this value has changed to its final stay.
So you can go back and take Groundhog Day for example,
you could say happiness or meaning or greater fulfillment
or satisfaction is the positive value at the end of the movie.
How does that value come into being?
Well, by Phil, as we talked about the seminar
of learning how to love unconditionally, learning how
to serve others, learning how to grow in virtue and so on.
And this is a language McKee uses.
The plot of the story -- the very structure --
is the proof of a controlling idea.
Story-telling is the creative demonstration of truth,
the living proof of an idea, the conversion of idea to action.
It's a very philosophical-sounding
conception of what a movie is all about, right?
And this is the point we're going
to return to in the third part.
He goes onto say, too, that the screenwriter makes his argument
by moving dynamically between the positive
and negative charges of the values at stake in the story.
If you only have one value in the story, you have no conflict;
you really have no story whatsoever.
In very simple stories, you have a positive and a negative value
and the charges are very clear
and they contradict each other very clearly, like the good
and the bad in The Lord of the Rings or in a thriller.
Last night I caught a bit of the end
of the Harrison Ford film Firewall.
He's a good guy from the beginning to the end.
He represents the positive value of trying to save his family
and there are bad guys.
The rhetoric of other plots, it's not quite so cut and dry
with the positive and negative values.
But nonetheless at the end of the story, McKee says,
some value has to win out, right?
And that value is what the writer's trying to prove.
The positive and negative assertions are the same idea
that contest back and forth through the film,
building in intensity until at the crisis --
the battle at the bridge in Ramelle
in Saving Private Ryan --
they collide head-on in a last impasse.
Out of this rises the story's climax in which one
of the other values succeeds.
I want to bring to your attention, just as a sample
of this kind of dynamic, this kind of conflict
between positive and negative values a movie
that I just saw recently, a little independent film
that I really want to recommend to you.
It's really a wonderful film
in many ways called Henry Poole is Here.
Luke Wilson plays the protagonist, Henry Poole.
And he is a young guy, successful businessman
who has just learned that he has a terminal illness.
So he has to decide: how am I going to live
out the last few months of my life?
So he decides to go back to the place
where he experienced a modicum of happiness in his life,
which was in his old childhood neighborhood.
His childhood, in fact, wasn't that happy
but what little happiness he's experienced was there.
In fact, he wanted to move back into his parents' home
but the family living in it went sell.
So he buys a house down the street to be
as close to it as he can.
And he just hunkers down to eat bad food
and drink himself into oblivion.
And that's going to be the story
until one day there's a stain on the stucco.
There's a stain on the stucco on one
of the exterior walls of his house.
And his neighbor sees the face of Christ in the stain.
Luke Wilson -- I mean Henry Poole -- he's going crazy.
I mean, he just wants to kill himself in peace
and he's got his neighbor bringing
over all her church lady friends to take a look
at the stain on the stucco, right?
And so we have a collision of values here,
of the kind that McKee talks about.
They're colliding over really the issue of faith.
The neighbor has faith
that something miraculous is happening here
and that Henry himself is being called out of his despair
and Henry wants none of it.
And those values contend back and forth throughout the story.
There's Luke behind me.
And that's the neighbor, there she brings the priest.
Who's this guy?
Yeah, George Lopez has a great, great role as the priest --
really great portrayal of a Catholic priest;
you don't always get that in the movies.
And you know, he has a very cautious approach to all this
but he wants to at least hold open the possibility
that this stain really is miraculous.
So I take in this as just one example we can take
from a jillion of again, that kind of dialectical dynamic
that we see in story-telling.
The movie is trying to prove something about faith.
And spoiler warning: the movie is trying to prove something
about the necessity of faith --
that's the positive value that wins
out in the end of the story.
You should have some skepticism of thinking
about a movie as an argument.
I mean, do movies really make arguments in the way
that philosophical texts do?
We're not used to that thought.
We're used to thoughts such as these: it's just a story,
it's make believe, it's not the point of the story
to make arguments, they're to entertain us.
Maybe some documentaries do that,
Michael Moore might make arguments but, you know,
Galaxy Quest making an argument?
Give me a break, right?
But don't we also sometimes say this:
"That movie has something important to say
or said something important to me."
"What I got from that movie was such and such."
"I really disagree with that movie."
Aren't those expressions that are referring to the movie
as a work of persuasion?
But we need to make some distinctions, though.
Movie plots, I think, work analogously
to philosophical arguments, whether in demonstrative,
rhetorical, or dialectal mode, right?
But they're very different from those arguments, too, right?
It's an analogy.
Because what?
Movies don't work with abstract concepts.
They don't work propositions being strung into arguments.
Again, they might do some of that through dialogue
but that's a secondary function of a movie.
The movie's primary function is to imitate men in action, right?
Doing things, not making speeches,
explaining their doings but doing things.
So it's an analogy.
But I think the analogy is justified --
have to move quickly through this --
but in book seven of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics,
he himself in talking about the phenomenon of weakness
of will -- human action -- talks about it on an analogy
to a logical argument, to a deduction.
And I take that as some warrant for thinking of human actions
as a kind of argument.
We can extrapolate an argument from that.
Human action, real or imitated, can be regarded as a pattern
of reasoning and be identified
and be assessed for its rationality.
But although movies do make rhetorical arguments,
they're not rhetorical in the strict sense
because rhetorical is meant to move the will.
A rhetorical argument is trying
to get an audience to do something.
And again, that's not a movie's primary function is to get you
to leave the theater and to change the world in some ways.
That can happen from a movie, no doubt.
It's good that that happens but that's, again, not the essential
and primary effect of a movie.
A movie is like any story is first of all,
something offered to our contemplation.
When we watch movies,
we're spectators enwrapped in a loving gaze.
So it's an odd sort of rhetorical argument.
It's trying to persuade us but persuade us
to contemplate a reality --
a moral reality -- in a certain way.
But yet, there's a strong element of rhetorical in movies
and not just by way of dialogue; there's a lot of rhetorical
in the dialogue of movies.
But because movies are visual mediums,
a lot of the rhetorical devices that are used are purely visual.
Or Professor Roy Anker,
in talking about The Thin Red Line last night used a great
example of the rhetorical of sound design in a movie, right?
The very sound design can help make the argument of a movie.
The juxtaposition of images, the montage speaks
in a way to make and argument.
And again, you can take a jillion different examples
but let me just take one visual argument
from Saving Private Ryan.
I have to confess I just saw this movie within the last month
for the very first time.
And I was struck by the envelope structure of the work, right?
The movie works in sort of a flashback.
It begins in the present with an old man with his family,
visiting the American cemetery at Normandy,
it's a D-Day veteran, he's visiting the graves
and as he's mourning over his fallen comrades.
We flash back for the rest of the movie.
So here's a shot of a typical scene at the beginning
of the movie: right before we go to flash back, Steven Spielberg,
the director gives us an extreme close-up
on the elderly man's eyes and we get a really tight close
up right before we go to flashback.
What do we see first of all, when we go to that flashback?
We see this guy, though this isn't the exact shot
that we see, but we see Tom Hanks, Captain John Miller.
So the connection was made in my mind -- maybe I misread it --
but visually that juxtaposition of I think so told me
that old man is Tom Hanks and that's where I was
for over two hours of the movie.
And I think I would want to argue that's
where Spielberg wanted me.
He wanted me to think of that man as Tom Hanks.
In fact, pretty early in the film,
we get a similar sort of close-up.
An analogy is drawn between the old man's eyes
and Tom Hanks' eyes, I think solidifying the connection
between the two.
But again, spoiler warning --
what do we learn in the climactic battle of the movie?
Tom Hanks is killed.
I didn't expect that.
So what am I thinking?
Immediately, "Who's that old man at the beginning?
Who was that guy?"
That's Private Ryan.
It's Private Ryan.
But what I think -- and again, this is debatable --
but what I think Spielberg was trying to do, he was trying
to create a connection, a kind of identity between Private Ryan
and Captain John Miller, the man who saved his life.
And I think that connects with the controlling idea
that Robert McKee is trying to prove in this film.
He's trying to prove that a good life is one that is lived
for one's country, one's family, one's brothers in arms.
A good life is one in which you live in that kind of community
where you are in a sense one with those people.
And again, I take this as a little piece of visual rhetoric,
visual persuasion trying to drive that home.
Okay, last part.
We've talked about screenplay structure.
We've now talked about it as a kind of rhetoric,
as a kind of persuasion.
I want to push it a little deeper.
Now I want to talk a little bit more
about how movies can tell us the truth about human happiness,
how they reveal to us our most central internal needs:
the needs of our nature.
There's our friend, Socrates.
We should be perhaps a little skittish about talking
about movies as rhetoric.
Socrates -- well, Plato's Socrates
in the dialogue The Gorgias is famously anxious about the role
that rhetoric can play because a good rhetorician can persuade us
of just about anything whatsoever.
So if movies are rhetoric, maybe they can persuade us of just
about anything whatsoever.
How many times have we been in a movie and you're sort
of enthralled to the images, the music, the attractiveness
of the actors and the actresses and you're in that world.
But then you come out of the movie and you think, "Whoa,
is that a world I really want to be part?"
You can get sucked in, right?
And is that what we mean by movies as persuasion?
If that's the case, they seem a little dangerous
if they're just concerned with rhetoric.
So we have to ask a kind of a Socratic question of the movies:
do they get us to the truth or do we have to kick them
out of the ideal city?
Let's go back to this comment of McKee's
that we looked at a while back.
McKee says, "In constructing a screenplay,
you have to build a bridge of story from the opening
to the ending, a progression of events that spans
from premise to controlling idea."
This part's what I want to focus on.
These events echo the contradictory voices
of one theme, sequence by sequence, often scene by scene,
the positive idea and the negative counter idea argue,
so to speak, back and forth,
creating a dramatized dialectal debate, dialectic.
Movies are not just rhetorical, they're also --
I would submit to you -- dialectal.
And what that means roughly is that they argue by taking
up opposed, conflicting positions and trying to sort
through that conflict.
And I think Aristotle can help us understand this dialectal
dimension of stories a little bit better.
But in order to do that, we have to talk a little
about Aristotle's very method in ethics, which is dialectal.
And here I have to summarize some very complicated ideas
pretty quickly and try to make it as accessible as I can.
And I'm also giving what is admittedly a pretty
controversial interpretation of Aristotle here,
even as I'm summarizing.
I'm going to try to do this succinctly
and as accessibly as I can.
Aristotle says that arguments in ethics have to begin
from what is best known to us,
from what we're mostly familiar with, from our beliefs,
our current loves, whatever they are,
that's where we begin in the moral life.
We don't just set all that aside
so we can read this brilliant treatise by a philosopher.
But we have to begin where we live here and now.
But then we have to proceed, as a protagonist will do
in a good story, from where we are now
to where we are not, to a different place.
We have to transform ourselves.
We have to go to what is known to us,
to what is best known in itself.
And when it comes to ethics, what is best known in itself,
the very first principle of ethics is that good
that we identify with happiness --
that's our central want in the moral life.
Now a little bit to introduce a little bit of terminology here.
What's best known to us, as Aristotle says, are endoxa.
What are endoxa?
Endoxa are beliefs, they're opinions that we hold
about the good life: "a stitch in time saves nine,"
"always listen to Aunt Mabel," "America,
baseball, and apple pie."
These are beliefs, opinions that someone may hold that sort
of form their behavior to one extent or another.
Ethics get started where we are now
by examining our reputable opinions --
not any old opinion we may hold, maybe not "a stitch
in time saves nine," but the reputable one.
Everyone, the many or the wise, it's worth noting.
It's worth examining.
It's worth wondering whether that idea --
especially if it's an idea about happiness --
is going to unlock the key for us to the good life.
That's how ethics get started.
What does Aristotle do, then,
with all these reputable opinions?
Well, he begins to turn them over.
Because what's going to happen is
that these reputable opinions aren't going to all mesh
with each really well.
In fact, they're going
to contradict each other a lot of the times.
And so Aristotle is going to try
to remove the contradictions in a way.
And Aristotle is very generous in his philosophical approach.
He always wants to, as he says later in the ethics,
save as many of the reputable opinions as he probably can.
Because he has a very generous notion of the human ability
to get to the truth; he's no skeptic.
He's not Descartes.
He thinks that the truth is like the proverbial barn door --
it's pretty hard to miss it.
Maybe we don't all have the complete truth about something
as rich and complicated as human happiness
but he's pretty confident that we all will have
at least something of the truth in our grasp
about what makes for a happy life.
So again, if an opinion is held by everybody --
the many are the wise -- I'm going to listen to that.
I'm going to be confident
that there's something of the truth there.
So the task in ethics is what I call their disambiguation.
There's going to be a lot of ambiguities, there's going
to be a lot of conflicts among the reputable opinions.
Notice the word "conflict," analogous
to the conflicts in a story.
And we're going to have to work
through those conflicts -- disambiguate.
We're going to have to separate the chaff of nonbeing
from the grain of being.
But here's what is important: even in the reputable opinion,
that won't hit being or reality absolutely,
there will be still be some reality there;
there's some truth in it.
We're used, perhaps, to a hard distinction
between truth and opinion.
We tend to think, "Oh, opinion, belief, that's someone's take
on something," that's not true.
There's something of the truth there, right?
Something that can be extracted, disambiguated.
So what I'm trying to set up here is that the method
in ethics, working through the reputable opinions,
trying to figure out what happiness might be
by examining those opinions, that's how story works,
that's how a movie works -- that's the dialectical dynamic
that McKee talks about: working through the positive
and the negative values.
Going back to The Poetics, Aristotle says
that tragedy is an imitation, not of human beings,
but of action and of life, men in action.
Both happiness and unhappiness depend on action
and the end is an action.
There Aristotle himself is telling us
that stories essentially have a moral dimension, right?
They're about the quest -- the craving -- for happiness.
The hero doesn't always get it
but nonetheless that's what it's about.
Even in a film that might deny the very existence of happiness,
come back to this at the very end.
It's still in a sense about the quest,
it's just the controlling idea of film is just saying
that the quest is not possible, right?
So stories take up, they kind
of track analogously the method of ethics.
What's interesting a little later in the ethics,
I take this insight from an article by Richard Kraut
on Aristotle's method on ethics.
When Aristotle talks about that work of disambiguation,
working the through the reputable opinions,
he uses a verb dia porta santes [phonetic spelling],
which is cognate to the noun apparia [phonetic spelling],
which literally means "a knot."
So to work through the conflicting opinions
about happiness means literally that you're in a knot
and you don't have a way of passing through and isn't
that the predicament that we find the protagonists
of the movie in?
He's in a knot; he's in a conflict
that he can't get out of.
And what compels us is we want know:
is he going to get out of it or not?
In Saving Private Ryan the main dialectical conflict --
at least in the middle part of the film --
is between Captain John Miller and his men.
His men have this opinion, which I would take it has some repute.
I would think most of the soldiers in the military,
given this mission, would have this opinion.
They're all saying --
if you remember this part of the film -- "This isn't worth it."
I think there were eight of them marching around Normandy,
they have no clue where Private Ryan is -- he's a paratrooper,
he's gotten separated from his battalion.
They don't know where he is.
I mean, they could all get killed out here and most
of them do get killed.
So they're of the opinion eight men are not worth one.
But that's in conflict with another opinion of repute
and that is the opinion that Captain John Miller holds,
that this mission is worth it --
not that he doesn't have his doubts, mind you --
but when the dust clears, he thinks it's worth it: "No,
eight men are worth one."
But there's a conflict there,
a conflict between two opinions of repute, right?
They're not straw men.
Both of them have some weight to them.
And they're in conflict.
What is the good?
Are eight men worth one or not?
The movie works that out and it tries to prove in the end,
at least as Spielberg sees it, that --
in this circumstance at least --
yes, eight men were worth one, right?
Not in a strict arithmetical sense, but in a sense
that they are all one, right?
It's not that eight is greater than one, just numerically
but they're a community, they're a whole --
all for one and one for all.
Let's skip that, okay.
[ Laughter ]
Now this still might not seem
that we've gotten any closer to the truth.
We got to get to the climax here.
I mean, it seems like, "Okay, we're sifting
through these reputable opinions about happiness."
How do we know we've really got the truth if we're just talking
about what people think?
I want to get to the full reality.
How do I know that a movie is going to tell me the truth?
But here I want to emphasize the fact that bound
up with the endoxa -- those reputable opinions --
we do grasp the real and that's what truth is.
Aristotle thinks if an opinion is held by the many or all
or by the wise, there's truth there if you can extract it.
So what a story of a movie does, finally,
is it tries to refute opinions
that really don't capture the full essence of happiness.
A case in point: someone might think, "Well,
sense pleasure is happiness."
Aristotle considers this endoxan in book one of the ethics.
Some might say, "To me, happiness, man,
that's sense pleasure."
And we think, "No, okay, we'll be good; that's false,
that's not happiness."
And it isn't the essence of happiness
but there's a grain of truth there.
No one of us wants to envision a happy life
without sense pleasure.
It must have something to do with happiness and we have
to work that out in light of a better understanding
of what the essence of happiness really is.
And again, that's how a story works.
But notice what's happening there
where we're making a distinction between what really is our good
as human beings, what really is our end,
and what we might call a purpose that we may have, right?
So I think we should distinguish ends from purposes.
An end is an internal need of our nature.
Our nature is craving happiness.
Sense pleasure may satisfy us for a while but it's not going
to really deeply satisfy our craving for happiness, right?
Not if we make that the most important thing in our lives.
So we have to learn how to distinguish the internal needs
of our nature from just purposes that we may happen
to have, which are just wants.
And that's what the protagonist in a movie has to do:
he has to distinguish whether his central want really is an
internal need of his nature or just an external need,
as the screenwriters call it, or just any purpose he may have.
"Is just hanging out at sci-fi conventions and sort
of living off past fame and signing autographs --
is that going to really fulfill me?"
Tim Allen's character has to ask, or is there something more?
Is there something more fulfilling?
He still has an internal need that's not satisfied.
That conflict has to be resolved and it is resolved
at the end of the film.
That resolution finally takes place with an active insight,
with an active seeing.
And this is what really happens at the climax of most movies.
The character -- the hero -- sees what must be the case,
usually about human happiness; what has to be the case.
It can't be the case that sense pleasure is happiness, right?
That's what the character Phil finds out in Groundhog Day,
that's one of the things he learns through living
through that conflict.
And it's interesting, connected with that, how many films end
with a close-up of a character's face trying to give us a picture
of that moment of insight, where the conflict
between reputable opinions is resolved
and one sees what's essential to happiness.
You get it in Henry Poole is Here.
It's interesting, you get this marvelous little ending, again,
I'll spoil it for you but it's really too wonderful
of a movie to be spoiled.
But in the end, he literally collides head-on
with the opposing value.
He tries to destroy that stucco wall and in a marvelous way,
like the falling of Mitys' statue, his very act
to destroy the stain on the wall leads to salvation.
It leads to his coming to have --
seeming to come to have -- some faith.
How that works, see the film.
We get this final shot of the elderly man's eyes
in Saving Private Ryan when he grasps the full essence
of what those others did for him all those years ago.
He asks his wife in that final scene, "Am I a good man?"
he asks his asks wife.
"Have I achieved that positive value?"
Because now he knows what makes for a good man:
someone who's going to sacrifice his life for others.
And so, too, Harold Crick in Stranger Than Fiction,
he realizes that the narrator in his head wants to kill him.
His life's not a comedy, it's a tragedy
and he tries to get out of that.
He realizes he can't.
So finally, at the end of the film he accepts his death.
He's reading her novel on the bus in Chicago and he realizes,
"This is a beautiful story but I die at the end."
That's awful but it's marvelous at the same time.
So he gets ready to die.
But just as in Henry Poole, that's the act that turns
out to save him and make of his life a comedy.
Okay. Three quick DVD extras and then I will end.
Three implications that we can talk
about more perhaps in the Q&A.
If all that what I've said has any truth to it,
there are some naughty implications, right?
Because if stories are going to be conceived
of in this Aristotelian fashion,
it means that we the spectators have to be
in a certain moral condition if we're going to be able
to be persuaded by the story that the writer is telling us
because again, moral arguments begin with where we are.
And if we're not in the same place as the filmmakers,
we're not going to go along --
at least, not very persuasively with that story.
So that's an implication.
Movies are going to hit audiences
in different ways, right?
An argument may fall flat on us.
Again, no one's saying that every controlling idea
in a movie is a truth, not at all.
They may aspire to that but they may really only articulate just
one more reputable opinion;
they may say something that's even quite false,
that's always possible; or they may say something that's true
but really thin.
And I think this is really what happens with a lot
of movies today -- they say something true
about human happiness
but it doesn't have much thickness, right?
You see this in a lot of romantic comedies.
I mean, it says something true.
You know, usually the male in the couple has
to stop living the life of Peter Pan and grow up, right?
It's true.
I mean, that's how a lot of romantic comedies tick.
And that's true; it's not very deeply true.
There's a truth there about moral transformation
but we might be able to say more
about moral transformation, right?
But finally, we can also see, as I said earlier,
that the controlling idea of a particular movie may be
that happiness really isn't in the way
that Aristotle might conceive it,
it really isn't possible in this life.
There are no natural ends of human beings.
There's no real internal needs,
there are only purposes, there are only wants.
And oftentimes from that point of view,
the world is characterized by great violence
and I take it very controversially
that that's what we see happening
in Quentin Tarantino films, what you see
in the Coen Brother's film No Country for Old Men.
But I'll end on a positive note.
In an Aristotelian approach
to the movies is going to be very generous.
It's going to see -- we were talking about this earlier
in regard to Groundhog Day today --
it's going to see in pretty much any movie,
not something that's wholly and completely false, but it's going
to see in its controlling idea a reputable opinion
that has some truth in it that can be appreciated,
even if it's not the fullest truth about the human good,
something about the human good.
So thank you very much.
I appreciate your attention.
[ Applause ]
>> We have time for some questions
and I'll let Dan moderate that.
>> Dan McInerny: Sure.
[ Pause ]
>> Dan McInerny: Any questions?
Yes, sir?
>> I know you referenced,
I think it was Nicomachean Ethics
at one time during your presentation.
But this last slide right here where it says that [inaudible]
>> Dan McInerny: Yes -- I mean, absolutely.
I mean, Aristotle believes you can't really get away
from the quest for the good.
Everything that we do is really aimed at some good.
That's the definition of human action.
I mean as human agents, we pursue the good
and we want the best good, though.
We don't just want any old collection of goods, right?
We want the best and the highest and the most satisfying good
and that's what happiness is.
And so, again, what I was up to tonight was trying to show that,
again, not every single movie ever made
but most popular films -- most films --
are really about that quest to find out what really counts
as happiness, working through conflicting opinions about it
in a way that Aristotle works through conflicting opinions
about happiness in the first book of the ethics;
that's what I'm after.
Thank you.
I see another hand.
Yes, sir?
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Exactly, yeah.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Sure, right.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Yeah, yeah.
Do you have one in mind?
I'm --
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, there's more than one kind
of film we could talk about.
I mean, certainly we can imagine,
even on an Aristotelian concepts of a movie somebody failing
to achieve their own happiness --
of someone sort of missing an opportunity in their life.
And I can't think -- and I'd appreciate your suggestions --
I can't think of a film --
>> Cool Hand Luke
>> Dan McInerny: I'm sorry?
>> Cool Hand Luke
>> Dan McInerny: Cool Hand Luke.
It's been too long since I've seen it,
but I'll take your word for it.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, a tragic story doesn't
by itself refute what I'm saying.
If the filmmakers are trying to argue, once again,
that the protagonist is not fulfilling that internal need --
the need of his or her nature --
if the film is still in some way trying to show a distinction
between end and purpose, right?
And that would still be an Aristotelian tragedy.
But there are films, and again, I gave examples of a couple
at the very end, where there really isn't a distinction
between end and purpose.
If we want to call -- I don't know if it's even accurate
to call them "tragedies."
It might be best to call them "fiascoes."
They're movies of just conflicting wants.
And that's why I say they're characterized by violence
because that's what tends to happen in a world
of conflicting wants with nothing to measure them.
But I'm sorry, I can't think of a great example this moment
of a film that is a tragedy but still reveals this distinction
between end and purpose --
the end of our nature
and desires we may just happen to have.
But again, I would love --
does that make sense as an answer to your question?
Go ahead.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Absolutely, right.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Yeah, I mean,
part of what you're saying I was trying to bring out very quickly
at the end is: the import of a movie does depend very largely,
if not totally, upon the character
of the audience, right?
But I would think that a skilled storyteller could still,
within a certain boundary, take any audience member
and try again to forge that distinction between the point
of the movie, whether tragedy or comedy would be
to tease apart this distinction between the external want
or need that the hero just happens
to have and the internal.
I mean, you could imagine a story
where the character succeeds in getting his external need --
his purpose -- but fails to achieve his good, right?
And that is the kind of story that would be a tragedy
in Aristotelian terms, one kind of tragedy anyway.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, that might be an example
of fiasco, which is different.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Yeah, there's no end to pursue, right?
So there's no --
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: That's right, there's no chance
of transformation if all we have of all our wants
or purposes, that's right.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, I would piggyback on my colleague,
Tom Hibbs, who's written a whole book on film noir.
And as much as I know of his work, I mean,
he's trying to argue that one of the things that's interesting
about film noir is that you do have kind
of a stable moral universe -- at least in some film noir --
that you do have a stable moral universe
or what I'm calling here, "an end" that can be distinguished
from all the conflicting wants of people.
Maybe you have a particular one in mind, I don't know.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Yeah, I wish I had those plots fresher
in mind than I do.
You know, one interesting film to talk
about in this regard is a film that almost is a noir film
but then becomes a more conventional comedy
at the end that's a film we're all tired of,
It's a Wonderful Life.
But if you look at that film through a certain perspective,
it's a very dark film.
I mean, he's ready to commit suicide and then you get sort
of this warm fuzzy angel that kind
of draws it more toward a conventional comedy but up
to that point it -- and even with the angel.
I mean, what the angel is showing him is his life
as it might have been lived
and it's a dark film; it's a noir-ish film.
It's interesting to think of it as sort of an almost-noir.
But anyway, I piggyback on Hibbs --
I think when it comes to noir, I think he's arguing
that you still have in those films a distinction
between end and purpose.
You have the kind of ethical inquiry
that I'm talking about here.
Go ahead, please.
Elaine, go ahead.
>> Maybe in the sense of fiascos with something
that Aristotle would have been well-aware of [inaudible].
You know, a reflection, which is how maybe directors
and screenwriters and so often defend these kinds of movies
that are [inaudible] with violence, a reflection
of the darkness of contemporary culture and this [inaudible].
Aristotle wouldn't have been any stranger to this
but he doesn't pick it up to The Poetics is I think one
of the best examples of that dialogue --
Platonic diaologue -- like Mitys where it's a dialogue
about these people [inaudible] who eventually become leaders
of the [inaudible] Athens hear Socrates talking to [inaudible]
and failing [inaudible].
And it's a complete abstraction that talks
about violence throughout, there's no light at the end
of the tunnel, there's quite clear [inaudible] going on.
And I would say that there's no real distinction
here [inaudible].
>> Dan McInerny: Why not?
>> It's actually quite enlightening insofar
as it tells them about what constitutes our [inaudible].
>> Dan McInerny: Okay.
Notice first of all, just as a preliminary point --
thank you for that comment --
is that you in describing that story or that kind of film
that you're referring to give the controlling idea, right?
Here's the philosophy that the filmmakers are trying to argue:
this is how society is, society is bleak, society is an arena
of conflicting wants whatever -- that's a controlling idea.
I don't think it's an Aristotelian one,
I mean, it could be.
Again, if the filmmakers in an artful way are still --
if they're trying to show us this is fiasco, right?
There was a film that came out and maybe here's an example
of the kind of film we were talking about earlier,
it's a film version of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies.
Stephen Fry directed it.
Came out five, six years ago.
It wasn't called Vile Bodies,
it was called Bright Young Things.
That's a film of -- you know, set in Mayfair society
in the 1920s: the young, the rich,
beautiful living very vapid lives, right?
It's a world of fiasco, as I'm calling it.
It's a world of purposes and cross-purposes and mayhem.
But the book especially and the film
to a surprisingly successful degree shows us its fiasco,
And I won't belabor how, I think it would take us too far afield.
But it shows us that the characters are --
their internal need
for something more is something operative.
And that I think this Aristotelian enough.
But you got to do that.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Maybe so.
Again, we'd have to get into the details.
It's arguable, those particular films.
I don't want to go to the wall on those two films,
though it could be [inaudible] that the filmmakers are doing
that but oftentimes I think it can be the spectator bringing
his own moral outlook to a world of fiasco and saying,
"You're right, they're right -- that's how our society is."
I don't know if the filmmakers the Coen Brothers
or Tarantino understand that as fiasco in the way I do.
I think that happens to us a lot in the movies --
we are judging it against standards
that the filmmakers themselves don't have and I think
that phenomenon can happen, too.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: To a point, yeah.
To a point, absolutely, but sometimes we're persuaded
by the film to go beyond our own outlook.
Sometimes it confirms our outlook,
sometimes it utterly disagrees with it, sometimes we go along
to some place new, depending on a film.
Thank you.
>> We have time for one more question.
>> What was interesting at the beginning, you quoted one
of those writers [inaudible] talking
about [inaudible] democratic [inaudible]
>> Dan McInerny: That was Mortimer Adler, yeah.
>> Then you were talking about the kind of [inaudible]
and endoxa and so you have what everyone believes,
what [inaudible] believe, what you believe.
[Inaudible] I was wondering
if those [inaudible] taken together [inaudible]
if the nature of film is democratic.
[Inaudible] to take a democratic [inaudible] these different
considerations [inaudible] and would a film be better that,
would a film hit on the truth more
if it has a wider [inaudible]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, I mean, I'm not saying
that Aristotle would be a Democrat
in the 21st America sense but it seems to me his method in ethics
and what we can, I think, plausibly call an
"Aristotelian approach to movies and story" has, I think,
a substantial democratic element to it.
I mean, it has a certain largess, a certain generosity,
to the ability of most people -- as I was saying in part three --
to get to some part of the truth
about the full meaning of human life.
And it's incredibly generous.
Aristotle wants to entertain any opinion of repute,
including those that are held by the great unwashed as it were --
I mean, to us, everybody.
And that, to me is --
can be thought of as a democratic impulse.
But I don't know if I hit your certain squarely on the head.
>> [ Inaudible audience question ]
>> Dan McInerny: Well, sure.
I mean, there are going to be films
that are a little bit more intellectually-challenging
than Galaxy Quest, certainly.
I mean, we want to -- though for my money on a Friday night,
I'm all for Galaxy Quest.
But nonetheless, even Galaxy Quest,
even Galaxy Quest has something to tell us.
It may be kind of thin as I was criticizing
but it's true nonetheless insofar as it goes.
It may not be the full truth about the human good,
but there's something there
that persuades us even beyond the laughs, beyond the comedy.
Thank you all for your attention.
[ Applause ]