Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Plot, character and great drama, all in less than an hour-and-a-half (updated)

Half-a-dozen of us here last night watched two films and a TV programme.  That might sound like a busy evening, but it wasn't.  It only took an hour-and-a-half.

It only took an hour-and-a-half because the two films didn't take long to watch.  Despite stars, spectacle and really big budgets both 'The Good German' and 'Black Dahlia' were execrable.  They failed the fifteen minute test, offering no good reason we should watch them any further.  If you haven't already seen them, my advice is 'don't bother.'

240px-Spooks002Not so the TV show, conveniently packaged on DVD.  With no stars and a merely moderate budget, but with a script so tight it rivalled a fish's sphincter, in its one non-commercial hour the BBC's 'Spooks' showed how good drama is done, and just how good it is when done well.

As too many directors forget, It's the Story Stupid.  'The Good German' and the 'Black Dahlia' had George Clooney and Cate Blanchett and Scarlett Johansen and a host of other so called stars who couldn't act their way out of a paper bag even if they'd been given any lines worth delivering to help them out.

 poster These two "modern noirs" are supposedly homages to the great film noirs of the forties and fifties, films like 'In a Lonely Place,' 'Double Indemnity,' 'The Third Man' or 'The Blue Dahlia' (the only similarity to 'The Black Dahlia is that they are both films), but unlike these classics today's tributes have no stories worth following, no characters worth caring about, and no actors able to impart the gravity that actors like Bogart and Stanwyck and Welles delivered so easily and (still) so memorably, and often with a touch of easy humour.  Neither 'Good German' nor 'Black Dahlia' could even manage the humour, yet these are films that deserve to be roundly laughed at.

As with so many of today's films, the films' directors seem to have forgotten the basic elements of their craft, and their actors all-too obviously never had them. Watching 'Spooks' however was damn fine entertainment, and also a simple reminder of how important those basic elements are.

200px-ThirdManUSPoster Nearly two-and-a-half thousand years ago Aristotle identified the six basic parts of any drama.  In decreasing order of importance they are Plot, Characters, Theme, Dialogue, Rhythm (or Melody), and Spectacle*.  In that order.  Without a plot to follow and characters to care about, neither spectacle nor melody can save a drama.  Two millennia and a century of film technology hasn't changed that, no matter how much CGI you might be able to afford. 

It's the first two of Aristotle's elements that truly characterise good drama -- that is, Plot and Character.  With all the technology now available to film-makers however, it's now the last two in his list that dominate contemporary films, with 'Spectacle' generally and mind-numbingly considered the most important, and a sumptuous score used to bolster the empty bravado.  “Superior poets rely on the inner structure of the play rather than spectacle,"observed Aristotle, however “the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.”  It's no accident that "stage machinists" and soundtrack simpletons are highly valued in Hollywood while the "poets" are striking for better pay and recognition of their talents, and no wonder most of what's produced there is so teeth-achingly dull.  With nothing to integrate the explosions, the car chases and the lingering 'artistic' shots of most of today's films whether art-house or shit-house, there's nothing to do but either nod off or turn off.  Last night we turned off, and turned on 'Spooks' instead.

By crikey, this show is good.  With none of the megabudget resources available to most of today's film-makers, the show's creators rely instead on Aristotle's first two elements, and like the classic noir films they do them superbly: the Characters are  sympathetic, well drawn and given enough light and depth to emerge from the thematic shadows -- they are agents in both the fully volitional and the MI5 sense; and their Plots are sharp and well-integrated and relentless -- you mustn't blink for fear of missing a crucial plot point. 

260px-Inalonelyplace With 'Spooks,' the plot is always king, and this holds true for every episode of every season -- a remarkable achievement.

What makes a good plot wasn't news to noir's lions and isn't news to the makers of 'Spooks,' although it's clearly news that's now been lost in  L.A.: in three words, it's Dramatic Conflict, and Integration.  Without a decent dramatic conflict, there is no plot.  Without tight integration of all elements, you can't bring the drama into focus.  And once you have a well-written and well-integrated dramatic conflict, you don't need to spend a fortune on Spectacle.

You'd think budget-conscious producers would value that simple formula.  The rarity of shows as sharp as 'Spooks' and the flatulence of so many films shows it's something so many have still to learn.  Until they do, I'll keep ignoring most of what they produce.
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* Here, for your future viewing pleasure, are Aristotle's six elements along with explanatory quotes from his Poetics whence they come:

  1. Plot (muthos): “the combination of the incidents, or things done in the story.”
  2. Character (êthé): “what makes us ascribe certain qualities to the agents.”
  3. Thought/Theme (dianoia): "all they say when proving a particular point or, it may be, enunciating a general truth...”
  4. Dialogue/Diction (lexis):  "the externalisation of the internal order of the fable..."
    “What indeed would be the good of the speaker if things appeared in the required light even apart from anything he says?”
  5. Melody (mélopoia)
  6. Spectacle (opsis)

About these last two Aristotle says but little, regarding them "as having more to do with how the tragedy is performed, as opposed to its actual content."

UPDATE:  I loved novelist Ed Cline's review of the Will Smith blockbuster 'I Am Legend.'  With characteristic economy -- and a useful integration with my own post -- the review is titled "I am Plotless," and begins:

For a change of pace, offered here is a movie review. Warning: there are no plot-spoilers in this review; there is no plot to spoil... I suspected this movie would be talked about ... given the critical imprimatur. However, it is a B movie inflated by modern film technology (chiefly CGI, or computer generated imagery) with the intention of making it a blockbuster. But, fundamentally, it isn't any better than Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space.

The details or concretes one chooses to show or include in a story must have a purpose, that is, they must be integrated into the plot, they must have a demonstrable place or a role in the logical sequence of events. If they are included, but not explained, or are there just for "special effects" to impress or mislead a reader or viewer, or are included simply at the whim of a writer or director, then they violate Louis Sullivan's rule that form must follow function, or Ayn Rand's rule of essentialization. A plot itself, by Rand's definition, is "a purposeful progression of logically connected events leading to the resolution of a climax."

I am Legend is a cinematic jigsaw puzzle most of whose pieces do not connect. There is a "climax," but no logic to it. Among its many other faults, it is an epistemological abomination, and the horrible thing about it is that I don't believe the film's makers consciously intended that. Its illogic reflects the state of their epistemology. And since their epistemology (and metaphysics) is a subjectivist shambles, to them logic and causal-connections are elective elements not absolutely requisite to solving the problem of the moment.

Let us examine the film story of I am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's 1954 science fiction novel of the same title...

Click here to read all of Cline's masterful review, especially if you want to find why Plot and Character trump special effects and loud explosions -- and why Aristotle still matters.  ;^)


  1. This is why people don't take you seriously, PC. All this pontificating, snooty analysis makes you look like Russell Brown's skinnier twin. Next you'll be heralding Aunty Helen's contribution to the Arts.

    Just summarise the bloody thing. Good German and Black Dahlia crap film, Spooks great show.

    By applying the high-falutin' analysis some old Greek wanker left for you, you would conclude that Mr and Mrs Smith is a shit film. When in fact, as we all know, it's the greatest film ever made.

  2. I think it is you without any credibility, Insolent.

    Funnily enough, I took several staff and friends to the Good German last year.

    I loved it due to knowing a lot of the background to the Potsdam events, and having read rather widely some of the things going on.

    Everyone else was bored to tears and glad when it finished! LOL!!

  3. Aristotle as applied to a George Clooney film, beyond classic.
    What's next Rand on Boney M?

  4. IP: YOU mean yo know people who don't take me seriously! I'm appalled. You must find better friends.

    "All this pontificating, snooty analysis makes you look like Russell Brown's skinnier twin."

    Phew! Saved by a kilo or two.

    BTW, 'Mr and Mrs Smith' really is a shit film. ;^)

    ELIJAH: I found knowing the history neither helped nor hindered watching it, but the natural comparison to make was with 'Third Man' -- Nazi city in rubble; post war occupation; new guy in town; femme fatale; film noir -- and on that basis 'Good German' is a certified stinker.

    CRAIG: Stay tuned, eh. :-)

  5. PC,

    You've just destroyed any reputation you had to having any good taste.

    Mr and Mrs Smith is the perfect film. It has car chases, sex scenes, shootings, explosions, fast and profound dialogue, guys yelling at their mothers, domestic violence, suspense, beamers getting shot to pieces, and Angeline's tits.

    Fuck that Aristobabble dude. If he'd seen Mr and Mrs Smith he would have rewritten his formula. But he didn't see it. Why? Because he's DEAD! He died at least two hundred years ago. Why you keep quoting him when he's so irrelevant now astonishes me.

  6. Yes, he died 200 years ago...I remember reading about how Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon used to have late night discussions with Aristotle in the early 1800s.

    This was at a time when Aristotle was recovering from wounds he received fighting in the US War of Independence.

    By pointing this out Insolent has added even further to my view of his credibility....

  7. I've heard of that brandy guy Napolean, but I don't know about Jefferson. Was he the bourbon guy? Anyway I don't see how a bunch of old boozers having a meeting with a stupid old greek fart has anything to do with films.

    I think most people would agree that Peter's talking out of his arse when he says that Mr and Mrs Smith wasn't the greatest film ever made.

  8. I loved the film Mr and Mrs Smith, the explosions, the shootings, modern gadgets & electronic devices designed using modern state-of-the-art Physics. I have seen this movie 3 times, an excellent one.

  9. Finally, my view of this blog has gone up a notch, with the stunning and lucid comment from Falafulu Fisi.

    Fala, I'm thinking you have too much taste for this blog.

    Fa'a, Fala.

  10. Didn't Socrates top himself after just 5 minutes with Aristotle?

    I think it all stemmed from a visit to the Oracle at Delphi. Socrates asked which would be the better movie: Mr and Mrs Smith or some low budget "kill the emperor" with plot twists about as convoluted as a slide rule set on Pythagoras's theorem.

    He said "Mr and Mrs Smith" and Aristotle reasoned that because he hadn't seen it, it didn't exist and therefore he'd go with the low budget flick.

    The Oracle confirmed that Socrates was wisest for acknowledging that a film he'd never seen was better than the crap offered up by the Athenian Playwright Association (of which Aristotle was a junior member), and the next thing you know it's a cup of hemlock and Goodbye Pork Pie.

    Mr and Mrs Smith.

  11. Meh... putting Aristotle aside, 'The Black Dahlia' is a masterclass in how not to adapt a novel for the screen.

    I'm a huge fan of James Ellroy - but what I love about his work is literary not cinematic: the distinctive 'voice' of his prose, the plots that sprawl over years and where a double cross is far too simple, and great chunks of internal monologue.

    Compare and contrast 'LA Confidential' (1997 - dir. Curtis Hanson, scr. Hanson & Brian Helgland) who did it right. As Hanson put it himself, a literal transcription of Ellroy's novel would have been several hundred hours long, literally required a cast of thousands and been utterly incomprehensible. 'LA Confidential' isn't a flawless film, but at least it does work as a film. 'The Black Dahlia' is just a mess.

  12. I'm a bit leery of appealing to Aristotle, not least because you don't seem to need to.

    And looking at the definitions I don't think Aristotle meant by his elements what we understand by the translations. I really think the greatest of noir classics would be all screwed up as far as the Most Famous Greek Philosopher would be concerned.

    Its not like a (prototype) academic writing after the fact about classical tragedy is necessarily going to help with modern drama. For instance, if someone actually stuck to the unities, that would be news.

    That said I'm entirely in favour of a good story well told; the List you have there actually seems kind of useful.

  13. kihidlkpI like "Snatch". Have you guys seen that? I have watched it about 8 times. I would have watched it more, but it's a region 1 disk and my DVD seems to have gone all regional 4 on me.

    It has Brad Pitt in it, just like Mr & Mrs Smith. Although Snatch has no, err, actual snatch in it, the quality of the swearing is far superior to the Smiths.

  14. Ah, that's why the vrerification didn't work the first time. I'm not as good with the computers as my grandfather was lead to believe.


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