Aristotle at the Cineplex

Like most people who saw "The Day After Tomorrow," I found the special effects brilliant. And eerie: the tidal wave rolling through Manhattan recalled the dust-and-debris one of 9/11. Spectacle is spectacle, and computer-imaging whiz kids can't be blamed, I guess, for cannibalizing a big one. More fun, and less troubling, were the mega-storms that freeze-dried El Norte and (in the film's only comic sequence) sent frantic gringos scurrying illegally into sunny Mexico.

But this particular blockbuster also widened the usual gulf between the brilliance of the special effects and inanity of the plot and characters. Here, that gulf became an abyss. Happy ending: neglectful dad learns to say "I love you" to son, and son learns to say "I love you" to girl. Backdrop to happy ending: destruction of all life in the Northern Hemisphere.

Which brings me to Aristotle's Poetics. At the end of that short treatise, after dissecting classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle asks whether this relatively new art form is better or worse than the older, more revered epic poetry of Homer. The main difference, he says, is that "Epic poetry is addressed to a cultivated audience, who do not need gesture," while ragedy appeals to "an inferior public" by combining poetry with gesture, music, dance, and "spectacular effects."

His conclusion? That tragedy is superior precisely because of these add-ons, which "produce the most vivid of pleasures." In other words, it's fine to listen to a rhapsode pluck the lyre and sing the Iliad, but it's even finer to watch actors strut across a stage whose scenery can be raised and lowered by hidden water pumps, while gods in gilded costumes sweep overhead suspended from cranes.

This conclusion comes with a caveat, though. Tragedy cannot succeed on "spectacular effects" alone. They are "important accessories," but the play must also possess "all the epic elements," meaning plot, character, and thought -- in that order. It is wonderful, is it not, that just about every moviegoer over the age of 12 would agree with Aristotle's priorities?

July 17, 2004 4:50 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by published on July 17, 2004 4:50 AM.

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