Monthly Archives: August 2015

Attack of the Neo-Aristotelians, or How Do You Know If A Movie is Bad?


In doing research for a book I’m writing about the recent television crime series The Killing, I came across an entry on the blog Small Screen Scoop titled “A Compassionate Open Letter to Veena Sud of AMC’s The Killing (On Post Season 1 Finale Life).” Veena Sud was the executive producer and show runner for The Killing; she had adapted it from a hit Danish crime thriller series called Forbrydelsen (translated also as The Killing. Although The Crime is a more exact translation, The Killing does sound more exciting). The blog post was written by Jessica Rae, and it was one of several online postings reacting to the controversial ending of season one of The Killing, when just when we thought we knew who the killer was, it turned out not to be, meaning we would have to wait until next season to find out whodunit.

Not surprisingly, some fans of the show as well as TV critics were upset by having their expectations dashed, and they took to the Internet to register their disapproval. What fascinated me about Rae’s post was just how confident she was that: A. the season finale was clearly a disaster; and B. she knew exactly what Sud should do not only to save the show but her entire career. My fascination was fueled as well by the fact that I personally liked The Killing and hadn’t been bothered by the sudden reversal in the season one finale.

Sud never did issue that “public apology” Rae suggested, and in fact The Killing went on for two more seasons on AMC before moving to Netflix for its fourth and final season. This past June, Fox TV Studios, which made The Killing, signed Sud to develop another dramatic series for them. So clearly, not everyone saw the show as an “epic failure.” But there’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Rae’s reaction, and her post, along with the others that both criticized and defended the show–and mea culpa here; the fact that I’m writing a book on The Killing places me squarely in the defending the show camp—point to a favorite pastime of movie fans and scholars alike: arguing about whether a movie (or show, or book, or song, or video game, or anything, really) is good or bad. Not just whether we as individuals happen to like a particular movie or not, but whether that movie actually is in some empirically verifiable way “good” or “bad.”

It’s not enough that I like or dislike a movie. We can all understand the powerful desire to have our reactions validated by others, to prove that those personal reactions represent correct perceptions of objective flaws and virtues of whatever it is that we are judging. For movie reviewers, that effort to connect their personal reactions to their professional assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie itself is baked into the job. But how about for teachers and students of cinema (or music or art or literature)? When we engage in the organized study of the movies, what is our goal? Is it to learn how to tell “good” movies from “bad” movies? What role does this kind of evaluation play in the cinema studies class?

The influential cinema studies scholar Thomas Leitch frames this question as the relationship between analysis and evaluation. Leitch has done a lot of work in the area of adaptation studies–as in movies based on books, or plays, or TV shows, or amusement park rides, etc.—where the tendency for viewers and critics to pass judgment, say, on whether a movie is better or worse than the book is rampant. In his article, “Twelve Fallacies in Contemporary Adaptation Theory,” Leitch observes that

the whole tendency of cinema studies since universities first took it up thirty years ago has been away from evaluation as a critical project—except in the area of adaptation study. (162)

If cinema studies has been moving away from evaluation, what has it been moving towards? A simple version might be “understanding.” Rather than trying to figure out, for example, whether Rae is “right” in her negative evaluation of The Killing, we can ask instead questions about why she thinks that way about the show, about how we understand the ideas and values about storytelling she and others bring to The Killing, an issue Rae herself raises when she refers to Sud’s “non-formula formula,” to Sud’s desire to create a murder mystery that didn’t necessarily follow the “standard” way of telling such stories.

This alternate goal of understanding rather than evaluation leads to the other part of my title: “Attack of the Neo-Aristotelians.” Behind the certainty of both Rae’s judgment and her prescriptions for fixing the show—along with other examples of rating/fixing The Killing such as “Nine Things That Are Wrong With The Killing — and How to Fix Them for Next Season” and “Seven Ways AMC Can Improve The Killing For Season Two”–lurks the great Greek philosopher and founder of arts criticism, Aristotle, and specifically the fragmented collection of lectures on drama and poetry that has survived as The Poetics. Aristotle approached the analysis of the arts with the systematic method of the scientist. He describes the “six parts” of a tragedy (“plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song”), and he significantly claims that “plot” is the most important, significantly because we continue to privilege “plot” to this day, in part because of the influence of Aristotle.


It was Aristotle who said that a well-made plot consisted of a “beginning, middle, and end,” and defined them this way:

A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end. A beginning is that which is not a necessary consequent of anything else but after which something else exists or happens as a natural result. An end on the contrary is that which is inevitably or, as a rule, the natural result of something else but from which nothing else follows; a middle follows something else and something follows from it. Well constructed plots must not therefore begin and end at random, but must embody the formulae we have stated.

As you can see, Aristotle has a tendency to be both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time. That is, he in part seems simply to be describing what a plot is, but he is also making evaluative claims about what a plot should be. We’ve followed this tradition ever since, mixing observation and evaluation, description and prescription.

In particular, we continue to pick up on Aristotle’s reference to cause-and-effect and probability as our go-to way of criticizing a plot we don’t like. We begin to find ways that plot developments don’t follow as a “natural result of something else,” that violate a sense of “realism.” There’s of course nothing inherently wrong in engaging in this kind of analysis, or certainly of being influenced by Aristotle. But part of my point in bringing up Aristotle is to suggest that in being neo-Aristotelians, we are not following “nature,” but a particular theorist, a particular method of analyzing plots, and a method that itself is not as obvious as it might seem.

For one thing, almost every plot of every movie, novel, play, opera, etc., begins to fall apart with enough critical scrutiny. Now, you could always argue back that while that may be true, some plots hold up against that scrutiny better than others. Fair enough, but here’s another observation, one that goes back to the goal of trying to understand how our experiences of watching movies work: what if I happen to like “poorly made” plots? I’ll admit that one of the aspects of The Killing that I particularly enjoy is that even though it’s a murder mystery, it wasn’t obsessed with the solution of the mystery. In fact, several critics of the show were especially upset with Sud’s suggestion that she didn’t know who the killer was until they were in the middle of writing the series. While I understand where those viewers are coming from, I kind of liked that about the show, that Sud didn’t exactly know what the “end” to her beginning and middle was.

Or take film noir, the gritty, doom-laden, and atmospheric crime films of the late 1940s and 50s. In the PBS American Cinema documentary on Film Noir, the French filmmaker and critic Jean-Paul Gorin praises the “complete wackiness” of the genre: “it’s disreputable. That’s what’s nice about film noir.”

Personally, I agree. I love the ridiculously convoluted plots, the fact the narrative line of The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks1946) is so hard to follow that you can just give up and enjoy the attitude and atmosphere of scenes like this one featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall:

In fact, “Attack of the Neo-Aristotelians” could work as the subtitle to Spike Jonze’s 2002 movie Adaptation, written by the decidedly non-Aristotelian screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and “based” (I use the term loosely) on Kaufman’s experiences trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief to the big screen. The movie centers on the character of Charlie Kaufman, played by Nicholas Cage, who also plays Charlie’s twin brother Donald. As Charlie sinks deeper into philosophical despair while struggling with his writing assignment, Donald instead finds Hollywood success by following the neo-Aristotelian “rules” of the Robert McKee, an actual Hollywood screenwriting guru. In this scene, Charlie confronts (in a passive aggressive way) “McKee” (played by Brian Cox) at a screenwriting seminar over the question of reality and probability:

Kaufman’s screenplay flies in the face of the idea of the idea that we can ever determine whether one incident “naturally follows” another, that nature is at all a reliable guide to constructing stable narratives. The truth is, all of our Internet discussions/debates/arguments about whether the plot of Game of Thrones “makes sense,” or whether one episode of The Walking Dead “naturally” leads to another never wind up with any kind of resolution. They can be fun to engage in, and in making our arguments and counterarguments we can learn more about how visual narratives are constructed and, just as important, how the reactions and experiences of other viewers can inform our own. But if we’re looking to settle the question one and for all, we are probably going to be no more satisfied in the end than Charlie was. But at least he was polite enough to say thank you!