Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative
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Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative


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135 pages

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A concise historical survey of Aesthetics as a philosophical discipline.

Since the inception of cinema in the late nineteenth century, filmmakers have employed a wide array of precursory aesthetic strategies in the conception and creation of their disparate works. The existence of these traditional antecedents have afforded filmmakers a diverse range of technical and artistic applications towards the construction of their respective cinematic narratives. Furthermore, the socio-political and cultural contexts in which films are conceived often inform the manner in which particular aesthetic sensibilities are selected and deployed. ‘Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative’ provides a concise historical survey of Aesthetics as a practical philosophical discipline and applies several of its underlying principles to the examination of filmic storytelling.

Acknowledgements; Introduction: Art and Aesthetics; 1. Myth and Parable; 2. Realism and Abstraction; 3. Classicism and Romanticism; 4. Escapism and Formalism; Bibliography; Index.



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Date de parution 26 août 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781783089833
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 5 Mo

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A concise historical survey of Aesthetics as a philosophical discipline.

Since the inception of cinema in the late nineteenth century, filmmakers have employed a wide array of precursory aesthetic strategies in the conception and creation of their disparate works. The existence of these traditional antecedents have afforded filmmakers a diverse range of technical and artistic applications towards the construction of their respective cinematic narratives. Furthermore, the socio-political and cultural contexts in which films are conceived often inform the manner in which particular aesthetic sensibilities are selected and deployed. ‘Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative’ provides a concise historical survey of Aesthetics as a practical philosophical discipline and applies several of its underlying principles to the examination of filmic storytelling.

Acknowledgements; Introduction: Art and Aesthetics; 1. Myth and Parable; 2. Realism and Abstraction; 3. Classicism and Romanticism; 4. Escapism and Formalism; Bibliography; Index.

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Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative
Aesthetics and the Cinematic Narrative
An Introduction
Michael Peter Bolus
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2019
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Copyright © Michael Peter Bolus 2019
The moral right of the authors has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Bolus, Michael Peter, author.
Title: Aesthetics and the cinematic narrative : an introduction / by Michael Peter Bolus.
Description: London, UK; New York: Anthem Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references.
Identifiers: LCCN 2019021036 | ISBN 9781783089819 (hardback) | ISBN 9781783089840 (pbk.) | ISBN 1783089814 (hardback) | ISBN 1783089849 (pbk.)
Subjects: LCSH: Motion pictures – Aesthetics.
Classification: LCC PN1995.B5155 2019 | DDC 791.4301–dc23
LC record available at
ISBN-13: 978-1-78308-981-9 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78308-981-4 (Hbk)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78308-984-0 (Pbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78308-984-9 (Pbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
To Kristin
Introduction: Art and Aesthetics
1 Myth and Parable
2 Realism and Abstraction
3 Classicism and Romanticism
4 Escapism and Formalism
The main ideas presented in this book were cultivated over many years in a wide variety of courses and seminars in which I participated, both as a student and a teacher.
I owe a profound debt of gratitude to my professors, namely, Marvin Carlson, Daniel Gerould, Jane Bowers, Jonathan Kalb, James Saslow, Rosanna Warren, Robert Phillip Kolker, William Flesch, Sarolta Takacs, and Derek Walcott, as well as a diverse array of critics, educators, and artists whom I was fortunate enough to encounter—central among them Christopher Ricks, Roger Shattuck, and Robert Pinsky.
There are, of course, the innumerable scholars and thinkers whose varied insights I’ve digested and assimilated indirectly over the years, which, sadly, prevents me from citing by name.
I must also acknowledge the acuity and passion of my many students at New York University, Hunter College, Brooklyn College, Santa Monica College, and The Los Angeles Film School, whose probing curiosity helped sharpen my own ideas.
I would like to thank Tej Sood, Abi Pandey, Kanimozhi Ramamurthy, and Megan Greiving of Anthem Press, who were invariably kind, patient, and supportive.
My parents, John and Catherine Bolus, without whose support and never-ending love and devotion I might not have trusted myself to pursue my passions.
John Gutierrez, my administrative assistant, exhibited an amazing amount of industry, resourcefulness, and loyalty throughout what was often an obstacle-laden process.
My amazing young sons, Andre and Jean-Paul, who never made me feel guilty for disappearing into my office for hours on end.
Finally, my primary thanks are reserved for my wife, Kristin, to whom this book is dedicated. Her infinite love and support, keen intellect, critical prowess, and unbounded encouragement made this book possible.
In his 1890 poem, Conundrum of the Workshops , Rudyard Kipling writes,

When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?”
As Kipling duly suggests, the questions surrounding our definition and understanding of the nature and purpose of “Art” are ancient ones:

1. What is it about certain man-made objects that make them beautiful, arresting, soothing, provocative, or enlightening?
2. Why are some objects worthy of the label “Art,” while others are somehow disqualified from that categorization?
3. How do objects created for specifically utilitarian purposes (e.g., a bridge, an office tower, a clay pitcher, etc.) transcend their practical functions and enter the realm of Art? What inherent properties or qualities must be present in a man-made object to justify that classification?
4. What is the criteria that we employ when making these types of determinations? And who defines and applies that criteria?
5. What is Art’s purpose ? To simply beautify our surroundings? To elicit an emotional response? To provoke thought or cerebral reactions? To make a rhetorical point or pose a rhetorical question? To compel some sort of social, political, and/or spiritual change? To allow for certain types of communication between human beings that cannot be achieved otherwise? Or to merely provide a welcome and relaxing diversion?

In attempts to answer these and related questions, we in the modern era are often ruled by Romantic 1 notions of individual subjectivity , which insists that absolute criteria be displaced by a fluid relativism , leading to the slippery notion that “beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.”
But if beauty lies merely in the eye of the beholder, does it then follow that there are no native qualities or innate characteristics in the object itself that render it beautiful, regardless of our own individual gazes? Is there no such thing as a fixed set of definable standards by which we evaluate an object’s worth? If not, does it then follow that Art means whatever anybody wants it to mean? Wouldn’t that make it mean nothing?
The collision of disparate approaches to determining the artistic value of a given object can be, by turns, frustrating and futile or thrilling and rewarding, both for the creator of the object and its eventual audience—which is why it’s useful to be aware of the manner in which artists enter and navigate the creative process, and sensitive to the ways in which given audiences interpret and assess the ultimate worth of the final product.
It should also be noted that different cultures, subcultures, eras, geographical regions, religious/spiritual traditions, and self-contained artistic movements have defined and employed their own unique, idiosyncratic criteria by which they comprehend beauty and determine the value of a work of art.
Furthermore, the assumptions and expectations that distinguish one set of artistic criteria from another are not static—on the contrary, they are often fluid and dynamic, undergoing dramatic metamorphoses, even within the confines of an otherwise insular environment.
Happily, there is a field of inquiry devoted to the contemplation of these questions and the complex, nuanced ideas that accompany them: Aesthetics .
What is Aesthetics?
Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that attempts to locate and define the principles concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty—especially in Art.
Efforts to understand what makes something beautiful have a long and storied history.
In the Western tradition, Aesthetics can be traced as far back as the early fourth century BCE. The great Greek philosopher Plato (ca. 425–347 BCE) wrote penetratingly about Beauty and Art in his famous Dialogue s , which were composed intermittently across several decades.
Plato maintained an unusual set of ideas on both Art and Beauty—two concepts that he did not conflate. Plato believed that the material world we encounter each day is merely a collection of facsimiles—copies of Ideal Forms that exist in the universe. The truth—which is what Plato always searched for—is to be found in the Ideal Form, not its copy; therefore, man-made objects (like Art) can impede our connection with the truth. Plato also believed that Art, which we encounter through sensory perception, arouses our emotions in unproductive and destructive ways, contributing to our being diverted from the truth, which is why he distrusted Art, Artists, and the manner in which human beings generally experience and understand the physical world that they inhabit. Therefore, true Beauty, according to Plato, is not to be found in Art or the material world but, rather, in the purity and perfection of the fixed and universal Ideal. While Plato maintained his suspicion of Art and Artists, he never denied their power to elicit profound emotional responses from audiences, which is one of the reasons he feared their potentially damaging influence on society and what he considered to be the pillars of an ideal civilization.
Plato’s most famous student was Aristotle (384–322 BCE), whose celebrated treatise Poetics (ca. 335 BCE) is an in-depth, if somewhat elliptical, examination of Ancient Greek Tragedy, which necessarily touches upon tangential notions of Art and Beauty. While never mentioning Plato by name, Aristotle’s defense and glorification of poetic drama—and, by implication, Art in general—as a morally redemptive and emotionally cathartic enterprise can be interpreted as a direct challenge to his teacher’s earlier conclusions.

Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
By examining plot, structure, character, language, theme, musicality, and the visual/theatrical aspects he observed in the tragic plays of Aeschylus (525–456 BCE), Sophocles (496–406 BCE), and Euripides (480–406 BCE), Aristotle begins to define the characteristics that constitute Classical notions of greatness and artistic merit in Ancient Greek Drama. Many of these characteristics are neatly applicable to other art forms: balance, symmetry, harmony, order, nuance, suggestion, decorum, a proportional grandeur, and a sense of wholeness. The degree to which these characteristics can be located in the art of the ancient world is startling given the scope and volume of creative output in Classical Greco-Roman culture. 2

The Parthenon (fifth century BCE)
In the first century BCE, the Roman poet Horace (65–8 BCE) wrote Ars Poetica , an extremely influential epistolary poem in which he advises young poets on the art of drama and versification. Ars Poetica provides a crisp outline of maxims that poets should consider as they compose their versified dramas. Among these are the need for unity and simplicity, calculation in the face of emotional, intellectual, and/or stylistic extremes, clear distinctions between poetic/dramatic genres, a well-honed sense of decorum with regard to language and character, and a strict adherence to a five-act structure.
Horace also believed that the purpose of poetry (read Art ) is “ to delight and instruct .” Notice that Horace includes a didactic component ( instruct ) alongside the more obvious aim of entertaining ( delight ) an audience or reader. Without either, the implication being, the work is not worthy to be deemed Art.
Horace also advised that the dramatic narrative should begin “ in medias res ,” Latin for “ in the middle of things ,” meaning that the action should start when the characters are already in, or close to, crisis mode, rather than “ ab ovum ,” Latin for “ from the egg ,” or the very beginning, meaning the moment of a protagonist’s conception. Horace’s advice on this point would be echoed about two thousand years later by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), who wrote that “ a drama is not designed to tell the entire story of a man’s life; but, rather, to place him in a situation in which his entire being becomes clear by the way he unties the knots .”
Classical sensibilities regarding the nature and value of Art began to erode with the creeping advent of a proselytizing Christianity. In approximately 200 CE, the Christian theologian Tertullian (ca. 155–240 CE) composed a series of epistles entitled On the Spectacles , which is a scathing indictment of the moral depravity of the theatrical presentations that were both common and extremely popular in Ancient Rome. Tertullian argued that the sensual pleasures enjoyed by people attending these theatrical events (which included everything from mock naval battles in the Coliseum to bloody bearbaiting to the most brutal of gladiatorial combats) were an affront to God and a vulgar misuse of God’s gifts to man. By drawing connections between contemporaneous forms of public entertainment and myriad pagan rituals, Tertullian emphasizes the moral, ethical, and spiritual implications intrinsic to the creation, presentation, and reception of the dramatic arts. 3
Following the fall of the western half of the Roman Empire in approximately 475 CE, the burgeoning Byzantine Empire codified the central tenets of Christian doctrine, and the Church began to emerge as the primary spiritual, civic, social, and governmental force in a Europe now devoid of the concentrated and unchallengeable authority of Imperial Rome. The Medieval World, therefore, would be informed and governed by Christianity in general, and the hierarchical structures of both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches in particular. While a secular tradition remained intact, the dominant currents of artistic output were decidedly religious in nature, and their aesthetic sensibilities were dictated and enforced by the Ecclesiastical authorities. It was an aesthetic that was very strict in determining the manner in which religious content would be conceived and executed by artists, and one that anticipated the responses of a largely illiterate lay community that received its theological indoctrination largely through ritual and visual imagery. Religious iconography, for example, especially with regard to depictions of Jesus, embraced an abstract quality that emphasized Christ’s divinity rather than his humanity.

Byzantine Icon (ca. ninth century CE)
An interest in Aesthetics in service of religion continued throughout the Middle Ages. The Christian theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) appropriated Classical ideas in ways that supported a more general approach to the dissemination of Christian doctrine, maintaining that integrity , proportion , and clarity are the three conditions of beauty—a notion that feeds a particular understanding of artistic creation. 4
The Medieval aesthetic began to slowly dissipate in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries, as the conditions for the Renaissance began to take root. The Renaissance (from the French word meaning “Rebirth”) was a complex cultural, intellectual, artistic, and philosophical revolution, marked most prominently by a desire to reach back past the Medieval World and reconnect with and resuscitate the spirit of Classical Antiquity. The word “Medieval,” Latin for “Middle Ages,” was, in fact, pejoratively employed by Renaissance thinkers to distinguish themselves from that era between themselves and the Ancient Greco-Roman culture they would attempt to emulate. The reasons for this phenomenon were numerous, but primary among them was a reintroduction of Classical thought to Western Europe, which included various strains of pagan philosophies and a set of monumental and refreshing aesthetic approaches to art and creative endeavor. This occurred alongside a profound set of scientific and technological advances that deeply affected people’s understanding of the universe and their practical worldview, as many of the conclusions arrived at by the scientific community stood in stark opposition to Church doctrine.
Central to the Renaissance was its embrace of Classical Humanism , a philosophy that represented a shift away from religious thought and experience toward the secular aspects of the human condition. It concentrated on human beings’ corporeal realities and celebrated earthly life as something that is valuable in and of itself, and not merely as preparation for an unseen afterlife.
This revival of Classicism and its attendant Humanistic impulses greatly informed the aesthetic character of the Renaissance. The abstract, strictly stylized manner of the Medieval sensibility slowly gave way to a more robust, three-dimensional, realistic approach to figurative representation—one that embraced the minutiae, particularities, and textured nuances of human beings and the material world which they inhabited. Even renderings of mythological figures were rendered with an eye toward realistic detail.

Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli (1480s)
But attempts to codify a set of “rules” that would govern this newly conceived Neo-Classicism led to oppressive formulaic strictures and a certain rigidity with regard to artistic conception and creation, as well as the criteria by which the quality of creative output was measured. Theorists like Ludovico Castlevetro (ca. 1505–1571) and Francesco Robertello (1516–1567) translated their interpretations (sometimes misinterpretations) of Aristotle, Horace, and numerous other Classical artists and scholars into a kind of “how-to” manual for Renaissance artists. Their prescriptive musings concentrated on drama, but the aesthetic they championed was applicable to all the arts and emphasized the above-mentioned characteristics that they found indicative of the Classical aesthetic. As Neo-Classicism cemented itself as the monolithic standard by which artistic value would be assessed for the next two centuries, many artists slowly began to feel oppressed by what they felt was an externally imposed set of rules and regulations that stifled their own idiosyncratic styles, instincts, and sensibilities.
Another monumental event that occurred in the sixteenth century was the Protestant Reformation , sparked by Martin Luther (1483–1546), a German priest and theologian, who in 1517 published his The Ninety-Five Theses , which was a scathing assault on the Roman Catholic Church and some of its more corrupt and suspect practices. The revolution that Luther initiated drove inordinate numbers of Roman Catholics away from the Church toward more reform-minded Protestant ideas.
This budding movement was greatly aided by the newly minted printing press, which not only allowed literature in support of Reformation ideas to be mass-produced and widely disseminated across the European landscape but also helped to dramatically increase literacy among the lay communities.
In an effort to combat the mass exodus, the Church convened the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a series of ecumenical meetings of church authorities designed to lead a “Counter-Reformation,” which would both ensure the survival of Roman Catholicism and preserve its centrality in the Christian world.
One of the main decrees established by the Council of Trent encouraged the Church and its supporters to use art, storytelling, and visual imagery to spread religious themes and Christian doctrine in ways that were more emotionally direct, viscerally thrilling, and sensually arousing. The result was a widening artistic movement (covering painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, dance, music, and literature) that featured a dramatic exuberance, extreme grandeur, detailed ornamentation, and an over-the-top style of presentation that would come to be known as the Baroque .
The gaudy and untamed quality of the early Baroque period appealed directly to the emotional, spiritual, and primal desires of a largely uneducated populace (pejoratively regarded as a “pious mass”) and was often derided by more refined and well-heeled critics as vulgar and sensationalized. But its popularity was inarguable, tempered only by the restrained and formally ordered character of a competing Neo-Classicism that would reach its zenith of influence in the eighteenth century.

Ecstasy of Saint Theresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1652)
The dominance of the Neo-Classical sensibility was cemented by the French court, which, despite the movement’s origins in sixteenth-century Italy, became its self-appointed guardian and most aggressive champion. France, under Louis XIV (1638–1715), became the most powerful political, economic, military, and cultural force in Europe. Its centrality in world affairs compelled other European nations to submit to its primacy and/or emulate its most conspicuous features, which included a clearly defined set of aesthetic characteristics deeply rooted in Neo-Classicism.
With regard to drama, French Neo-Classicism demanded a strict adherence to a five-act structure, insisted that violence be kept off the stage, required an unfaltering use of the “alexandrine” (the standard versified line in French poetry) when writing dialogue, a clear separation of the genres (Tragedy, Comedy, and the Pastoral should be pure and distinct from one another), and an extreme reliance on source material from Classical antiquity. The plays also exhibited an unfaltering devotion to the Neo-Classical concept of the unity of time, space, and action, which dictated that (1) the narrative should unfold in one unbroken period of time (preferably 24 hours or less), (2) the narrative should be set in one geographical location, and (3) the narrative should be built upon one, and only one, dramatic action. It should be noted that while Neo-Classical doctrine purported to be a strict and orthodox interpretation of Aristotle and attendant Classical thinkers, Aristotle never articulated any such prescription as the “three unities,” although he did discuss the dramatic efficacy of a play revolving around one unified action. 5
Jean Racine (1639–1699), France’s most famous tragedian, wrote 12 celebrated tragedies in the Neo-Classical style, most of which were based upon Classical mythology. Likewise, Moliere (1622–1673), seventeenth-century France’s most beloved comic playwright, also faithfully submitted to Neo-Classical conventions and based his comedies on stock characters and dramatic situations that were first developed in Ancient Greco-Roman Comedy.

Jean Racine (1639–1699)
Central to any discussion of Aesthetics is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). In 1790, Kant published Critique of Judgment , a sweeping examination of the nature and applications of human knowledge and cognition, which includes seminal analyses on the nature of Beauty and the Sublime. Among Kant’s many observations is the idea that the true nature of the universe is ultimately beyond human understanding; therefore, Art should not be expected to impose order or meaning upon it. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, Kant maintained that Art should be divorced from moral or didactic aims and freed from practical, utilitarian purposes. 6

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
Neo-Classicism’s stranglehold on artistic output continued to tighten through the eighteenth century, even while the seeds of its destruction were being planted. The revolt against Neo-Classicism as a suffocating and dictatorial monolith, which demanded a complete surrender to its aesthetic dogma, had a political component to it. In Germany, where Neo-Classicism never really took hold in any meaningful way, the first rumblings of resistance were being marshaled and articulated by influential theorists and practitioners. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781), a German writer, dramatist, philosopher, and critic, began to write persuasively about the need for a uniquely “German” theater — one which would embrace German traditions, mythology, and folklore rather than Greco-Roman source material. He also argued against the external imposition of Neo-Classical strictures, maintaining that a decidedly native sensibility should govern German dramatic and literary expression.
Lessing’s campaign to distinguish Germany from France’s creeping influence and its attendant Neo-Classical sensibilities was joined by subsequent German thinkers. August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) went so far as to cite the great English dramatist William Shakespeare (1564–1616) as a writer who consistently and aggressively violated Neo-Classical rules of composition yet still managed to dwarf the accomplishments of France’s greatest playwrights.
Emerging from this growing revolt against French/Neo-Classical hegemony was a group of young German writers who embraced a fresh literary aesthetic that critics named Sturm und Drang , roughly translated as “Storm and Stress.” The Sturm und Drang movement was characterized by individual subjectivity and an unapologetic embrace of extreme emotionalism—both in direct contradiction to the staid, measured, rational order of Neo-Classicism.
Sturm und Drang served as the foundation for Romanticism, a vitriolic, frontal assault on the Neo-Classical tradition.
Romanticism, an artistic, philosophical, intellectual movement represented a sweeping and converging set of revolutionary currents, all aimed at subverting and replacing the doctrinal, dictatorial, ordered sense of Neo-Classical approaches to the arts. Romanticism championed the idea that the individual artist-genius and his/her subjective experiences and emotional truths should be at the center of the creative process, and the artist should never be obliged to submit to the prefabricated templates and restrictive regulations and assumptions of a Neo-Classical aesthetic.
Under Romanticism, the ordered, restrained, balanced, symmetrical, nuanced, suggestive qualities of Neo-Classicism would be replaced by an embrace of the fragmentary, the incomplete, the mysterious, the cryptic, the unrestrained, the fear-invoking—all of which were showcased with emotional excess and a bold lack of restraint. And while Neo-Classicism favored themes that were general, timeless, and universal, Romanticism valued the personal, particular, and idiosyncratic. While Neo-Classicism emphasized the primacy of a well-wrought plot, Romanticism favored the exploration of character, which sometimes subverted time-honored notions of Classical dramatic structure.
Any thorough examination of Romanticism must confront the movement’s preoccupation with the Sublime . To the Romantics, the greatest height of artistic achievement is the creation of a Sublime experience, which is loosely defined as something that transcends understanding, dwarfs pedestrian experience, and inspires awe. It is necessarily difficult to describe a Sublime experience, because its exalted nature defies categorization and overwhelms the limitation of mere words.
It should be noted that the Sublime experience is not confined to resplendency (although glorious splendor and transcendent beauty can be a part of a sublime phenomenon)—it can also issue from situations, characters, or events that are grotesque, destructive, and frightening. In fact, one of Romanticism’s favored ways of accessing the Sublime was through sheer terror. Greatly influenced by the Gothic novels, poems, and short stories of the late eighteenth century, Romantic artists created tales and images that embraced cryptic, supernatural, fragmented, and unexplained elements designed to terrify readers and audiences, and haunt them into a Sublime experience.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli (1782)

Saturn Devouring One of His Children by Francisco Goya (1823)
The dismantling of Neo-Classicism by the Romantic revolt provided the opportunity for alternative artistic ideas to take shape and reach fruition—many of these ideas would have been considered subversive under the rigidity of Neo-Classicism. 7
One of the emerging aesthetics to emerge in the late nineteenth century was Realism , an artistic movement that attempted to illustrate and dramatize subject matter drawn from the real world in ways that avoided artificial conventions, exotic locations, supernatural characters, and extraordinary crises. The aim was to locate profundity in quotidian, domestic situations featuring “real-life” people confronting problems that audiences might find recognizable and immediately relatable, given their existence in a dramatic world that they identified as their own.
Realism’s origins can be traced back to the mid-eighteenth century, when the French philosopher, encyclopedist, and amateur dramatist Denis Diderot (1713–1784) encountered a stage production of a Shakespeare play, performed by an English theater troupe under the direction of actor/manager David Garrick (1717–1789). What Diderot saw on the stage amazed him. Gone were the phony histrionics, presentational style of delivery, and mannered theatrics of more conventional acting troupes. The more subtle, naturalistic style of Garrick’s performance not only fascinated Diderot but also planted the seeds for a new type of stage drama that he began to envision.
Diderot was also a huge fan of the French painter Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), whose work featured ordinary people in recognizable, domestic settings. Although many of the paintings include melodramatic exaggerations of emotion, their general subject matter was divorced from the over-the-top grandeur of more traditional approaches to the visual arts.
Diderot imagined a new type of drama—one that would combine the quotidian situations and domestic settings of Greuze’s paintings with the more naturalistic performance style of Garrick’s troupe. He also eschewed the idea that dialogue should be written in verse, and instead proposed the then-revolutionary notion that dialogue should be written in a manner that more closely approximated colloquial speech. The effect would be akin to the audience observing the action through an “invisible fourth wall,” as if it were watching an actual “slice of life” play out before them in real time. 8

Broken Eggs by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1856)
The sum total of these prescriptive elements laid the foundation for Realism, which would reach a full fruition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through the groundbreaking plays of Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), and many other celebrated European dramatists. Its influence would be staggering, and neatly hospitable to a burgeoning cinema that was still figuring out the best ways to locate and present dramatic content on the screen.

The Stone Breakers by Gustave Courbet (1849)
Simultaneously, however, a wide array of more avant-garde movements began to gain traction in the arts—movements that highlighted and celebrated more stylized, nonrealistic elements. Modernism , a self-conscious philosophical and artistic movement, which attempted to create new forms of expression that might better reflect the dynamic, fragmented, sometimes violent character of the modern, industrialized world, became the umbrella heading for a diverse group of artistic trends.
Central to Modernism’s peculiar conceits was a vigorous rejection of the sentimental, saccharine nature of late-Romanticism’s artistic output, and an interest in illustrating the fractured, fragmented nature of the modern world. The Modernists embraced abstraction over realism and placed importance in highlighting process and technique rather than disguising them. The approach produced, perhaps, audience responses that were more intellectual than emotional, experiences that were pondered more than they were felt. But the dislocation evident in the work was a penetrating reflection of man’s increasing feelings of isolation in a chaotic, random, violent, and seemingly unforgiving universe.

Composition #VII by Vassily Kandinsky (1913)
Another conspicuous feature of Modernism is irony —an oft-used but seldom understood term. While there are many different types of irony, its core characteristics represent a fracturing between language and meaning, between expectation and material result, between illusion and reality. While the ironic mode can sometimes degenerate into wry, lazy cynicism and pedestrian self-reference, it also has the power to achieve a penetrating, multi-perspectival outlook with serious, sometimes profound, implications.
One might argue persuasively that we, in the twenty-first century, are still negotiating the interplay between the decaying remnants of the Romantic sensibility and the fragmented nature of a Modernist idiom.
Regardless of the degree to which a given artist is self-consciously aware of his/her aesthetic leanings, or interested in codifying a particular aesthetic stance that permeates his/her work, and regardless of whether or not audiences have defined the criteria by which they judge another’s creative output, certain ingrained assumptions do, in fact, inform and govern the three stages of the artistic process:

1. Conception : An artist cultivates an idea for an artwork in a given medium.
2. Creation : The artist translates the idea into an actual, manifest object.
3. Reception : Audiences respond to their own engagement with the artwork.
Each of these three stages of the artistic process emerges in a cultural/aesthetic context that is characterized by established, sometimes unconscious, sets of assumptions and expectations about what constitutes beauty, truth, quality, and entertainment—and as we have already established, these contexts are not static; they are fluid and dynamic. They differ from one culture to the next, from one subculture to the next, from one epoch to the next, from one geographical region to the next; and the artworks they produce are directly affected by these amorphous contextual ideals.
The following chapters examine a series of four ostensible dichotomies that govern the aesthetic foundations of storytelling:

1. Myth and Parable
2. Realism and Abstraction
3. Classicism and Romanticism
4. Escapism and Formalism
Each dichotomy is designed to locate and examine a particular mode of narrative and the manner in which that mode can inform and widen the aesthetic choices of the filmmaker or graphic storyteller.
It should be noted that none of these aesthetic modes are mutually exclusive—they can often overlap or be combined in interesting and novel ways. Nor are any of the films featured in the following case studies pure examples of any one mode of expression; rather, they are illustrative of certain tendencies that are present, to greater or lesser degrees, in the films that this book examines.
Because of the nonexclusive nature of these distinctions—and the character of this type of analysis—the book necessarily includes many overlapping observations and certain redundancies whose import should emerge as self-evident.
Wherever useful and appropriate, the book will attempt to examine how certain aesthetic strategies are connected to the larger sociopolitical/historical contexts in which they were deployed, contributing to a deeper understanding of the relationships between cultural perspectives and artistic output.
While the book does not assume familiarity with any of the films discussed in the following chapters, screening the films before reading is not merely highly recommended but also crucial to any deep and comprehensive understanding of the respective analyses.

1 I use the term “Romantic” to connote characteristics indicative of Romanticism as an artistic tradition (which will be defined and examined subsequently), not its more common and colloquial usage.
2 See Stephen Halliwell’s Aristotle’s Poetics for a more detailed and comprehensive analysis.
3 Marvin Carlson’s Theories of the Theatre provides an excellent and comprehensive chronological survey of theatrical traditions.
4 The collected scholarly works of semiotician Umberto Eco provide the most insightful analyses and descriptions of the Medieval aesthetic.
5 For an interesting examination of Renaissance art’s relationship to its sociopolitical context, see Roy Strong’s Art and Power .
6 Roger Scruton has written penetrating analyses of Kant, most accessibly in Kant: A Very Short Introduction .
7 A seminal explication of Romanticism can be found in M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition .
8 I am using the terms “invisible fourth wall” and “slice of life” anachronistically, as neither term was employed to describe naturalistic theater practice until the late nineteenth century.
One of the many questions that is useful to ask when creating a work of art or assessing its value is, What is its purpose?
Whether one is in the process of constructing a narrative, telling a story for public consumption, or evaluating its effectiveness, one must be acutely aware of its implicit aims, rhetorical goals, artistic conceits, diversionary objectives, and/or intellectual pretensions.
Once one is clear about the story’s intended function, one is better equipped to select the aesthetic strategies best suited to escort the narrative to full fruition and/or assess the ultimate value of the final product.
Myth and Parable represent two distinct modes of storytelling, each with their own fundamental objectives and inherent stratagems. And while their differences may sometimes be subtle, they carry profound implications for the story’s design and final impact on audiences. 1
In the modern idiom, we often use the word Myth to describe something that is false or suspect: “That is a myth!”—the implication being that the story being told is, at best, misleading or misunderstood, or, at worst, untrue, a lie.
Myth is also often defined as a story accepted by an ancient people that purports to explain certain natural, spiritual, religious, or moral/ethical phenomena but which is fundamentally untrue.
But for the purposes of this examination, we will define Myth as a story told that is designed to illustrate the general, timeless, and universal truths of the human condition —truths about ourselves, our human interactions, our place in the universe, and the myriad variables that influence our moral foundations and ethical choices. A Myth explores the things about our world that are fixed, stable, unchanging. The things that ultimately define us as sentient, feeling, and curious beings.

A lie is a story that is designed to deceive.
A Myth is a story that is designed to illuminate.
A Parable , on the other hand, is a story told to make a rhetorical point, or pose a rhetorical question . In other words, it contains a conspicuously didactic component that is designed to lead the audience to a particular point of view, or alternate perspective, that might inform moral or ethical choices with a specific end in mind.
Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most famous figure associated with parables, spun carefully crafted stories that animated profound dilemmas, compelling followers to commit to one course of action over and above another.
Unlike in Myth, which embraces ambiguity, a Parable’s interpretation, while not always immediately apparent, is ultimately closed.
You might think of it this way:

Myth is descriptive .
Parable is prescriptive .
Inherent in Parable is a potentially subversive set of characteristics. Its goal might be to undermine an audience’s preconceptions rather than reinforce them. And, in attempts to alter our fundamental understanding of one thing or another, it might also compel us to adjust our attitudes and behaviors toward a variety of social, cultural, and political phenomena.
How do films embrace the underlying aims and distinctive conceits of either Myth or Parable?

Case Study :

Film : M
Director : Fritz Lang
Year : 1931
Genre : Thriller
Country of Origin : Germany
In M , his classic thriller from 1931, German director Fritz Lang (1890–1976) expertly spins the haunting tale of a child murderer on the loose in cosmopolitan Berlin toward the end of the Weimar Republic (1919–33)—just a year before Adolf Hitler would be voted into office through a democratic process, securing Nazi control of the German government. And while the words are not used in the film, the implication is that the children are molested and/or raped before they are killed.
It should be noted that the film never mentions Hitler, Nazis, or politics at all, but the bubbling tensions that writhe underneath Lang’s story are probingly reflective of the combustible sociopolitical climate that characterized the waning years of Weimar Germany—a climate marked by rage, paranoia, frustration, humiliation, and a desire for vengeance masked as justice.
The end of World War I (1914–18) led to the Treaty of Versailles , an armistice agreement between Germany and the Allied Powers, ratified by the League of Nations in 1919. The agreement required Germany to acknowledge its culpability in causing the war and accept responsibility for all subsequent loss and damage. As a condition of this “War Guilt” clause, Germany was forced to disarm, cede substantial swaths of contested territories, and pay enormous sums in reparations to certain wartime enemies. This led to a sweeping and volcanic resentment among the German populace and a palpable longing for a renewed sense of power, autonomy, and international respect.
It was this type of environment that allowed a demagogue like Hitler to identify and marshal the German people’s sense of victimhood and redirect their collective anger toward a perceived set of common enemies.
M begins with a community in crisis. A rash of child abductions and murders has paralyzed the city. The film chronicles two distinct segments of the community (the police and an underground criminal syndicate) attempting to locate and apprehend the perpetrator for their own sets of reasons.
The world of M is rife with suspicion and paranoia, exposed and animated by (but perhaps not caused by?) the murderer in their midst. It is a world of exaggerated features, grotesque faces, cartoonish bodies, reminiscent of the stylized paintings and illustrations of the great Weimar artists George Grosz (1893–1959) and Otto Dix (1891–1969). Lang brilliantly captures the internal tensions writhing at the heart of the community and creates a poetic metaphor for the real-world conditions that characterized post–World War I Germany.

The Skat Players by Otto Dix (1920)

Yet a strange ambiguity hangs over the entire film—an ambiguity that is surprising, given that the story revolves around a monstrous child murderer who everybody (including the audience) understands needs to be located and removed from their midst. So why, when the villain is ultimately apprehended, delivered to the court, and forced to face the mechanisms of jurisprudence, are we left with feelings of ambivalence and a startling lack of closure?
The answer lies in the film’s refusal to be predictably pedantic or patly moralistic—it understands that although the creation of a “straw man” (the murderer) who is torn down by a self-righteously heroic community might satiate our more primal desires, while simultaneously providing a conventional sense of dramatic closure, it would be far too easy and simplistic to be truly probing or profound.
Instead, the film uses the villain merely as a catalyst to expose its real thematic aim: an unflinching examination of how we, as a community, respond to this unbridled, nihilistic threat among us.
By turning his lens on us and our collective response to the terrorizing villain, Lang is able to explore the idea that our actions, in the face of an extreme danger, ultimately define us. The sum total of our choices, and the manner in which we act upon them, determine who we are.
By blurring the lines that separate right from wrong, good from evil, morality from immorality, law from lawlessness, Lang obliterates the melodramatic tendency to embrace Manichean worldviews in favor of more nuanced, complex understandings of human behavior in a universe that often seems random, violent, and unjust.
A part of Lang’s peculiar narrative strategy involves the dismantling of conventional, formulaic dramatic structures, which tend to introduce audiences to a hero/protagonist in his/her familiar world, followed by a profound event (often called the inciting incident ) that knocks the hero out of his/her state of stasis and forces him/her to embark upon a journey to achieve a clearly defined and noble goal. The cinematic narrative is a chronicle of this hero’s journey , to borrow an important but overused description from the great Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), author of the seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).
But who is the hero of M ?
While certain characters in the film, like the blind balloon merchant or the de facto defense attorney, might be thought of as behaving heroically in extremely difficult and stressful circumstances, neither can be considered the hero of the film for one very simple reason: it is not their story. They are important, but ultimately peripheral characters.
If we embrace the concept of a Group Hero (several individuals who, in concert with one another, emerge as “the hero” as an ensemble), might the police force, the ostensible representatives of law and order and the entity that eventually apprehends the villain, be considered the hero? A cursory examination of the film will quickly dispel that notion, as the cops are exposed as just as corrupt, self-serving, and morally suspect as the rest of the principal players in the action.
If not the police, then what about the criminal syndicate who is the first to locate and remove our antagonist from the public arena? Again, even the most superficial analysis reveals a group that is fraught with murderers, thieves, and cutthroats—a collection of misfits and outcasts defined by criminality and amoral behavior, whose reasons for pursuing the murderer are entirely selfish and practical, devoid of any truly noble purpose.
Lang’s removal of a conventional hero from the narrative contributes to the film’s ubiquitous ambiguity and feeds his aim of turning his lens on us, highlighted by the strange and haunting final words of the film, spoken by the distraught mother of Elsie, one of the murdered little girls: “We should do a better job looking out for our children. You!” It’s as if Lang is somehow holding us, in part, responsible for the horror that has unfolded in the killer’s wake.
One of the most memorable and frightening moments in the film comes toward the end, when the murderer is thrown by his criminal captors into the warehouse basement. He turns toward the unseen, far side of the room, then recoils in horror. From his point of view, we see the assembled outlaw “jury”—still, silent, menacing; the only movement being the slow, creeping pan of Lang’s camera.

It is, perhaps, ironic that the film’s most terrifying shot does not capture one of our villain’s horrific deeds but, rather, the moment he is apprehended. Shouldn’t that be a moment of celebration? Satisfaction? Relief?
It is not.
While we can all relate to the primal urge to exact revenge on the perpetrator of a vile, unspeakable crime, we simultaneously understand, on some base, if not cerebral level, that the situation in the warehouse basement is, somehow, terribly wrong. We recognize that this will not lead to justice in any civilized sense of the term. We sense the potential danger of this temporarily silent, self-righteous rabble. We empathize with the killer’s sudden desire to be handed over to the police.

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