Melodrama, romance, epic, and realism are all used to describe movies without a sense of what they imply about narrative structure, but people have a better idea about tragedy. The prestige of tragedy, in fact, has remained largely intact, and much higher than comedy’s--you can put a movie down by saying it’s "just a comedy" whereas the phrase "just a tragedy" is meaningless. This is so in part because of the sense that there are certain requirements of form as well as mood that make tragedy a harder club to get into.
Still, you want to avoid pedantry. Geoffrey Brereton has updated Aristotle’s seminal assessment of the conditions of tragedy in the Poetics with an eye to spanning the gap between such rules of tragic composition and what we consider tragic today. It’s relatively easy to exclude certain conditions:
[T]he notion of tragedy attaches neither to ... the clearly expected nor to the totally unexpected. These two apparently incompatible types of disaster have common qualities. Both are recognised after they have occurred, as ’natural’. There is also a factor which they both exclude, the factor of failure. When the weak are defeated by the admittedly stronger, there may well be misery and destruction, but one cannot properly speak of a failure. 1
Brereton then manages to summarize what we think of now as tragic in a few lines: "A tragedy is a final and impressive disaster due to an unforeseen or unrealised failure involving people who command respect and sympathy. It often entails an ironical change of fortune and usually conveys a strong impression of waste. It is always accompanied by misery and emotional distress." 2
Of the characters in tragedy, Northrop Frye has specified that the "tragic hero is very great as compared with us, but there is something else, something on the side of him opposite the audience, compared to which he is small. This something else may be called God, gods, fate, accident, fortune, necessity, circumstance, or any combination of these, but whatever it is the tragic hero is our mediator with it." 3 In order to mediate, tragic protagonists have to bear responsibility for their actions, though not in the legalistic sense of suffering due punishment. Frye has written, "Whether the content is Greek, Christian, or undefined, tragedy seems to lead up to an epiphany of law, of that which is and must be," 4 to which Brereton adds that tragedy does not accommodate the "moral conviction" that "the suffering shown ... is disproportionate to the human cause," such a conviction simplistically "suppos[ing] an extra-human principle of equity which rewards right-doing and punishes wrong-doing." 5 In other words, tragedy is pointedly not melodrama.
The tragic protagonists bear responsibility in a way that accords with that knotty, nightmarish feeling central to tragedy that they couldn’t have acted otherwise given the circumstances and yet that this doesn’t let them off the hook. In The Libation Bearers Aeschylus has Clytemnestra warn her son and killer, "Watch out--the hounds of a mother’s curse will hunt you down," to which Orestes replies, "But how to escape a father’s if I fail?" After he’s done his work, Orestes says, "I embrace you ... you,/my victory, are my guilt, my curse...." 6 When the murder is then tried in The Eumenides Athena assesses Orestes’s and the Furies’ cases in turn and pronounces, "A crisis either way." 7
Sophocles has the Messenger in Oedipus the King intone, "The pains/we inflict upon ourselves hurt most of all," 8 which Isaac Singer modernized simply in the author’s note to Enemies, A Love Story when he wrote, "The characters are not only Nazi victims but victims of their own personalities and fates." Tragedy is the highest development of the perception that in all our important failures we are our own worst enemies. (Being a victim of the Nazis doesn’t constitute a failure.) Dickens encompassed this element of tragedy in even fewer words when he had Jingle say of his ending up in debtor’s prison, "Deserved it all--but suffered much--very." 9 Watching a tragedy we feel most strongly that the protagonist must fall and at the same time that his or her virtues are inextricably bound up with whatever characteristics ordain the fall. Something regrettably passes out of the world, but not without cause.
The most compact juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy would be to say that comedy is a communal dramatization of the continuity of life in the face of all obstacles while tragedy is an individual search for the meaning of life in the face of death. Yet for our movies failure in Brereton’s sense is disaster enough. In A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey, the only two American movies before the counterculture to bring tragic drama to the screen without crippling compromise or incompetence, nobody dies. It works for Americans: failure is a kind of death, and I don’t mean that in the glib anti-materialistic sense. Mary Tyrone’s failure as a matriarch has nothing to do with commercial achievement. In both these works the central female figures are tragically doomed to repeat behavior that cuts them off from family and society, and finally from themselves.
Failure in place of death also fits in with the lowering of the protagonists’ status to the audience’s level in dramatic works introduced by realism in the 18th century. (Protagonists in comedy could always be above or equal to us in status, but status never protected their dignity against the assaults of the action, and in irony we have always looked down on them regardless of status.) The protagonists of American movie tragedy border on ironic versions of high-status tragic figures: Blanche Du Bois, the faded belle of the busted gentry, with her "empress’s" tiara of rhinestones ("Next door to glass"); Mary Tyrone, the showman’s wife with the Christian name of the Queen of Heaven and a surname taken from the territory of the O’Neill sept, which traces its roots in Ireland back to late antiquity. By the end of the action you feel that the survival of such characters is, in some ways, worse than death.
Streetcar and Long Day’s Journey show that tragedy could be reconfigured for modern America, and yet for the most part it wasn’t, until the late ’60s and the ’70s. The Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, and the women’s movement, as well as the changes in taste and mores of the counterculture (which is a tag for the spread of the progressive and Bohemian taste and mores of the previous half century to the younger educated middle-class) broadened the expressive range of the movies and made it impossible to exclude certain subject matter, attitudes, and images if movies were to stay in contact with their core audience of young people. Audiences were willing in an almost religious sense to let movies dramatize, and bring some emotional focus to, areas of experience about which there was no social, political, or legal consensus.
And so we finally saw onscreen on a regular basis unsentimentalized Jews, unromantic Italian-Americans, and blacks who weren’t just striving to join the bland ranks of middle-class movie folk; realistic violence and people who committed crimes and got away with it; naked bodies, sometimes in scenes of people having casual sex and enjoying it. We also heard at last uncensored language, including profanities, obscenities, and epithets, an ungirdling that is absolutely necessary to a full representation of people’s thoughts. And in some indirectly connected way, we also had instances of tragedy that didn’t derive from the stage. The famous, ironic baptism sequence in The Godfather, for instance, in which Michael stands as godfather and renounces evil while his hitmen wipe out his rivals and enemies, gives us a classic tragic experience: "the recognition of the determined shape of the life [the protagonist] has created for himself, with an implicit comparison with the uncreated potential life he has forsaken." 10
Brian DePalma’s Casualties of War (1989), adapted from Daniel Lang’s 1969 New Yorker article puts the two lives side by side in an allegorical twinship that the tragic sense pushes beyond melodrama. Meserve, the instinctual warrior near the end of his tour who leads his reconnaissance patrol in the abduction, rape, and murder of a Vietnamese girl, and Eriksson, the upstanding "cherry" who refuses to participate but can’t rescue the girl, respectively represent martial masculinity and the law-bound civilization it both protects and threatens. They’re a romance pairing--Eriksson is Christian and Meserve Obstinate (Diaz, who lets himself be talked into the gangbang, is their Pliable)--established in an early scene invented for the movie when Meserve rescues the helpless Eriksson from a Vietcong tunnel. Allegorically, Eriksson couldn’t survive combat without Meserve, and Meserve’s fearsome masculinity couldn’t be contained without Eriksson. The movie sees in this paradoxical interdependence and incompatibility something inevitable, tragic, beyond moral revulsion and political counterarguments.
This pairing is quite different from the brawn-and-brains buddy work of Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce at the end of L.A. Confidential, which rouses us with the manhandling of the corrupt, predatory-homosexual D.A. and satisfies us with the shooting of their crooked police captain in the back. You can also compare the effects of tragedy and melodrama within Casualties of War itself simply by looking at the interaction of Eriksson and Clark, the most conventionally movie-psycho of the patrol, once they’re back at the base after the crime. In more material invented for the movie, Clark tosses a grenade in a latrine to kill Eriksson. Unhurt by the explosion, Eriksson stalks up to Clark and drygulches him with a spade, and we’re free to cheer because Clark started it, in an underhanded way, and there’s no symbolic connection between him and Eriksson. It’s an awful patch in what is otherwise an unexampled American war movie.
In some ways, the most sophisticated tragedy of all is Paul Mazursky’s adaptation of Singer’s Enemies, A Love Story. The movie, like the book, has the plot structure of both romance and farce, and even, technically, a happy ending in the birth of a child to Herman, the Holocaust survivor. But Herman can’t fulfill, or even decide on, a quest (such as the assimilation of the successful rabbi for whom he ghostwrites), and so can’t choose among his three wives. The Holocaust directly attacked the system that would have given meaning to any quest he would have undertaken as an intellectual Jew. Herman survived but the Holocaust has turned him into an ironic figure who simply disappears at the end. It’s a marvel: a tragedy about survival that is very, very funny. Singer put it on paper; Mazursky’s heroism resides in resisting the smoothing and soothing tendency of American movies, in preserving the way Singer’s fast shuffle of genres pays homage to a new historical condition and the people who tragicomically can’t adjust to it.
Such high points weren’t rare in the ’70s and ’80s, but haven’t been seen as much since. One recent exception, Boys Don’t Cry, features an ironic protagonist whose status, like Sonny’s in Dog Day Afternoon, is quite humble and whose character is also borderline-clownish. Both achieve tragic dignity because the moviemakers acknowledge the characters’ share of responsibility for their mixed-up fates. Boys Don’t Cry doesn’t makes excuses for Teena Brandon, a young Nebraska woman who is sexually attracted to women but insists she isn’t a "dyke" and so inverts her names and cross-dresses in order to have the intimate experiences she longs for. As Brandon Teena she goes into redneck bars and then home with the people she meets there almost prankishly, as if she were playing a trousers role in a comic opera, but we can see it getting out of hand while she’s still ready for fun.
We measure her actions against her cousin Lonny’s attempts to get her to accept that she’s a lesbian and not to lie to girls about her sex, and she herself says, after combing her hair and practicing "male" looks in the mirror, "I’m an asshole." But she says it with the glinty-eyed amusement of someone who’s on to a thrill we’ll never know and so can’t stop herself, someone who will always choose the gas pedal over the brake. (It’s at the opposite end from a victim-mongering melodrama like Philadelphia, which never seriously addresses the hero’s decision to be closeted at work in order to advance his career.)
It’s simultaneously perverse and charming that Teena seems to be looking not so much for sex as for roller-rink romance, haunting dives where the girls are so starved for tenderness they’ll ignore the evidence before them--the beardless cheek, the tiny hands that can’t throw punches. What seals her fate is that her choice of deception and her love of excitement mix her up with the people least likely to sympathize when they inevitably figure out she’s a woman. (The first group of guys we see berserkly call her a "faggot" and try to beat her up; the second set rape her and then kill her.) Kimberly Peirce, director and co-writer, looks with dispassionately ironic naturalism at this ill-fated masquerade. Peirce’s discipline, her avoidance of easy empathy and special pleading, take the movie to the level of tragedy even without a compact action, though it does stake out as its thematic range the heartland populace’s gut reactions to a shift in sexual categories. The key to the heightened experience of tragedy is the eerily suspended visionary moment when the young men have stripped Brandon to prove to her supposed friends that she’s a woman and she looks out from the bathroom and sees herself among the crowd of people watching.
The lowering of the tragic protagonist’s status to the level of an ironic protagonist that the audience looks down on (not with contempt, but as someone with fewer resources or less consciousness of his or her situation than we have or think we’d have in the same circumstances) takes the next step after the stride O’Neill made between Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day’s Journey Into Night in configuring a specifically American tragedy. The fact that the Tyrones carry themselves rather grandly is no longer an ill-fitting adaptation of the aristocratic protagonists of Greek tragedy, but part of a recognizable American upward striving, and part of the tragedy of self-absorption that makes family members so maddeningly unresponsiveness to the people and situations closest to them. Michael Corleone is like the Tyrones in being an ironic aristocrat, a mafia prince, while Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon is so amazing because he’s not just lowly but a bumbler as well. But though Sonny starts at the bottom of the slide, he rides it up to tragic heights, and entirely without an elevated context or rhetoric. Dog Day Afternoon, building on Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express of the year before, was a breakthrough in the canon of American tragedy onscreen, opening the full range of social life to tragic exploration. Boys Don’t Cry, likewise based on a believe-it-or-not news story, is one of the best results.
Of course serious artists continue to present serious stories as tragedies (and to get credit for the accomplishment), but while the rules aren’t the same as in ancient Athens, there remain more ways to go wrong than right. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing centers on Sal, the ironically seigneurial pizza parlor owner who thinks of himself as a patron of his patrons, as a decent man who accepts all people as they are. The movie could thus draw itself up to its full potential stature only if it were inside Sal at the moment he destroys Radio Raheem’s blaster and uses the word "nigger," bringing a judgment of fire down on his head. Instead, Lee casts him off, turning a potentially tragic figure into a demonstration of his thesis that all white men will reveal their racism in the right circumstances.
Lee’s published journal shows that while working up the script he intended a greater identification between Sal and his own character Mookie and then backed away from it. Originally, the last scene was to show Sal and Mookie looking through the rubble of the pizza parlor, and Lee wonders if he can "pull it off that they’re looking for the same thing." 11 The next day he writes, "Even if Sal’s not a saint, in the end when he sits down with Mookie on the curb, there has to be a sliver of realization on his part. He has to recognize Mookie’s humanity." 12 In other words, Sal’s vision was to be expanded by the consequences of his actions. A month later Lee has decided that Mookie will go to get his pay and "Sal can’t believe Mookie has the gall to ask for his money," 13 and that’s what he shot. The movie is thus much less instinctual than calculated. (Steve Vineberg has expertly dissected the way in which the movie "gives off different sets of signals to white and black audiences." 14 )
In Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) a cowboy in 1880s Wyoming cuts up a whore when she laughs at his "teensy little pecker." The sheriff Little Bill lets him and his friend off with a payment of horses to the brothel owner for damages to his contract with the girl, who won’t be attractive to clients anymore. The outraged whores pool their money to offer a bounty on the cowboys’ heads, both of them, including the friend who tried to stop the attack, and such a reaction seems about right for the rough frontier life we see.
Yet when Little Bill beats the shit out of prospective bounty hunters in order to stem a peace-disrupting rush for the "whore’s gold," the townsfolk stand around gulping and flinching in dismay. This includes not only the whores, who might be upset that their revenge is being obstructed, but Little Bill’s deputies as well. Even the three successful bounty hunters, Bill Munny, Ned, and the Schofield Kid, take on a funereal cast as they shoot down the first of the two cowboys. Ned immediately heads home, haunted, and after killing the second cowboy, the Kid gives away his gun and swears, "I won’t kill nobody no more."
The movie is slow and grim and heavy, as if it were a demonstration of Bill Munny’s line, "It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man." But to make us feel this, the story would have to center on the cowboys who pay more than an eye for an eye, and on the implacable whores who make sure they do. (Clint Eastwood would have to play the knife-wielding cowboy with the small dick. To borrow a line from the movie that has passed High Noon and Shane as the most overrated western, "That’ll be the day.") There’s an undeveloped tragedy there, but instead the movie turns into a melodrama when Little Bill kills Ned, thereby justifying Bill Munny’s shoot-’em-up retribution.
On his back and looking up the barrel of Munny’s rifle, Little Bill says, "I don’t deserve this, to die like this." Munny replies, "Deserve’s got nothing to do with it," but in terms of narrative structure it does. The attempt of the cowboy’s friend to make amends to the whore, the fact that the cutting of the woman gets exaggerated with each retelling, Little Bill’s deglamorization of a legendary gun battle in a saloon, and Munny’s past as a drunken desperado who killed women and children, can’t complicate the story once Little Bill kills Ned, who couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The characters speak of the dramatic ideas that could attach to murder, but the story feeds us the usual righteous victory of the lone gunslinger, including a "legendary" gun battle in a saloon for a climax. (Eastwood attempted tragedy more directly without going in for melodrama but also without success in Mystic River (2003), which I reviewed on Blogcritics.)
Unforgiven isn’t structured to live up to its higher intentions; Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking is more directly undone by its program. The movie, like Sister Helen Prejean’s lamely-reasoned nonfiction book, 15 hopes to undermine the American public’s support for capital punishment. This makes it too specifically purposeful for tragedy, which is not, in Brereton’s words, just a "demonstration possessing some moral utility." Rather, the "tragic mood is one of unsatisfied--and ultimately unsatisfiable--curiosity about the deepest issues which affect human well-being.... It avoids ... didacticism aiming at firm conclusions." The hallmark of tragedy, then, is "uncommitted exploratory content," 16 of no interest to a man with a point to make.
Robbins, screenwriter as well as director, makes the odd choice of combining the stories of the two death row inmates that Prejean wrote about and then of departing from both stories by having the made-up Matthew Poncelet admit to his part in the crime under Sister Helen’s spiritual influence. By making Poncelet guilty, the movie renders moot one of Prejean’s main arguments, which is that poor defendants have too little money to hire effective defense counsel who might cast reasonable doubt on whether their clients had pulled the trigger. At the same time the polemical intent of the movie means that Poncelet’s accepting responsibility can’t function as a tragic vision of how he brought punishment, seen impersonally, down on his own head.
By making Sister Helen’s work spiritually effectual the movie instead draws close not to the tragic but to the old-Hollywood religiosity of Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), in which Pat O’Brien was able to convince James Cagney to act yellow at his execution in order to undermine his influence over the slumkids who think of him as a hero and thereby show "the kind of courage that’s born in heaven." Dead Man Walking is actually narrower in its effect--unlike Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, Poncelet, whose death by lethal injection is staged to look like a crucifixion (the men Prejean knew were electrocuted), is a Christ who saves only his own soul, at most.
- [T]he notion of tragedy: Brereton 9-10. (return to text)
- A tragedy is a final and impressive disaster: Brereton 20. (return to text)
- tragic hero is very great: Frye, Anatomy 207. (return to text)
- Whether the content is Greek: Frye, Anatomy 208. (return to text)
- Brereton adds: 40. For a detailed elaboration of this idea, see H.D.F. Kitto on the unsavoriness of Clytemnestra’s murder in the Electra of Sophocles: "We are not obliged to admire the deed--Orestes himself clearly does not--nor to see in it the institution of a new and better order of things.... A violent disturbance of [dike] has been violently annulled. It is the nature of things, and Sophocles invites us to see in this the working of a natural law" (136). (return to text)
- Aeschylus: 218, 223 (ll. 911-12, 1012-13). (return to text)
- Aeschylus: 253 (l. 495). (return to text)
- Sophocles: 235 (ll. 1360-61). (return to text)
- Deserved it all: Dickens, Pickwick 598 (ch. 42). (return to text)
- the recognition of the determined shape: Frye, Anatomy 212. (return to text)
- Lee wondered: Lee, and Jones 43. (return to text)
- Even if Sal’s not a saint: Lee, and Jones 45. (return to text)
- Sal can’t believe: Lee, and Jones 64-65. (return to text)
- Steve Vineberg: 86. (return to text)
- Prejean’s lamely-reasoned nonfiction book: She argues, for instance, that the fact of a copycat crime after the execution of the original criminal disproves deterrence as a basis for capital punishment (110). What if, but for the execution, there would have been two copycats instead of one? And how do you get data on crimes that are deterred? (return to text)
- tragic mood: Brereton 268. (return to text)