One Last Point About the New Classical Ideal
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January 08, 2015, 02:13 PM
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In my recent Radix piece, I argued for, and outlined, a new Classical literary ideal. [Fulfilling the Classical Ideal, December 29, 2014]. Like most writers, I am sure, part of my self-editing process involves omitting some of my most interesting ideas, either because they are not yet ripe enough (and may never be) to withstand scrutiny or because they just do not fit—they would interrupt the essay's overall flow, or undermine its tone. I left one item out of my Radix essay that was a little of both, but I think it has significant explanatory power, so I will take my chances here.

Under my broad definition of the Classic style, most movies would be included. This must be carefully qualified. Film, especially fictional film, is obviously a terrible medium for "direct, sustained, quantitative analysis." But for pretty much the same reason, it is also terrible at providing the exhaustive meandering details that characterize most (not Classic style) novels (some would say that the visual nature of films allow them to convey these subtleties more efficiently, but it also means that movies have to be more blunt about this). Given the nature of the medium, the idea-driven plot is forced on film-makers.

This is not an endorsement of films over novels. Film narratives may be "Classic," but that is where the overlap ends. As I said above, a "chorus" whose role is to provide credible (i.e. direct, sustained, and quantitative) analysis of the story's setting is a poor fit for film, and so social commentary films nearly always suggest things that I believe to be beyond their mandate. And their idea-driven narratives often rely on silly repetitive devices, or stock characters. If most movies are "Classic," it is only in the sense that they get to the point, without letting a lot of other stuff get in the way, not that they necessarily do this with skill.

This is all getting a bit too abstract for a blog post concerning one of the most popular forms of entertainment, so let me end by giving you an example of a movie that does the Classic, idea-driven narrative right: Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, which is essentially an extended mediation on the idea and nature of the gunslinger, the archetypal "bad man"/hero of the American old West. It is the best Western ever made, and I am tempted to say, the best Western that is possible.

Most movies are "Classic" in a neutral sense; Unforgiven is a classic "Classic.