“Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.”
Though written over 2000 years ago, Aristotle’s Poetics is still a standard in the Western storytelling tradition. On first reading, it can be seen as dated both in its antiquated language and references as well as its discussion of the trappings traditional to Greek theater. Upon closer inspection, there are many pieces of wisdom that are of great use to writers today; many of the underlying theories are timeless. This can be seen when comparing Poetics to a modern classic of cinema, Fargo.
Action vs. Narration
One point raised frequently throughout Poetics is that actions speak louder than words, or as certainly any formally trained writer has heard countless times “Show, don’t tell.” Aristotle said that all art is in some way imitation. As an absolute law, this is something that has been challenged frequently in multiple artistic movements, but in general, this rule is still tremendously practical advice that should be heeded far more often than it is avoided. This concept is referred to as “mimesis,” meaning the representation or imitation of life in art, and comes from the same root as “mimicry.” This is why painters recreate landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, for all are imitations. Even abstract art represents something, even if only metaphorically. In order to mimic something, there must be an object to mimic, and so in regards to drama, Aristotle says in Poetics:
“[the] objects of imitation are men in action.”
In the film Fargo, the audience first sees a black screen with white text informing the viewer that the following story is true, that it takes place in Minnesota in the 1987, that names have been changed at the request of those that lived through it, and that out of respect for the dead, it is recreated exactly as it actually happened. This is the only narration we are given, the only non-diegetic voice present in the film, and at that it is more a footnote or disclaimer rather than narration proper. After this point, everything unfolds before the camera naturalistically, as though the audience were a proverbial fly on the wall.
A Single Action
Aristotle also speaks of the three classical unities:
- unity of action
- unity of time
- unity of place
In Aristotle’s original interpretations of these unities, the entirety of the plot should result from a single action, in a single location, in the space of a single day. Anything more results in a more complicated plot that is harder for the audience to follow and more suited to the format of epics, which categorically deal with stories of a larger scale such that they can span years, continents, and an entire host of characters. Fargo doesn’t follow these unities precisely, but we can see their lessons in play:
- Everything stems from a kidnapping plot gone wrong.
- Everything happens in about a week, if not a couple days.
- Everything happens in the area adjacent to the small town of Fargo, Minnesota.
It is unity of action of which Fargo is most exemplifying. In cinema, short stories, or any such short-form storytelling medium, it is important for the plot to remain concise, that each scene serves a purpose and advances the plot, as anything else would just be a distraction. Fargo starts, technically, with the credits rolling, showing the desolate, snowy region which creates much of the tone of the film. Out of the fog, a car appears and pulls into a parking lot. Jerry Lundegaard enters a bar, approaches two men, and tells them about his plot to kidnap his own wife to extort his father-in-law for money. Though this scene is predominantly dialogue, it is dialogue as action: he informs the two men of the plan that they are about to be a part, and in so sets everything else in motion. Just as Aristotle urges in Poetics, the film follows the chain of events that follow in such a manner that is both possible and probable, that they
“arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probably result of the preceding action.”
The film ends when Jerry and his accomplices are all either dead or arrested.
Complication and Unraveling
According to Aristotle, a good story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. It starts with the inciting action and ends when that action has been resolved. In between are numerous twists and turns that result from the natural flow of events, and they are complications and the unraveling. Fargo is a story of plans gone wrong, and things go wrong from the very beginning. The kidnapping, declared by Jerry to be a simple thing, quickly becomes violent and results in his wife unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. However, it is during the getaway that the film moves into the second act: pulled over for not having their temporary plates displayed, the two kidnappers end up shooting a state trooper, and then killing two witnesses that happened to drive by. The discovery of these three bodies begin an investigation and introduces the character Marge Gunderson. The second act then is a series of complications as Jerry and the two kidnappers try to continue their scheme, and the unraveling as Marge attempts to track them down.
Pity and Fear
“…Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than actual life.”
Aristotle is very clear in Poetics, that tragedies depict characters of our level or higher while comedies depict characters beneath us. He does clarify
“…Not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the Ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain.”
The fumblings of Jerry are something we look down on, his inability to stand up for himself in conversations with the kidnappers as well as his father-in-law stem from a lack of confidence, a weakness in character that society does not condone. His goals however, to be a provider and take care of his family, as well as his role of underdog in many social situations also make him a sympathetic character with which the audience can relate.
According to Aristotle, we fear what misfortunes occur to the characters that we relate, but we laugh at the misfortunes of a character that we look down on. In that way, Jerry inhabits a gray space where he is relatable but ultimately his weakness in character is his own undoing.
Simultaneously, the audience cheers on the character of Marge. Hardworking and just, but ultimately oblivious to the darker aspects people hide publicly, she is flawed but competent.
Character and Plot
“The Plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy: Character holds the second place… Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, of the agents….”
According to Aristotle, Plot and Character are the two most important elements of a story. Thought is the third, and is closely tied to Character. It is through well constructed characters and plot that the film Fargo entertains, both as a tragedy and as a comedy.