British Journal of Aesthetics 54 (2):161-174 (2014)

Sandra Shapshay
Hunter College (CUNY)
Although much recent work in Anglo-American aesthetics on tragedy has focused exclusively on the ‘problems’ of tragic pleasure, in the long tradition of reflection on tragedy philosophers have focused more on tragedy as a genre of particular moral and political-philosophical significance. In this paper, we investigate the tragedy of our day in light of these latter concerns in order to determine what works of this genre reveal about the sense of the terrible necessities or near-necessities with which our contemporary Western culture must grapple. We do this by focusing on cinematic tragedies since film is a medium that has become more popular than theatre. Surprisingly, contemporary aestheticians do not have a good definition of tragedy as it has developed to the present. Thus, we start with some definitional work taking Aristotle as a base. After adumbrating some plausible necessary conditions for tragedy, we note that there are not many films today that are genuine cinematic tragedies. Many contemporary films partially court a tragic structure but operate much more in the mode of melodrama. We shall categorize such films that share the pathos and suffering protagonists of the tragic genre but which generally eschew the tragic ending as part of what we call the ‘silver-lining genre’, a sub-genre of melodrama. Finally, we turn to a film that constitutes a genuine, contemporary cinematic tragedy, Into the Wild (dir. Sean Penn, 2007) and offer an analysis that reveals what this film says about our culture’s most serious and possibly intractable ethical and political problems
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DOI 10.1093/aesthj/ayu029
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