A paper about how the short film "Magnanimity" relates to greatness of soul and to the philosophy of theater


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This paper was written by one of my students, Josh Munson, for an interdisciplinary Independent Study he completed with me (Dr. Andrew J. Corsa) in 2014. It was written for the sake of a public presentation, and was not "meant" to be read in print. While not intended to be as polished as the ten-page paper to which this page links, this short paper beautifully ties together our Independent Study as a whole.

A paper about how the short film "Magnanimity" relates to greatness of soul and to the philosophy of theater

By Josh Munson

The short film, "Magnanimity" directly pulls from the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, Woodruff, and Boal among others. In the story the protagonist represents a great souled individual as described primarily by Aristotle. The character is worthy of greatness due to his actions. The main conflict, the protagonist struggling to make the right choice amongst public backlash , helps to clarify a key point in Aristotle's account of greatness of soul. Through the use of audio and video I've created a story that is primarily emotionally driven. The idea of using emotion is something all of the philosophers discuss. My use of these techniques is to showcase what the philosophers were afraid of and why they believe theater and performance should be done rationally, and not rely on the swaying emotions of the viewer.

The protagonist of my film represents a great-souled individual. In my paper I argued that a great-souled person must contain Aristotelian virtues, as well as Hobbesian power. In the short film the main character has both of these qualities. He is a social worker which helps to point to both of these things. We know he was once well liked in the community, held some sort of power, and was once "the good guy". In the story he struggles with the public's response to his decision to aid the homeless man in suicide. While he remains honorable, according to Aristotle, he doubts himself.

What is taken away from the end of the short film is that the public's comments are of no importance. The main character realizes that to be worthy of honor does not mean to be honored. Aristotle makes clear the importances of worthiness, "Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them" (pg 18). The main character satisfies all of the requirements set out in the paper for being magnanimous. Clearly there is a difference between the type of person the protagonist is and Socrates or George Washington. This is largely due to the contrast of confidence and self-doubt. This self-doubt, while note characteristic of historically magnanimous individuals, is use to assist the medium. The short film format requires some sort of conflict or drama, and so the protagonist questioned himself.

The second half of the course focused on developing the short film as well as studying theater and performance. Augusto Boal in "The Theater of the Oppressed" suggest that Greek tragedy is repressive, "because, according to Aristotle, the principle aim of tragedy is to provoke catharsis" (pg. 25). He then asked what is being purged, or removed, from the audience when it experiences catharsis. When we watch a play or movie we generally empathise with the main character. Through out relationship with the character on screen or on stage we feel we share similar flaws. When the main character is purged of their tragic flaw, we are too. If they are not already in possession of it, then they simply wish to not gain it in the future.

Boal says that this use of empathy and catharsis is repressive. It is repressive because it is, "to eliminate all that is not commonly accepted, including the revolution, before it takes place" (pg 47). His claim is that these "tragic flaws" are actually sometimes useful in things such as social change. He goes on to say that this catharsis which is empathy based makes it less likely for people to act. It is not, "favorable to social change" (pg 106). This leads him to conclude that, "Empathy is the most dangerous weapon in the entire arsenal of the theater and related arts" (pg 113).

Boal then practices a form of theater where the audience participates. The audience is asked to decide how the play on stage will end, and, subsequently, the audience can see their choices acted out on stage. Since they decide how the play will proceed, they are not as heavily influenced by a director or scriptwriter who seeks for them to experience certain specific emotions. The audiences is able to practice real life situations and see what the outcomes would be. Performance is relevant to greatness of soul because greatness of soul requires action. The entire point of Boal's non-standard performances was to prompt action. Boal writes, "The spectator-actor practices a real act even though he does it in a fictional manner . . . the cathartical effect is entirely avoided. We are used to plays in which the characters make the revolution on stage and the spectators in their seats feel themselves to be triumphant revolutionaries. Why make a revolution in reality if we have already made it into the theater? But that does not happen here: the rehearsal stimulates the practice of the act in reality. Forum theatre, as well as these other forms of a people's theater, instead of taking something away from the spectator, evoke in him a desire to practice in reality the act he has rehearsed in the theater. The practice of these theatrical forms creates a sort of uneasy sense of incompleteness that seeks fulfillment through real action". Theater is one way in which you can cause individuals to act magnanimously.

Paul Woodruff has written about empathy as well in, "The Necessity of Theater". About playwright Bertolt Brecht Woodruff writes, "Brecht thought that an empathic spectator could not take a critical attitude towards a character or the character's situation because he - the empathic spectator - would feel on his own behalf what he supposed the character to feel . . . He went out of his way to make his protagonists unappealing." (pg 168). While this is at odds with Aristotle's poetics, it seems very similar to how Socrates approached his court hearing in Plato's "Defense". Both Brecht and Socrates go out of their way to ensure the audience, or in Socrates case the jury, do not get swept away by emotion.

Short films can suffer from that which Boal, Woodruff, and Plato fear. Films easily manipulate people to push a message instead of relying on critical thinking and reasoned conclusions. Motion pictures in general tend to have a huge amount of time put into the detail of background images and sounds. Woodruff notes that, "Music, lighting, and the tone of the actions force a certain kind of response on the audience. But that response is not engaged with the characters, and it tends to distract the audience from paying attention to the action presented to them - except in the way that has already been determined by the music, lighting, and tone. You cannot ask, 'Is this really a heroic moment?" (pg 180)

Martin Puchner in "The Drama of Ideas" directly relates modern theater with Plato's allegory of the cave. The prisoner who escape the cave ends up returning. According to Puchner, "The cave represents a world to which even the most enlightened philosophers must return; it remains their field of operations" (pg 6). While the truth lies within Plato's forms, he thought it necessary that this be related back to everyday life. Puchner elaborates, "The main reason for Plato to have his dialogues revolve around a carefully constructed philosophical protagonist is to show the extent to which philosophy is a matter of character, something that manifests itself in the personality. Philosophy, in other words, is embodied and lived; it cannot be abstracted from the exemplary philosopher" ( pg 22). Theater and empathy are all critical in how we communicate about philosophy.

Theater, film, performance of any kind has the potential to change the way an audience feels or acts. Whether through empathy and emotion, or the use of juxtaposition to spark critical thinking on subject matter, audiences are affected. As discussed, virtue is key to greatness. And how do we become virtuous? By acting in the right ways. As Aristotle says, "It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good" (pg 11). Since theater and film can affect the way we act, they can directly influence our becoming virtuous. These tools can be used to help or hinder an audience's ascent to greatness.



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