Around 2,300-odd years ago this guy named Aristotle wrote a thingy about what makes good stories. Yes, I’m referencing Aristotle; this is definitely an essay and not a rant. Now, I think storytelling as a whole has progressed beyond some of his ideas (his limitation of fiction to tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, for example), but one thing that still sticks is his idea of catharsis. Aristotle figured that a story should arouse a lot of emotion in its audience, and then purge it in the end: catharsis. So, why is this vital to a good story/movie/book/video game/tv show/ballad?
Super 8 is a story on many different levels. People call it a story about an alien in a small town, I say it’s a story about kids making a movie. But underneath all that, is the story about a boy growing up and learning to move on. The movie carries this theme and tension, we see it when he interacts with his dad and with his friends and it’s reflected in the conflict with the alien. For most of its runtime we’re drawn into Joe’s turmoil, we feel his refusal to let go and understand how he has to. This is the thing that Aristotle called ‘arousing feelings of pity and fear.’ The movie culminates in Joe letting go of his mother’s locket, symbolically expressing his willingness to accept life as it is now and, with that, purging us of all that built up emotion. That feeling you get when you watch the ending of Super 8? Ladies and gentlemen: catharsis.
Using that dramatic structure thing you learned back in middle school, this is called the resolution. But resolution implies that everything has to be resolved, catharsis does not. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. It ends with Han frozen and captured, the Rebels scattered, and Luke finding out that Darth Vader is his father. There’s little resolution to be found (Will Han be okay? Obi Wan lied! Who did Yoda mean by ‘another’? [I bet it’s Han!]), but it feels complete all the same. We got our catharsis through the escape from Cloud City and the scene aboard the medical frigate. Unlike the second movie in many two-part trilogies (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix: Reloaded), you get that sense of closure even without the third entry. Interestingly, the same goes for The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. During the Breaking of the Fellowship or Sam’s speech about the stories that really mattered we find our catharsis. Though the plot is tied up yet and though the ring is yet to be destroyed, we feel fulfilled.
Catharsis, if done right, can be more important than tying up plot. Like the finale of Lost, which, yes, I will constantly and vehemently defend. Instead of trying to tie up every loose end, Lindelof and Cuse opted instead to give the audience catharsis for their emotions. Sure, we didn’t find out why that one green bird said Hurley’s name that one time, but we did get the resolution that despite all the crap they went through, the survivors were reunited. They got their happy ending, and we felt all the better for it. Least we did if you weren’t watching Lost just for the mysteries. And why not? Focusing on the mysteries of Lost rather than the characters resulted in an intellectual rather than emotional investment, and thus, none of Aristotle’s desired feelings of fear and/or pity.
It all comes down to caring about the story. If we don’t give a crap about what’s going on, we won’t feel anything with the inevitable catharsis (for example: Hereafter). We go to the movies, play video games, and read books to feel something. Maybe it’s the wish-fulfillment of shooting up the Covenant as Master Chief or the sense of familiarity from watching Firefly, we wanna feel something. We just need that moment of release afterwards.
And yes, I did actually read Poetics, though it took Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters for it to really make sense.
Note: When done right the lack of proper catharsis is catharsis in and of itself. See: the ending of The Last of Us, though it could be argued that the catharsis comes during that final chapter. Either way, it still works due to our heavy investment in the characters and Druckmann’s incredible script.