Monday, December 26, 2011

Deus Ex Machina, the Genre-izing of Art, and more

By Paul "The Good-Looking One" Goldberg

Loyal readers: I apologize for the two week delay in our posts; this is exclusively my fault.  Spread very thin during finals week at school, and now scattered with all my free time since coming home for break, I’ve had little time/focus to write an article.  But here it is—though as befits my current state of mind, it’s a general stream of scattered thoughts on film that has been going through my mind lately.

Deus ex machina—what is it, what does it mean, and why does it drive critics so nuts?

History lesson: the phrase is in Latin, meaning “God [Deus] out of [ex] the machine [machina]”.  It refers to a convention in Ancient Greek drama, wherein a sort of crane-do-hickey (i.e. a machine) lowered actors portraying Gods onto the stage, often to solve tricky problems via divine intervention.

©, via
Today, when people call something a deus ex machina, they are referring to any sort of miraculous, inexplicable happening that resolves a situation.  For you older folks, a great example of this is at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (a fantastic western that’s worth a watch for all generations), wherein John Wayne—well, you know, kind of saves Jimmy Stewart’s ass, seemingly from out of nowhere.  For you younger folks, Aslan’s resurrection in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will suffice.  If you’re still not getting it, think back to when you were kids, and you invented superheroes to play make-believe with your friends, and that one annoying kid you played with always had a superhero who magically had a counter-power for everything; if you had laser-beams, he had laser-beam defense; if you could breathe fire, he could douse you in water.  This kid was using deus ex machina inventions all the time.

So why do critics hate this so much?  Essentially, it’s because a deus ex machina often is a crude device employed by a lazy author to save characters who need saving for the story to work.  It doesn’t do justice to a complex plot line, the audience immediately realizes its unlikelihood and ridiculousness; thereby, the plot loses credibility and compromises its integrity.  Usually, a logical and realistic resolution functions far more effectively.

Critics are mostly right about this: if a plot is to be credible and authentic, it must resolve itself according to the rules already established therein; it must maintain integrity in its structure.  However, critics can also be incredibly pretentious in their vilification of deus ex machina.

Such a pretentious critique may be found here

Sometimes, a deus ex machina, or rather a seeming deus ex machina, is absolutely necessary to a story; and moreover, a story has no credibility without it.  Life and everything that happens in it is truly unexpected, and the result of countless upon countless accidents.  Think about it: you’re now married with kids because you happened to meet that special someone at a party you almost didn’t go to for a friend who you met because you happened to sit next to each other in some class at a school you attended only because your dad changed jobs in a certain year.  Ever been driving and realized that if you hadn’t been paying attention for that split-second, you probably would’ve been killed in a major accident?  These are the kinds of circumstantial, accidental happenings that rule our lives, and certain invocations of a deus ex machina simply serve to reflect the insane, inexplicable, accidental nature of daily life.

Unless wholly abused, deus ex machinas serve such a genuine, imperative purpose in literature and plot development; thus, shove it! pretentious critics.

I’ve also been thinking about our incessant need to classify and categorize, especially regarding art.

This last semester, I took a creative writing class.  And I certainly learned some interesting things, heard some good advice from my professor (a successful author of several novels), etc.  But one common critique of his that frankly, I think, shows him to be (at least in certain aspects) a narrow-minded—even lazy—reader is his need to put every story into a genre.  He says things like “The first scene seemed funny, but the second scene seemed serious.  I advise you to just make it a full-blown comedy or a full-blown drama, because otherwise I’m confused about how to take it”.

I realize that we have a need to organize everything in our minds in order to better understand it (e.g. Kingdom→Phylum→Class→Order→Family→Genus→Species); but honestly, I hope that we’ve progressed to the point where we can interpret art, and discern subtle nuances that reflect themes far deeper and richer than any particular genre can paint.  Life isn’t all a comedy, or a drama, or a tragicomedy, or a satire, or an underdog story, or an indie drama, etc.  Life is so filled with various facets, that speaking of it as only one of these things is ludicrous and short-sided.  And the task of art, really, is to provide some sort of reflection/improvement of life (note that this doesn’t mean that art must be realistic; rather, if it’s fantasy, it still must reflect, in its core ideals, the realities in which we live/should live).  So why do we then demand that everything be so neat and tidy and inauthentically wrapped in the scheme of some hackneyed ‘genre’?

© 2011

 That’s why I love Woody Allen’s work so much; most of it transcends any BS, artificial label some critic could give to it; it thereby maintains credibility and authenticity to life.

So please, let’s be open to depth and nuance in all art—including film—and let it speak with the full power of its own voice, rather than from within some artificial, trite framework.  Let’s become more active readers, watchers, etc. who don’t need to be told how to think and feel in every artistic encounter; often the most rewarding experience is to come to an understanding of a work after having to strenuously and constantly apply our minds to it.

Upcoming stuff:  Within the next couple weeks, check out another video review of Alex and me on the critically-acclaimed, heavy Oscar favorite The Artist (hint: I think it’s excellent).  Also look for Alex’s next article coming out on the Globe-nominated film Young Adult.
If you’re bored during these waning holidays, watch some of The Twilight Zone on the Sci-Fi channel for its annual New Year’s Day Marathon (I should really get paid for this plug).  It’s a thought-provoking series that holds up beautifully today.  I’ll write an article on it soon.



  1. Nicely written Paul. One of the great things about art is that it can surprise us and lead us to think about things in wholly new ways. There is usually a thread that we can relate to, but it is that something new or different that stretches us to grow and ponder that makes it a worthwhile experience.

  2. Thank you, glad to hear you liked it, and well put about art. Come again!

    -The Good-Looking One