This week's scene: Bruce Willis must save a wrongly-convicted Julia Roberts from certain death in the gas chamber. He arrives at the eleventh hour to break the glass of the chamber and carry her off to safety. The day is saved and we have our happy ending.
This scene is from a movie-within-a-movie that takes place in Robert Altman's The Player, a satire about the film industry and how bottom lines can stifle and hamper creativity.* The movie idea pitched at the beginning of The Player calls for the woman (to be played by a little-known actress) to die tragically at the hands of a corrupt justice system.
The intent of this original ending fits the simplest definition of tragedy as espoused by Aristotle in his Poetics: the catharsis or recognition, which is supposed to evoke fear and pity in its audience. In the case of the movie pitched, it wants its audience to react to the death of an innocent and question a country and a judicial system that allows the death of not only an innocent life but the death of anyone at the hands of the state.
Unfortunately, the original ending tests badly among focus groups, and the execs, along with the writer, turn it into the above-mentioned farce. We now have an ironic tragedy where corporate profit interferes with art and where we are as much to blame for the banal wish fulfillment that takes its place. We get movies that take no risk to challenge us, and thus we live insular lives devoid of art. This is Oscar Wilde's second definition of tragedy: we get what we want.
*For the full plot, I suggest watching this movie.
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