I’ve been thinking a lot about archetypes lately. (Hey, you’ve got your hobbies, I’ve got mine). Not to get all academic on your asses, but the theory of archetypes says that there are only so many basic story structures, most of which go back, back, back to the Bible, the Odyssey, and Gilgamesh (among others). It might have something to do with the way our brains are hardwired. The idea has been handed off from ancient guys like Aristotle (not Onassis) to Jung to Campbell to Christopher Vogler in his fascinating book, “The Writer’s Journey.” Vogler makes the idea really accessible by providing plenty of examples from contemporary books and movies. There’s nothing like a good example to bring things into focus.
“Seven” seems to be the number of archetypal plots that many folks agree on. (Seven may itself be an archetypal number. See “Dwarves,” “Seas,” and “Up.”) Here’s as good a list as any:
Voyage and Return Rebirth
Overcoming the Monster Rags to Riches
Your mileage may vary. Many works of fiction combine two or more elements. The boundaries are fluid (especially when dealing with sagas like “The Great Flood.” It doesn’t get much more fluid than that.)
In thinking about my favorite stories, I realize I’m partial to “rebirth.” One of the reasons we love the training scenes in the original “Rocky” is because we get to see the Italian Stallion re-create himself before our eyes. Many viewers are hard pressed to recall that Rocky started out as a real bum, a dumb lug shaking down losers for a small time hood in Philly.
Similarly, Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin character in “The Verdict” is a hopeless drunk who gets one last shot at a big case with everything on the line. Newman actually played this archetypal character many times. As an over-the-hill “Fast Eddie” Felson in “The Color of Money,” Scorsese’s sequel to “The Hustler,” we witness a Rocky-esque training sequence tailored for the pool hall, not the boxing ring.
A few weeks ago, I watched the Coen Brother’s reimagining of “True Grit.” It’s, well, grittier than the original, with some distinctive Coen touches. Jeff Bridges might be my favorite actor these days. He brings a character actor’s sensibility to his leading man roles. “True Grit” is a classic blend of Quest (for Mattie Ross) and Rebirth (for old Rooster). For me, tales like that never get old.
And speaking of never getting old, I’m a sucker for VH1’s “Behind the Music” for exactly the same reason. Whether we’re watching KISS, Meatloaf or the Partridge Family, the story arch is essentially the same. Band (or singer) struggles, band gets big break, band enjoys great success, band can’t handle great success, band breaks up, band struggles, band gets back together, band makes comeback. It doesn’t matter that I know the story by heart. I can’t stop watching. Life imitating art imitating life. Which, I guess, is the point after all.