“Films Should Have a Beginning, a Middle, and an End” “Yes, But Not Necessarily in That Order”

Jean-Luc Godard? Aristotle? Peter Dickinson? George W. Feinstein? Eugenia Thornton? Chris Haws? David Mamet?

Dear Quote Investigator: An iconoclastic French film director once commented on the narrative structure of a story. The auteur believed that it was not necessary for a tale to be recounted using the conventional ordering for the beginning, the middle, and the end. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1966 English critic Kenneth Tynan attended the Cannes film festival for “The Observer” newspaper, and he described a discussion between cinema artists. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

A public debate between writers and directors was held last week to discuss whether plot was essential to motion pictures. Godard was the main heretic, and Clouzot, Delbert Mann and Paddy Chayefsky were among those who cross-examined him. This confrontation produced the best remark of the Festival :—

Clouzot: But surely you agree, M. Godard, that films should have a beginning, a middle part and an end?

Godard: Yes, but not necessarily in that order.

Jean-Luc Godard is a well-known French director who was part of La Nouvelle Vague (The New Wave). His films include “À bout de souffle” (“Breathless”), “Alphaville”, and “Vivre sa vie” (“My Life to Live”). Godard’s remark was not completely novel. Similar comments about re-ordering narrative elements appeared earlier. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The archetypal tripartite story structure is outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics. Here is a 1746 version of Aristotle’s words translated into English: 2

A whole is that which has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning supposes nothing wanting before itself; and requires something after it: the middle supposes something that went before, and requires something to follow after: the end requires nothing after itself, but supposes something that goes before.

In 1955 the London humor magazine “Punch” published a review by Peter Dickinson of the movie “Confidential Report”. The episodic film introduced and discarded a series of characters: 3

It is, in a way, unfair to complain that this drags a series of characters before us, they do their bit, and we never see them again; the plot demands it, and it is, qua plot, a good plot; it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, though they don’t come in that order and plausibility is a word in some other language.

In 1964 the “Los Angeles Times” of California published a review of “The Sun’s Attendant” by Charles Haldeman. The reviewer George W. Feinstein remarked on the novel’s “bewildering skipping about in time and in viewpoint”: 4

Those who insist on Aristotle’s story formula—a beginning, a middle, and an end—will get those three goodies but not necessarily in that order.

The 1955 and 1964 citations were about specific works of art. Jean-Luc Godard’s rejoinder in 1966 was about storytelling in general:

Clouzot: But surely you agree, M. Godard, that films should have a beginning, a middle part and an end?

Godard: Yes, but not necessarily in that order.

In June 1969 a book reviewer in “The Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio employed an instance of the saying: 5

If your idea of the perfect short story writer is still O. Henry or Maupassant you may be a bit shaken when you begin with Leonard Michaels. His stories all have a beginning, a middle and an end, but they do not always occur in that order any more than they do in life or in dreams.

In October 1969 “The Daily Northwestern” of Evanston, Illinois attributed the comment to Godard: 6

“But Mr. Godard, doesn’t every film have a beginning, a middle, and an end?” the puzzled critic demanded of elusive Jean Luc. “Yes,” replied the cinema’s most outrageous rebel, “but not necessarily in that order.” Such freewheeling manipulation of time, space and memory has long been considered the personal province of the cinema.

In 1979 “New Scientist” published a piece by Chris Haws who had recently produced a program about time for the BBC. Haws elevated the saying to aphorism status: 7

It has often been said that all programmes should have a beginning, a middle and an end, although not necessarily in that order, and as is so often the case with such well worn aphorisms, its attraction lies not in its quotability but in the way in which it accurately summarises the problem.

In 2017 the MasterClass company presented a video course about writing taught by dramatist David Mamet who referred to Godard’s remark with comical disdain: 8

Every play needs to have a beginning, middle, and an end. Jean-Luc Godard said, “Not necessarily in that order”, and that’s why French movies are so effing boring.

In conclusion, Jean-Luc Godard deserves credit for this rejoinder applied in a general fashion. Peter Dickinson referred to the jumbled order of the beginning, middle, and end of a specific film, “Confidential Report”, in “Punch” in 1955. Also, George W. Feinstein referred to the disordered elements of the book “The Sun’s Attendant” in 1964.

Image Notes: Camera shown against colorful background from geralt at Pixabay.

(Quotation expert Nigel Rees wrote about this quotation in “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” and in his newsletter of January 2020. Rees identified the 1955 precursor and presented a 1970 citation from a correspondent. He also noted indirect evidence that the remark was spoken during an exchange between Clouzot and Godard at Cannes circa 1965.)

Notes:

  1. 1966 May 22, The Observer, Section: Weekend Review, Films: Verdict on Cannes by Kenneth Tynan, Quote Page 24, Column 8, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1746, Critical Observations on Shakespeare by John Upton, Page 67 and 68, Printed for G. Hawkins in Fleet-Street, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1955 August 24, Punch, Or the London Charivari, Section: Criticism, At the Pictures: We’re No Angels Confidential Report by Peter Dickinson, Quote Page 227, Column 3, London, England. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1964 March 25, The Los Angeles Times, The Book Report: An Interesting Entry in the Freudian Sweepstakes by Dr. George W. Feinstein (Associate Professor of English, Pasadena City College) Section 5, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1969 June 29, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Short Gems by Eugenia Thornton, Quote Page 7F, Column 7, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1969 October 3, The Daily Northwestern, Van Itallie twists time-space by Roger Copeland, Quote Page 10, Column 1, Evanston, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1979 May 3, New Scientist, Volume 82, It was about time by Chris Haws, Start Page 352, Quote Page 353, Column 1, IPC Magazines, London. (Google Books Full View)
  8. YouTube video, Title: David Mamet Teaches Dramatic Writing | Official Trailer | MasterClass, Uploaded on April 20, 2017, Uploaded by: MasterClass, Quotation start: 0 minutes 30 seconds, Duration of video clip: 1 minutes 59 seconds, Description: Trailer for a MasterClass course taught by playwright David Mamet. (Accessed on youtube.com on December 30, 2019) link