The Problem With Happiness

Film culture has reached a point where whenever we see happiness without ridiculously manageable problems included, we expect tragedy.

The way our modern film culture represents happiness is very peculiar. Not joy, not bliss, not hysterical glee, but simple happiness. Happy characters cannot be allowed to stay happy, because then there would be no story. However, this makes for a somewhat unrealistic filmic depiction of happiness itself, as a desired emotional state that somehow seems to elude everyone. In fact, the only characters who seem completely happy are super-villains, who laugh maniacally.

Happy characters in realistic films are either hopelessly in denial or hopelessly shallow, and sometimes both. Some realistic film characters achieve happiness by the end of a movie, but then the curtain falls and the audience never gets to see what happens to them. An alien species judging the human race entirely from our film archives might think we were a completely miserable species.

The romantic comedy is, maybe, the genre most closely associated with the idea of happiness. Except in this genre’s efforts to shy away from simplistic representations of happiness, it has ended up creating a bunch of clichés specific only to them. The ordinary “everygirl,” who is of course represented on film by a beautiful movie star, must have cute problems imposed upon her very un-ordinary beauty. She must fall down a lot and be just a little awkward and have obvious, contained issues that are as easy to solve as changing a dress or noticing that the nerdy boy in her life is really The One.

Comedic problems are too often traded for non-problems treated light-heartededly, writ small in easily-scanned circumstance. Viewers are meant to associate their own hopelessly tangled lives with the pat problems of romantic comedy and get from the bargain a sense of resolution, a sense that it will be okay. Except “it” is usually never anything but “okay” in the first place, which to some people--me, for instance--only makes the whole exercise all the more depressing. This kind of filmic happiness can be expressed, “Happiness is impossible unless problems don’t actually exist.”

Happiness in non-rom-coms seems to work even worse, except as a prelude to tragedy. Remember Michael Corleone’s happiness with Appolonia in Italy? The only happiness filmmakers seem to depict in realistic film is a briefly nice moment with the sword of Damocles hanging overhead. This kind could be expressed, “True happiness doesn’t exist, because stories are inevitable.” That happiness and real conflict could co-exist is hardly ever even suggested.

Film culture has reached a point where whenever we see happiness without ridiculously manageable problems included, we expect tragedy. We’re offered only two choices: meaningless happiness alloyed with pointless achievement, or unalloyed happiness as a prelude to misery. The roller coaster or the torture chamber.

And yes, there are exceptions. Mike Leigh’s sublime film Happy Go Lucky, the jolliness of the Hobbits in the first Lord of the Rings movie--I submit that Pippin never really loses his cheer, even when fighting the Witch-King of Angmar--Ben Kingsley’s Ghandi or R2D2, who both experience sadness, yes, but never one to threaten their sense of the world.

But these outliers are too unique to give a sense of a filmic “culture of happiness.” The rule is unreality, and the above mentioned films are the exceptions that prove it. We have a hundred different ways to be scared on film and only a handful of ways to be realistically happy.

Rather, television seems to be the true modern medium for the expression of happiness, this because television has commercials, and--as Don Draper once informed us--advertisers want their public to be happy. Shows like The Cosby Show and Everybody Loves Raymond realistically depict happiness, and not as either an absence of problems nor as the final moments before the cartoon anvil falls.

But it can’t be a coincidence that neither Bill Cosby nor Ray Romano made it in film.




Love in the Time of Coronavirus

I Went on a Jewel Bender in Quarantine. This Is My Report.

It's 2020 and everything sucks right now, so let's all fucking chill and listen to Jewel.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.