The Problem With Happiness

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.