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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.