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October 30, 2008

The art of happiness

Poppy Though I don't think I've ever seen a Mike Leigh movie, I'm fascinated by this interview with the director about his new film and its heroine:

Played by the radiant Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's comedy "Happy-Go-Lucky," Poppy emerges as an altogether new kind of heroine at a time when -- in Hollywood, at least -- violence, bleakness and pessimism are continually confused with moral seriousness. Observed with insight and compassion by Leigh during a few weeks of her crammed and contented life, Poppy may first impress viewers as an irritating or lovable ditz, depending on their temperament. But as channeled by Hawkins in a performance bursting with insight and fizzy joie de vivre, Poppy gradually comes into her own as a character of rare depth, wisdom and even courage. . . .

Considering Hollywood's recent bleak-equals-deep aesthetic bent, Leigh has done a genuinely radical thing in giving happiness its own moral weight, imbuing it with narrative tension and pride of place more often reserved for dark spectacles and nihilistic tragedies. One of the most fascinating things about "Happy-Go-Lucky" is how it confronts viewers with their own expectations that happiness will be punished, as they find themselves waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop.

To this, Leigh offers begrudging agreement, noting that audiences are "hard wired" by Hollywood to expect the worst. "Look, I've done my fair share of dealing with pain and violence," he says. "But in this case I decided, okay, now's the time to do a film that is celebratory and upbeat and comic. . . ."

Giving happiness its own moral weight. I like it. I really like it. I haven't even seen the film -- I may not get a chance until it's out of the theaters and onto the DVD shelves -- but I feel refreshed just reading about it. I feel like I used to feel in the good old days when my movie-watching was mostly confined to MGM musicals (I fell in love with my all-time favorite film, Singin' in the Rain, largely because it was the happiest movie I'd ever seen).

Actually, I'm wondering why I ever decided to watch anything else.

Okay, that's taking it a bit far. But when I start thinking about what I found in popular culture once I broadened my viewing habits, I realize that most of it had exceedingly little to do with happiness. Angst, pain, injustice, anger, loneliness -- yes; happiness -- no.

It seems to me that all this started for me around the time I saw the gloomy and jarring Edward Scissorhands, which could serve a textbook example of the Post's description of the Cinema of the Dropping Shoe. Every fleeting moment of joy or wonder in that film, it seemed to my bewildered teenage mind, was promptly struck down with a sledgehammer. Little did I know just how much more of that sort of thing I'd find in contemporary movies and television: romance that never lasts, victories that abruptly turn into defeats, happiness that's snatched away before it can be fully enjoyed.

And I'll tell you something: While all this bleakness may have taught me something about how the world works, it's done remarkably little for my mood or outlook. In fact, it's been downright depressing. Of course there's a place for dark movies: While The Boy in the Striped Pajamas may have left me emotionally shattered for days, it also made me think about one of the great tragedies of history in a whole new light, and that's worth something. It's worth quite a lot, actually. But isn't there room for balance -- for movies and shows that acknowledge that the joys of life, not just the sorrows, can shape and inspire us?

I think Mike Leigh is on to something. It just might be time to start exploring and celebrating happiness again.

(Image © Miramax)

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Steve (SBK)

One of the reasons, I think, that we tend to make art of pain and sorrow is that our general (i.e. for most people) medium is joy.
It's much harder to separate ourselves and "look at the beam" of light in the toolshed when we have been looking along it and seeing everything by it. We look at the beam of pain. We see by the beam of joy. (This is all C.S. Lewis paraphrasing).
But the paradox is another Lewisian thought: Sehnsucht. The piercings of such joy we experience (above, I would say, the general medium of ordinary joy) are a reminder of both what is offered and of the brevity of this life.
Partly this is difficult to portray because it is a longing for contentment... and only once content are we really happy. And our society doesn't lend itself to our contentment.
Just some thoughts...

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