In the wake of yesterday’s post about Blackbird, a play reflecting on a relationship between a 40-year-old man and a 12-year-old girl, a thought came up: Why is it that we’re attracted to dark, desperate stories? And how broad is that “we” anyway? Are Tara and I, for example, among a minority seeking out darker, complex, challenging stories while others look toward entertainment just for that: entertainment? Or is that “we” societal? I recall, for example, wanting to read William Styron’s Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness back in 1990, and when my mother got it for me for Christmas, Dad asked what it was about. “Styron’s depression,” I told him, and he looked puzzled: “Why would anyone want to read about that?” he asked.
A similar conversation came up last year with my parents, who each year try to watch all of the contenders for the Best Picture Oscar in advance of the Academy Awards. Last year’s slate was, of course, an uphill battle, including No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood, Atonement… well, you get the picture, and even the fifth film, Juno, had an underlying seriousness. Many critics commented that it was the bleakest (that was the word) bunch of contenders ever and that it must represent something larger about our world. That question came up again just a few weeks ago in a Washington Post article entitled “No Country for Upbeat Films.” Since last year’s Oscar race, we’ve had more dark films that have attracted both critical acclaim and big bucks at the box office: The Dark Knight anyone? Quantum of Solace, the bleakest Bond film yet? And the road ahead doesn’t look much cheerier — literally: the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes out next year. The Post article says that “bleak is chic. Hopeless is hot.” And then proceeds to ask why, offering at one point the idea that bleakness “gives us a strong hit of humanity. It strips away the banal. It raises our pedestrian struggles to grandiose heights.”
So is it that goodness can’t show us humanity? that comedy or even happiness can’t reflect human nature because it’s inherently banal? Tolstoy himself hinted toward something similar in that oft-repeated opening line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
As Tara and I talked about it yesterday, we came up with something a little different. It’s not that darkness shows us something more real about humanity or even that extreme emotional states of any kind capture something truer about who we are. A bad man doing bad things is ultimately boring; a good man doing good things is even more boring; but either a good man doing a bad thing or a bad man doing a good one…? Well, that’s got potential.
At least in our case, it’s the idea of complexity and of a layering of emotions that seems to draw us toward thinking of a novel or a film as more important or successful or interesting. Juno, as one of my students pointed out last semester, succeeded in her mind as a great work of art because at one minute she was laughing and at the next she was crying. Blackbird, to our minds, succeeded the other night because it wasn’t relentlessly bleak but instead because it tempered that bleakness with heart — even if it then broke that heart. Tragedy isn’t necessarily a higher art form than comedy — any survey of Woody Allen’s films will turn that idea on its head pretty quickly — and it’s not entirely the dexterity with which an artist navigates between those two poles either. Instead, it’s that artist’s ambition and ability to earn something deeper than simple laughs or simple tears or simple fears, slapstick or sheer sentimentality or that punch in the gut.
At least that’s roughly what we came up with. Thoughts?