in defence of sad movies

This entry was posted by on Thursday, 23 January, 2014 at

A few weeks ago I wrote something that was a kind of defence of the the amount of time I spend in the world of movies and novels and popular culture. My basic argument was that artists help us pay attention – to the world around us and to our own lives.

The woman I live with asked a troubling question (as she tends to do) in the comments which I’ve been pondering ever since: “why is it, Jayber, that much of this good art you watch, read, listen to, is so melancholy and even at times disturbing?” I’ve been asked this question more than once in the past, and I have more than one friend who has declared they will “never watch a movie on JM’s recommendation again” after watching something they found tedious, depressing, disturbing or baffling.

I’m quite happy to attribute some of this to differences of personality and taste, and to accept that my own mind is, for whatever reason, often drawn to the strange and the startling and the melancholy.  But I also want to make a modest case for why, in general, we all need some of the art we engage with to be sad and even disturbing. (The “some of” is important here – we all need some pure escapist entertainment in our life, which is why God invented New Girl and Community and Firefly).

I guess it comes down to this: if the role of good art is to help us to pay attention to the world, and if the world we live in is in some real sense broken, damaged, not-the-way-it’s-supposed-to-be… Then we need artists to tell the truth about that brokenness. Even if that truth is at times uncomfortable or troubling. Art which tells the truth is an ally of the gospel. When a movie pretends that our troubles are trivial, so that any difficulty which arises can be resolved neatly by the end of an hour-and-a-half narrative, it distorts the truth. That old, melancholy prophet Jeremiah put it this way:

They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.

One of my favourite movies is called The Ice Storm. It’s a movie that tells the truth about the impact of “the sexual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s on families and children, on trust and community. And so it’s one of the saddest movies you’ll ever see. But it is a film which, I contend, does us much more good than a hundred chirpy romantic comedies which pretend that infidelity and casual sexual encounters are a right laugh.

In the same way, I would suggest that any war movie which is not difficult to watch, or which leaves us with a warm glow and a simple moral “message” is not telling the truth about the horror of war. A voice in The Thin Red Line tells the truth: “war doesn’t ennoble men… it poisons the soul.” I haven’t seen 12 Years a Slave yet, but I find myself agreeing with those who have written about it and said that a movie about slavery should not (must not) be easy to watch.

Sometimes a desire to only watch things that are “wholesome” can lead us to prefer comfortable illusions rather than uncomfortable reality. Steve Turner expresses this beautifully (and I think this applies to the art we consume as well as the art we create:

Christians have [0ften] thought that they should only create art with a Pollyanna quality to it: paintings of birds and kittens, movies that extol family life and end happily, songs that are positive and uplifting – in short, works of art that show a world that is almost unfallen where no one experiences conflict and where sin is naughty rather than wicked.

Now here’s my slight pull-back, and where I’m thinking a bit about my own habits. It’s one thing to tell the truth about brokenness. It’s another thing to tell the truth without hope. And I think it’s undeniable that some of our culture’s storytellers look at the world through a lens that is hopeless, leaning towards cynicism or despair, or a kind of nihilistic shrug.

We need help to face the truth. But we must not give in to cynicism or despair. We must be people of hope. And if we spend enough time in the company of those who look at the world through a cynical lens, it starts to wear away at our hearts. So I’ll confess I’ve abandoned both The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. And I’ll take some convincing to embark on a five-season journey into the heart of darkness with Breaking Bad. (This is maybe a bigger issue with a long TV series than a one off movie).

Some of you will make a spirited defence of the shows I have named here (please do!), and wonder how I can stomach the relentless melancholy of Mad Men. (Why do I remain hopeful, against all reason, for Don Draper?) But that’s where I think there’s a need for quite personal discernment here. It’s not for me to tell you what to watch. We need to pay attention to the effect these things have on our own minds and hearts and souls. I think I’ve been careless here at times, and too much influenced by what the critics I trust say is “great art.”

But to swerve back towards my main argument. To say we need hope is not to say we need comfortable stories with easy answers. Genuine hope is a grittier thing than shallow optimism or naivety. Which is why – forgive me! – The Shawshank Redemption is a decent piece of entertainment but not the great movie about hope it is sometimes claimed to be.  Hope faces the darkness and “wrestles with despair,” as Dr. Cornel West puts it:

The categories of optimism and pessimism don’t exist for me. I’m a blues man. A Blues man is a prisoner of hope, and hope is a qualitatively different category than optimism. Optimism is a secular construct, a calculation of probability. Black folk in America have never been optimistic about the future – what have we had to be optimistic about? But we are people of hope. Hope wrestles with despair, but it doesn’t generate optimism. It just generates this energy to be courageous, to bear witness, to see what the end is going to be. No guarantee, unfinished, open-ended. I’m a prisoner of hope. I’m going to die full of hope.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Which artists help you face the truth about the world with genuine hope? Which sad movies do you think we need? Which movies and TV shows and novels do you find tipping over into cynicism? How do these works of art impact your soul?


20 Responses to “in defence of sad movies”

  1. On the cynicism question: I watched all the Sopranos series compulsively as they came out. Tony is one of the great creations of modern fiction. But towards the end I found myself half-hoping someone would wipe him and all his associates out (I guess all that violence was having an effect). Early on the question of whether such a man could be redeemed was just under the surface. By the end it was down there with the Titanic. And that became depressing, nihilistic and hopeless to a point I was glad when the screen went blank and we said goodbye to Tony (and sadly to James Gandolfini). I think that effect has stayed with me to a point where, like you, however many rave reviews, I haven’t wanted to watch Breaking Bad (or The Wire). Can’t say that for Mad Men though.

    I guess I’m trying to say I don’t see things in terms of sad or happy movies because life isn’t in neat categories. Where there is truth and humanity in the middle of even bleak reality, that draws you in. The Scandanavians seem to be able to do truth, humanity and realism. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and sequels were dark but brilliant because Lisbeth Salander and Kalle Blomquist were such human characters. I loved how the story followed through all the way with gritty realism – no cop outs and unbelievable optimism there but there was hope, however hidden.

  2. Debo

    I adored the Sopranos, the Wire and Breaking Bad. I am at times, a sensitive thing, but I didn’t feel destroyed, hopeless or cynical during or after them. I wasn’t lured by the violence. In the Sopranos and the Wire, I loved how it showed the main characters as deeply flawed’mixed bags’. Tony: a criminal, cheater and a liar, was also a messed up, vulnerable, lonely man and through his therapy sessions, we see how a combination of circumstance and choice gave him the life that he lived. The drug dealers and addicts – usually dismissed by people all around us as ‘scumbags’ – we see how and why they end up where they are and have some compassion for them. There is also great humour in both of those shows. Breaking Bad is not as humourous in my opinion but an enthralling picture of how power corrupts. For me, these series challenge the world’s view that people are either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ and show how people have the potential to be both.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts Patrick. I think you describe what happened with The Sopranos very well. I probably wouldn’t have noticed and would have ploughed on, but Debs picked up on the change in tone and found she just had no desire to put herself through that. The acting and writing was still great so it was a shame.

    Funny enough I’m preparing to give The Wire a go – it seems a bit different because of the different perspectives of each series. It sounds like there’s a kind of intelligent compassion there, or something, that genuinely wants to try to understand the complex causes of the brokenness. Plus, my wee sister liked it!

    Haven’t seen Girl with The Dragon Tattoo but I agree about the Scandinavians. And I agree that happy/sad is not a helpful dichotomy. Just trying to grab attention with the title! People often tell me a movie I recommended was really depressing, and I’m surprised because what I was left with was a sense of something else – compassion or hope or the value of ordinary lives.

  4. jaybercrow

    Good thoughts Debo. I enjoyed your defence!

    I really liked Sopranos for two or three seasons for the very reasons you describe. Funny enough I think I started to struggle as his marriage started to unravel – so it was watching a disintegrating marriage that I struggled with more than the mob violence! In general I think I have trouble loving mob/gangster dramas. I was left cold by the Godfather movies and Goodfellas too.

    Getting ready to jump into The Wire. And maybe I’ll give in and try Breaking Bad at some stage. Y’all are making a good argument for the defence.

  5. I love that you think you spend time in the world of “popular” culture… ha ha ha… there aint much popular about your tastes Charles!!

  6. (a compliment, of course)

  7. jaybercrow

    Fair point Charles. I meant “popular” in terms of the medium, i.e. TV, movies and music-with-guitars, rather than opera, theatre and classical music!

  8. so, more seriously… I have been waiting for this post since Debsie’s epic question and I love your insights here, as well as Jeremiah’s! (and Steve Turner’s, Dr West’s, Patrick’s and Debo’s)

    I liked the Sopranos for the same reasons Debo mentions. Certainly it was the Mob Boss having a panic attack and starting therapy in the first episode that got me interested to start with. But I can understand what Patrick is saying too… with hindsight-reflection, I too just kept watching.

    I would say for the first series and a bit of the Wire I would have it in my Sopranos ‘category’… I thought it told stories well, that it ‘bore witness’, as you say… I watched it, to be honest, because Chris liked it and I didn’t ‘hate’ it. But somewhere in the 2nd series it got right under my skin. And that was that. It got my heart and mind in a way Sopranos never did. Aaron Sorkin wouldn’t write it, but Shakespeare might have… you know?

    But is there a place for artists JUST to tell the truth about brokenness? For us to watch it through our own lenses of hope? (if we personally discern that to be ok for us?) (which it may not be for me, who is now regretting watching Casualty, but may be for others!)

  9. jaybercrow

    “is there a place for artists JUST to tell the truth about brokenness?”

    Yes, I definitely think so. I don’t think we should demand that all artists reflect our own worldview and share our redemptive hope. There is great value in art which simply bears witness to painful truth. It’s up to us to then make of it what we will. I would put “Amour” in this category.

    But as you say, there will be personal discernment in terms of subject matter and how it affects us, where we are sensitive or vulnerable at this moment in time, and maybe even how much of that kind of art we can cope with. (Maybe Casualty was OK but not repeated every Saturday night!)

  10. Ricky_mcallister

    Thanks for the post JM, much food for thought…

    I’m not totally where I stand and don’t think it’s possible to make my thoughts coherent. Most of my favourite shows and films tend to fall on the more melancholic side too and generally find those more stimulating and memorable. Like you, I love the Ice Storm and it is comfortably in my top 10. I always recommend it to film and non-film fans. It is deeply sad, troubling, provocative, moving, funny….the list goes on. The pervading sense of melancholy doesn’t let up yet the climax, as heartbreaking as it is, becomes more hopeful because of the heartbreak. The hope lies IN the brokenness of the people we are watching. The film remains defiantly non-judgemental and never attempts to manipulate us through a falsely redemptive ending. Because it doesn’t need it. The key here is the stories and characters lend themselves to a study of broken lives and when the stories and characters are developed as perfectly as they are in the Ice Storm, we don’t need superficial moralising. The hope lies in the characters seeing their wrecked lives and beginning to recognise the size of the hole they are in.

    Yet there are other filmmakers, directors like Ingmar Bergman, who have spent their careers making existential films, attempting to question the meaning of life, the great human struggle, or however you put it. These films tend to be a kind of miserabilist cinema where the director’s intentions could appear simply to drive us towards severe depression with the view that this outcome qualifies it as important art. Watching a film which forces us to stare into the abyss for 90 minutes may not have any merit either. ‘Classic’ European films like the Seventh Seal and Persona are miserable and sad and appear weighty, yet for my money, say a lot while saying nothing at all.

    Possibly this is done to personality or personal sensibilities or frame of mind at a particular point in time. But films like The Ice Storm, and Magnolia are sad and disturbing/troubling etc, but they are films that, in my opinion, are truthful and grapple with things we grapple with. They find hope in unexpected places and joy where there should be none. Apart from anything else, provocative films like these and many others rescue me from my all to familiar slumber.

    As an aside, I know you gave up on The Sopranos and there were times I found it too much. Having watching it, Breaking Bad and the Shield for their duration, I do feel they are resolutely moral. We are watching deeply sinful, abusive, diabolical characters who remain human even in their darkest moments. Just because you are watching films etc that are about sinful and terrible people doesn’t necessarily mean that the shows themselves are. These shows may be asking questions of us as viewers as watch them. Is it possible that reducing a show to glib and shallow moralising actually undermines the integrity of what we are watching and devalues the moral journey the characters go on?

  11. The Ice Storm is a wonderful film; Ang Lee toned down the rage that burns in Rick Moody’s original novel. Moody is a writer who has engaged with the New Testament deeply. I met him very briefly at a college talk and he spoke with enthusiasm of how Luke and Acts were part of one sweeping saga.

    William Nicholson gave CS Lewis that great line in his play: “We read to know we’re not alone.”

    There are joys and heartaches so brilliant and profound in life that I am amazed we see them on film so rarely. When we recognise from our own experience either the euphoria or sorrow that an artist presents we have the comfort of knowing that we are not treading this road alone or for the first time.

    Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia contains a true portrayal of depression in a film that is rich in beauty and humour against a backdrop of the apocalyptic.

    The psalms resound with laments of fear, of isolation, of estrangement, of barrenness and are punctuated with cries for justice and vengeance. These songs are responses to the brokenness of the world that are articulated with passion and have rung out over centuries because the sentiments expressed will ring true until creation itself is redeemed.

    It is the honesty in these words that captivates us and which art today can still explore with, as Leonard Cohen might say, broken hallelujahs.

    The uncanny, that sense of otherness which so enchanted Lewis, is glimpsed not just in love and beauty when we look up, expecting to see a world where these glorious shine in perfect hues. It is also experienced in the grief when we encounter the wreckage of sin and know, somehow, this is not how the world should be, that the carnage does not belong in creation. It is in these moments of recognition that the expression of comfort and kinship has the power to flood our perception with hope that seems to come from another reality. As David Lynch said: “Tenderness can be just as abstract as insanity.”

    It is fascinating that in the Gospels we do not see Jesus summoning angel choirs to wow the world but instead we are presented – in the midst of an insane religious and political inferno – with the most consistently tender example of a life lived.

    In a world of the bereaved and forsaken we need art that recognises the pain that is not permitted to be expressed in chirpy Twitter feeds and upbeat Facebook updates; we need to awake to the painful broken nature of our world and our time but also embrace the transformation and transfiguration that comes when someone has the courage to love and to touch, especially when the Spirit allows these moments to be occasions alive with the power to heal.

  12. I find it hard too think of instances of genuine hope in art, books, novels, films. Maybe that is because of a melancholic temperament, or just because there isn’t much sometimes?

    When it comes to hope in music the words don’t matter too much, its more about the texture and sounds of the guitars on certain songs rather than lyrics. I was tapping my pint glass along to a tune by ‘Pounding by The Doves last night, haven’t a clue what he was singing but the drum beat seemed alive at the time.

    I’m not sure that that is genuine hope, but if I’m down I need to feel hope before before I can logically process it.

    Books generally take too long, films, TV series as well so they wouldn’t be my first port of call.

    Comedy/satire can be a brilliant tool for exposing truth, but it often seems to come hand in hand with a cynicism towards the world and people,and just bullying people. So I can’t really watch it.

  13. I read this post yesterday and it has been playing on my mind. Most of my favourite films are deeply sad. Sometimes I think I watch them as a way to smuggle out my own sadness but I also watch them and am drawn to them as you say…because they tell well the truth about the brokenness of our world and lives. I think that is vital to living. I don’t think they have to show us hope and yet I find they always do. The wire, breaking bad, the sopranos… Even in the darkest situations the beauty of friendship or loyalty or love or these kinds of things sneaks in. I have not made it to the end of the sopranos yet so maybe itll prove me wrong. But these films and TV shows don’t just bring me hope because hope is in them. I also like these shows because somehow as i watch Walter White or Tony Soprano slowly and deeply I realise “That in my best behaviour I am really just like him” as sufjan stevens says. And as these films or shows bring me face to face with myself I find I am relieved to stop pretending. Even as I write this I’m not entirely sure I agree with myself but I think I don’t least a little bit. Off to watch the lives of others.

  14. *I mean do!

  15. Very thought provoking post Jayber. I found myself wanting to disagree with what your saying and at first I wasn’t sure why. I generally have an aversion to sad/melancholy movies, and when faced with a choice on Netflix or Lovefilm tend to plump for the mainstream non-throught provoking (and often poor) action blockbusters. Perhaps I’m just too shallow but I usually want to unwind and relax with some mind-numbing escapism and the thought of opening myself up by watching a movie which causes my heart to face the pain of the subject matter (even if there is hope in the end) seems like too much effort. I usually don’t want to be reminded of the brokenness there is in the world (I think I tend not to watch the news for the same reason!) But I suppose that’s not good and I can’t actually disagree with anything you’re saying.
    I think perhaps I need to be braver and less lazy with what I chose to watch. Philippians 4:8 came to mind as I was reading your post; ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.’ I don’t think there’s any contradiction with what you’re saying but I’m starting to realise there is with a lot of the crap I chose to watch. I think the wider question when choosing to watch TV and movies is to know what feeds our souls, and that will be different things for different people. In a sense then, whether the movie is sad or not is less relevant.

    On another point… does your wife (or ‘the woman you live with’ as your call her) actually call you Jayber when you two are alone? I hope not… 😉

  16. Actually scrap that last sentence… I really hope so!

  17. Richard Harries, the former bishop of Reading, gave a talk at Hay on Wye in which he made the case that even in the predominantly sad canon of modern English novels there is the sense of a creator watching his creation with compassion; the very act of writing a novel is a work of sub-creation, of imagining… I can’t do justice to his argument but there was something there. The telling of sad stories reflects we are made in the image of a God who knows when a sparrow falls.

    There is something deeply heart-warming about great cinema because a brilliant film has to be a work of love. I find this with the best of Tarantino, that stories that in the hands of others could be nihilistic are infused with a sense of the writer/director’s passion and excitement for the tale. With Kubrick, for example, at the helm you are willing to go on a journey that you would avoid if led by a lesser filmmaker.

  18. Glenners

    (Apologies for this belated post…)

    Films that handle dark and difficult themes are essential in shedding light on the complex layers of truth and pain in the world. Providing they are well made, these films can excel at showing, not necessarily telling, and forcing us to slow down, think and reflect. If we let them they can even change us too.

    I have quite a high level of tolerance for darker films – sometimes that concerns me(!). A friend recently told me that since becoming a parent he often finds it too uncomfortable to watch dark films were children might be involved in the plot somehow. I think it’s very interesting how our life experience can affect our viewing experience.

    Three darker films I found rewarding last year were The Hunt, Mysterious Skin and The Elephant Man. The directors pulled no punches and I was struck by the devastating impact of long-lasting impact of abuse and condemnation. It was often uncomfortable and compelling viewing but bred new understanding and empathy in me. While I judged certain characters and communities I found the films judged me.

    So for now I find that these darker films can be helpful and very rewarding. Ask me again in 30 years.


  1. stumbling towards something true @ jayber crow
  2. the bleak will inherit the earth? @ jayber crow

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