the bleak will inherit the earth?

This entry was posted by on Friday, 5 September, 2014 at

I’m going to just pretend it hasn’t been six months since I wrote anything on here, and just pick up where I left off with some more thoughts about sad movies…

Last weekend was a three-movie weekend, which is a rare and beautiful thing these days. I finally caught up with two I’ve been wanting to see since Oscar-season. Nebraska was lovely, the kind of slow, gentle, bitter-sweet story I love, full of flawed and foolish and utterly human characters, and beautiful black and white shots of rolling landscapes, big skies and time-lined faces. Inside Llewyn Davies was a delightful surprise. I’ll watch pretty much anything the Coen brothers make, because you can guarantee it will be crafted with such love and skill – but I’ve often come away feeling there’s something missing (emotional sincerity?). This one works on every level – it’s their funniest, saddest, warmest, most enjoyable film since Fargo.

But the movie that has lingered most in my mind was a Belgian drama called The Broken Circle Breakdown. In a time-fractured narrative which reminded me of Blue Valentine, it tells the story of a musician couple and their falling-in-love and the slow unravelling of their relationship under the strain of shared suffering. It features the kind of natural, effortless acting that is so rare in English-speaking cinema, and the best bluegrass soundtrack you’ll hear in a movie, all played by the actors themselves. But when Espero asked me how it was, I (sheepishly) admitted it was “a bit depressing, even for me.” There was something unrelenting about the misery that left me feeling slightly bludgeoned.

It got me thinking about a wonderful lecture I heard this summer, delivered by my old friend Sharon Jebb-Smith at the Abbey Summer School in Edinburgh. She talked about the tendency among critics of “serious literature” to praise writing which is full of “death, sorrow, uncertainty, anxiety,” and to dismiss anything hopeful or happy as naive, escapist, “not serious.” Sharon spent several years immersed in the works of Samuel Beckett, and found that over time his work had a depressing effect on her own mood. Beckett was someone who spoke unapologetically about the importance of facing despair unflinchingly. His was a deliberate “refusal of consolation.”

I suspect there’s a similar tendency in the world of “serious” cinema and film criticism. Happy endings are inherently suspect. Artistic integrity demands brutality and despair. As I wrote before, we need artists who will tell the truth about brokenness and heartache. But I’m struck by Sharon’s reflections on the possibility of deliberately refusing consolation and shutting our hearts to the possibility of hope. She contrasted Beckett’s nihilism with writers like Lewis and Tolkien, who wrote plenty about sorrow and death and struggle, but also believed in the possibility of “eucatastrophe” – a sudden turning towards hope, joy breaking into the story from “beyond the walls of the world.”

Lewis wrote about some of the acclaimed modern writers of his day, that their work was “astringent, tough, unmerry,” and that it was “serious but not necessarily profound.” I wonder if that isn’t a fair description of some of the critically-adored movies and TV series of our time? And if so, what is the cumulative effect of sitting in the dark being immersed in that kind of “dark vision” for hours at a time?

On the flip side, what does it mean to deliberately choose to embrace consolation, and hope? Can there be a serious pursuit of joy and cheerfulness? And are there artists who can help us in that pursuit?

Two final quotes to finish. G.K. Chesterton reminds us, seriously and playfully, that Satan fell because of his gravity, while “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” Julian of Norwich writes, sternly and cheerfully, that “it is God’s will that we should hold on to gladness with all our might.”

5 Responses to “the bleak will inherit the earth?”

  1. Welcome back! You’ve helped me articulate previously half-formed feelings in a post about True Detective – thanks.

  2. transfamer

    Great thoughts as usual. I’m prone to a good old depressing movie but am challenged by the idea that we can be refusers of consolation.this definitely requires more mulling. I also love the Julian of Norwich quote!

  3. Dave Mitchell

    Great stuff JM. I’ve lost interest in serious (miserable) films in the last few years, but it’s not easy finding comedy which is funny but also intelligent, humane, true and inspiring and not cynical and stupid. A lot of it is just plain unmerry.

  4. Ricky McAllister

    ‘Serious but not necessarily profound’ is an interesting thought.

    I am interested in film history and am always on the lookout for new directors in the hope they might offer something different. One of the fêted directors we are pushed towards is Ingmar Bergman, someone who possibly blazed a trail for the influx of Scandinavian misery-fests that are started to dominate our tv screens. Bergman was recognised as the foremost artist (within film anyway) to explore human existence, or life itself….or whatever. Having endured to the point of exhaustion 4 or 5 of his films I asked myself simply ‘what’s the bl**dy point?’

    Wallowing in human misery, crafting a film of miserable people having a miserable time in a miserable place asking questions about their misery and forcing their misery on us is not necessarily profound. It might actually only be the result of an artist confusing profundity with self-importance.

    But there are directors who make films which tend towards the bleak who are unfraid of a happy ending (at least of sorts). The Dardenne brothers are a perfect example. Sure their films are populated by people in difficult or dire circumstances but their journey in the film, rather than make light of their troubles, actually make their triumphs that more impressive, or hopeful. Because they have earned those little victories. And so the Dardenne brothers make films that are sad, bleak, disturbing, warm, powerful, moving, inspiring and breathtaking. For me, this is only because their characters are not plot points, they are written with love, empathy and some degree of humanity.

    The films of Alexander Payne and Tom McCarthy also craft little moments of hope, insight and generosity amidst the laughter and heartbreak.


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