I got the chance to hang out with one of New Zealand’s best film directors a little while ago courtesy of a friend. He’s not the kind who directs Hobbit stuff, but more like those movies which tell really ‘New Zealand’ stories about social harms and the amazing people who overcome them. During the brief hour or two at his house in Auckland we got onto a conversation about a new genre of cinema that seems to be growing in popularity all the time. It’s the stuff that makes you sad to be alive, frustrated about the state of humanity and cynical about any hope for change. He calls this genre ‘Misery Porn’. If you’d like a tour de force through this I’d consider shutting yourself in a dark house for an entire day and choosing anything by Lars Von Trier.
I believe in the human desire for closure. By that I mean that we all know the way a story is supposed to go: We meet our character, our character is living a normal life, their normal life is interrupted by a challenge, they overcome it, they are better for it. There’s some part of us that can’t totally relax until the moment that closure comes. When I do any kind of public speaking I try to deliberately creative a sense of an unfinished narrative as I believe this is the best way to hold peoples attention until the end when all the threads connect.
The ‘Misery Porn’ narrative goes like this: our character is fundamentally flawed, their flaws lead them into darkness, the darkness transforms them into a monster, the monster destroys them and everything around them, the end. What have we learned here? Life is terrible, people are terrible, there is no redemption, no hope. Time to go home from the cinema and drink until you can’t feel anymore. I don’t buy the critical acclaim many of these pictures receive. Most critics are just cynics trying to prove who can be more sarcastic than the next.
What I’m not saying is that the hero of every story has to come out on top. They can and must suffer, they may have to die, but thematically speaking we need to be given the sense that the universe/god/insert-belief-system is still ultimately good to humanity even if the journey to get there is excruciating. Here are four films that make me glad to be alive and might have the same effect on you:
- Up! A grumpy old man who longs to fulfil the adventures he couldn’t with his wife, a boy scout with an absent Father-figure, a cowardly dog who must find his courage, a mother bird searching for her chicks. It might as well be the Wizard of Oz! All of these characters have something deeply personal they long for and the journey of Pixar’s best movie (imho) delivers that kind of universal catharsis that people of any age or stage will recognise.
- Schindler’s List I know, you’re probably wondering how a holocaust movie makes it in here but the transformation of Oscar Schindler’s character encourages me that the most self-indulgent parts of me can be changed through commitment to a cause bigger than myself. The closing moments of the film connect the tragic story of Schindler to the greater story of hope for humanity.
- The Shawshank Redemption It’s really in the title here. Andy Dufreine is horrifically imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. The prison becomes the refining mechanism for this man who took everything he had for granted to realise the beauty of the simple things. It costs him nearly everything to get there and those final scenes of crawling through shit to be washed clean are as thematically satisfying as it gets!
- The Secret Life of Walter Mitty A man who has fallen into a mediocre life by accident is awoken by a letter from a photographer calling him to the edge of the world. This coming of age tale is powerful to any of us wondering how life got away on us and looking for the courage to step out and pursue the dreams we had when we were younger. It also has a killer soundtrack.