EssaysWeekend

Everything Is Fine

What does it mean to be “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings”?

Early this week, The New York Times published an article under that title by longtime Philadelphia Inquirer film critic (and former Village Voice art critic) Carrie Rickey. It told the story of an independent film producer named Lindsay Doran, whom Rickey describes in the third paragraph as “a missionary for mood-elevating films.”

It seems as if Doran became enamored of a book by a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, and “began rewatching films through the lens of what Dr. Seligman identifies as the five essential elements of well-being: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. (He refers to these elements collectively as perma.)”

I didn’t investigate perma’s psychological applications, but I’m sure it has its uses. However, if Doran’s campaign — which she is carrying out “in a series of presentations to filmmakers” — merits coverage from the newspaper of record, how seriously should we take her influence? Does her “concept of cinematic Zoloft,” as Rickey puts it, become something worth reckoning with?

If it does, one of my first questions would be what Doran thinks of Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), which I happened to watch, for the second or third time, not long before the article appeared.

The Lady in the Radiator, from David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) (via s607.photobucket.com)

For what it’s worth, All About Eve won six Academy Awards, including best picture, director and screenplay, and was nominated for eight others. The passage of time hasn’t been altogether kind. Much of the acting seems mannered and stagey. The expository patches get dull. Ann Baxter’s Eve comes off as one-note much of the time. And the story’s wordless dénouement quickly slips from subtlety into overstatement.

Still, the film shimmers with brilliance, and its most radiant passages are those that might be defined as inverse-perma. Emotions are anything but positive. Engagement is poisonous. Relationships are treacherous. Meaning is empty. Accomplishments are hollow. And watching them unfold is utterly euphoric.

Hollywood has had its systems and formulae from the very first crank of the camera, and so we shouldn’t be surprised by any scheme, however ham-fisted, that it might contrive in its quest for a sure thing.

But the upsweep implied in Doran’s standpoint not only makes, once again, a virtue of cheap sentiment, but it also reduces cinema to an instructional tool.

Doran is quoted in the article as saying, “I think the thing that they’re getting out of it is that the ‘happy ending,’ the one that is most memorable and might make people go back to see the film a second time, might not be about winning. It might be about not winning, about finding something deeper that means more than victory.”

Okay, sure. To be “Perfectly Happy, Even Without Happy Endings,” then, is not to get what you want, but what you need. But what else can movies do?

I keep thinking about the mutant-cheeked character known as the Lady in the Radiator, who emerges out of the darkness in David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) to sing in a threadbare voice, “In heaven, everything is fine.”

That interlude, with its devastating parody of forced good cheer, has no demonstrative purpose (which, of course, goes for everything else in the film). And yet its emotional and psychological pull is as magnetic, in its own way, as Bette Davis’ star turn in All About Eve as the grandiloquent, grandly operatic Margo Channing.

In the Times article, Rickey goes to the source and quotes Dr. Seligman thus:

“’Movies are a form of soma,’ he said, referring to the idea of an uplifting drug, and he hypothesized that ‘more perma-like movies would make people’s lives better, but nobody’s researched that.’”

The Lady in the Radiator and Margo Channing are both monsters. Their environs are unremittingly harsh and unforgiving. They impart no lessons, provide no insights, proffer no advice. They are both unerringly real.

Have they made my life any better? Nobody’s researched that.

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