Dramatic Misery for Fun
Sad movies give such an incredible rush. Heartbreak, loss, and inner conflict are devastating to experience but enormously satisfying to watch. Maybe a little too much. Emotional pain and trauma have been somewhat romanticized by the entertainment industry, and really since the conception of storytelling itself. However, this does not mean misery in media is outright harmful. Pain is undoubtedly an invaluable tool for character development — the resolution can only be achieved after the ‘low point’ is overcome, and the morale strengthened. But when misery is painted falsely, and harmful behaviors encouraged, then viewer empathy becomes dangerous.
It’s questionable whether life imitates art or the other way around, but one thing is for certain: teenagers imitate everything around them. Exposure to mature content puts developing adults at risk of keeping negative coping methods they observe. Roy Lichtenstein provides a classic example of distorted agony in Drowning Girl, a 1963 oil and synthetic polymer painting.
The iconic blue-haired woman shouts “I don’t care! I’d rather sink — than call Brad for help!” Her show of melodrama reflects a lot of televised grief — totally blown out of proportion and exaggerated to a fault. Heartache is a common source for dramatic misery, and what we see on the screen often influences our own stresses with loved ones. Breakups, specifically, frequently dominate a character’s low point. Sensibly so, particularly in romance films.
Movies can promote negative behaviors and coping mechanisms — that’s not breaking news. It’s rather easy to point out, in such dramatic misery movies like The Notebook, and the Twilight series. Why then, do we copy so many of the same angsty tropes we see on those screens? Wistfully staring out windows on rainy days. Crying in the bathroom. Drinking alone at night. These impulses do not come from instinct, but instead a means to identify and channel intense emotion into something recognizable, something seen countless times reenacted by our favorite actors. Self-sabotage and melodrama are immensely gratifying after grief or aggravation simply because it’s fun. Humans love drowning themselves in self-pity, and the external validation that comes from reproducing harmful tropes is so satisfying. On multiple occasions, several different friends of mine would show me their purple-bruised knuckles, scabbed over, telling me they punched trees and walls in dealing with recent breakups. Shocked, I would suggest alternative methods of coping with sadness. This came at no avail, and I knew that trying to better their emotional tools was not what they were looking for. They are emotionally intelligent; a lot of us are, yet we still enjoy the sweeping, end-of-world heart rush from untraditional stress relievers. Perhaps the most classic and recognizable example of angst taken way too far is found at the end of Romeo and Juliet, when the star-crossed lovers take their lives after their families disapprove of their teenage lust. Realistically, a double teen suicide over parental opposition is absurd and wildly exceeds the limits of healthy emotional maintenance. But in the context of Romeo and Juliet’s personal stakes, considering the beauty of the setting and impressionability of youth… it feels alluring. Watching the death scene of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 interpretation is melancholic, but so sweet.
Contemporary examples shy away from unjustified suicide as seen in Romeo and Juliet, but there exists far more subtle anguish tropes in today’s movies. Alcoholism serves as a crutch for characters feeling guilty or defeated, like Marlon in The Truman Show, as he constantly lies to his best friend, Truman. Or Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark after his girlfriend Marion is supposedly killed by Nazis. While the conditions around heavy drinking are generally pretty serious in today’s films, it happens so frequently that binge drinking has become nearly synonymous with sadness. Enjoying drinks on a depressing night is so comforting, but does that come from the alcohol itself? Or the solidarity of seeing Tom Cruise do it with you in A Few Good Men?
Personally, I enjoy taking late night strolls or drives when afflicted by sorrow. After reflecting, I’ve come to realize that I have no love for driving, the nighttime, or the disgustingly cold northeast winter weather. But I find the concept of isolation in a city’s slumbering hours to be so romantic. Dissociating alone under a streetlight in an empty road at 2 in the morning is so picturesque, and aligns well with polished cinematography in movies like Nightcrawler and The Matrix.
Ultimately, dramatic misery is not problematic. In extreme cases, susceptible viewers may be encouraged to take on after problematic characters. Still, writers cannot be held accountable for the influence of their storytelling techniques. Movies have every right to exaggerate to audiences, and create deep empathy easy to recognize. Sobbing in a public toilet stall may be tacky to no end, but if it provides relief through identification, let the tears flow.
By Adam Regenstreif