Saturday 21 September 2019

Katie Byrne: 'Why do we equate misery with being cool?'

Why do we equate misery with being cool?

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I recently attended a talk by film producer and script doctor Lindsay Doran. As a studio executive, Lindsay worked on films like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and This is Spinal Tap. As a self-proclaimed 'Script Whisperer', she has helped thousands of writers save screenplays that looked like they couldn't be resuscitated. To cut a long story short, she's a master storyteller.

Lindsay's latest project is more front-of-house than behind-the-scenes. For the last few years she's been delivering a talk - one might even call it a manifesto - entitled, The Psychology of Storytelling.

The precepts of this talk are based on the emerging field of positive psychology and the thrust of it is this: What happened to the feel-good movie?

Lindsay wants to know why filmmakers aren't making the sort of films they made in the 1980s and 1990s - films like Back to the Future and The Karate Kid. More to the point, she wants to know why these films don't win the Oscar for Best Picture when they are made.

Yes, films like Chocolat and Little Miss Sunshine certainly make the reckoning, but they are often trumped by films like Gladiator and The Departed, respectively.

Comedy, meanwhile, barely gets a look-in, despite being one of the most noble and exacting art forms. Other art forms reach towards the truth, comedy is based on it.

Lindsay says there's a prevailing attitude in Hollywood that a film must be deep and dark to be considered artistic. However, this attitude fails to take simple supply and demand into account.

According to Lindsay, 50pc of the cinema-going audience for Despicable Me 2 was made up of a demographic known as "adult non-parent". In other words, we're "sneaking into kids' movies" to get that warm and cosy feeling that films of old used to give us.

This attitude also fails to acknowledge the commercial success of the feel-good genre. As Lindsay pointed out in her talk, Mamma Mia! made over $600m at the box office. Granted, this film is perhaps the celluloid equivalent of Lionel Richie's The Definitive Collection, but it's also proof that there is a huge, untapped, market for films that aren't emotionally strenuous.

So why aren't more filmmakers making them? Lindsay says it has to do with the "gravitational pull of cool".

This makes sense. While I happily paid €12 to watch Paddington as an adult non-parent, I didn't exactly go out of my way to recommend it to the friend who told me about the Roman Polanski season in the IFI. Indeed, I remember a few 'serious' film heads - the type of people that say 'auteur' rather than 'director' - sneering when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture.

This prejudice isn't reserved to filmmaking. Within the music industry there is a misconception that to be a serious singer/songwriter, one must first be able to channel their suffering through the key of A Minor. Some friends of mine recently made a relentlessly upbeat album. Their fans loved it but one critic gave it the thumbs-down for being "too happy".

It's the same in the media industry where the old adage of "if it bleeds, it leads" still has weight. Even cynical writing is considered to have more bite - among greenhorns anyway. Would-be critics often come into journalism thinking that a caustic tone of writing is more compelling than a celebratory one.

It's certainly easier. Criticism isn't as demanding or exposing as praise and, besides, nobody wants to read the words of a sycophantic wimp.

It doesn't help that this 'negativity bias' is hardwired. In the words of psychologist Dr Rick Hanson, our brains are "like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones". It is because of this bias that we conclude that happiness is fleeting and good things don't last. (Neither do bad things, as it happens.)

Likewise, it is because of this bias that we raise our eyebrows at positive people. I know this because I'm one of them. People like to be around us positive types, yes, but they also strongly suspect that we're butterfly-chasing simpletons.

"I love your positivity!" is something I hear frequently. It would be complimentary if it wasn't said in the same tone one would use to commend a five-year-old's finger-painting. Otherwise, we're treated with suspicion. Have a great day? On a Monday morning?! Sicko...

Doran concluded her talk with a quote by occasional poet Robert A Ward: "I wish you the courage to be warm when the world would prefer you to be cool..."

Ward's poem reminds us that there is a risk to being open and optimistic. We forget that the artists creating unashamedly joyous work are actually non-conformists.

When they put brush to canvas or pen to paper, they are defying human nature, industry trends and the niggling voice in their head that tells them that misery has more artistic merit.

Kudos to them for overcoming their negativity bias and creating without the crutch of cynicism.

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