I teach cinema in college. I generally love and appreciate my students but please allow me a small rant. Each semester I have a few students who see every movie I show them as having a positive and uplifting message. No matter how dark, bloody or pessimistic the film may be they think it has a cliché Disney moral. One student wrote, “With the film Apocalypse Now, the theme that stood out to me more than anything was to enjoy the little things. What I mean by that is, don’t take things for granted; and if doing something or having something makes you happy no matter how small it is, cherish it.” I know what you’re thinking and yes, he was watching the right movie, I checked. Sometimes they watch Apocalypto by mistake. I suppose that would be seen as a rom-com about a guy finally getting the girl in the end.
Here’s another, “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is about friendship and Loyalty. Munny is dedicated to find justice for his partner Ned.” I’m not sure I would call Munny’s murdering the sheriff and all his men, justice, but that was my student’s take away. A different semester a student summarized Unforgiven this way “In the end, the movie was about how a man overcomes guilt and learns a lesson of responsibility.”
Last semester I showed my class Parasite and got three papers saying the film was about the importance of family, eg. “Kim Ki-Taek is a caring and compassionate father who wants to fight for his family. The movie shows how unity can make it easier for a family to confront their problems.” And “Bong Joon-ho did a great job displaying the point that no matter where you come from, if you work hard for what you want and/or work together to make something happen, it is possible to succeed.” Here is an excerpt from a paper on Pan’s Labyrinth “The major theme in the film of Pan’s Labyrinth is the theme of motherhood…The other theme is the theme of kindness which in the film is portrayed by Maribel Verdu, who is loving, kind-hearted, caring…” O.K. but what about the fascist captain smashing a man’s face in with a wine bottle? In a paper comparing The Piano and Like Water For Chocolate a student wrote that the movies shared a common message “no matter what the person goes through there’s always a way to find a solution to it. It was a happy ending for both of them.” A student wrote in a paper about Us, “Jordan Peele wanted to show that when a family comes together and work to make things happen, they have the ability to come out successful no matter who you are.”
The vast majority of my students do not maniacally smack a smiley face on everything, but I can’t get through a semester without at least a few happy-go-lucky loons sprinkling glittery, happy dust everywhere. It reminds me of the Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy episode of Ren and Stimpy.
America has a reputation for being a country of optimists. It is seen as the land of big smiles and big bellies. I don’t know if this characterization is accurate but the reputation must have come from somewhere.
Most likely America’s sunny outlook stems from America’s promise of a classless society where anyone can better their status. Our culture is built on the accumulated hopes of millions of immigrants. Whether America fulfills its promise is a different story altogether, but the dream persists. The towering skyscrapers still shine even if at their base they reek of urine and are surrounded by homeless people. Kim Kardashian still wiggles with glossy sex even if underneath her skin is a Frankenstein’s horror of silicone, scars, and collagen. Ronald McDonald still smiles even if he is peddling us meat-flavored, toxic, sludge.
It’s a strange country that we live in, but some of those immigrants do find a better life. Some people do pull themselves up by their bootstrap, at least enough of them to keep the dream alive. Optimism can be a healthy driver of change but only to the extent that it does not obscure reality.
My students are young, and they have made it into college. They see the world before them and are optimistic about their future. Many of them have experienced challenging circumstances growing up and I have found that in order to face life’s challenges they have been raised on a diet of positive cliches. “If you can dream it you can do it.” “Don’t let what other people say bother you.” “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Everything happens for reason.” “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” These sayings help bolster their efforts and foster optimism but unfortunately, there is a point of diminishing returns.
It’s not just that these saying may cause people to misgauge their capabilities but they may misjudge the capabilities of others as well. I often find that the same optimism that enables an individual to move forward is accompanied by a lack of empathy for those who fail to thrive. Tell me I can do anything I set my mind to and it may motivate me, but if I truly accept this statement I may well conclude that the people who find themselves on the margins of society have only themselves to blame.
I remember arguing with a black student who insisted that the slaves had a choice and should have done something instead of submitting. Shen was defending this position because she was protecting her own hopes of a better life for herself. If people’s efforts can be hampered by difficult circumstances then her outlook would be bleak.
Films like Unforgiven and Us provide an opportunity to reexamine America’s mythology. The purpose of movies like these is to question ideas like bootstraps and the two-car garage, however, if the audience has been raised on Marvel, Disney, and apple pie they have a powerful and transformative lens that can turn tragedy into triumph.
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