Reminder: It’s Okay To Like Something Just Because It Brings You Joy
There's a real art to making someone feel good — it's time we started celebrating it.
One of the weird and guilty habits I’ve fallen into is avoiding any film, book or TV show that people describe as ‘life changing’, especially when they do so with that odd wide-eyed stare of someone who has just survived a piece of harrowing art.
It’s not so much that I think it isn’t life changing or something that’s worthy of seeing, it’s just that my capacity for being affected that much is limited by necessity. I’m a fragile man; I can’t handle that much emotion or intellectual stimulation too often — I need a break. Instead, I tend to consume a large amount of what’s traditionally called ‘entertainment’ — art that can help me escape my problems; art that can amuse me; art that, in short, makes me feel good.
But I’ve noticed that people rarely prioritise this feeling when recommending art. In fact, it’s often downplayed — ‘it’s fun’ they say grudgingly. The critical reception can tend to focus on everything other than the art’s capacity for bringing joy. How many times have you seen a review of a funny film stacked with qualifiers — ‘funny, but rounded out with sadness and poignancy’ — as if those few moments of gravitas somehow make up for the film’s silliness?
When art sets out to be joyful, we need to learn to give it props once it’s succeeded.
Blah Blah Land
If you’re a person with access to the internet, you’ve probably seen how divisive the recent singing and dancing movie La La Land has been. For every article that praised it as a “magical love letter to the golden age of Hollywood” and said it was “the latest great musical for people who don’t like musicals” there’s been a storm of grumpy-faced criticism.
Some of this is relevant and important for all films to be aware of — it’s been criticised for a lack of diversity and a self-aggrandising “white jazz narrative” — but much of it seems to come from a stranger place. A great number of people seem to be having an actual reaction against the joy others are finding in the film, such as in this review, in which the bitter tirade ramps up to this statement:
“Normally when a movie sucks I say to myself, ‘Well, that sucked’, and I go home and make some toast. But this flick is getting more praise than Justin Trudeau at a Tupperware party with a basket of kittens and an erection, so I feel it’s my duty to speak up and say, actually, no…’”
Reading fairly overtly between the lines, this reviewer has been stoked into greater hatred, simply because of its positive reviews.
The very reason that a lot of people are finding pleasure in the film — “escapist entertainment in troubled times”— is what people are using to criticise it. In VICE, one reviewer said “La La Land has racked up glowing recommendations because its glaring brightness provides a happy respite from the American political situation, which seems to get bleaker by the day”; as if Trump was purely responsible for the film’s effervescent joy, rather than the effort expended by talented writers, directors and actors.
For me, seeing this movie in the middle of the day during probably the saddest period of my life was a beautiful reminder that the concept of personal happiness did exist. I needed those singing and dancing idiots like a sad wilting flower needed the sun. And I’m not the only one.
At the end of the day, people are free to dislike any form of art they want although, in this case, I refuse to understand the people who dislike La La Land on these merits. In one boozy pub conversation I suffered through the argument about La La Land ended with someone saying ‘look, it’s hardly going to change the world, is it?’ Changing the world is a big ask for any movie, and even if that is actually possible for any form of art, the question is: why do we assume that’s the ultimate goal?
I believe that La La Land, like many great forms of entertainment, exists purely to bring joy to people, and that the movie’s greatest strength lies in its efficient, robust and well-crafted ability to do so. Shouldn’t we be judging it within those parameters?
Let Me Entertain You (And Don’t Judge Me, I’m Robbie Williams)
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those weirdos who tends to read, watch movies or binge on Netflix in order to be entertained. That entertainment does have several different flavours — sometimes it includes being intellectually stimulated or having my notions of the world redefined, and sometimes, very rarely, it involves getting really sad. But usually, my desire for entertainment stems from a need for escapism.
I have become a connoisseur of escapism and all works that truly pave an avenue out of the realities of my own life. What a gift to be able to focus on the tumultuous fictional lives of Nashville’s country and western community, instead of my own garbage life! What a wonderful world where everybody can sing and never has to rehearse their perfect duets and their belts are so big and shiny– I lost my point.
The point is that while their audiences undoubtedly appreciate these forms of entertainment, these works are rarely given a glowing critical response on these terms alone. Instead, we tend to look for the ways it is transformative or revolutionary; we assume all works have not just the ability but also the obligation to affect change in the audience — and perhaps in some nebulous way, in society.
While that is a worthwhile goal, I believe it’s only ONE goal out of many. I’ve even gotten into internet arguments about art theory with penguins to try and prove it.
@PatrickLenton PERHAPS THERE IS A VALUE JUDGMENT THAT ART SHOULD "CHALLENGE" TO BE ART??? AND WHAT ACCEPTABLE OUTCOME OF BEING CHALLENGED??
— Pokey the Penguin (@pokeythepenguin) January 17, 2017
Transformative and challenging art is so worthwhile, but the idea that ALL art has to measure up to its rather lofty goals is incredibly limiting. Australian arts critic Alison Croggan once called this — the art that is ‘good for you’ — “Muesli Art”. I like my muesli, but let’s not forget about pancakes.
One of the most awkward divides that illustrates this idea can be found in the gap between literary and genre fiction. The idea of what ‘defines’ literary fiction has been discussed by boring people since time immemorial, yet one of the most classic and telling definitions is that literary fiction is about a serious engagement with ideas.
While this is probably a fairly good indicator of many literary works, the place the definition falls down the most is the idea that other works — such as genre books focusing on crime, fantasy, romance, sci-fi or thriller — don’t have the ability to seriously engage with ideas.
That is clearly ludicrous for anyone who has read any genre fiction; though it does often aim for entertainment value, it has just as much potential to be as transformative as other works. Look at the blockbuster bestseller novel and film Gone Girl — it’s both an enthralling, pulpy thriller and a text for feminist discourse which critics love to engage with.
In the book world, this can result in a kind of snobbery. Some ‘serious critics’ refuse to engage with genre and commercial writing out of an established elitism from this one idea. Literary fiction is the challenging stuff! Literary fiction is the art! Having a pleasurable reading experience, and feeling joy from the content of a book have actually become signifiers of non-literary work.
I’d also be remiss to point out that this has become inherently gendered. Books written by women are often being arbitrarily sorted into marketing brackets like ‘women’s fiction’ rather than the more seriously considered literary fiction. Often the stories and ideas engaged with are almost identical.
Fizzy Make Feel Nice
One of my favourite writers, Australian author Julie Koh, was recently bemused at how easily she was slotted into “a new wave of satire in Australian literary fiction”.
“In Australia at present, anything that differs from the dominant kitchen-sink Australian realism, particularly humorous work, tends to be lumped together as ‘experimental’ and left in a dark corner to laugh maniacally and die,” she wrote in Kill Your Darlings. She then broadly categorised herself as a writer who instead likes “to make readers snort and bawl simultaneously”.
While her writing is often explicitly satirical — to the extent that she’s written a story that can be described as a satire of satire itself — her most recent book, Portable Curiosities, was equally surreal, absurd and outright funny. I believe that it’s an elitist conceit to somehow ‘smarten up’ entertaining and surreal comedy like this by labelling it satire — a style thought of as the most ‘engaged’ and challenging type of humour.
Satire, often most understood through political satire, is usually ‘comedy with a point’. It’s therefore easily slotted into the realm of transformative art. But sometimes, comedy is just silly and fun and joyful. Can’t we celebrate both?
We should identify and enjoy the robustly crafted tactics of engendering joy through art, in much the same way that we can identify the three-act process of a tragedy. It’s fantastic that art can attempt to transform people’s politics or way of seeing the world, but turning people from sad, anxious, lonely jerks into joyful, happy jerks is also a transformation worth talking about.
Patrick Lenton is a writer of theatre and fiction. He blogs at The Spontaneity Review and tweets inanity from @patricklenton.