Knock Knock, Who’s There, The Cinema of Despair: Why is Contemporary Cinema Afraid of a Little Misery?

© Marvel Entertainment

Here’s a little trivia for you: what do 99% of modern, mainstream films have in common?

Is it a famous star in the lead? Could be.

Is it that it is adapted from familiar source material? That’s a likelihood.

Is it the apparent need for comedic moments to surface in practically every contemporary blockbuster, from a Marvel movie to a reboot of our beloved Star Wars franchise? That’s the one, that’s the certainty.

It’s a trend that has caught cinema in a leash. A ‘Cinema of Comfort’. A little levity here, a little wisecrack there, all in all, no emotional mark of despair.

But does this do as it says on the tin? People say that cinema should be escapist, an entertainment that allows one to escape from the world for a couple of hours. But doesn’t that cause more harm than good? Doesn’t one’s emergence from an uplifting movie cause one to come crashing down even further when confronted with the real? Life isn’t going anywhere. Isn’t it better to confront that harsh reality in a realm that isn’t so overwhelming, in a space where one isn’t being watched from all sides?

I would compare two films in this regard: Justice League and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. These films couldn’t be further apart on a spectrum of genre, tone and intention.

Justice League – a superhero team-up blockbuster, a classical tale of good vs. evil, an action spectacle populated with characters who throw quips and gags around like fighting demigods is play time.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – a retelling of a Greek tragedy, told within a contemporary setting, presented to us in a manner that is as far from a recognisable reality as possible: discomfortingly passive delivery of dialogue, shockingly spontaneous displays of violence and an ending that doesn’t promise any light at the end of its tunnel.

Of the two, The Killing of a Sacred Deer affected me more, challenged me more, unsettled me more.

Some would call this pretentious, I would say that this is the whole point of film.

Coming out of Justice League, I shrugged the experience off. It tried to be nothing more than a quick, humorous diversion.

Some would call this pure entertainment. I would say that it kills the pleasure of cinema.

What is the pleasure of cinema? The post-cinema discussion. Not in terms of Easter Eggs, or the set-up to another franchise, as films like Justice League make it their prerogative to do.

Instead, it’s a discussion based on themes, feelings and effect. What did the film do for me, how did it speak to me, did it touch any nerves? The Killing of a Sacred Deer spoke to me on the basis of language, relationships and how it’s all effectively bullshit, once its artificiality is revealed to us. Yeah, sure, this left me feeling a little beaten down. But I recovered from it quickly. Because in realising this, I saw the benefits of the experience. I can never take back what I saw and I’m all the better for it.

Blockbusters can still achieve this. Just look at Dunkirk. A film that featured as many action sequences as Justice League yet delivered them in a way that shook the audience to the core: the deafening sounds of the bombers descending upon the soldiers is enough to leave one feeling a little miserable.

© Warner Bros.
© Warner Bros.

But does that leave one traumatized? No, it simply gets one talking about how unimaginably nerve-wracking the experience of war must be. A.K.A. it allows an audience member to appreciate their life.

Despair rather than comedy. Yet it still made an impact.

Dunkirk and The Killing of a Sacred Deer stand as examples of films that do not feel the need to throw jokes into the mix, to assure the audience that it’ll all be okay. Sometimes it might not be. But it’s okay to accept that. Coming face-to-face with that kind of truth is what enables one to equip themselves to overcome it. For one example, if the violence of war affects you, as it did for me in Dunkirk, then the experience of watching it will affirm your values against wartime violence, or perhaps even strengthen them.

The best metaphor I could turn to is 2017’s perennially popular character: It’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown. The boys in It face their greatest fears in Pennywise. One confronts their fear of a particular painting. One challenges the image of their abusive father. All of them overcome these horrifying images and become emboldened as a result. It fortifies their bond and teaches them valuable lessons about each other.

Is one not met with the same scenario when watching a film that doesn’t opt for the happy ending? That throws the audience into a world that unnerves and upsets? Is this not also a vitalising experience?

Not all films can be Pennywise. Of course, I’m not claiming that all films should be this way. But I don’t think the ‘trend’ should continue. It nulls the audience, providing a false sense of security that is shattered once one exits the cinema. If this is all cinema can and wants to be, through the proliferation of samey comedic spectacle movies, one after the other, then it’ll die. Happiness only arises as a result of its opposition to despair. With a little more despair in our movies, we might find a lot more happiness in the comedic joys of entertainment, and thus from our own lives.

For every Thor: Ragnarok, give us a Dunkirk. For every Justice League, give us two more The Killing of a Sacred Deers. Balance is essential in order to keep one invested in the art of cinema. Let’s not numb the senses through the comical numbing of the jawline. Let’s strike at the heart of the senses to bolster them, giving rise to a greater appreciation of levity. Less ‘One-Trick Pony’, more ‘Jack Of All Trades’.

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