In Defense of Darkness

My post “JDR Makes A Film” received the comment below:

– – –

This was disappointing. A worthless, somber look at a day that brought many neighborhoods together and gave joy to countless curiously eager and vigorous young people. You missed a great portion of the people’s positive spirits during today’s citywide snow day.

Sorry, I just really didn’t like it.

– – –

This individual, who left neither a functioning email or their name–choosing instead the nome de plume Disappointed–might be a bit, how to say it, misguided in their expectations. What I mean by “expectations” is this: in order to be disappointed this person must have possessed some hope or aspirations for what the video was supposed to be, and that, in posting the video I posted, I let down this individual. I, by implication, failed this person somehow.

And this brings up a sticky issue.

As I said in my response to Disappointed, it would be mighty pretentious of me to call myself an artist, what I produce “art”, or whatever. I am uncomfortable with calling myself a writer, what I produce “prose” or “commentary”. I challenge you, Disappointed, not on your taking umbrage at my short film, but for having expectations to which you wanted me to conform.

While I defend your right to say that you “just really didn’t like it,” and generally agree with your assertion that the film was a “somber look at a day that brought neighborhoods together and gave joy to countless [sic] curiously eager and vigorous young people,” I argue that it is not my job to document and celebrate that joy and bonhomie… because that’s what everybody else is doing. I can produce something somber if I want to–even when I am not actually somber.

Yesterday I was just as happy as anybody to be spending time outdoors, making a pilgrimage to the lakeshore to admire the awesomeness of nature, and later to reenact the battle at the Somme in a monumental, positively epic snowball fight. But I’ve realized that nobody really cares about that sort of thing. Why? Because it’s superficial and vapid and jejune and unnecessarily effervescent. “Art” (and I use that term begrudgingly) does its job, I believe, when you get that sinking feeling, that feeling of untying one experiences at that certain point of novels near the end, or in movies when some dreadful thing happens to the protagonist. Never will I claim to be touching at “universal truths” (because they don’t exist) but I believe it is in these moments one is sucker-punched and finally embraced by what one perceives as real, feels it challenged.

There is a reason why novels in which nothing bad happens to the protagonist do not exist, or why there has never been a Nobel Prize winning fiction writer who won because of fundamentally, kernelly happy work. Might it be “hopeful”, or “optimistic”? Yes. A “rollicking romp through [fill in the blank]”? Again, yes. But the reason why it is hopeful, or optimistic, or any of the other standard phrases used when reviewing literature is not because a particular book is without unhappiness or adversity but because it takes the reader through an emotional roller-coaster in the front car without adequate safety restraints: inside the mind of the narrator. Only after being plowed through tension and strife can the reader or viewer come away with that feeling of hopefulness, or optimism, because it’s then about how the narrator or protagonist reacts to that adversity. It’s about showing, not telling.

I believe I did my job, Disappointed. I made you think. If I made you uncomfortable, made you look at the world slightly differently, encouraged you to appreciate myriad perspectives on one thing–in this case a snow day–the thing I created, a short film, worked.

Yesterday I realized that one could approach a snow day in many different ways. Yes, there’s the fun of hurling snowballs at friends, drinking hot chocolate with cute red-nosed girls, feeling as though one is a “real badass” for going out in the heart of the storm late Tuesday night, but on the other side there is real human suffering. Mothers were trapped with five-year old children in their cars overnight. Elderly people remain shut in. Managers of hardware stores decided to quadruple the price of snow shovels and salt. Is that fair? Does that not feel unjust and so totally wrong? That feeling of disgust, that visceral foundation-rattling understanding is not an easy or pleasant experience. This is why there exists the concept of “uncomfortable subjects”. But to focus on the archipelago of potential happy moments on any given day, whether it’s the opportunity for weekday sledding or time with family, ignores the expansive sea of moments which are less so. Optimistic creative work is /good/ not when it ignores the sea, but when it discovers and explores the islands, marvels at their existence in spite of the odds against them. It treasures their solidity, their staunch opposition to the fluid shifting chaos surrounding them. Remember that the best part of any island travel is walking along the beach, perhaps going for a swim. Knowing that there is an island to swim back to when you’ve had your fill.


Leave a Reply