Jul 24, 2009

The mainstreaming of morbidity

In his review of Harry Potter and the Half Blood prince, Anthony Lane asks "Why is it that, from Gotham City to Hogwarts, the official word has gone out that anything dark and edgy is a de-facto guarantee of weight and impact?"

I have long wondered this myself. I'm not exactly sure when it was that mainstream entertainment started to hanker for some of the grit of indieland, but Alan Ball has a lot to answer for. His movie American Beauty served up blackest misanthropy with the parsley of bright, knowing performances, which invited us, as an audience, to feel superior to the poor characters on the screen, leading their muffled lives of stifling bourgois convention. Which is where it gets tricky. You can pull off superiority to stifling bourgois convention in a novel, because you read a novel on your own. It can even work at the theatre, where a certain class of person is attracted that keeps the common rank and file at bay. But it works less well in a cinema, if only because you are are not the only one there: you are surrounded by people, all laughing in tandem, at the herd mentality of stifling bourgois convention. Which rather takes the sting out of it. Misanthropy can only really be practised alone. Joining a club won't do it.

Ball recalled that while the movie was in production, one Dreamworks executive asked him, "Could you just make it a little more fucked up,' which is not a note that you get in Hollywood very often. And I thought, 'wow' and that gave me free range to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated."

Maybe that was not a note Ball heard in Hollywood very often in 1999, but now you hear it all the time. Call it the mainstreaming of morbidity — a kind of spray-on gothicism designed to impart deepness, darkness, complication. A brief surf of the net gives me an artwork praised as “a dark and disturbing masterpiece”, a novel for its “raw, uncompromising, gritty” style, a TV show billed as “wrenching, raw”, a rock album that is sold on the back of “dark, disturbing, angry lyrics”, a comedian lauded for his “raw, edgy” stand-up, even a fashion photographer for his “raw and edgy locations”
. And while I'm used to hearing indie cinema touted as "dark, disturbing, unsettling”, I'm less used to hearing that said of summer blockbusters — kid's movies, comic strips. The new Batman movie is the “darkest yet ... tormented by demons both physical and psychological”, while the latest Harry Potter is “the darkest and most unsettling installment." Whatever happened to popular entertainment being, you know, fun?

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