I went to see Mike Leigh’s new film, Happy Go Lucky, at the Tricycle in Kilburn yesterday, and saw Leigh himself get up on stage to answer the audience’s questions after the show. He told us that his film, about an incorrigibly chirpy and upbeat primary school teacher, was supposed to make us feel good, and was a ‘positivist’ film, or ‘anti-miserablist’, in Leigh’s words.
His words reminded me strongly of Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, who told me in an interview earlier this year that he wanted to see the growth not just of positive psychology, but of “positive journalism, positive economics, positive literature, positive cinema”. In fact, he’s already started developing courses in English Literature that would use inspirational novels like, say, To Kill A Mockingbird, as re-inforcements of positive character traits.
So Leigh’s film could be seen as a pioneering example of this sort of ‘positive art’ – it’s a film that sets out, as Leigh puts it, to create a ‘positive feeling’ in its audience, that tries to teach us the power of a positive, upbeat attitude to life.
The film raises interesting questions about what great art does to us and how it draws us in. If you think about it, the vast majority of great films, books and plays are about suffering, drama and conflict: Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, The Inferno, Paradise Lost, Bleak House, The Wasteland. These are not happy books, or books about happiness.
They draw much of their power from the trials and tribulations of their protagonists. As Tolstoy famously put it at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Suffering, it would seem, is more interesting than happiness.
Leigh’s film challenges this notion. As a member of the audience enthused to Leigh: “Why shouldn’t happiness be just as interesting and complex as sadness?”
In fact, I think the film failed, for the simple reason that the main character was not taken on any kind of journey. She started off chirpy and upbeat, and she ended the film chirpy and upbeat. You can’t make an interesting film about a character who ends the film in exactly the same place, emotionally, as she began it. It doesn’t matter if the character is the greatest optimist or the most tremendous grouch…something has to happen to them, they have to develop and change, if we are to be engaged in their journey.
Usually, we require that the hero or heroine undergoes some tough trials and tribulations. This is true even in comedies – think of the trials of Shakespeare’s comedy heroes. Comedy also comes from conflict, suffering, drama.
But the heroine of Leigh’s film, Poppy, confronts hardly any serious trials or obstacles in the two hours of the film, beyond her bike being stolen and her driving instructor being a nutter. Even the hero of your average feel-good Hollywood comedy has to deal with more than that.
So if a film or book is going to be really inspirational, really uplifting, really ‘positive’, then it needs to put its hero through more suffering. Otherwise the audience feels like it has sat on a train that has gone neither down nor up, just chugging along on an endlessly flat plain.