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February 13, 2008

The Use of Humor in Depressing Films

If I were to ask you to watch a movie about the abuses suffered by patients in a mental ward, or two adult children having to deal with the fallout of their cruel father's mental deterioration, you'd probably pass and say, "When does Meet the Spartans play again?"

Both One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (OFOTCN) and Savages (S) utilize humor to make their difficult subject matter palatable, and even enjoyable. Yet the humor serves an even deeper purpose – it makes you sympathize with the characters even more and open your heart to them, it makes you care. Ironically, the end result is then more devastating than if you would have watched a simple humorless documentary that provided the simple cold hard facts on the same subject matter.

That these movies, which could be characterized as downers, use humor should not be a surprise, as laughter and tears are closely connected. Just as our instinct at funerals may be to smile or laugh reveals this connection, the humor in these movies actually deepen the experience of sadness they provide.

The films use humor differently.

In OFOTCN, the wit and humor frequently emanates from the main character and hero, Mac. Whether he is recreating a baseball game, introducing the escaped patients as high powered doctors, or pretending to be a zombie as a result of his electroshock therapy, his humor makes him endearing to the other characters and the audience.

But in Savages, the humor is more situational, and the situations themselves are pathetic. Wendy puts her hand on the dog’s paw during sex, her boyfriend howls like a dog, her brother wrenches his neck and is forced into a ridiculous therapy, she finally gets a grant but it’s from FEMA. That the humor is laughing at them, not with them, is appropriate, as Wendy and Jon are not so much heroes as they are anti-heroes. Neither of them wishes to sacrifice anything for the greater good. They just want to get over their current burden, and the guilt associated with it, and move on.

Mac, on the other hand, makes a journey throughout the film, from antihero to hero, so his humor is a natural outflow of his heroic trait, defiance.

At the beginning of the story, the only attribute of a hero that he truly possesses is defiance. He displays this trait up front with his critique of the mental health diagnosis system:

Now they're telling me
I'm crazy over here...
...'cause I don't sit there
like a goddamn vegetable.
It don't make a bit of sense to me.
If that's what being crazy is...
...then I'm senseless, out of it,
gone down the road, whacko.
But, no more, no less. That's it.

But in his struggles against the antagonistic forces in the film – first against the authority at the mental ward, and then against the passivity of his fellow patients – he discovers within himself a new call. To give up the immediate escape to Canada and make things better for those he would have left behind.

His final act of sacrifice that solidifies his heroic status was set up perfectly by his earlier humor, to make it even more painful to behold. As he is taken back from the final treatment, he again is a zombie, as he was earlier. Only this time we were set up, this is no joke. The lobotomy was real. By using the fun of the earlier scene, in contrast this final sacrifice is even worse to behold.

In the Savages, contrasts are also used to great affect. The only people who smile are in ridiculously overblown commercials for cleaning solutions or nursing homes. These bright and cheery spots are played against a real life grim and snowy and sad. As Jon Savages says:

It’s a HORROR show! And all this
wellness propaganda and landscaping is
just trying to obscure the miserable fact
that people die and death is gaseous and
gruesome and filled with piss and shit
and rot and stink!

The Savages, with it’s brutal unrelenting descent into the death of a father, a death that is gaseous and gruesome, a process which forces both brother and sister to adjust the miserable but comfortable life that neither of them wants to change. If an antagonist is someone who stands in the way of the protoganists’ goals, than the father fits this role superbly.

Of course, in Wendy and Jon’s case, their goals are to prevent change. Wendy will continue to sleep with the married man. Jon will continue in his pattern of a non-intimate life. Neither of them wants to be bothered by anything, let alone their father’s care.

But the father’s death exposes the pettiness of this existence, and forces them to change despite themselves.

In the end, the remarkable achievement of both films is to make engaging, interesting, entertaining stories around utterly depressing and non-entertaining subject matter. And they do this not by satirizing or making light of these situations, but by instead using humor as a way of stringing us along, making us more empathetic, opening us up and causing us to let down our defenses, and then striking our defenseless hearts with the sadness of it all.

Posted by jason on February 13, 2008 12:12 AM

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