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Caroline Hagood

Caroline Hagood
Brooklyn, New York,
November 23
I'm a writer living in Brooklyn. My articles have appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, Salon, the Huffington Post, and The Economist. My first book of poems, Lunatic Speaks, is available from FutureCycle Press and my second poetry book, Making Maxine's Baby, is available from Hanging Loose Press:


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SEPTEMBER 6, 2010 11:35AM

Misery Porn and Cultural Elitism

Rate: 25 Flag


I saw Noah Baumbach's Greenberg the other night and was reminded of two things that I'm not so fond of: those kinds of guys (simultaneously pathetic and cruel) and those kinds of movies. 

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not referring to earnest indies, but to those who think an authentic film can't let any moments of happiness or humor sneak in; to the school of thought that insists that virtuosic works of art must be difficult and downcast. This belief reaches beyond movies. When most people think of a profound person, belly laughs are usually not the first things that come to mind--unless we're talking about Buddha. 

There are so many films on depressing subjects that are riveting. Why does watching a movie about pain have to be painful in itself, outside of witnessing the hurt?  Even in books, there are the intelligent page-turners and the agonizing hauls. Why do the hauls earn so much more respect? 

There's much to be said for realism, but why is misery any more believable than joy? Wouldn't the real artistic feat be to portray the whole spectrum of emotion, balancing the mystifying fluctuations in mood from moment to moment that we humans have come to call living?

Maybe the current deification of misery porn has to do with the kind of intellectual elitism that judges who has taste by who can stay awake through a snoozefest in order to wax poetic about it afterwards. This can result in a cultural case of the emperor wearing no clothes and everyone being too chicken to hand him a towel.

I'm most impressed by a brilliant film that is also entertaining. I'm all for deep and heady, but why, oh why, do so many directors think that a good movie is one that their viewers will have trouble sitting through? How did we come to think of pleasure and profundity as being so far away from each other? 

If you've managed to stay with me through my pretentious rant about pretentiousness, and you're looking for a cinematic love child of the erudite and the entertaining, I would suggest Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, or anything else written by Charlie Kaufman, for that matter. 

Being John Malkovich 



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Misery porn....

Nothing new. Watch "My Dinner with Andre". Or the worst of the Bergman movies.

But, yea. Lets have a little fun with our morality plays. Or a little eye candy as we watch someone going to hell in a hand basket.
Agreed. It seems the tourtured-soul is more popular than the enlightened one. I guess we have Byron to thank for that. r
The composer Virgil Thomson worked as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He used to go to sleep during performances. But he always assured people he would wake up if anything interesting happened.
probably because we're in one of the biggest recessions ever seen in history has something to do with it.
I'm with you in general - I'm a man of low, ribald tastes - and I'm a fan of John Malkovich and Being John Malkovich, but I've always liked Ben Stiller and his films. I hadn't heard of Greenberg, so maybe this is his first stinker?
Yup: "those kinds of guys," man-childs who are disappointed that life isn't a non-stop rock and roll tour, but actually requires some grown-up commitments.

Yup: "those kinds of movies," that merely expand upon the saying, "Life sucks and then you die," and insists that any attempt to make the first part pleasurable is an act of denial.

I'm with you, Caroline.
Caroline- I go to so few movies these days kids take priority in choices...I can't stand depressing if I actually have time to sit through one..."House Bunny" was very funny when I got it on demand. I generally do like Ben Stiller...but your points are so interesting... perhaps you picked up on zeitgeist of misery and VZN might be right re: recession's impact...but I need quirky and fun for now.
‎"There's much to be said for realism, but why is misery any more believable than joy?" It is not. You assessed this correctly. Pain is only noble if overcome. Otherwise it is just, well, painful. It is nothing to celebrate.
I relate to your post wholeheartedly. I hate always being the one whispering (so as not to appear ignorant) "The Emperor Has No Clothes!" ~r
Excellent--this is exactly why I stayed away from the movie. These movies are really like porn; the self-involvement of the lead character strikes me as masturbation times two.

Priceless line, btw:
"Maybe the current deification of misery porn has to do with the kind of intellectual elitism that judges who has taste by who can stay awake through a snoozefest in order to wax poetic about it afterwards."
Wow. I actually saw the trailer for this a few weeks ago and thought it looked horrible, but it sounds like it's even worse than I thought. The quality you're describing is something that's been bugging me too, although I haven't been (and shall never be:)) able to articulate it like you have. The most awful example I can think of is Garden State. Sometimes I feel that way about Wes Anderson's work, although I generally love his films. For some reason, I DON'T feel this way about Lost in Translation, although a lot of my friends do.

Anyway, I'm probably not the best judge of quality and substance, as I'll be paying 13 bucks to see Piranha 3D tonight. Thanks for the great post ~R
When I first met my husband, one of the only videos he had was "My Dinner With Andre." I borrowed it and then a holey hell of a conversation insued. If he thought that was good I wanted to know why. I mean, if he thought that was good, maybe he wasn't the guy I thought he was! Having been through quite a few tragedies and dramas in my personal life I am pretty sure that life serves up some funny shit along with the bad stuff.

My soul is tortured enough, all on its own, no need for me to intentional pay good money and spend my somewhat thin spare time adding humorless misery without some joyful triumph to relieve it . Perhaps that is unrealistic of me, but I don't care, times are tough enough, I need better than that.
Could be that such downers make the audience feel better about itself by contrast--a subtle conspiracy, no doubt, by the movie industry to keep us buying tickets.
Amen. Who wants to watch a self-involved person being miserable for two hours? This world is no paradise, and pain is part of reality, but it's not ALL of life. We've all gone through hard times, and have had friends who go through hard times. But constantly weeping on other people's shoulders, or having to eternally support a miserable person who perpetually cries on OUR shoulders gets to be a downer. I sure don't want to watch a movie about a self-absorbed miserable person--it's too drearily like real life. That's totally NOT what I want in a movie! Misery Porn is a brilliant term for it. I'd infinitely rather go see a dark comedy wherein the actors can mine life for what Ann Lammot calls "hard laughter"--the humor that can see us through.
Excellent analysis, as always Caroline. It isn't that I can't watch misery for the sake of misery, but it's the school that insists that a film isn't authentic without this stance.

I prefer something which captures the whole of the human condition, thoughts - feelings - actions, for an authentic voice. Of course, there are always exceptions.

Love the term, misery porn.
Yep I agree with your sentiments here. And misery porn is a great term, too! I never understood deliberately seeking out something to be depressed over...maybe if it's something historical, or something you need to know about, but misery for its own sake? Nah.
Misery porn -- I hate movies like that. I don't expect humor from a holocaust film (or a similar genre), but no one wants to watch a movie about someone whose life is grindingly uninspiring.
Caroline, great post. I tend to prefer movies that make me think but also laugh these days, though there is a place for vicariously living through torturous circumstances as well. So long as there is redemption.
Ben is not Greenberg. Ben is just rich and cool enough to pretend to be "Greenberg" without actually feeling a thing. Fuck you , Ben. You scamped my spot on the Huff Post because you lost a dude and I was rude. Looks good on you...
My favourite movie is Blue Velvet... I guess ya had to be there.
"If you've managed to stay with me through my pretentious rant about pretentiousness"

I think this was fair and balanced, Caroline! I'm not sure how my agreeing with you fits into that but... you know.
You had me at Buddha and belly-laughs. I saw "Being John Malkovich" when it first came out and loved it then. Droll, tongue in every possible cheek, and very, very, tres even well-written.
(R)ated for watching movies from your childhood as a lovely adult.
Being John Malkovich is one of my favorite all-time movies. It's perfectly balanced. I'm with you. By-the-way, the thing I like best about you (your writing, I don't actually know you) is your combo of erudite and entertaining!
Nick: a little fun with our morality plays sounds good to me

Trudge: Byron certainly played his part

Divorce: I just might try that

Caracalla: I'd take the falafel sandwich

vzn: I think that certainly has something to do with it

Matt: I adore Ben Stiller and he's actually quite good in it. And I wouldn't say it's a crappy film. It's not poorly made or anything. The only thing is that it's very hard to watch for the reasons I mention above.

Cranky: glad to hear it. I could always use a Cranky along on the ride.

snarky: I usually love Ben and I do think vzn has a great point

Harvey: Exactly. I think there needs to be something that the viewer gets out of watching the pain.

Joan: he's not wearing any

Nikki: yeah, total masturbation

Kay: you certainly will be able to articulate it as well as I did. I just read your most recent post. great work

Dr. Susanne:as you say, I think all our souls are tortured enough as it is

Jonathan: glad you think so

Jerry: it most certainly could be

Shiral: you put it so well: "dark comedy wherein the actors can mine life for what Ann Lammot calls "hard laughter"--the humor that can see us through."

Sparking: yes, the whole of the human condition!

Bellwether: yeah, grindingly uninspiring is not the way to go

Cindy Ross: thanks so much!

Linda: thinking and laughing is good

Darryl: Blue Velvet is a good one

Amanda: we often see eye to eye

Fred: glad I had you at the belly laughs

Shannon: what a nice thing to say. Thanks!
I saw "Greenberg" and I hated it.
Littlewillie: I did think Ben Stiller played the part well, but he was given such bleak character and surroundings.
Well at any rate I'm so happy to see the latest post from you, and can't wait for more. Your work is uniquely insightful and so fun and beautiful to read. More, more, more~R
I am with you 100%. Make me laugh, make me cry, but frigging make me laugh.

When I suggest a movie, my partner, without fail wants to see a comedy.

"A funny one."

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to find a funny movie?

I love a good message, love a great dramatic feature, but man-boy, give me a good comedy.

That's what this household considers entertaining, The rest of it, the navel gazing pretenscious gas-bags that make "films, not movies," have lost sight of their craft.

Get my attention, hold onto it with both hands, and entertain my hair off.

(Great post, as always).
i'm very late to this party, so all the good words have been spoken in earlier comments. agreed is all i've got. great piece, caroline.
femme forte: thanks, my friend.
I am with you for the most part too Caroline. (and late as usual) I do think we sometimes minimize the effect the human condition, and current world situation has on all thing art and their reception. But hey, I am a guy who writes poetry under the moniker of the emotional orphan so what else would I say, eh? I think we can take the dark and use it to stay in our own black space, but by the same token, "The Sound Of Music, or "Singing in the Rain_" sounds, and feels a lot more like denial than "feel good." There must be a medium, but who decides that? Certainly not you or I, when the kids with the parents amex cards(becuse mom and dad want the theater, mall, internet etc to babysit) when those kids want Slasher Part 13...Maybe we should just Eat, Love and Pray...?

Great , and engaging as usual Caroline. You are my fave...
Jack: I think you're right that it's a balance. I want neither shlocky upbeat b.s. nor a pretentious, subpar downer.
A fascinating subject! I have come around to a very similar, if not the same position of late. I feel it is best if movies and books accurately portray reality with all its abbysses and its inherent pain and suffering, but at least offer their audience a glimmer of hope. Or a generous dose of (black) humor. I don't know if you've seen any movies by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a German director active principally during the 1970s. He made some of my favorite films, that range from strongly political to deeply personal films. Most of his characters are ruthless, cruel, and egotistical, so most people consider the films extremely depressing. But if you look closely there is usually one character, who stands apart from the rest, in that s/he is conscientious and attentive to the concerns of others. So he seems to be suggesting that human beings aren't quite doomed as a species after all.
This perspective has also caused me to be somewhat disaffected with George Carlin's brand of humor. While he was extremely funny and insightful, towards the end of his life he was suggesting, that it was futile trying to avert the pathological ignorance and oppression afflicting mankind. I don't agree with this position, even if doing so may well result in defeat, there is a great humility to trying to do something that is virtually impossible, i. e. striving for the highest possible goal in the face of the greatest adversity. I think it is vital, to keep just a little snippet of idealism and hope.
P.S.: I wasn't a massive fan of "Being John Malkovich", but I did immensely enjoy "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".
Adrian, I really appreciate your very thoughtful response. I do think that Fassbinder has more hope in his films than he gets credit for.