On the 20th of March, the world is celebrating International Happiness Day. In 2012, the United Nations created this annual celebration to recognise happiness as a ‘fundamental human goal’. Happiness plays a strong feature in movies, most characters walk through life somehow trying to be happy. It has created the invasive ‘happy ending’ cult in cinema where the ultimate goals and fundamental themes are to be fortunate in your job, family and love life; while also being respectable, successful and/or socially elevated. However, the cult of happiness has not only spread in movies, it is a modern spectra that very often questions our lives, as if being the happiest person would mean reaching the top. But, have you ever wondered what happiness means, beyond its socially created and constricting aspects?
Regarding cinema, movie characters seem really connected to our lives as we often have the same driving passions and hardships as our favourite characters. But, once in awhile (or sometimes, all the time), we also feel disconnected from society’s expectations and norms the same way cinema characters experience on-screen.
That is why I wanted to use today to highlight five recent examples of the happy few that found their own way of living their lives. They may not be happy in the conventional sense but they’ve adapted happiness in their own, personal ways by…
1 Adopting a radical way of life: Captain Fantastic (2016), by Matt Ross
Criticising society and cutting oneself off from it is a leitmotiv in our collective imagination. Famous authors have often expressed and still express their rejection of norms and societies’ rules. Some of them even decided to live a radical life such as Henry David Thoreau who lived in the woods for more than two years. In that regard, cinema deals with radical behaviours and characters who decided to withdraw themselves from the modern society we live in. For instance, the biographical feature Into the Wild (2007) shows an early American graduate leaving his family in order to travel the country and live by himself in the wild. The movie was a theatrical success and like-minded characters continue to arise in films.
It is the case of Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his kids in the forest and instilling into them free spirit thinking, philosophy, hunting and self-sufficiency. When their mother dies, they attend her funeral and are brought face to face with the ‘real world’ for the first time. It is an occasion for the kids to question what they have believed to be ‘normal’ so far, and for their dad to put at stake his educational methods. In the clip below, you can see how different the off-grid kids can be from the one raised in a ‘normal’ family.
The extract puts at stake what education means from a diverse point of view, and a turn of events shows how knowledge does not only comes from school. Captain Fantastic shows a family radically isolated from the rest of the modern society and, through the cinematic themes of road films and travel, the movie questions parenthood, freedom, the notion of truth and society. The characters help us question ourselves on how to approach life. Is Viggo Mortensen’s character a real Captain Fantastic or a self-centered man trying to create his own utopia and path through a happy life?
2 Being awkward: Toni Erdmann (2016), by Maren Ade
The new feature Toni Erdmann by the German director Maren Ade is an indescribable tragicomedy dealing with father/daughter, family/work issues. Basically, after the death of his dog, Winfried, starring Peter Simonischek, decides to visit his daughter Ines, Sandra Hüller, at her workplace in Bucharest. He shows up by surprise with an awkward sense of humour and lightness to his daughter’s world of cold working relationships. At first, he embarrasses her, but his lightness eventually becomes necessary for the girl to feel free of being within an imprisoning superficial world. Winfried aka Toni Erdmann (the fake identity his attributes himself) is unadapted to social convention and his humour and way of occupying the screen within a normative atmosphere often reminded me of Bill Murray’s awkward acting.
This prankster dad comes shake up his daughter routine by breathing life and humour into it. Beyond that aspect, we can assess it as a political satire of business companies and crumbling families. Even though Toni Erdmann isn’t suitable for social convention, he seems to be the more liberated character.
3 Contemplating the world/ Reaching spirituality: The Great Beauty (2013), by Paolo Sorrentino
When spirituality in movies is mentioned, Terrence Malick is often quote as a reference. That is why I wanted to showcase the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and his artwork The Great Beauty. Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film in 2013, the film follows Jep Gambardella, a famous Italian writer, known for his social and mundane life. As he gets older, Jep takes a look back at his life in Rome, questions his own current melancholy and continuously loses himself by contemplating what surrounds him. As the extract below expresses, Jep is a daydreamer, influenced by natural and human details that is emphasised by the film’s classical and almost religious soundtrack.
The Great Beauty is sensually and visually attractive, and cinematography plays an important role in that matter. Jep’s melancholy makes him understand its own suffering but he also feels everyone else’s. It makes him attentive to others as he is also emancipating himself thanks to his sensibility and open eyes to the world’s beauty and poetry. If not religious, Jep is a spiritual character influenced by contemplation and self-reflection which is why I wanted to quote him today as one of the alternatively happy characters in movies.
4 Opening one’s eyes: Anomalisa (2015), by Charlie Kaufman
Anomalisa by Charlie Kaufman was nominated Best Animated Feature Film at the Academy Awards in 2015 and it also won the Venice Grand Jury Prize the same year. It is a singular miniature movie that is as evocative as any other human-film-based feature. The director Charlie Kaufman also screen played Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and both movies caught audiences with a fantasy and human world made of extraordinary details and basic daily suffering. Anomalisa shows Michael Stone, a midlife crisis lecturer visiting Cincinnati for one night and one day to give a speech on customer relationship.
In between reality, dreams and nightmares, Michael puts everything he has lived so far at stake – his former love, his family and his working life. The puppetry world of Anomalisa emphasises how much we can look the same, puppets prisoner of routine. As Michael is burying himself into a depressive moment, he encounters by accident one of his fans/lecture participants. They live a simple and short love story that makes they both open their eyes to who they are. Michael’s breakdown is deep, but this one night shows him a way to simple pleasure and happiness, as short as it is.
5 Travelling the world: The Salt of the Earth (2014), by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado
The famous German director Wim Wenders worked on a biographical documentary based on Sebastiao Salgado’s life, an established Brazilian war reporter and photographer. The Salt of the Earth is co-directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the photographer’s son. It was nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards and won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard selection at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie tells Salgado’s life and evolution in his photographic word and vision of life.
The Salt of the Earth chronologically follows Salgado’s personal and photographer life. His pictures brought an international voice to specific conflicts that were not dealt with in the media. First, Salgado travelled the world in order to recount conflict such as the civil war in Rwanda or starvation in Ethiopia. Then, his project Genesis focused on nature and ultimate indigenous tribes of the world. Through his way of life and artistic work, Salgado transcribes the essence of human life and nature: what makes the salt of the earth. Salgado’s personal traveller path is a tribute to freedom, natural beauty, but also human suffering.
According to the United Nations, International Happiness Day is also about equality towards life’s goods and how to make this right as worldwide as possible. Through his pictures, Salgado reveals what needs to be taken care of from human injustice to climate care, and so on.
This selection is not about ‘happy endings’ or ‘happily ever afters.’ On the contrary, it deals with grief, failure, hardship and injustice. I wouldn’t be able to tell if these characters are truly happy with their lives, but they definitely are free spirits. So the question might not be about how to be the happiest, but how to be yourself! Good luck with that!
Finally, as Bill Murray would say:
“Life is so damn short. For f*ck’s sake, just do what makes you happy.”