“I should have quit [Blood Meridian] after the dead baby tree. Once you’ve introduced a dead baby tree into the world of your novel, there is nowhere further to go. The story either takes a turn, or it stands still, and this one sits its pale, hairless ass right under that dead baby tree and spends the remaining pages counting the babies. If you find yourself writing a great moral reckoning between two largely symbolic characters, and the character fighting on behalf of goodness and innocence enters the scene wearing a necklace made of human ears, you have perhaps followed the path of moral relativism past the point where these distinctions are useful. The chief artistic value of this book is in setting up that joke Miller made about Michigan J Frog.
You might think that, because I am focusing so much on the grotesque violence of the book, my problem with it is that it offended me. This is not the case. It bored me. Once you have seen one dead baby tree, you’ve seen them all. And once you have entered a world that can not only produce dead baby trees, but whose inhabitants can pass a dead baby tree without comment, so accustomed are they to the phenomenon, then you have lost all ability to create tension or drama or meaning. Genocide is no more disturbing over 300 pages than it is over 30 or over 3. The point of the thing is understood.”
“No Country For Old Men (at least the film version) is a lot more interesting because there are characters who confront Chigurh. Decent people who do not understand him or what he represents, but who nonetheless must put their souls at hazard to be a part of this world. The bleakness hits harder because the lives being destroyed were lives worth living. The carnage is not anonymous.”
— Babalugats, later that same day
There is a contradiction within me. On the one hand, I am a pessimistic and cynical thinker and have always, even since childhood, been drawn to art that reflects a certain pessimistic and cynical worldview. I think the (2nd) best movie of the decade is Under The Skin. The best movie of the new century is No Country For Old Men. The best movie of the old century is Raging Bull. I like my films noir, my westerns ruthless, my romances melancholy, my histories tragic, my horrors cruel and all encompassing. And yet, I have a pronounced distaste for what is generally called “Misery Porn.”
Now, I suppose nobody likes Misery Porn. It is one of those genres that is defined by its connotation. Like “Oscar Bait,” it’s a designation assigned after the fact to art that has failed to move us in the way it intended. But, having recently described what is widely considered the greatest American novel ever written as “a monotonous bore, shallow, preposterous, and juvenile,” I think it is fair to say that I am uncommonly sensitive to the phenomenon.
So what divides healthy pessimism from Misery Porn? What is it that spoils a good bad time? Here are six common traps that would-be cynics fall into.
1. Incongruous endings. While it is possible for the protagonists of a bleak story to escape their fate, the world itself must not be “set right.” Evil must continue to exist, and it must cast its shadow over the entire work, or else that work will come off cheap and manipulative. If you spend two hours torturing your hero only for them to start talking about silver linings, eyes will roll and teeth will grind. If you spend a breezy 90 minutes being comically romantic and then crash a plane into your lovers, you will inspire as many laughs as you do tears.
2. However, it is still vitally important to vary your tone. Tragedy is something that exists in juxtaposition to happiness. You need humor and beauty, peace and joy, in order to have something disturbed and threatened by the tragedy. If everything is terrible all the time, the audience will get bored.
3. Or worse, they won’t think the lives destroyed were worth living in the first place. There has never been a people, not slaves or refugees or plague-ridden nomads, who did not tell jokes and fall in love and sing songs and have sex, who did not have days that were better and days that were worse. Understand your characters as people, not only as victims. Communicate the full scope of their humanity, and you will communicate the full scope of their tragedy.
4. Still, try not to lay the suffering on too thick. A bomb falling on a wedding carries more weight than one falling on a funeral. All art is about manipulating emotions, but the audience doesn’t want to be aware of that manipulation — this is what makes it an art form. When the horribleness starts piling up too high, the audience may start to feel that they’re being guilted into feeling sad, rather than being genuinely moved. The tragedy is working on an intellectual level, rather than an emotional one.
There’s no sure way to avoid this, but a good rule of thumb is to make sure that your characters are always making meaningful decisions and that the emotion of the film is rooted in those decisions. Helplessness and a lack of control are essential elements to any bleak story, but just because a character cannot escape their fate does not mean that they aren’t still making choices. If they are helpless, let us see how they struggle against their helplessness. If they have only bad options, make them pick one. Decision and Consequence is the foundation of all storytelling.
Consider the ending of No Country For Old Men. Chigurh, having cornered Carla Jean, gives her a chance to gamble for her life, but she refuses, sacrificing her chance at survival but forcing Chigurh to own the decision. If Chigurh had simply walked up and shot her, the material consequence of the scene would be the same, but it would carry far less emotional weight. Had the movie ended with her slipping in the shower and dying, the character would be just as dead but the audience would be rolling their eyes and throwing popcorn at the screen. As much as possible, the emotion should be coming from an internal place as we engage with the characters, rather than as an external force inflicted on the characters.
5. And finally, the boring one. Sometimes stuff just isn’t well crafted. The writer chose the wrong words, the director cast the wrong actor, the singer is out of tune. This stuff is difficult.
What do you think? Are you drawn to art that makes you feel bad? What makes a bleak story work, and what gets you down on a downer? What are some other “Dead Baby Trees,” moments or elements where a work of art pushed too far and you started to see it as either silly or offensive?