The Curtain Call on Film Tragedies

Tragedy seems to be a genre which no longer holds much weight in cinema. It seemed like a style of storytelling that would always be relevant, given that perhaps the medium’s most celebrated tragedy, Citizen Kane (1945), has often been seen as the greatest film of all time. It’s a genre, too, that surely continues to have relevance no matter its popularity, given the economically bleak and socially divided 21st century. But it’s a genre that has become perhaps more niche than the melodrama, and yet has still been home to some breathtaking work in its last gasps.

What is tragedy? It is an ancient genre that has threaded its way from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare and beyond. There generally is something of a familiar structure, normally a bleak story ending up with an at least somewhat unhappy ending. Its continued popularity undoubtedly stems from the way that it taps into tremendous emotions, such as Romeo & Juliet’s perpetually iconic “star-crossed lovers”. Friedrich Nietzsche, likely the 20th century’s most famous philosopher, would argue that the depths of its darkness better allows us to understand humanity. In any case, there does seem to be some quite significant value in tragedy for it to have lasted since antiquity.

It has recently been a guide, too, through modern times. 1942’s Casablanca certainly has the tragedy of lost romance, and our investment in such a primal feeling is intentionally subverted. The human propensity for heart-wrenching emotion lays the way for an upbeat, pro-resistance message of trading loss for spirit-boosting sacrifice. Tragedy factored in again with the films that followed World War II. Film Noir was immensely popular at the tail end of the war and after, reflecting in its oppressive, morally corrupt worlds a tragedy of failed dreams. It’s telling to see Casablanca’s lead, Humphrey Bogart, move on to play a well-meaning but unpredictable and violent man within the hopeless world of In A Lonely Place (1950). It is symbolically as if Casablanca’s vision of a better future had gone. Tragedy, then, has been the key to understanding people’s hopes and fears during some of the most challenging periods of recent history.

The rise of the summer blockbuster seems to be when the rot set in, and saw the tragedy less and less welcome on the screen. The 1980s, in particular, was the real beginning of the spectacle-led era, with sentimental and nostalgic fare like Back to the Future, multiple Star Wars iterations, and The Goonies. The so-called adult cinema of the ‘70s was seemingly swept away almost overnight. Mainstream cinema has continued in that vein ever since, with intellectual heft traded for more visceral entertainment. Family friendly and thrill-orientated franchises like Fast and Furious and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have taken over in the 21st century. It’s little surprise, then, that literature’s most iconic modern writer of tragedy, Thomas Hardy, has seen few big screen adaptations. Cinema has been calibrated away from ideas and imagination to a money-driven, merchandise-conscious machine.

Studios seemed to realise a long time ago that stories without significant ideas seem to make business sense. Star Wars is one of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time, having almost consistently raked in hundreds of millions over the past half century. It offers excitement, striking imagery, and simple messages about redemption, sacrifice, and good against evil. It is telling to explore how minute Thomas Hardy’s impact on cinema is comparatively, despite his impact on literature. 2015’s adaptation of “Far From the Madding Crowd” is star-studded and mightily impressed critics, yet it only managed to earn around $30million at the box office. Money steers the direction of the film industry as much as the creatives making the movies, and the flow of cash has long been diverted away from works likely to devastate audiences.

But there’s not just an aversion to searing, bleak tales of human frailty. Emotion seems to hold little place on the screen given that even the romantic comedy was barely standing by the 2010s. There is still romance to be found in studio offerings, but often it’s found bundled up in an action-adventure rather than anything straightforwardly about love. More traditional romantic comedies might often be very heightened versions of reality, yet at their best they elicit the joy and passion we feel in our more grounded real lives. Passion seems increasingly something that critics have noticed, though, is disappearing from the screen.

It’s little surprise that romcoms began to peter out in the world of the War on Terror, one that was very different to the renewal promised by the millennium. Instead, the 21st century became an era of instant, continuous warfare, and renewed a sense of global uncertainty. The romcoms around the early 2010s are, unsurprisingly, largely attempts to reconcile the complexities of modern life with more traditional romance. Nancy Meyers moved from the saccharine entertainment of The Holiday (2005) to finding love amidst divorce in It’s Complicated (2009), whilst Love & Other Drugs (2011) tried to mix a romance with the pharmaceutical industry. It’s a good thing that romcoms started to explore more complicated territory, yet it seemed to mirror a world where romance and emotion could only be viewed with an edge of cynicism.

Tragedy started to peter out in the early 00s, and it’s not a surprise that one of the last great tragedies came from Japan. It’s a country with a national cinema not bound by such a fear of being mawkish, and Memories of Matsuko (2006) is bolder than most as a tale with the confidence to try showing a whole life. It follows the desperately unfair course of a woman (Miki Nakatani) whose promising start devolves into successions of suffering: isolation, abuse, prostitution, and lonely death. The wrong hands might make the tale overly sentimental and Matsuko a figure without agency. Writer-director Tetsuya Nakashima instead makes this a rich and complex tale, Matsuko’s tale given an emotional vibrancy that turns tragedy into a celebration of life. This bold and emotionally honest approach undoubtedly would feel, however, like an emotional assault on many viewers’ senses. The commercial nature of cinema means that a film so life-affirming, so aware of the complexity of life, will likely never reach wide audiences.

It was around the same time that Atonement (2007) arrived in cinemas, and it was a rare, nostalgic return to the tragedy. It was genuinely successful, too, earning over $100million at the box office. No doubt it was aided by its period setting of World War II, an era naturally imbued with the grand emotions expected in a traditional tragic story. The tale hits an age-old tradition, too, of star crossed lovers in educated groundsman Robbie (James McAvoy) and his wealthy friend Cecilia (Keira Knightley). Their romance is torn apart by Cecilia’s jealous younger sister, Briony (Saoirse Ronan), accusing the man of having committed an assault. Of course, there is much sadness as their lives over the coming years are marred by this lie, and their love never gets a chance to blossom.

An interesting aspect of the reception to Atonement is that Briony is widely hated by readers for her actions, suggesting a lack of openness to a more complex moral landscape. Briony is not some machiavellian monster and, as the war progresses and years pass, it becomes impossible for her to rectify her life-altering lie. It seems that audiences generally aren’t open to feeling pity for characters with morally chequered pasts, and perhaps it is also the case that carrying a lifetime of guilt is an unpalatable idea for modern audiences. Indeed, our quick fix, unrelentingly capitalist society is contrary to dealing with the idea of knotted feelings held across a lifetime.

Another Ian McEwan adaptation arrived on the screen 11 years later in the form of On Chesil Beach (2017), and felt like a clear, bleak reflection of the era’s trends. The story follows a newly married couple who go to the titular beach for their honeymoon, and quickly find their social and sexual mores tearing their relationship apart. The book is a devastating tale where the ending shows in rapid-fire how the outcome is a life-changing disaster. In contrast, the film has a schmaltzy ending of a chance reunion in later life, that provides the comfort of a connection in their sadness. This undermines the drama of the tale. It doesn’t reflect the more truthful, harsh reality that oftentimes we don’t get a neat resolution to what haunts us.

Such harsh reality doesn’t fit with the world we’ve ended up in, where it seems like people are tired of uncertainty. It has been an unpredictable century full of conflict and disaster, with the War on Terror, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Covid Pandemic being just three major events that have shaken the globe. In the same way, then, that the Cold War provided people with clear cut heroes and villains, it seems like people of all political persuasions are seeking them today. Social media and the press exacerbate this sense of everyone being in competition, and there being no room for nuance. A genre like tragedy has too much nuance to fit into a cultural landscape that thrives on antagonism.

It’s in this antagonistic climate that The Whale (2022) was released, and despite its lead actor (Brendan Fraser) receiving an Oscar, the film has been widely considered exploitative. The story follows a man called Charlie, whose far above average weight and eating disorder are at imminent risk of killing him. As such, much of his journey involves coming to terms with the trajectory of his life, and trying to find value in it despite being judged by society at large. There have been objections about fatness as a symbol of ultimate failure or repulsion. That’s a fair point in a society where there aren’t many positive representations of fatness to any degree.

The Whale’s sentimentality is also likely a reason it has been so roundly rejected. The film presents a variety of extremes of behaviour with something of unreality about it. Beyond Charlie there is a desperately alcoholic ex-wife, and his extraordinarily, bitingly sarcastic daughter. Perhaps its transition from stage play to film has robbed it of some of its detachment, as the stage naturally invites us to take the overall set up as symbolic or unreal. It’s a tragedy that is meant to speak for us all in our complex humanity and extreme behaviours, and to suggest that we all have human value. For some this might seem trite, yet taken as part of tragedy’s epic tradition there is catharsis and hope to be found.

Regardless of how much The Whale has been a topic of conversation, it looks likely to be quickly forgotten. It may have received an Oscar, but it took just $58million at the box office. This is not just a small return, but is significantly less than the amount taken by Atonement, especially when the inflation of nearly 15 years is considered. The film hasn’t even been deemed worthy of a physical release in the UK, despite the country being a key market for English language movies. It seems to reflect a film industry less and less willing to confront challenging ideas, and one that doesn’t respect its audiences enough to try and bring a range of movies to them.

One of the reason’s The Whale is especially important today is that taps into one of tragedy’s most important roles: an unashamed embracing of extremes in behaviour and emotion. Having space where raw, sometimes ugly, emotion can be explored allows for more nuance in people’s own lives. The World of Kanako (2014), then, might be one of the most important modern tragedies despite being little known. Its beleaguered protagonist, Akihiro Fujushima (Koji Yakusho), is almost unquestionably one of the most repugnant to hit the screen. He’s a consistently drunk cop who, rather than inspiring obvious sympathy, is a brute who engages in physical and sexual violence. The audience, however, is also drawn into the journey of the character through the criminal underworld, in pursuit of his lost daughter who, as events progress, seems to be even more overtly villainous.

But yet the film manages to give a sense of tragedy to proceedings. The end of The World of Kanako leaves us conscious of how cruelty passes down the generations, from person to person. It also shows the vice-like nature of it on our souls. Fujushima is stuck tormenting the murderer of his daughter in snowy isolation, a clear metaphor for the lonely spiritual purgatory they’re trapped in. Cruelty seems to be represented as something with a bitter, hard to escape circularity. It definitely isn’t, though, a clearly-defined punishment for its morally compromised characters.

Ethically complex characters don’t seem to have a place in modern culture. The panicked, judgmental reaction to Joker (2019) seems to be perhaps the ultimate example of this. It is a film based on a major property with an art-house twist, taking Batman’s arch rival and putting him into a story that riffs heavily on Taxi Driver. There was much concern that it would encourage people to violence, and that it supposedly validated its lead’s vengeance-driven viewpoint. This lack of nuance tracks with an era when everything is politics, when people are one side or the other and no complex, flawed human is recognised behind viewpoints. Perhaps the most hopeful thing about this Joker debacle, at least, is the tremendous $1billion it achieved at the box office. With the right marketing, audiences are more open to difficult characters than is suggested by the self-perpetuating cycle of empty, profitable spectacle.

One of the throughlines of tragedy is that it often doesn’t provide clear answers but, in its expansively emotional nature, presents questions. It allows us to fully consider the lives of some of the most unfortunate and most repugnant, and treat them with similar consideration. And it asks us to look without easy judgment at the folly, horror, and joy in the human condition. In divided, emotionally stunted times, it’s clear why the genre is needed more than ever, and why film fans and critics need to champion it.

Written by Ceridwen Millington

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