In his review of Josh Radnor's "Liberal Arts," out now in limited release, HuffPost blogger and film critic Marshall Fine writes that the "How I Met Your Mother" actor turned filmmaker "proves that he knows a thing or two about love, romance and the human element that always seems to trip people up in pursuit of either." Last year, Radnor wrote a blog post of his own for The Huffington Post, in which he spelled out his filmmaking philosophy -- one that has something in common with this site's Good News page. With "Liberal Arts" opening this Friday in the U.K. and Ireland, now seems like a good time to resurface this thoughtful essay on why directors needn't be afraid of the dark.
It's probably not spoiling anything to say that "happythankyoumoreplease," the first movie I wrote and directed, does not end tragically. The title pretty much gives that away. At Sundance, where the movie premiered in 2010, one journalist asked me, given that the theme of the festival that year was 'revolution,' what was revolutionary about my 'feel-good, crowd pleasing movie.' What his question revealed, I think, was the strange bias that many critics and cultural tastemakers share when it comes to optimism in film: that which posits a more hopeful vision of things is somehow dismissed as less real or true than a darker tale which ends on a discordant note. In other words, feel-good movies are less sophisticated than feel-bad movies.
My response to his question was that given the cynicism in which much of indie film traffics, the movie is revolutionary in that it's about love and gratitude, and that it's hopeful not bleak. ("Crowd-pleasing" is a curious designation, if you think about it -- shouldn't every movie be "crowd-pleasing?" Who are movies for, after all?) No matter how dark things may get in a story, I feel it's the responsibility of the storyteller to leave the audience with at least a shred of hope. Jonathan Franzen's Freedom recently provided a great example of this for me. For 500 pages, his characters made ever more terrible decisions that brought them nothing but misery. But Franzen, fulfilling his contract with the readers, pulls us out of the nose-dive at the end and gives us something that feels like grace.
When I was writing "happythankyoumoreplease" I was constantly looking to have the characters screw up in bigger and more bone-headed ways. But half the fun of the tangling is the untangling, watching characters grow up and persevere, and all my favorite movies seem to recognize this. A movie can and should have some real dissonance throughout -- rage, heartache, tears, conflict, catharsis and all the other elements Aristotle demanded of a good story -- but the chord has to be resolved. Swelling strings aren't necessary, but by the end there should, I think, be some acknowledgment and evidence that we're not wretched and doomed creatures. Just let me know, in the simplest way, that everything is going to be okay.
Joan Acocella wrote a piece a few years back in The New Yorker about the continuing popularity of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. She writes of the book being "comforting" (not entirely a compliment) and that Gibran had said that "the whole meaning of the book was 'You are far far greater than you know--and All is well.' To people in doubt or in trouble," Acocella writes, "that is good news." But wait, isn't that good news to everyone?
Apparently not, and here's where we get to the basic fault line of what it means to be a human being. Because we're each, as David Foster Wallace wrote, "marooned in our own skulls," interpreting thoughts, feelings, and incidents through our own specially programmed nervous systems, it's difficult to budge someone from their view of "reality" since all the evidence they need is right there in front of them. One man's uplift is another man's sentimental hooey. And no one is right because -- get this: -- everyone is right. All the time. By that I mean one's thoughts about the world are correct. If you believe the world is dark and frightening and people are not to be trusted, you will seek out evidence to confirm this and that will be what you call 'reality.' If you believe the world to be forgiving and ordered and shot through with grace, you will seek out evidence to confirm this and that will be what you call 'reality.'
The acknowledgment of this basic fact tends to unsettle people, and leads culture warriors to lob accusations of "moral relativism." We want to believe there is such a thing as a right or correct worldview. But how can there be with so many nervous systems wired and conditioned in such vastly different manners? This is not to say we don't need laws and standards of behavior, but we have to acknowledge that the world is endlessly varied and complex. Absolutely everything is available to us -- sorrow and joy, grievance and forgiveness, horror and transcendence -- it's all on the menu. It's up to us where we put our attention because (forgive my dip into metaphysics here) we grow whatever it is we put our attention upon. We're like a gardener with a hose and our attention is water -- we can water flowers or we can water weeds.
The dark and fearful stuff is no less 'true' than its opposite, it just announces itself in a louder, more insistent manner. Joy speaks in more of a whisper and you sometimes have to lean in a bit to hear it. But it's always there for those who can get quiet enough to hear it. I'm not a pollyanna -- I get that the world is rife with horrors. But I also know the world is rife with everything else. There's this great Carlos Castaneda quote: "We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same." I really believe that. Negativity is so reflexive in our society that it takes great vigilance to train yourself anew. But to me it feels worth it.
I've decided that if I'm going to spend years writing, prepping, casting, shooting, editing, sound mixing, color correcting, and publicizing a movie, I'm going to want it to be the kind of movie I would love, where people grow up and get out of their own ways and open up to something bigger than their own egoic needs. Not because this is a truer version of reality, but because it's the reality I wish to grow, the kind of world in which I would most like to live. When so much else is calling attention to the dark and dysfunctional, I just don't feel it's my job to contribute. Too many people are already on the case.
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