In Praise of Tragedy

Film is often viewed as escapism. We go to the movies to avoid thinking of the life we have, or to imagine the life we want. Many times fantasies, super hero films, sci-fi, rom-coms or period pieces all fuel that desire for escapism. They do so by wrapping up plot points in neat bows where the hero wins, the good guys relationships are mended, and any tragedy is offset by happiness, even if it is a solemn happiness. 


While I recognize the need for such films and the role they play I often feel like they fail to really connect to us on a deeper level. When was the last time a film like those genuinely moved you. It’s rare. In part that’s because they simply aren’t relatable for us. 

Unless your life is literally all sunshine, rainbows and butterflies, chances are many of the most happy times in your life are bracketed by equally sad times.

Sometimes the happy times only come because of the sad times. Imagine the happiness of seeing your daughter married paired with the sadness of knowing she’ll be moving across the country and you’ll only ever see her again once or twice a year. It’s churlish to say our child’s wedding is a tragedy, but the truth is you are experiencing her happiness at the expense of your own. 

In “The Door Creaks” (a screenplay that’s both the official selection of the Cannes Screenplay Contest and the South Carolina Underground Film Festival), a young girl is repeatedly raped by her step father, and it isn’t until he threatens her brother that she gains the courage to take action. Her actions are clever, swift, and demonstrate a determination that are characteristics of the most heroic of heroes, and as such, when her moment of triumph comes, there is a temptation to end with a celebration. She’s free from abuse, she’s saved her brother, all is right with the world.

But is it really? Does having the perpetrator brought to violent justice really undo what she’s been through? What her brother’s been through? What her mother will have to come to grips with? What the community will have to unravel?

Of course not! And acting like it does minimizes the grief that she, as a real person, would be living with for the rest of her life. It minimizes the guilt her mother would feel from failing to protect her daughter. It minimizes the healing the entire community needs to go through to come to grips with the fact that they allowed this poor girl to be abused and did nothing to stop it for 120 pages of script. 

In that screenplay there is literally no one who can be allowed to continue life in a happy manner, and neither should the audience. When viewing a film where characters experience such great hardship or great loss, smiling faces and a swift up turn in mood may lessen the experience and leave the audience on an artificial high note, but it also undercuts the entire point of the film. 

To avoid this I decided that the perpetrator should get the last word, that I should end it on his account of events, that I should, if possible take the entire story and pile another cloud of darkness over it to let the tragedy really sink in for the audience. This forces them to pull themselves out of the mire, forces them to face the issues they’ve spent the past two hours considering, and decide how they want to handle it. Without the artificial “out” of an abused child smiling in the arms of a loving parent, the audience is left to resolve the story beyond the run time, and determine for themselves how our heroine can finally get her happy ending. 

So why torture my audience in this way? Well in the case of “The Door Creaks” the entire story serves to point the finger of culpability at the audience. To say, in effect, “you may not have done the things to this girl that the step father did, but consider your role. Were you the mother who was oblivious to the abuse happening in your house? Were you the community, who denied it was happening even when faced with the evidence? Were you the pastor who needed her to take action to save herself before you could come along and help?” In effect the story looks at the audience and says “you’re guilty.”

This is particularly relevant where I live in South Carolina, as the upstate is one of the largest hubs of sex trafficking in the South by virtue of it’s position between two major metropolitan areas and the simple fact that it’s a practice that too few people are interested in or capable of delivering an effectual blow against. As a community we tend to take a role similar to one of the major characters in the story, and as such are guilty of allowing this practice to continue in our backyards. 

By forcing the audience to take a look at themselves, to come up with their own resolution, and then examine the film in the context of their own lives, the hope is that more people will be inspired to take action.

In the case of “The Door Creaks” the hope is that people will be able to identify victims of sexual abuse, will be able to intervein on their behalf, and will be encouraged to take a stand against perpetrators. 

More films could do this. By eschewing the smiling faces and happy ending, many films can strike a stronger, more heart felt blow for their particular cause, and inspire action from their audience. While a happy ending may make the film more appealing to those going to the cinema for escapism and let them leave with good feelings, tragedy is what really compels change. If we all embraced a little more tragedy in our entertainment, then perhaps the world would be a happier place.