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Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?" 
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Post Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
NotHugh just inspired to write this by describing Precious with the following in his criticism of the film:

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Look, how much punishment, brutality and ill-will can one human being endure!

Now, I like the movie a little bit more than you people all seem to, but his point made me wonder something: do we have a tendency to overpraise depressing movies?

I think we do. This makes sense. As film critics--for we all are critics of film, rather than mere enthusiasts--we see A LOT of movies. And the overwhelming majority of these movies are happy. Often absurdly so, with contrivances a-plenty. The standard movie formula, after all, ends with triumph. So that means that depressing movies are often unformulaic just as a matter of course, and thus more praiseworthy. (That also presents the question of whether we praise movies simply for being different rather than being good, but that's a discussion for another day. ) They're more likely to surprise us. They're more likely to follow a story to its organic conclusion rather than a prearranged one.

And yet, I think we take it too far. We forget that depressing doesn't necessarily mean better. We praise movies that show suffering or misery because it seems deeper, even though on the face of it there's no reason that 120 minutes of cruelty is somehow more artistic than 120 minutes of suffering. We end up automatically celebrating movies like Precious, or 21 Grams, or the entirety of British cinema since 1958.

I think the key to a miserablist film is that the characters have to have an essential humanity and the events have to feel organic and not contrived. Because Lilya-4-Ever and Requiem for a Dream are, in my opinion, great films and they're also incredibly depressing. But their characters are so human and the circumstances feel so real that I feel profoundly moved, not manipulated. Contrast this to Precious, when the main character learns she has AIDS at the end of the movie and it feels like the director/writer is just messing with us and piling on the misery.

So, in short, we indeed have a tendency to overpraise depressing films, and we have to make sure our praise is warranted.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 10:54 am
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
In short - yes!

Perhaps there's an attraction in seeing people who have it worse than ourselves. Perhaps (as Agent Smith says in the Matrix), 'humans define their reality as misery and suffering'.

And also, I'm a bit sick of performances about poor, wretched sufferers being called 'great', just because they are suffering.

"Misery porn", as you so well put, is a problem yes. And Precious really takes the proverbial in this regard.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 11:36 am
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Also, I might add, misery is the lowest common denominator for films as emotion goes.

it's an incredible challenge to make a thought provoking film that's funny and poignant. Much easier just to pile misery and horrible events on a hapless protagonist.

Misery is the go-to guy. It's the catch all. The ultimate insurance policy. I've had enough of it myself for a while.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 11:41 am
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Re: the question posed in the thread title. In some ways, yes.

Precious, which I liked a lot more than many people on this board apparently, to me never quite crosses into that misery porn realm. There are a few points where it comes dangerously close. But to me it never does.

Precious paid its way with good performances and effective (if not exactly subtle) direction. On the other hand I never could get into Irreversible. To me, that movie would be the epitome of "Misery Porn" were it not for the next film I'm going to mention. I understood what Noe was trying to do. But it didn't work. That's the most likely reason why I did not care for the film.

But to me the epitome of Misery Porn is The Passion Of The Christ. A movie that's just tow hours of torture would normally be seen as what it is: an exploitation film. But because it was written and directed by Mel Gibson, is in a foreign language and is about Christ, it's considered an important film. Gibson's direction drives the point home again and again to the level where the viewer is ready to scream "enough enough". In some ways, The Passion is the American Irreversible. Or as I called it: Mandingo For Fundamentalists.

So yes, in some ways a lot of critics seem to think misery quotient makes a film important as shown by the overpraising of two of the films I mentioned above. In some ways I suspect that's why I held off on seeing 12 Years A Slave for a while. Someone I know describe it as this years "Passion Of The Christ". When I saw it I have to say that I disagree. But I can understand why some people might interpret it as such.

If a film pays it way with good performances and a compelling story, then the misery part isn't an issue in that regard, although it can impact on whether or not one wants to see it again (Requiem For A Dream was well-made and well-acted. But I don't think I can bring myself to ever watch it again). But if it's just a bloated piece of depression with an inflated sense of importance then there's a problem.

NotHughGrant wrote:
Perhaps there's an attraction in seeing people who have it worse than ourselves.


I've long wondered if in a way that accounts for the popularity of Reality TV.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:26 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
I can't say for sure whether they are overpraised or not since I almost always avoid films that are described as dark (critics never seem to want to use the term depressing). I'll watch dark mysteries, crime, or horror that isn't closely tied to reality, but don't get into realistic depictions of misery very much. I don't mind if the story is framed about a singular circumstance that results in a grim situation. If the characters are trying to overcome, it is better to me than if they are helplessly wallowing in it. I avoided Requiem for a Dream for a long time before finally being tempted that I must have been missing out on a great movie. It may be a great movie, but I couldn't overcome the depression enough to pay much attention to the rest of the film's qualities.

I can't really offer an opinion as to praise worthiness due to my inability to understand the appeal of that sort of story. Perhaps there is just not enough capacity to sympathize within me or perhaps I am overly sensitive.


Last edited by CasualDad on Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:51 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:32 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Inadvertent entry.


Last edited by CasualDad on Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:34 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
I think we're bad at defining misery porn, for one thing--it seems to be more of an epithet than an independently confirmable phenomenon. And to the extent that the term is useful at all, I don't think we overpraise it so much as we box movies up in certain ways, often before we've even seen them. Movies about Big Issues (slavery, the Holocaust, developmental disabilities, etc.) are given almost exclusive leeway to bum us out, whic should be given fair and square to movies that don't necessarily fit the Big Issue paradigm.

We also seem to feel a weird need to make excuses when we catch ourselves praising movies that don't take us into the depths of human suffering. Some dark movies are worth every bit of praise they get, so it's not that they're overpraised, but why are uplifting and lighthearted films so much more susceptible to the "it's good for what it is" qualification?

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:42 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Jeff summed this up well, especially with the Reality TV connection. I'm 99% sure that's the appeal of stuff like "Real Housewives of __________"

Obviously this doesn't apply to everyone on this board, but I think a lot of us have a least a little bit of that nihilist, "I want to see the world burn" itch that occasionally needs scratching. And even with the examples we named, movies that embrace darkness and misery are still outnumbered big-time by the Hollywood Endings. So it's still unique enough to warrant praise if supported by strong acting, writing, and direction.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:45 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Ken wrote:
I think we're bad at defining misery porn, for one thing--it seems to be more of an epithet than an independently confirmable phenomenon. And to the extent that the term is useful at all, I don't think we overpraise it so much as we box movies up in certain ways, often before we've even seen them. Movies about Big Issues (slavery, the Holocaust, developmental disabilities, etc.) are given almost exclusive leeway to bum us out, whic should be given fair and square to movies that don't necessarily fit the Big Issue paradigm.

We also seem to feel a weird need to make excuses when we catch ourselves praising movies that don't take us into the depths of human suffering. Some dark movies are worth every bit of praise they get, so it's not that they're overpraised, but why are uplifting and lighthearted films so much more susceptible to the "it's good for what it is" qualification?


Slavery and the Holocaust were significant historical events or situations though. It's too easy to be crude and, more importantly, voyeuristic about individual suffering.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 12:49 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
They are important historical events, which I won't dispute at all, but there are different ways of treating historical events in movies. One of them--the "Big Issue Movie"--is given a disproportionate amount of clearance from the public. It's kind of hard to articulate what I'm getting at with this terminology, but here's where I got it from:

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I want to do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to


To me, Tarantino is nailing something fundamental about the way we form our expectations of movies. It's okay to do a movie about slavery, as long as it's packaged and issued in a certain way--otherwise the subject matter is almost as verboten as it ever was. The controversial response to Django, largely from people who had not seen the film, is a good illustration of that.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 1:08 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
It does seem like many critics including JB, love the shit out of ultra-depressing movies like The War Zone. Most of the time extremely depressing movies do not appeal to me at all, given the choice between a widely hated film and an overly depressing one, i'll choose the former 95% of the time.

The thing with Precious is that it was so completely and ridiculously over-the-top that the film failed to even depress me, I was too busy laughing at how utterly insane it was.

Agreed 100% on Irreversible, that's one of the worst pieces of shit i've ever seen in my life, Gasper Noe failed miserably at delivering his anti-vigilante "message".

Passion Of The Christ is horrendous, it's basically a religious torture porn film, it has no more depth then the likes of Hostel, the Saw sequels or any other film in the "torture" sub-genre.

Funny Games is another "misery porn" film that I fucking hate with a passion.

Schindler's List is an example of this type of film done well, as it has a glimmer of hope at the end and it has good performance, though it's still not a film i'd want to watch more then once.

For Reality TV, alot of shows nowadays seem to focus on people that have it BETTER off then the rest of us due to being rich and whatnot, and a lot of the "fights" you see on those "Real Housewives" shows are staged for the cameras.

I don't have a nihilist side at all, I have no urge whatsoever to "watch the world burn" it give sme no joy at all. That's one of the reasons why I didn't care for the ending to The World's End, it just seemed too "dark" compared to the rest of the film and it felt like it belonged in a completely different movie.


Last edited by Vexer on Fri Jan 31, 2014 4:06 pm, edited 3 times in total.



Fri Jan 31, 2014 3:56 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Do you mean films that incorperate the issue, but aren't the issue?

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 4:00 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Maybe we should declare a ban or at least a moratorium on the use of the word "porn" in this manner. Torture, misery, etc. Vex may be on to something here with how lazy it sounds

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 4:08 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
KWRoss wrote:
Maybe we should declare a ban or at least a moratorium on the use of the word "porn" in this manner. Torture, misery, etc. Vex may be on to something here with how lazy it sounds

Perhaps so, it seems like these "misery" films usually sweep the Oscars(I.E. The Pianist)


Fri Jan 31, 2014 4:11 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Art doesn't need to tell us that life is hard. Life does a good enough job of telling us that by itself.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:00 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
I definitely have a soft spot for grim movies. Indeed JB and my own "like" for these movies is the main reason I gravitated towards his reviews in the first place, i.e. if JB likes a grim movie there is a very high chance I will too. Ebert also generally rated depressing films highly also. I think it's the fact they tend to stay with you and are typically more thought provoking than feel-good fluff - that's my experience at any rate.


Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:23 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Steven wrote:
Art doesn't need to tell us that life is hard. Life does a good enough job of telling us that by itself.


Except life isn't and doesn't have to be that hard, so there's something false about it. The bad parts can also be presented in a more creative light. I felt 12 Years a Slave and Gravity fell into this category last year. But I need more from a movie than just to feel sorry for the protagonist. I like a story to feel dark, not just sad or grueling, which usually means the protagonist should probably have some flaw unto his/herself to challenge the whole notion of them being a victim.


Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:27 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
nitrium wrote:
I definitely have a soft spot for grim movies. Indeed JB and my own "like" for these movies is the main reason I gravitated towards his reviews in the first place, i.e. if JB likes a grim movie there is a very high chance I will too. Ebert also generally rated depressing films highly also. I think it's the fact they tend to stay with you and are typically more thought provoking than feel-good fluff - that's my experience at any rate.

For me it's the opposite, ultra-dark films I tend to forget but the feel-good ones tend to stay with me more often.


Last edited by Vexer on Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:59 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:29 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
I would suggest we are also creating a false dichotomy when we suggest that either a film is dark or it's fluff. There's no reason why a light film can't have consequential themes, and there sure as hell are plenty of dark films that are as fluffy and weightless as they come.

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Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:36 pm
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Post Re: Do we have a tendency to overpraise "misery porn?"
Ken wrote:
I would suggest we are also creating a false dichotomy when we suggest that either a film is dark or it's fluff. There's no reason why a light film can't have consequential themes, and there sure as hell are plenty of dark films that are as fluffy and weightless as they come.


Indeed.

This is a great topic. I do think some of it is cultural, in that we kinda love misery when it happens to someone else (which is why exploitive True Crime TV/books and salacious news stories are so popular) and ascribe value and importance to people that endure it (i.e. the idea that 3,000 "heroes" died on 9/11... all respect, but almost all of that number were not heroes).

I think there's two halves to it: First, a lot of humanity (Western culture in particular) loves the idea of an overcomer/endurer. Sports stars who fail first and then succeed are much more spoken of, revered and acclaimed than those who are great from the start (and when there isn't failure, it's often made up, like the lie that Michael Jordan was "cut" from his high school team). The Academy loves to reward the work of Bruce Dern late in life, partly because it gives Academy members who haven't made it on the level they hoped to a reason to believe that they're just one good role away from similar glory. Seemingly everyone loves the videos of auditioners on shows like American Idol who show up looking like they're going to bomb but end up killing it (of course, if you have a sob story to share on American Idol, all the better!). We disproportionately love the underdog and the idea of redemption.

The second part, of course, is that

JamesKunz wrote:
depressing doesn't necessarily mean better


...but as has been said, people sure seem to think it does. There are depressing movies that are brilliant, certainly, but no move that's brilliant because it's depressing. If something makes us feel heavy and sad, we tend to think that means it's important and good.


Fri Jan 31, 2014 5:52 pm
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