Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Happiness Meter

Don't ask college students to recognize happiness and unhappiness.

Or if someone does - say, their film professor - prepare to be wildly entertained by how they interpret both.

Tonight kicked off another semester of VCU Cinematheque with Mike Leigh's "Another Year," a film I'd seen in 2011 when it came out. But my date had never seen it and I can always enjoy rewatching a Jim Broadbent performance.

You can always tell it's early on at the Grace Street Theater because the place is packed. I know from past years that attendance waxes and wanes over the semester depending on what else is going on. Or perhaps college students just can't sustain a whole semester's interest in anything, hard to say.

Before the film began, the visiting professor told the students to watch the film with an eye  for what makes some people happy while others remain unhappy. He even went so far as to tell them to ponder what would make each of them truly happy.

Sorry, prof, but that's far too big a question for a roomful of teenagers.

The film moves through four seasons in the life of a happy older married couple, Tom and Gerri. It was interesting, though, because where my middle-aged date and I saw every sign of happiness between the couple, the students saw smugness and condescension.

The role of unhappiness was played by Mary, a co-worker of Gerri's, a divorced woman who claimed she was happy and yet whined and drank to daily excess. A woman so desperate she would unabashedly hit on the couple's 30-year old son. A woman perpetually having a crises.

In my opinion, a woman not happy with herself so unable to find happiness with anyone else.

As the film cycles through the year, we see the couple enjoying their life together - gardening, reading and talking in bed, making meals for themselves, family and friends - which often includes comments and looks between the two that are meant for no one else.

To my middle-aged eyes, it was easy to see the intimacy and affection of this couple who had been married for 30+ years and how they shared their bond with others.

When the movie ended, I told my date we needed to stay for at least part of the discussion, because past screenings have proven how entertaining and illuminating they can be.

Because once the post-film Q & A began, we were treated to a completely different way of viewing the film's story: through a millennial lens.

In a key scene where the divorcee meets the son's new girlfriend, she is rude and dismissive of the young woman, despite being at dinner in the home of his parents/her friends. Her disdain for the girlfriend and obvious disappointment that the son has a love interest is palpable. As a result, a rift develops between Gerri and Mary.

That rift is acknowledged in the next season, with Gerri suggesting Mary see a therapist and while Gerri is a therapist, she insists Mary see someone else. Ethics and all.

The college students were convinced something had happened in between the seasons that the director hadn't shown. Something unknown had caused the rift and they thought Gerri was callous not to be willing to counsel her friend.

And while I can chalk up them not knowing that a therapist wouldn't treat a friend to being millennial (and not having much life experience), not one of them realized that it was Mary's deplorable behavior at Tom and Gerri's home to their son's new girlfriend that had caused the problem.

Did a guest's obvious lack of civility and basic manners go completely unnoticed by the students in the theater? Sure did. That's why they were convinced something else had happened in the interim.

Even more bizarre was how the professor stressed that happy people were boring and only the unhappy ones were interesting. Including himself in the latter category, he found plenty of support among students who had a completely different read on Mary than we did.

Where we saw dysfunctional, they saw something they could relate to. Where we saw desperate, they saw gutsy. Where we saw depressed, they saw someone who couldn't catch a break.

It was bizarre.

Our differences in perception extended to Tom and Gerri because the students saw their pithy commentary and knowing looks as condescending, whereas we saw them as evidence of the kind of verbal and non-verbal shorthand that couples develop over the years.

It seemed that the students felt that the couple was looking down on people who weren't happy, while we felt like they went out of their way to share their home, hearth and happiness with a string of miserable people.

When one kid tried to bring some religious connotation that wasn't there to a scene, the more senior and knowledgeable of the professors clarified by saying director Mike Leigh took more of a communist than religious approach.

You could almost hear the gasps from some young filmmakers-to-be.

Another guy, in trying to explain his point, suggested that we all know the path to happiness is "marriage, have some kids and provide for them to eat," although his thesis soon ran (understandably) aground. Not a one of those things guarantees happiness, son. For that matter, they're not even required.

One movie, two viewpoints.

Happiness is being able to appreciate a screening where the discussion is almost as illuminating as the film.

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