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The Death Of Tragedy: How Hollywood Makes Us Weak
By: Mickael
Let’s strip away everything man has created in the last fiftty years. MP3's, peer-to-peer file sharing, websites, the internet, computers, slap bracelets, scratch 'n' sniff stickers, glow sticks, new wave music, punk rock, disco, tie-dyed shirts, the Vietnam War, John F. Kennedy... it all never happened. Let's go back another hundred years from there. Cars, movies, radio, television, hoola hoops, the Great Depression, machine guns, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln... haven't occured yet. Another hundred years back and we lose the locomotive, George Washington, and the very concept of America itself. What do you have now? An axe, a wife, some whiskey, and a bunch of trees. What do you do? You use the axe to cut the trees and the whiskey to deal with the wife. If you had made the decision to chop up your wife with the axe and drink under the trees, this country wouldn't be here right now. Would the world be a nicer place? Can't change your mind now, you’ve already gone and procreated.
What's the purpose of your life at that point? To build a log house, breed some more with your wife, and get drunk until you die. Had you known then that someday your children would be living through the Revolutionary War, you'd think that were horrible. Had you known then that someday your great great grandchildren would be living through the Civil War, you'd be pretty upset. Had you known then that someday your great great great great great great grandchildren would be living through the second World War, you'd be pissed that you had ever started this mess. Had you known then that your great great great great great great great grandchildren would be living under constant threat of nuclear attack, you'd wonder what in the hell a nuclear attack was, then, when someone told you, you'd be super fucking atomically pissed. Why did you fuck your wife? Some primal urge, the want for your genes to carry on, the need to feel that even if you won’t make it that a part of you lives on immortal, or maybe just because of the whiskey. Now your children and all of their children must sit around their computers, browsing the internet with aluminum foil on their heads, searching for answers to their questions. Well, since you’re all here, let’s chat a bit about tragedy, shall we? I promise it will be super uplifting.
Chapter 1: Tragic Origins
Tragedy, as an entertainment form, began because of that "farmer's life" I just described. If we could travel back to the time of peasants in Ancient Greece, we would see that quite often their lives were meager. An average peasant living late in the 6th century BC didn’t exactly have a lot to look forward to. While it may not be true that the average lifespan back then was only 35 years, the quality of that life was assuredly not at its apex. Disease, famine, lack of running water, limited accessibility to milkshakes; these were but a few of the trials and tribulations facing your average Joe Schmophocles.

Every year, upon reaping the harvest, a celebration was held in honor of Dionysus. At this celebration there would be wine for the upper class, beer for the lower class, and a storytelling competition which invented the very concept of theater. The first actor to portray a character on stage took place during this festival, and the first tragedy ever written was performed there as well. Among the early playwrights were Choerilus, Aeschylus, Phrynichus, and Pratinas Of Phlius. Aeschylus invented the sequel when he began writing trilogies to be performed on the stage-- Oh My God, thank you for that because without the trilogy we wouldn’t have Christopher Lloyd turning a steam engine into a time machine! Later, Sophocles and Euripides laid some tragic magic on audiences too, with Sophocles writing a surprising early draft of Elektra, and Euripedes doing the first reboot of it.

Aristotle later chimed in on the effect of the tragic drama by saying that it is, “an imitation of a noble and complete action... which through compassion and fear produces purification of the passions.” Basically, in exposing the audience to the suffering of others, the tragedy evokes an emotional response: this acts as catharsis for their own pent-up anxieties. In a world where Mother Nature could lead to starvation, or war could wipe out a generation, it’s easy to see why audiences appreciated a little cleansing. Even their celebrations were a reminder of what inevitably awaited humanity: mortality.
Chapter 2: Humanity
We will all experience tragedy at some point in our lives, no matter how things change over generations. For instance, one of that farmer's kids was an Italian immigrant who lived in New York City just after the turn of the century. He had seven children over the course of many years, three of whom died of scarlet fever when they were very young. The youngest of the surviving kids was named Tom Corolla. Tom was my uncle. Well, technically my Great Uncle, because he was married to my mother’s aunt, but we just called him Uncle Tom for simplicity’s sake. He was underage to enter World War 2 like his older brothers and cousins had done, but when he was finally old enough, he joined the military and went overseas in the Korean War. Upon returning home, he married my Aunt Audrey and became a New York City police officer for twenty years, lived on Staten Island and then eventually retired to Southwest Florida with the other old-timers in the family. This is when I knew him, as a pudgy and balding but frisky old man during my childhood, who looked exactly like .

My grandparents from both sides of my family already lived in Florida, and shortly after my sister was born my parents moved there as well. That’s where I was born, within a little triangle of family history, surrounded by three generations of Krippas, Spiaks, and Corollas. Every one of them from New York, except for me, the one Florida Cracker. We always rotated Holidays: if Thanksgiving was at my Nana’s house, then my parents would do Christmas and Aunt Audrey and Uncle Tom would have us over for New Year’s. My favorite version of this rotation, though, was when Uncle Tom and Aunt Audrey would have us over for Thanksgiving. My aunt would greet us kids at the door with unwanted cheek pinches and kisses, comments on our growth rates, and pleasantries galore. Tom would holler at us from the living room to come in and sit down before hollering at Audry to bring everyone drinks. Uncle Tom would then give each of the kids a silver dollar or half dollar as a gift, and to this day we have a pretty large coin collection thanks to him. Because he had been raised Italian, Audrey had spent their decades of marriage perfecting his families’ recipes to his liking. This meant that there were no mere meals at the Corolla household, there were only feasts! Course after course of salads, pastas, meats, more pastas, and desserts would come from a seemingly bottomless kitchen. The only trouble with Aunt Audrey’s meals was that a week later, you might be hungry again.

One year, Christmas was at our house but my parents were going through one of those phases of adulthood where they realized that their entire lives revolved around each other and the kids, so they invited another couple over to the house to join in the holiday celebration. A couple who, even though they had three kids, was suspiciously available on Christmas. A couple named Mark and Helen Steinberg. Let me tell you one thing you don’t throw at a 60-year-old war veteran: a Mazel Tov Cocktail. My Uncle Tom reached into his bag of social skills to try and entertain these guests, but came up short. Turns out everything he knew about the Jewish tradition he learned from old timey racist jokes. Uncle Tom was banned from holidays for a few years after that. Eventually my parents reconciled with them, as all families do. The next several years, as I grew from teenager into adult, holidays were back on at Tom and Audrey’s.
Chapter 3: Mortality
One day, Uncle Tom was leaving the local Italian-American Club, his favorite little hangout to play cards and share war stories. As he walked along the sidewalk to his Cadillac, his foot slipped off the curb and he fell. His head cracked against the firm chrome bumper. His neck snapped. Luckily, paramedics arrived quickly and kept him stable as they rushed him to the hospital. Upon arriving, he was in a coma, being kept alive by breathing tubes and machines. My aunt was at the hospital around the clock, even though he was in the ICU and could only have visitors for brief periods. My parents, sister, and I all left work early to visit them daily and offer a little emotional support. After several weeks in a coma, with no positive prognosis, a decision had to be made: would we “pull the plug” or keep him on life support indefinitely? We talked about it as a family, each of us counseling my Aunt Audrey through this difficult decision. Ultimately, we wanted her to know that after 50 years of marriage, the decision was completely hers, and that we would support her no matter what. My uncle was completely brain dead, a shell of a human being. This once proud man now breathed only with assistance from a machine. He had lived a long, rewarding life. The choice was obvious. The doctors would remove my Uncle Tom from life support.

The hospital staff was very gentle, asking Audrey if she wanted to be in the room with him when he “went”. Through tears, she nodded “yes”. My dad looked to each of us with concern in his eyes, hoping someone would convince her not to. No one did. He stood up, “Audrey, are you sure you want to do this?” She nodded again and started walking with the nurse. There was no keeping her away from her last chance to see her husband. The nurse asked, “Would anyone else like to be there with her?” My dad and I looked at each other and, deciding Audrey needed all the support she could get, we joined her. The doors to the ICU were heavy and automatically locked to keep anyone from disturbing the patients. Once those doors clicked behind us, with my sister and mother staying in the waiting area while we walked down the corridor to Tom's room, I immediately regretted my decision to join. On one hand, I was a 21-year-old man who wanted to be strong for his family but on the other, I was such a fucking pussy.

Aunt Audrey entered my Uncle Tom’s room with my dad and I staying close by her side. The nurse left the room, offering her a few minutes to say goodbye before she and the doctor would come back. My dad put a chair right next to the bed, and my aunt sat down. She cried and held his hand. She kissed his forehead and whispered her final goodbye into his ear. We tried to stay strong, to stay silent. Her sorrow filled the room and we were merely there to be walking canes- to offer support in a time of need. The doctor entered the room with two nurses. They walked us through the process, very professionally but also very clinically. He would feel nothing, we were assured. As his life support systems were removed, his body jostled and shook. His head twitched, his mouth foamed. My aunt cried loudly, bursting with emotion, “He’s still alive! Tom! Tom?! Oh God, he’s dead! What have I done?! I killed him! I killed my husband!” My dad grabbed her and held her close, but she kept crying. I pressed my hand to her back and fought back my own tears as I listened to her weep. We reassured her that he was already dead, we just gave him peace. Muscle spasms are common in those situations. No one came away from that experience with a “happily ever after” moment. We all lost a piece of ourselves that day and even though more than a decade has passed since Tom’s death, we’ve not spoken of that experience to each other at all.
Chapter 4: The Hollywood Formula
The modern Hollywood formula refuses to prepare you for that type of experience. Instead, our fears and inadequacies are hidden beneath a veneer of invulnerability. In Hollywood, some producer would have ran that Uncle Tom story by a test audience and decided that it would be better if Tom didn't die. If maybe, through some miracle, pulling the plug somehow "shocked" Tom out of his coma, and he could relay to us all the wisdom he gained from his near-death experience. He would be nicer to his wife, he would live every day as if it were his last, and maybe he wouldn't be anti-semitic anymore. We are led to believe that the notion of happily ever after is no longer in the realm of children's fairy tales, but actually acceptable expectations for adults. The Hollywood formula teaches only entitlement. It is a formula centered around the audience identifying with the main character, projecting their thoughts and feelings upon that character, and then seeing that character succeed. While it’s true that a major part of this formula is to have the protagonist begin the third act from a disadvantageous position, it’s also become so typified that we don’t actually care at that point in the film, because we all know that “these things have a way of working themselves out.”

We know that Batman will win the day, because he’s the goddamn Batman. But, we also know that every movie without that pedigree, like Kick Ass (2010) or Fast & The Furious (2001), will also protect our protagonist at all costs. Sure, a “red shirt” may be killed off here or there to further solidify the resolve of our heroes, but our heroes themselves are essentially bulletproof. Because films are a passive form of entertainment, there is literally no effort required on the part of the audience to see their “avatar” conquer all of it’s enemies. From The Wizard Of Oz (1939) to The Avengers (2012), you just sit back, relax, and witness your own success on screen.

This further enables the shallow and weak to maintain their position instead of improve it. Whether it’s a faith in God as our protector or a denial of tragedy in real life, we are being taught to passively ignore challenge instead of react to it. Then, when faced with adversity, we often lack the emotional coping skills to deal with it. We may get angry and lash out. Like spoiled brats, we have tantrums about how “unfair” life can be. Look at Game of Thrones fans: a few of their favorite characters die and all of a sudden they freak out, even though there’s no need to. The pain and loss that the characters suffer is the only part of that world which resembles our own. Sure, there are some very dense and dramatic “Oscar bait” films that contain some tragic themes. Million Dollar Baby (2004) springs to mind, but 80% of that film is feel-good underdog sports story. Among broad films, geared towards the common audience, where are the tragedies? Comedies and tragedies were once seen as two sides of the same coin. Shakespeare in particular liked to embed comedic elements within his tragedies to keep the audience engaged. Nowadays, the closest thing we’ve had to a true tragedy, start to finish, is Oldboy (2013) - and that was a remake of a non-Hollywood film anyway.
Conclusion: Like A Dead Baby; It's Dead, Baby
Experiencing tragedy as a source of entertainment comes from a very deep place in our psyche. We require it to better understand our personal battles, failures, and to prepare ourselves for tragic events. It's a coping mechanism taught through art as a learned behavior. Through tragedy, we can see that our lot is not so bad, because of what Oedipus went through. If our pain ends up matching that of Romeo & Juliet, then they teach us how not to react.

Let's be clear: life is not unfair, it's ludicrously fair. The problem is that many people think fair means that they win, 100% of the time. In reality, “fair” is that for every win you receive, you also hack a loss as well. What a lack of tragic entertainment has done to us is remove that half of the equation. For every body on earth, there is a death. Sometimes you even suffer long before that death comes. That is what tragedy teaches you: life sucks, and then you die. It's in this lesson that any good harvests we reap are able to stand out.

What I encourage filmmakers to do is to reestablish the genre for future generations. We need tragedy in our entertainment to better prepare us for the reality of life. Many foreign films do not hesitate to tackle tragedy as frequently as they do comedy or suspense, but Hollywood seems particularly resistant to it. Sure, if asked in the moment following a screening, a focus panel will ask for a happy ending because after witnessing a depressing one, if done effectively, they’re depressed! Sometimes, you don’t want the audience to write your movie for you. I think we should let Sophocles or Shakespeare have equal input.
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What is the best tragedy in Hollywood?
Titanic
Philadelphia
Million Dollar Baby
Brokeback Mountain
Mel Gibson
Lindsay Lohan
Anyone who's even tangentially associated with the Kardashians
Quizzes
 
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