Yes. I went to go see that tear jerking piece of emotional porn, The Fault in Our Stars. The title is as romantically provocative as it is an awkward reference to ninth grade Shakespearean literature you could barely read—the kind that has two spoiled brats dying too young for a conflict easily remedied by growing the pair of balls necessary to tell their parents,
"We're gonna bone whether you like it or not."
I've always been a sucker for and a fan of romantic strife, though I can't help but wonder if Romeo and Juliet had gotten it wrong in the first place. Maybe there's nothing really all that romantic about a love cut short by death. Maybe there's no good reason that a room full of people should buy a twelve-dollar ticket to frustration and misery. I don't know about you, but when I'm looking to pleasure myself it usually ends with an orgasm—not a popcorn bag full of tears.
Take a moment to step back and examine just how spirit-crushing all of this is: here are two people who finally have this perfect thing, something that everybody spends their entire lives trying to find. But then, no. Fate decides to roll over on them and collect on a bad karma debt, saying, "OH HELL NO". I have serious problems with this because I can't help but understand the universal message here to be a subtle FU to the dreamers within us. It's a serious blow dealt to anyone who imagines that maybe, just maybe, they might get what they really want. Essentially, the Fault In Our Stars makes the age-old claim to a heartbreaking axiom which concludes that, actually, we can't have what we want.
But there's another phenomenon that comes with these kinds of movies that proves to be far more impactful. In a story of love ended by cancer it's hard not to assume that this IS the point of the story. There becomes an intense focus on big dramatic events and the belief that these are the most important things that move us. Big love, big cancer, and big death have emerged as ultimate examples of what it means to REALLY feel. It's gotten so that we've come to demand these outrageous displays of greatness ruined so that we, too, can experience SOMETHING of significance in our lives (even if we're merely spectators). And then, we forget about the small things and how they used to move us. There's a certain degree of tragedy found in the realization that it might take disaster and pure doom to elicit any kind of genuine reaction from our hearts.
But that's where a lot of people miss it. And that's where the meat of this rambling starts to sizzle.
Actually, people don't love these kinds of movies because death is romantic. They don't go home with heartache because their biggest fantasy involves contracting a terminal illness that will one day separate them from loved ones. People go home crying and depressed the moment they realize their lives lack the little things, those everyday experiences which seem impossible to find: a friendly visit, genuine concern, phone calls, kind words, a response when we reach out to others. The real heartache begins with the dissonance felt in witnessing real human connections on screen; it pales in comparison to our everyday experiences. So much of what we long for is simply for the world to RESPOND when we call upon it and our fellow human beings.
So, the whole cancer gig makes for great choke ups and hand holding, but it's not the star of the show. We KNOW that one of these kids is going to die. This is not a new concept to audiences. But, cancer is not the reigning heavyweight champion punching at our hearts while we soak up tears with greasy theatre napkins. The real star of the show, the reason we all go home wanting more in our own lives, is because of the little things. As audience members, throughout the story, we have this very intense feeling that the people we are watching are DEEPLY cared for by others: Augustus actually answers Hazel's texts, he reads a book she cares deeply about and cites it numerous times, friends come over, friends support each other, people say comforting things at just the right time.
Compare these amazing events of everyday connectedness to our own experiences: people don't really text back when you need them, people are too busy to come over, people don't have the time, energy, or extra income to entertain guests or go out with friends often enough. Our everyday experiences of feeling connected are just the opposite. We feel DISconnected. People seem to NOT want to get involved. Our friends and family seem exhausted, with very little room for anything other than just getting by.
Our envy of Hazel and Augustus isn't so much that they loved and lost what (arguably) became this fantastically perfect love affair. What we envy is that they enjoy a reality that seems so much more of what we want in our lives everyday. When it comes to family, friends, and experiences that let us know we are truly cared for by others, fulfillment is rare.
It's also important to note that this phenomenon of depression caused by the cinema doesn't exclusively belong to tragic love stories. Remember James Cameron's AVATAR? If you don't, it's that movie with a planet full of blue people that humanity is destroying for money (pretty much what we're doing to ourselves now, but with way cooler technology)
Anyway. Immediately after the film's release, the Internet exploded with forums of people who had come down with depressive symptoms related to the disappointment of returning to a bland life of being ignored and disconnected. The real event of "Avatar Blues" was a well documented phenomenon whose link to our common feelings of disconnection was not overlooked. Fans immediately understood what was going on. AVATAR featured a race and tribe culture in which EVERYONE was important. Wanting to be a member of the Navi wasn't a desire rooted in schizophrenia; it was a desire reflective of our own innate feelings of wanting to be part of the group. We want to belong and we want to FEEL like we belong.
Feeling disconnected wasn't always such a pervasive experience. There was a time when people sat down at the dinner table, watched TV together, and called each other for a chat. The ideal connectedness portrayed on the silver screen isn't a new idea—it's a throwback projection of what life once resembled before we started working too hard, texting too much, and filling up our schedules with less intimate affairs. Modern art continues to reflect and imitate a life we no longer remember. Where the normalization of human disconnection has occurred, the longing for a simpler life that makes us feel more in touch ensues within our subconscious.
With regard to the kind of emotional reactions evoked by such dramatic movie plots, there's some dark humor here, actually. This is the awkward situation created by manufactured ideology: you get to pay a high premium for an experience that was once better, simpler, and free. That's why we're paying extra to eat organic crops in a food environment dominated by "superior" genetic modification—so science doesn't give us cancer. But it doesn't have to be that way. We don't have to rely on simulated experiences to remember our humanity. We can be better humans. We can advocate for stronger connections. All we have to do is turn off the television, come out of the dark spaces, drift from the blinking lights, and get back to what we're best at: being human.