Happiness. What is that? I don’t have a definition, nor am I anxious to find one. What I do know is that today in our society, happiness is often equated with a basic human gesture–a smile. From the iconic smiley face, to grinning employees in retail stores, to highway billboards depicting smiling people enjoying a product, we are constantly surrounded by the idea that smiling = happiness. But is this the case? Surely, this is not so in many cultures around the world, nor has it been for all that long in this history of America. So what’s the big deal with smiling?
More often than not, people ask me, “are you ok?” and with a quizzical tone I respond, “yes…why?” Apparently my face tends towards an expression of not-okay-ness when I’m not specifically manipulating it. Every time this happens, the wheels in my brain start turning to the ideas of the “social mask,” the “social persona,” and the idea of perception that we talk about so much here in theatre school.
There seems to be an insinuation in our society that smiling = happy = good. So, we try to make things happy. However, more often than not, slapping on a smile results in something phony, not genuine, and straying from our inner truths. Throwing it back to freshmen year, I remember Paula Langton (voice goddess extraordinaire) challenging me to drop my smile, and to my surprise, finding that I was suddenly in touch with what I was actually feeling and thinking. Obviously smiling can be from an entirely genuine impulse, but I’m not so sure how useful it is to instill smiling as a habit.
Now, I could spiral into a rant about the ideas of “good” and “bad,” but don’t worry, I’ll spare you. Instead, something to tie these ideas to something artistic:
My brother and I have been planning to watch the Lars von Trier film, Dancer in the Dark together for at least six months, and one night during this Thanksgiving break we finally watched it. Seeing how eager he was for me to see the movie, I was really expecting to love it (I mean how could you not, Björk plays the main character). However, from a moment early on in the film, I had an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach that only increased in size until the very sad ending. The film was beautifully made, acted, and great in so many ways, yet the ending left me feeling empty, hopeless, angry, and confused. With my dramaturgy hat perpetually glued on, I couldn’t help but wonder why this director chose this story to tell.
Perplexed and in desperate need of a resolution the film did not give me, I found an interview with Lars von Trier. The interview gave me a couple insights into his filmmaking, and changed the way I thought of the film. Lars von Trier sought to challenge himself by making a musical, and by doing so, push the boundaries of filmmaking. Also in the interview, von Trier is asked, “Do you think that’s like a standard Hollywood movie musical when things get all bright and shiny?” to which he responds, “That was what we didn’t want. It should all come from the main character’s idea that life is beautiful anywhere. It doesn’t have to be light with spotlights and blue lights and slow motion or whatever, life is great anyway.”
Reading this, I realized a couple of things. First, my immediate negative reaction to the film had to do with the fact that I didn’t understand the purpose of the film—I was bitter that this tragedy was seemingly unjustified.
But what if I hadn’t found any meaning behind the story? Would I consider it “bad,” incomplete, or even irresponsible? Either way, I made assumptions based on my immediate perception of the film.
Sort of like how we make assumptions about the state of other human beings based on their outer appearances.
This has been a lesson in perception, a reminder to myself not to take things at face value… and a challenge to be unapologetic with my facial expressions.