Why we need depressing movies.

by Willow Yang

A few weeks ago, my mom watched Million Dollar Baby. She initially didn’t like Hilary Swank’s Maggie.

When I told her that Maggie was the female lead of the movie, my mom complained that the actress was too ugly (she thought her mouth was too big). I tried explaining that the character was a boxer from an impoverished background, and it would be unbelievable if they had hired someone who looked like a model to play the role. My mom did eventually warm up to Maggie, however; the turning point for her was probably during Maggie’s first match in the welterweight division, where her nose got broken, but she carried on fighting nevertheless.

The character’s bravery and determination managed to win my mom over, and she quite enjoyed watching the boxing matches. Then, of course, came the fateful match between Maggie and the welterweight champion.

Going into the match, my mom predicted that something was going to go wrong, because otherwise, without some kind of struggle or hurdle for the main character to overcome, the story would just be boring. Now, it has been many years since I’ve watched Million Dollar Baby. Of course, I knew what happens at the end of the movie. However, I cannot remember the film being a gut punch the first time that I had watched it the way it was when I viewed it more recently with my mom.

When we arrived at the scene where Maggie makes her final request to Frankie, telling him: “I was born two pounds, one-and-a-half ounces. Daddy used to tell me I’d fight my way into this world, and I’d fight my way out. That’s all I wanna do, Frankie…Don’t let ’em keep taking it away from me. Don’t let me lie here ’till I can’t hear those people chanting no more.” I started tearing up. I looked over at my mom, and I saw that she was tearing as well. Up to the point where Frankie administered the adrenaline to Maggie, she kept on expecting her to somehow miraculously recover.

After the movie ended, my mom turned to me and asked what the entire point of the story was. Why would someone want to watch such a depressing movie?

Why watch a depressing movie?

Well, firstly, I don’t think that all movies that deal with depressing subject matter exist for the purpose of making their audience feel bad. Without darkness there cannot be light.

Many inspirational stories have characters starting out in a darker place and overcome their troubles, moving towards the light at the end. Even Holocaust movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist inspire because we see people persevering through some of the worst chapters of human history. We see the human spirit ultimately triumphing against all odds.

Of course, Million Dollar Baby isn’t the only movie I’ve seen where the main hero dies, there’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Braveheart, Gladiator, to name but a few examples. In the aforementioned instances however, the heroes died achieving something; the movies still end on a hopeful if not triumphant note. At first glance, it’s hard to see much hope at the end of Million Dollar Baby: Maggie’s dead and Frankie is left broken, walking off to an ambiguous fate.

I’ve also tried showing my mom Grave of the Fireflies. About 20 minutes into the movie, she turned it off and refused to watch any more. She reasons that real life is already difficult enough; there’s no need to watch a movie that depresses you.

I’ve not shown her Requiem for a Dream or American History X, two more films that end on rather dower notes. But to me, movies like Grave of the Fireflies, Requiem for a Dream, American History X, do have a purpose for being depressing.

While I don’t think the former two were necessarily meant to preach anti-war or anti-drug messages per se, they serve to show the devastation that war and drugs have on victims. The latter, on the other hand, is very much a movie that deals with race relations and neo-Nazism, and the ending, as I interpreted it, depicted the cyclic nature of hatred and violence.

So, what’s the point?

Going back to Million Dollar Baby, I think the movie has several points.

Firstly, narrative-wise, the story sets up a very difficult moral dilemma. The audience is forced to be placed in Frankie’s position and consider, perhaps long after the film had ended, what they would have done if they had been in that situation. Secondly, there’s the quote from Scrap, saying: “People die every day, Frankie – moppin’ floors, washin’ dishes and you know their last thought is? I never got my shot. Because of you, Maggie got her shot. If she dies today that you know what her last thought would be? I think I did it all right.”

Even though Maggie’s life might have been cut tragically short, she did achieve her dream of becoming a boxer, cheered on by an adoring crowd of fans. Every person dies, but not every person truly lives.

Finally, I do think that there is something alluring about tragic stories. I don’t particularly understand psychology and whether watching tragedy really serves to bring about a sense of emotional renewal, as the Greeks theorized. For me, there is just something impressive about a story that’s immersive enough to elicit a strong emotion from me, whether it’s one of happiness or one of devastation.

Maybe it’s a bit masochistic, but like a good comedy that can make me laugh. I enjoy watching a movie that can make me cry.

As Inside Out shows, being able to experience the full spectrum of emotions, including sadness, is crucial to our development, to enriching our experiences as individuals.

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