things that are there but should not be,
things that are not there but should be
a kiss. few actions are as wholistically visceral. a kiss is something you remember the first and the last of. a kiss is something longed for.
it seems fitting, then, to begin with a kiss. as a project so fraught with manic energy, happy exists in the realm of love and religion, two entities often at odds. in the opening scene, a man and woman kiss while a televangelist prays for the masses. perhaps this is intended to start a war. the couple parts and begins to look concerned as the voices from the rest of the life of happy bleed in.
a preacher’s wife chimes in. “we are delighted to be able to come in to your home.” let’s begin the program.
devotion – “something always happens”
the couple we are seeing is, in the original source film, running several thoughts through their minds. they’re concerned that their physical urges will get the better of them. they don’t want to end up like their friend: teenage shotgun wedding, unhappy marriage, high school dropout. they agonize that any move, any submission to desire could lead to disaster. this film, called “how much affection” ends in this miserable, anxious state. but how could two people who have found attraction in each other not give in to their desires?
in truth, most people know that love is about much more than desire and attraction, even if it’s not something always kept in mind. when you commit to spending large sections of your life with someone, the desire to ensure it’s time well spent leads us to criticize, agonize over every aspect of the other person’s being. we may find something we like. more often than not though, we find something we don’t. not much has changed in love and relationships since the era these educational films were made. we’re still fraught with the same perils, the same interpersonal strife, but also the same desire and devotion that drives our actions. and ultimately, devotion becomes the driving force in our life, and becomes the common thread in happy.
smile – “come on, get happy”
devotion to concepts and ideas creates impassioned public figures. televangelists are devoted to jesus, and also to building a business. artists are devoted to creating, expressing. however, a binding commonality in all of us is the desire to be happy; the pursuit of happiness is varied.
yoko ono’s 1968 film no. 5 features a 52-minute portrait of john lennon giving fleeting smiles and facial expressions to a camera, shot at 2000 frames per second. after john was killed, the portrait became a haunting image. in ono’s writings, she describes herself after the murder as completely unable to experience joy. always being a physical artist as well as conceptual, she found her depression greatly affected her body which was painful to see whenever she saw her reflection. one day, she came up with a solution.
“…I systematically smiled into the mirror every morning.
My smile was forced and looked terrible. But as I kept smiling for some time, my smile became a natural smile.”
smiling, she discovered, brought about not only an emotional change, but a complete physical one as well. many years later, she has mounted “the smile project”, in which she encourages the masses to contribute images of their smiling faces to help complete a conceptual piece originally published in grapefruit. innocent and beautiful in concept.
televangelists jack and rexella van impe now preach weekly on their television show “jack van impe presents”. jack hysterically preaches his end of days beliefs, cross-referencing news headlines and bible verse while rexella softly coos agreement, occasionally sings, and pitches the custom bible or DVD being sold that week for a “donation”. each half hour is a roller coaster but throughout is the promise that god (and jack) will bring you happiness via blind faith. each week, rexella gazes in to the camera to sign off and gently delivers “god cares for you, and so do we, so very much.”
everywhere in society we’re convinced that happiness is the only acceptable state humans can exist in. anything that strays from happiness, regardless of reason, is only a deviation. this is perhaps no more succinctly demonstrated in customer service; when an employee is (rarely) asked how they are doing, the answer had better be “good” (or “well”). but what if you’re not a believer? we’re constantly bombarded with demands to be happy. the advertisement industry essentially exists to convince us that the path to happiness is in buying things. religion promises the path to happiness is through them and god, whichever one that is. no better is this summed up than in the lyrics to “get happy”, where judy garland begs us to get happy before god judges us for being miserable.
another wholly unacceptable deviation from happiness is being single. in media, fairy tales and common interaction, being single is merely a transition period before one passes through the barrier dividing single people and those who are coupled. forget if you’re polyamorous, this binary isn’t going anywhere any time soon. on my favourite media archive, “the prelinger archives”, the amount of educational films about love and relationships outweigh the number on food and nutrition almost 2:1. the most common narrative in film and television is about finding love. no other kind of relationship is as revered.
the world – “i was nothing to him”
recently i was involved in a conversation (albeit by way of graffiti) about gay men using politically troubling images of women, specifically where they are crying. i defend my use of these images, as i only place them where i find them necessary in my work. however, in happy i find the placement of women is of a critical position, a reassuring position, providing invitation to the sorority of happiness. through my own gender dysphoria i’ve experienced as a gay man, i’ve had to synthesize my own understanding of my identity through images and people i feel a sense of truth with, whether it be through media or in real life, and it seems i understand women more than i do men. however, my criticism is that politically, the image of a woman crying is no more damaging than when rexella is used to sell goods (or god) to the television audience. in fact, i believe it’s more of a problem. i choose these shots because i feel there needs to be more dialogue about these images.
but more of a problem, is the binary of happiness and unhappiness. ever present, it convinces anyone that deviates from happiness that there’s something drastically wrong and they need to remedy the situation immediately. countless industries are based on this, an unbelievable amount of media supports this, and it is generally accepted through all of our social interaction. lately i’ve found myself unable to distinguish my emotions and feelings as anything other than a deviation from happiness. whatever i’m feeling, i’ve lately succumbed to agreeing that because i’m not following the tenets of traditional happiness, i’m living on the side of the binary that dare not be lived in.
this may not be new theory to anyone, but it’s something that i’ve been unable to release from my thoughts lately. and last year when i attended 5 weddings sans date, these issues became painfully obvious to me. however, i’ve found that i’m still alive, i’m still healthy, and i’m still creating work and getting support and building relationships with people i love, even if it’s not romantically. i may not have a religion but i have a spirituality. i’ve become more comfortable with existing in a state that is transient, and experience what i encounter with an unclouded mind. and though i constantly feel overwhelmed because i’m bombarded with images of happiness that i can’t find affinity with, i’ve been able to carve my own path. this is what happy is about.
though we are bombarded with infinite demands and “paths to happiness”, happiness does not have a one size fits all solution. as much as we want to believe in these things, what happens when you’ve achieved one of these goals? ok, you found religion. now what? that’s it? ok, you found a relationship and you’re in love. now what? does it provide income for you and fulfillment in the rest of your life? my biggest question is this: is happiness the legacy you leave behind or does the legacy you leave behind create “happiness”?
so. yoko, jack, rexella and mom, i may not smile all the time. but when i do, i mean it.