Movie award season is upon us, which means that cinemas are currently full of a steady stream of Oscar-bait movies, usually identifiable by the high likelihood of a stupidly long running time and an actor working some serious prosthetics. If you venture to your local multiplex at the moment you’ll be treated to trailers for Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum looking earnest on a wrestling mat, Miles Teller looking earnest with a drum kit, and Bradley Cooper looking earnest and bearded with a big gun.
Let’s be clear what I mean by ‘earnest.’ I don’t just mean ‘serious.’ Sometimes it’s good to be serious. If you’re organising the WHO response to Ebola, a bit of head-down focus on the job in hand would definitely be the right approach. Funerals, job interviews, big work presentations, court hearings – there’s a whole big range of situations for which, if you’re trying to pass yourself off as a functioning grown-up, you probably want to use your serious face.
But being overly earnest is a step beyond that. Now we’re talking about taking yourself, and everything around you far too seriously. We’re talking about wanting to be seen to be serious. We’re talking about the state of mind that leads us to look for reasons to take offence. Taking the little things too seriously leads us to a situation where a bit of playground bitchiness about a kid not turning up to a party becomes headline news to be pored over and debated. Allowing our earnestness to lead us into this sort of breakdown in our understanding of what matters and what doesn’t is bad in two ways.
Firstly, it sucks the fun out of life. Keeping a constant watch on twitter in case some person you’ve never met might say something you don’t agree with, or find offensive, is not a joyful way to spend your time. More widely, the feeling that seriousness is always better, takes the joy out of our cultural lives. On Saturday I saw the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods. I love Into The Woods. I own the DVD of the Broadway production with Bernadette Peters as the witch and it is a thing of wonder. It’s also really really funny. The film is amusing, in places, but not in anywhere near the number of places that the show is; somehow in the transition to the big scene its lost its sense of the ridiculous, and given that it’s a story about a baker who has to feed hair, a cloak, and a shoe to a cow, then sense of ridiculous about it is kind of important.
Secondly, and more importantly, if every minor irritation and offence matters, then nothing matters. The more column inches are expounded on unimportant stuff like how the film version of Into The Woods takes itself a little bit too seriously, the more distracted we are from things that do matter. Comments thread on articles about nothing, and Twitter wars over little more are joyful only for politicians and vested interests who would rather we were all looking the other way. So here let me sum up today’s lesson – take offence sparingly, don’t take yourself too seriously, and understand that serious isn’t always better then silly.