In his novel A Flag for Sunrise, Robert Stone invents this old American saying: "Mickey Mouse will see you dead." I have spent many profitable hours mulling over that coinage; and I've concluded it has something to do with our national aversion to tragedy.
American novelists have written "tragedy" into their book titles; America's playwrights, sending doomed men to center stage, have told us that attention must be paid; but the audience, after a dutiful sigh, always turns back to comedy. I don't mean just the banana-peel stuff (though we've certainly had our share of that). I'm talking about fictions that end with fresh beginnings: couples paired off, society renewed, May buds blooming over pots of gold. The comic mode rules in America, no matter the sufferings that lie in our past or the catastrophes that await, well prepared, in our future.
Perhaps the only form in which tragedy has flourished in America has been film noir--though "flourished" may be the wrong word for a mode that mushroomed at the bottom of cheap double bills and then had to be named in French. In the years when noir was fully alive, a few such films were deemed respectable and given awards, if Billy Wilder had made them; but most, like their protagonists, lived in the shadows. Noir was, among other things, a shade cast by the uneasy conscience of the people who won World War II; the grief and terror that underlay victory played in distorted shapes across the walls of grind houses. Eventually, noir succeeded in emerging into the light; it entered the museums and film societies. And so it became an object of nostalgia, drained of a large measure of its power.
As for those recent productions known as neonoir: You can't sweat out a movie like a guilty secret when the picture keeps offering to be your guilty pleasure.
The historians who someday will define us by our stories, as we define the Greeks and Elizabethans by theirs, will note this curious gap in our imagination. But they won't be able to judge us by nonexistent tragedies; their only measure will be the comedies we've produced. If we hope to make a good showing, then those comedies had better be something more than funny. They will need at times to be deep and challenging--which is why I return to Magnolia.
It is a long, emotionally taxing film, one that elicited from my friend Gerald Peary a groan of, "Cry me a river!" As I noted last month, the characters in the film's intersecting stories include two men dying of cancer, two women who are walking pharmacological experiments, four abused children and one professional misogynist. Did I mention the dead dog?
The writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, throws that in, too--and yet the mood at the end is comic. You can place Magnolia by the startled laughter that erupts at the climax, during events that are (paradoxically) both cleansing and slimy. There's comedy as well in the final reconciliations, the pardon-granting, the blossoming smile on which the picture ends.