Friday, January 6, 2017

Make America Sad Again

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 15
Kelly Makin (director), Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy

Deep within a mysterious Canadian laboratory, a research team makes a discovery: a permanent chemical cure to depression. Nobody ever need feel needlessly sad again. But the corporation holding the purse strings has no patience for due diligence or boring old science: they rush Gleemonex onto the market without proper testing. It becomes a hit, and happiness becomes epidemic. Until the side effects hit.

Like Monty Python, whose television series they shamelessly copied, the Kids in the Hall sought to transform sketch comedy gold into big-screen revenues. Their single resulting effort received lukewarm reviews, lacked studio support, and lost money. It’s exceedingly difficult to find currently. Yet it remains possibly the most accurate mass-media insight into how affective mental illness works, and why making your pain vanish might be worse than the alternative.

Dr. Chris Cooper (Kevin McDonald) and his researchers have toiled ceaselessly, pursuing the goal of curing depression. They’ve become hunched, gnome-like, in their isolation, unable to have authentic experiences. Basically they’ve become depressed. But when their drug proves effective at eliminating human sadness, Cooper gets swept into rock-star-like celebrity, the adulation of millions. Happiness becomes a commodity ordinary citizens purchase over the counter.

On one level, this film uses fast-paced slapstick to tell a funny story. The Monty Python comparison isn’t gratuitous; executive producer Lorne Michaels used old Flying Circus footage to pitch Kids in the Hall to CBC, as well as selling Saturday Night Live to NBC. This movie’s episodic story structure, arcing toward ultimate disappointment, partly mirrors The Holy Grail. KitH’s humor tends gloomier, but audiences will find comforting overlaps between the styles.

But this movie also has serious themes. It unpacks the nature of depression, the fact that people mired in bleak sadness will try anything to escape their condition. This proves a complicated, nuanced issue immune to simple exposition. Patients consuming Gleemonex in this movie often don’t want happiness; they want to leave themselves behind and become someone else. These patents aren’t necessarily depressed, not clinically, they just aren’t happy.

Historically, the British Utilitarian philosophers, led by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, insisted all human effort sought to bring happiness. Nietzsche mocked this idea, noting people often perform actions that make themselves unhappy, and said people actually assert power. This movie splits the difference, insisting that people actually want the pain to go away. If that means power over themselves and others, well, that’s happiness.

Until it isn’t.

Spoiler alert: Gleemonex proves to have disastrous side effects. Patients supposedly made happy risk falling into coma-like trances in which they do nothing. Literally nothing, not even feed themselves. Gleemonex cures depression by unlocking patents’ happiest memories, but some become trapped in those memories, an all-encompassing cycle where they lack either past or future. Happy people become mindless, losing the ability to move forward, literally or figuratively.

The comedy in this story comes from people failing to comprehend one another. Mrs. Hurdicure, the chief test subject, doesn’t understand her family, who don’t even pretend to understand her. She clings onto moments of meaning, the ability to be together even for a few seconds, regardless of the long-term consequences. She wants to exist, and existence means doing something meaningful. She’s simply not doing anything meaningful in the present.

We see glimpses of other people’s struggles. An aging housewife, bloated from futility, gets trapped in a mental discotheque, repeating one moment where she felt connected with human beings. Wally (Scott Thompson), a frustrated suburban husband who embraces his homosexuality under Gleemonex’s influence, keeps repeating moments when he didn’t feel forced to conceal himself. But he’s neither present nor whole; he keeps retreating into these moments.

This story doesn’t necessarily discount the whole experience of depression. Dr. Cooper notes late that he invented his drug “for people too depressed to get off the floor.” Dr. Stephen Ilardi, at the University of Kansas, notes this is the only group that clinically benefits from taking antidepressants. The problem arises when ordinary people abuse the drug to escape ordinary disappointment. Without dissatisfaction and occasional sadness, this movie insists, we aren’t really human.

With its deep meaning layered beneath frenetic dorm-room comedy, this movie rewards multiple levels of watching. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find. Unlike KitH’s original TV show, which has always been widely available on VHS and DVD, this movie never found its audience, and has gone out of print. If you find a copy somewhere, grab it. Intelligent, informed viewers will find reward unpacking this movie’s complicated comedy.

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