I had the oddest craving the other day. I did not find myself suddenly and magically with child, like a West Country Mary Magdalene. I found myself sorely in need of a reminder and craved the resolution this reminder would bring. I know of two films that can help with this. So I watched them both. The first – a 1950 classic starring James Stewart (you’d think I’d be running out of his films by now) (nope) and a giant rabbit. The second, a 2008 Mike Leigh semi-improvised comedy with Sally Hawkins, a lass steadily working her way up to becoming one of my favourite modern actresses.
You see, I needed reminding to be happy. Sometimes I find this difficult. My default state is one of anxiety and I find that two meddling little imps called Hopelessness and Gloom can be my all too constant companions. But – and I stress this after years of treatment in many different guises – I find that the most successful warrior against The Black Dog is instilling in yourself a sense of optimism. Even if it doesn’t come naturally.
Harvey is the tale of Elwood P. Dowd, (Stewart) a gentle, kindly man who spends his days in his local drinking joint with his best friend Harvey. Harvey: a 6ft 3.5″ tall invisible white rabbit. His sister, Veta (an Academy Award winning turn from Josephine Hull) believes him to be mad and the film follows her attempts to have him committed. Happy-Go-Lucky follows Poppy (Hawkins) a relentlessly cheerful primary school teacher who takes driving lessons with the embittered Scott (an ever excellent Eddie Marsan), a man teetering on the edge of a breakdown.
These films have one vital link. Both protagonists are clearly smart and negate the naivety that often – it is assumed – accompanies a blithely happy soul. They have deliberately chosen to make the most of every day, to be kind to everyone they meet and to see the beauty in each moment. Elwood offers friendship (and his card) to everybody he comes across, showing interest in their life and enjoying every minute. He states, quite simply“I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whomever I’m with.” He hints later that he has not always been of this disposition – of a darker time before Harvey the Pooka (a magical creature of celtic mythology who takes the form of an animal) makes an appearance. But he has made the choice to live his life in such a manner. “I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.”
Poppy is clearly intelligent and a wonderful teacher. She helps uncover a pupil’s abuse at the hands of his stepfather and guides her young charges with warmth and knowledge. When her bike is stolen, she grins and sighs “I didn’t get to say goodbye.” She befriends a tramp, talks exuberantly to strangers and grabs each experience she can – trampolining, flamenco, learning to drive. And in a line that echoes Elwood’s own, Poppy picks out a self-help book near the beginning of the film and muses “The Road to Reality? Don’t wanna be going there!” Her friend and flatmate Zoe gently chides her “You can’t make everyone happy, Poppy” to which Poppy responds “No harm in trying, is there?”
Both of these two joyful creatures experience negativity and wariness at the hands of others. Elwood is dragged into an institution, hit, grabbed by the neck and generally avoided by most. Poppy is derided and hated by an increasingly combative Scott. “I can’t believe you are a teacher.You are arrogant, you are disruptive and you celebrate chaos.” She laughs and replies “I slipped through the net, didn’t I?” But why? Are those that are unhappy so threatened by those who choose to see life through rose-tinted glasses? Why the need to drag the smiling down? As Elwood says “That’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.”
I’ve watched these films and I’m reminded how short and sweet life is. I don’t choose to listen to the voice in my head that tells me I’m useless, that things are too tough. I choose to be nice to people, to see a Good Thing in every situation, no matter how dark it seems. I realise I can bug people when I do this. But never mind. I think they should do it, too. I (thank God and touch wood) have never yet experienced a life altering personal tragedy. Who knows? When I do, I may find my little ethos fails me. It must be impossible to find the beauty sometimes.Sometimes I do fail and for that I have wonderful friends and family who lend a shoulder and a cuddle. Sometimes some wine and chocolate. I hope I offer the same service when they find themselves at a low point. Nobody should suffer alone.
To sum up ~ to conclude, if you will ~ too much thought and time in one’s own head is the danger. Focus on others; focus on what you see, hear, touch. Live for this very moment, so fleeting and precious. Be kind.
In the words of Mr. Dowd himself “In this world, you can be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant. For years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
I believe I just have.