Saturday, April 30, 2011

The 19 Most Depressing Pieces of Art in My Life (thus far)

I've wanted to compile this list for a few months now, but alas, such a doleful endeavor takes the right twinkle of melancholy and energy to attack. And that night is tonight! Hoo-rah! 

I reckon that we have two way in which we may choose to respond to thematic tragedies. 
  1. We can become more pessimistic and cynical
  2. We can let stories of brokenness remind us of our dependence upon God.
For me, the second response comes rather naturally. I acknowledge that this is not necessarily true of most folks, but nevertheless I hope today's excursion into the profoundly lugubrious lends itself towards the latter response.

Now, before we began, let us hone in on what constitutes an entry onto this list. First off, because this is meant to be a reflection upon art and story, not life itself, all pieces that are direct depictions of actual atrocities (say, Schindler's List, for instance) have been excluded. Secondly, those pieces that are through-and-through miserable from beginning to end have no place here. In order for me to walk away a ruined man in spirit, I have to believe along the way that there is hope. That is essential to the perfect arc of a tragedy. Films like Umberto D. and Away From Her are just so darn dreary from the first frame that I never dared to hope for the protagonists. Finally, all these additions below have not only an immediate jolt of immediate sadness, but a long-term ruminating pain as well. 

With all these, the real depression extended to my soul slowly over time. It must also be made clear that although I use the term 'depressing', perhaps I mean something quite different. All these pieces of art make me hurt -- but hurt so good. If we were to talk about this list in person, you would see that I wouldn't be able to hold back a grin whilst describing these entries. I don't know... maybe that makes me some form of sadist -- but I think this entries fall into a special niche genre of "Things hurt sooo good".

19. The Story of Ferdinand (1936) 
by Munro Leaf short story
Ferdinand is a happy bull. He sits and smells flowers. That's great! Hallelujah! Glory be to God! If I was introduced to this tender little tale in adulthood, I reckon I would only purvey it as a gentle, blissful story. But I did not encounter Ferdinand in adulthood, nosireebob! I met Ferdinand somewhere just past the crib years... and was therefore, unceremoniously introduced to a world that included men who saw killing flower smelling bulls as sport. What a ghastly thing bullfighting is. The book ends with the supposition that Ferdinand is still smelling away at those flowers -- and then we get that final succinct line, He is very happy. How? My little heart couldn't grapple with how something so innocent and delicate as Ferdinand could dwell in a world that also contained blood-thirsty matadors. The paradox pained me as a child. Now, as I reflect on Ferdinand, my heart dwells on the sheer innocence of that bull. Innocent things are so precious, and so different from the creature I am, that there is an element of paradox and pain in the idea for me even before the matadors are introduced.

18. Guernica (1937)
by Pablo Picasso painting
Guernica is about a devastating battle that took place during the Spanish Civil War, but you don't need to know that, nor would you ever be able to tell that, by merely absorbing the painting. Being perhaps Picasso's most famous painting, I likely first saw the painting in some textbook. Textbooks don't do this work justice. It is a massive thing. Huge. 
Guernica as portrayed in the 2006 film Children of Men

 The painting doesn't make much sense, in that it is hardly depicting a scene that is visually depictable. What innately strikes me about it is the sense of chaos and desperation. Add to that the element that it feels very primitive, almost childish, and you leave with the anguish of a nightmare that is both impenetrable to decipher and impossible to vanquish.

17. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
 directed by Lars Von Trier movie
A struggling single mother who is going blind finds an escape from her difficult life through song and her wondrous imagination. Bring the whole family! 

Lars Von Trier is an artistic on the scale of Caravaggio and Rembrandt. The problem is he appears fixated, obsessed even, on the sickly and deranged aspects of this life. Dancer in the Dark is one of the few exceptions, in which Von Trier allows for mesmerizing moments of beauty to intoxicate his audience. He then leverages the beauty to destroy his creation. I assure you, it's absolutely as epic and systematically gut-turning as you can imagine.

16. That One Moment from
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993-1998)
television show
Dr. Quinn was a show to watch with the fam. I sure did. Now, I can't tell you what episode this scene is from, nor can I remember anything else from that plotline --- I only have a moment emblazoned on my memory banks. 

It's night. Late. We see the outside of Dr. Quinn's place of work. We hear crickets and frogs. Suddenly, the front door swings open. A man sprints out of the residence, falling on his knees. The dust of the ground puffs up into the air as this man slams his fists repeatedly against the ground. He sobs and yells to the heavens. He is pleading with God. He asks God not to take her. His sobs overwhelm him and he smothers his face into the dust. 

When I envision desperation, I think of this scene. I have also thought, since I was very young, that this type of desperation is an amazing thing. As a child, I never knew such emotion. I couldn't imagine ever being that wholly consumed with something. I wanted to live such a life that would demand such an extreme from me. Even today, I think of this man, and think of how I wish I could smolder with such conviction for my Lord. Could I take up my daily cross and infuse my love for my fellow man with such passion that I could pray for their salvation the way that this man pleaded with God to spare the life of his loved one?

15. People Ain't No Good 
by Nick Cave song
Perhaps I'm cheating by including Nick Cave's solemn song on this list, since the first line is the song's title, so right from the get-go you know things are gonna go so hot. But after the initial declaration we go in reverse. There's a wedding. There's budding trees. Newspapers are read merrily over a warm cup of Joe. You see, the trick is, we all know that people just ain't no good, that's a gosh-darn fact. But the trick of it is we keep forgetting that fact. It's a lesson we have to continually be retaught and retaught. Always the hard way. Sing us out, Nick. 

14. The Green Mile (1999)
directed by Frank Darabont film
Is there a better piece of propaganda for eliminating the death penalty than this film? I think not. Through the course of the film, we watch three men electrocuted to death, all of them good men as far as we can tell; the last being some sort of angel. But it's not the death itself that gets you in the end. Before Paul Edgecomb walks John Coffey down the green mile, Paul asks John if he'd like them to free him somehow. The men of the mile love their giant, and none of us can bear to see this angel die. Coffey responds by stating that it is good to die. Every moment Coffey feels the pain of the world, like shards of glass in his head. Okay. We figure that they're throwing us a bone here. Coffey wants to die. That'll make the inevitable less easy, right? Nope. When Coffey walks into the execution room, the crowd jeers at him. Coffey freezes. Paul asks what's wrong: "A lot of people in this room hate me." And so they kill an innocent man.

John Coffey is not Jesus Christ. He does not resurrect. We are not saved by the electricity burning his veins. So in the end all that's left is regret.

13. Famous Blue Raincoat
by Leonard Cohen song
Once upon a time I laid on the floor and listened to this song eighteen times consecutively. I don't know the story behind the song, but Cohen does end it by signing the song off with his name, giving the illusion that we just read a letter that we were never meant to read. This song is about pain long gone. This is a song for that moment trapped after mourning. This is for those unbearable places in the heart when you know you were supposed to have moved on by now, but still, it lingers. This is for that time when you can feel all sorts of stings -- not just the trauma of loss, not just the immediate punch, but all the pricks of inconsolables. 

12. Babe I'm Gonna Leave You
 by Led Zeppelin song

If this were a list of songs I found most intrinsically melancholy, then this Zeppelin classic would be nowhere in sight. My good friend played this song for me months after he went through a bad break-up. For me the song now represents that empathetic pain you feel when your loved ones go through something you can't. Where they go you can't follow. And then there's the bitter reality that you can't ever really go away. Not really.

11. The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838)
by Hans Christian Andersen short story

If you ever want your heart ripped out of your butt, Mr. Andersen is a trusty guy to have around. As a child, I had a little illustrated children's book of Tin Soldier, and man alive, is it ever a wallop of a tale. In just a few paragraphs, this little toy goes through a Lord of the Rings-esque adventure. It starts with him being the 25th and final member of a set of toy soldiers, only, the toy maker ran out of tin, so this last guy is short and missing a leg. One day he spots a beautiful paper ballerina. He sees that she only has one leg -- so he humbly reckons that she would be a good match for him. The soldier is mistaken, however, because the ballerina is simply bending her one leg behind her back and out of view. She is a perfect creation. The soldier spends all his days ceaselessly gazing at her. Andersen's brilliance comes through the simplicity of thought. Then, through a series of fateful strokes, the soldier goes on an extreme adventure that takes him underground, inside a fish, and finally back home. Upon arrival, the soldier of course searches for his precious ballerina. Andersen gives us these lines,
She still balanced on one leg, with the other raised high. She too was steadfast. That touched the soldier so deeply that he would have cried tin tears, only soldiers never cry. He looked at her, and she looked at him, and never a word was said. Just as things were going so nicely for them, one of the little boys snatched up the tin soldier and threw him into the stove. He did it for no reason at all.
It only gets more heart-wrenching from that point forth, but I dare not spoil a few of the eye-gaugingly poetic lines that follow. That Andersen cared enough to add that the soldier was thrown in the stove, 'for no reason at all' particularly burdens my soul. 

10. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
directed by Robert Bresson film

This is one of those films that leaves you in such a state that you are ready to cry with tears of mercy accepted when you recall the first of Jesus' Beattitudes. John 5:3: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

9. Help Me 
as sung by Johnny Cash song
Cash just got better with age. In his latter years, Johnny's cover of the NIN song Hurt received much acclaim, but as much as I love that rendition, it was Cash's posthumously released album, American V that would eviscerate my emotional soul. Help Me is the first song on the album -- this is very important. During the summer of '06 I biked to work every morning. I was dreadfully sad during this season of my life. And so, every morning, as I pedaled that bike -- as I pedaled to another day -- as I pedaled to a hope of better times, I listened to Johnny's sad prayer of a tired man. Here are the lyrics:

Oh, lord, help me to walk
Another mile, just one more mile;
I'm tired of walkin' all alone.

And lord, help me to smile
Another smile, just one more smile;
Don't think I can do things on my own.

I never thought I needed help before;
Thought that I could get by - by myself.
But now I know I just can't take it any more.
And with a humble heart, on bended knee,
I'm beggin' You please for help

Oh come down from Your golden throne to me, to lowly me;
I need to feel the touch of Your tender hand.
Release the chains of darkness
Let me see, Lord let me see;
Just where I fit into your master plan.

I never thought I needed help before;
Thought that I could get by - by myself.
Now I know I just can't take it any more.
And with a humble heart, on bended knee,
I'm beggin' You please for help
With a humble heart, on bended knee,
I'm beggin' You please for help

It's funny. I'm now oddly nostalgic for those bike rides... and those tired prayers.

8. "We Have to Go Back!" 
LOST (2004-2010)
television show 
Yes, yes, I am still all kinds of bitter about the way LOST left me. That's a pain in-and-of itself that just won't go away. But I shall momentarily put that aside. 

The season finale of the third season of Lost was sublime. It was pitch perfect television. It was the perfect tragedy. The show, for over sixty episodes had been about these people struggling to get off this mystical island. Then suddenly we are given a vision of the future. They make it. They get off the island. But the pity of it all is that Jack, our everyman, is an absolute suicidal wreck. He is an utterly broken man, that wants nothing more than to get back to the island. Oh, of how many islands I've wished to return to, I can no longer count. 

7. Pills
by The Perishers song

This is a song about hidden brokenness. So many of us are so good about keeping things moving even when the world's falling apart. Often in my life I have felt like the motor of my life is teetering on collapse, but somehow everything keeps chugging along. The lyrics of the song are exceptionally beautiful. Breathe in these lines:

I hope my smile can distract you
I hope my fists can fight for two
so it never has to show
and you'll never know

I hope my love can blind you
I hope my arms can bind you
so you'll never have to see
what we've grown to be.

6. The Single Man 
by Rod McKuen poem
My mother passed down her love of McKuen to me. It used to be a bit of a wonder to me how it came to be that my Mother embraced McKuen so much, since she certainly wasn't attached to the beatniks and hippies that McKuen tended to be mashed in amongst. But now when I read his poetry, or listen to the lyrics of his songs, I can hear the same poetic voice of that of my grandmother. My grandmother was/is a prolific poet, and her poetry often made simple points based on simple observations of nature. McKuen does this in spades. I have never read any poetry of my mother's. She doesn't so much do such things. I reckon if she did I would see McKuen in her voice then too. This particular poem seeps in at that gaping fear that I myself will remain a single man... caught up in my own cloud that doesn't quite translate to anyone else. The entirety of the poem is pasted below.

I live alone
that hasn't always been
easy to do for just a single man
sometimes at night
the walls talk back to me
they seem to say 
wasn't yesterday a better day

always alone
at home or in a crowd
the single man off on his private cloud
caught in a world 
that few men understand
I am what I am 
a single man

once was a time
I can't remember when
the house was filled with love
but then again it might have been
imagination's plan 
to help along
the single man

5.  Inscription on a Monument to a Newfoundland Dog (1808)
 by Lord Byron poem
The beauty of this poem is in its inherent truth. Byron bemoans the loss of his loyal best friend, but more than that, he compares the fates of man and beast, finding in it a twisted logic. How is it that man, that sinful sack "of animated dust" is bestowed grace from above to live to see another more perfect life, yet the animal world is given no such promise. The Newfoundland Dog, known to be a savior to many a man, dies, and that appears to be that. Death. Death and nothing more. Animals reap the harsh rewards of sin without having caused it, and yet their souls endure not to see a kingdom that is made right without man's sinful taint. 

4. East of Eden (1952) 
and every other Steinbeck novel
by John Steinbeck novel
Steinbeck is a glutton for endings that kick you in the gonads. For me, East of Eden provides the most potent kick. Six hundred pages lead you to this crushing moment of pleaded mercy. The story of Adam evolves into the story of Cain and Abel which in return spins into a reflection of the prodigal son. We all need grace. We need it or we die. Steinbeck is gifted by telling extremely articulate stories through very inarticulate character instruments. "Timshel." 

3. Where the Red Fern Grows (1961)
by Wilson Rawls novel
Don't give me that crap about how the ending is happy because, "only an angel can plant a red fern." Nah, man, that ain't good enough! My father read this dear book to me when I was five. Five. I subsequently blame my Father for my relative fixation on sad endings. Where the Red Fern Grows is simply devastating. A boy gets two dogs. Boy and dogs have marvelous adventures. Hooray! The dogs save boy from a vicious mountain lion. One dog dies because of wounds from the attack. Okay, one dead dog, I can deal with that. But then the other one dies of grief! Of grief! Little Ann dies from depression! Dogs aren't supposed to die of friggin depression! Man alive! I was five! Too young, too young... much too young.

2. A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
by John Irving novel
The story opens with John Wheelwright journaling and telling us about his old friend Owen. We don't know what happened to Owen, but since all the stories about Owen are in the past tense, it is a safe assumption to think that Owen is now dead. Along the way, as the flashbacks follow Owen in John through elementary, high school, and beyond, we also get strange little insights about John's current life. He spends an odd amount of time talking about the different churches he's attended of late. I remember thinking that the little present day journal notes didn't seem to have any impact on the story. I wondered why on earth Mr. Irving chose to write the story the way he did. And then, on the very last page, the prayer comes. It pulls everything into suspension. All the strings are pulled neatly tight. The structure of the novel makes perfect sense. And then I weep. I weep because I am led to pray the same prayer that John desperately exhales. I weep, and I also want to pray a different prayer. I want to ask God why he made the world the way He did. He could have fashioned a universe without pain. He could have made man in such a way that we would never sin, couldn't He have? He could have destroyed Adam and started again. Why didn't He? Why is it this way? 

1. The Plague Dogs (1982)
directed by Martin Rosen film
Yes, the movie starts out in what could be considered an animal torture facility. That's not a good sign for a film about two dogs. But it's animated! One doesn't expect such despair from cartoon animals. This film was the inspiration for this list, as it obliterated my preconceptions about sad animals in art. 

Yes, I should have known better... but along the way the two renegade dogs run into a sly fox that helps them survive and get by. So with the entrance of the fox, my mind started thinking Fox and the Hound, which is a rough film in its own rite at times. Plague Dogs is no Fox and the Hound. 

At the end of it all, The Plague Dogs accomplishes what all tragedies should: it makes us say, "There's gotta be more than this." There has got to be more to existence than this earth that keeps breaking us down. There's just got to be. 

Such desperate assertions of hope must surely lead to God's grace.
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 
John 14:1-3 ESV


  1. I went back and re-read the Steadfast tin solder. Enjoyed it. The only thing that surprised me a bit was that your list contained no photographs. Perhaps photography of this type would skirt the line of art and something else, but man alive...are there some gut wrenching photos out there.

    Over all, great list.

  2. "It's funny. I'm now oddly nostalgic for those bike rides... and those tired prayers."

    Me too. Not of the bike rides, but of those utterly depressing, tired moments in my life when life felt so REAL. so CLOSE inside. When my heart pounded and my stomach churned and my soul ached just with a thought, and I would cry out to God, remembering how much I needed Him.
    Me, too.

  3. Mr. White: No doubt there are excruciating photos to be found. At the end of the day, I felt that one can assume that photos of sad people are just that -- sad people... and so there is found a capturing of true sorrow, not imagined, and thus one should not take any form of pleasure from it. Those included on the list are all pieces I have greatly enjoyed -- perhaps masochistically, but pleasured in nonetheless.

    Dude, points to you, good sir, for using man alive in your statement. Long may that phrase live!

  4. I appreciate that I am not alone in backwards relishing those moments, Laura!

    I have to mention, I sadly forgot to mention two, very worthwhile films.

    "They Kill Horses Don't They" easily deserves to be in the top ten, because it lives up to its ominous name!

    Also, I am chagrined to mention that various scenes from "The Brave Little Toaster" deserve recognition. Despite many a terrifying scene, one more intimate moment, where a 'alive' flower its reflection in the toaster nails me the hardest. Perhaps I should devote an article to that delicate moment sometime soon.

  5. Ok... you asked for this in asking for my comments. And this list was too good to pass up (I can never resist a nice melancholy session). I didn't comment on the ones I haven't seen before, but will check those out.
    So... comments.
    19- I read that story just 2 weeks ago to a little boy, for the first time... and had the same thought! I didn't point this out to the five year old... but that story is messed up!
    18- Yes... I think Picasso was so good at generating feelings. Once again, it always comes back to music for me...
    Sorry, I know it's extremely nerdy of me. But I think this is the coolest piece... tells the story of his life... early life, "blue period", time in spain, and then his painting style. I think it was a great portrayal of all of these things. :)
    16- Sorry to sound like a copy-cat... but I have had that same sentiment. Thanks for the reminder to fervency. ("As a child, I never knew such emotion. I couldn't imagine ever being that wholly consumed with something. I wanted to live such a life that would demand such an extreme from me. Even today, I think of this man, and think of how I wish I could smolder with such conviction for my Lord. Could I take up my daily cross and infuse my love for my fellow man with such passion that I could pray for their salvation the way that this man pleaded with God to spare the life of his loved one?") Man... thanks for that reminder.
    15- Agree. I love this song. Hurts so good.
    14- This movie was so good, and I think of it often. traumatic... but good.
    11- This story disturbed me as a child (I was easily disturbed....). Truly tragic. Thanks (?) for the reminder.
    9- Great artist, great song, great bike riding moments.
    8- "Oh, of how many islands I've wished to return to, I can no longer count." So true. Have you read CS Lewis' "Pilgrim's Regress"? Ah, the eternal longing for islands.
    5- Love.
    3- I believe I was 6 when my Mom first read this to us. We all cried at the end, and I still can't watch the movie. Traumatic. 5 is too young. 25 is too young.

    Very nice list. Before I read yours, my immediate thoughts were "Blower's Daughter" by Damien Rice, and this picture.
    I know it's probably cliche. But the first time I saw it was in a class in college. I cried right there in class.
    Also on my immediate list would be "You Don't Know Me" by Michael Buble'. Yet another "what if", unrequited love song.

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