It’s beginning to look a lot like the time of year when everyone watches Love Actually again. Depending on my mood, Love Actually is either a soppy and slightly sexist romcom with one really disturbing subplot or it’s the movie that the world desperately needs right now.
To summarise the plot briefly, Colin Firth falls in love with a woman half his age because she strips to her underwear. Hugh Grant’s prime minister falls in love with his secretary because she brings him tea and biscuits. And the bearded bloke from The Walking Dead stalks Keira Knightley in a creepy, Psycho still lives-with-his-dead-mother kind of way.
For many people, Love Actually is the definitive feel-good festive movie, which is patently nonsense. That would be Die Hard.
Nevertheless, Richard Curtis’s Christmas selection box of saccharine subplots filled with hope goes down easily with optimistic souls, which makes the writer-director an easy target for cynical types.
After a year of relentless despair, a movie about hope seems less convincing than Liam Neeson telling his freakishly intelligent stepson that he “knows a shortcut to Heathrow Airport” (there isn't one.)
It’s no surprise that a Curtis interview went viral back in August, when he championed his belief in hope, using the tortoise and the hare analogy. The hare represented bad news: fast, immediate and in your face. But the tortoise defined good news: slow, steady, often unheralded, but making progress all the time.
Curtis was suspicious of what he called the “romanticisation of bad things”, where our obsession with blood-soaked verisimilitude in the modern narrative, be it fictional drama or news reporting, overplayed the despair.
He had a point. Curtis makes movies about beautiful people falling in love and he’s mocked for producing sentimental slush. But when a cable network makes a depressing drama about a drug cartel in a decaying city, the show usually cleans up at awards season.
Hopefully, we will all fall in love at least once. But almost none of us will get caught up in a drug cartel. (Though I did once stumble into a house filled with teenage dealers selling cannabis. I didn’t inhale, but I did leave knowing the words to every Bob Marley song.)
But 2018 has made it exceedingly difficult to accept Curtis’s hopeful analysis, particularly when the gospel of light comes from a white, wealthy, middle-aged male.
Those guys generally do well at the best of times and they’ve had a stonker of a year, considering their orange leader has declared war on immigrants (except his wife), foreigners (except the Russians), Muslims (except the Saudis), the media (except Fox News), women (except Fox News blondes), environmentalists (except Fox News weather girls) and decent human beings who believe in compassion for the less fortunate (except… all right, there are no exceptions here.)
But it’s not only the White House.
It’s also Brexit, white supremacy, war refugees, mass migration, people smuggling, xenophobia, murdered journalists, pipe bombs, sex abuse, climate change, warmer oceans, deadly hurricanes, post-industrial decay, the rich-poor divide and a creeping sense of dread that things will never get better again.
Even closer to home, the failure to repeal 377A remains an ugly boil on the back of a country still grasping for genuine first-world status.
And across the Causeway, the 1MDB probe suggests that former Prime Minister Najib Razak allegedly tried to leech the soil of every last ringgit, presumably to finance his wife’s surgical attempts to turn into a human blancmange.
Like the depressed Howard Beale, the fictional TV anchorman in Network who succumbed to the depravity of the news cycle, we’re as mad as hell and we’re not going to take this anymore.
But we would be wrong.
And Curtis is right.
The modest tortoise of hope is defeating the noisy hare of despair, but he’s hard to see or hear amid the incessant screaming of social media, click-baiting and handwringing.
The world isn’t getting worse. For almost all of us, historical and scientific evidence proves that we used to be both sicker and poorer. We lived shorter, more dangerous lives and were less free.
According to World Vision International, extreme poverty is in decline. Twenty years ago, around 30,000 children died from hunger and disease every day. The figure is now below 16,000. In other words, 15,000 children will live today who would’ve died when I was growing up.
Polio used to be a serious public health problem in Singapore. Now the disease has been almost entirely eradicated across the world. AIDS-related deaths are plummeting, cancer breakthroughs are commonplace and, thanks to childhood immunisation, a number of potentially fatal diseases from the 20th century no longer kill us.
In Singapore alone, we live longer, stay cooler and eat, drink, sleep and medicate better than at any time since Raffles turned up and waved his MasterCard at Sultan Hussein. But we’re still not convinced.
In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker claimed that the majorities in 14 developed countries including Australia, the United States, Britain, Hong Kong, Malaysia and, yes, Singapore believe that the world is getting worse, even though there is statistical evidence to show otherwise.
And I blame the vibrator in my pocket.
When I was a teenager, I once found myself in a London park with a girlfriend, after dark, engaging in some feeble fondling in the vague hope that it might lead to some fornicating.
But it didn’t. Because an IRA bomb went off in the distance. The earth moved, but certainly not in the way I had anticipated.
Growing up, IRA terrorist attacks were not uncommon, but my understanding of the Northern Ireland conflict was negligible. But then, ignorance came with a degree of bliss. It was an age of comparative innocence.
Without mobile phones and the Internet, the instant accessibility of pain, suffering and tragedy from anywhere on the planet was largely denied to us.
An IRA bomb went off less than 10km from my front door and I had to wait until the next morning to make sense of the carnage. A pipe bomb was sent to Robert De Niro’s office in New York and I could read the handwriting on the envelope within an hour. We carry the world’s horrors in our pocket, every one of them, every minute of every day. It’s immediate and overwhelming.
That’s probably why a slim plurality of Americans think life was better 50 years ago. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2017, Americans thought 1967 was more fun, with the Vietnam War, exploding crime and race riots.
The Beatles did release Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 and the boys grew magnificent moustaches, but no one really wants to go back, do they?
Things are certainly not great, but they haven’t gotten any worse. Only our perceptions have changed, thanks to the magnification of bad news and a global mainstream media swapping news for opinion in a bid to retain a splintering audience. Raging echo chambers feed on catastrophism. Everything is awful. It’s like The Lego Movie never happened.
But it did. And so did Love Actually. And Curtis is right, damn it.
The infernal shit-storm that was 2018 will soon dissipate. Things will get better because they generally do. History tells us so. Keep your money on the tortoise.
So switch the phone to silent, watch Love Actually again and remind yourself that hope, actually, is all around.
Having said that, the bloke from The Walking Dead is still a demented stalker and Knightley should’ve stabbed him with a kitchen knife.
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