The other week, I went to see Stranger than Fiction which I enjoyed very much. It is the odd story of a man (Will Ferrell) who first discovers that his life is being narrated by an author (Emma Thompson) and then discovers that she plans to kill him off at the end of her story. Will Ferrell is so lovely in it, and I’m not just saying that because of my geek-crush on him. It was a quirky comedy, sort of quiet.

But the previews – good god, what a lot of downers! The worst-looking trailer was for Children of Men, your standard dystopic vision of the post-apocalyptic future: grey people, skies, and cities, armed guards herding the masses through barbed wire mazes, and a mean and miserable totalitarian dictatorship. The movie, set to open Christmas Day, is about a world in which women have been unable to reproduce for the last 18 years and no one knows exactly why. Everyone is miserable without children since there’s no future to look forward to. And then the main guy, played by Clive Owen, finds out about a woman who has somehow managed to get very, very pregnant. Guess where they find her? In a barn. Full of dairy cows. Hooked up to milking machines. Talk about pregnant – with symbolism. Bah.

Maybe it’s the “No Children, No Hope” thing that’s gotten to me about this particular film. I don’t like dystopic films in general: Sin City, Aeon Flux, V for Vendetta come to mind. (I can’t even stomach those alternate-present scenarios in movies like Back to the Future II and It’s A Wonderful Life.) In an interview with Radar Online, Voluntary Human Extinction Movement founder Les U. Knight opines that fewer people having children would actually prevent the future chaos that Children of Men depicts:

If viewers find it plausible, it’ll show how irrationally human-centered we are. Besides, we’re already living in a dystopia, but we don’t want to admit it. Voluntary human extinction would prevent the dystopia of that science-fiction drama, not bring it about. Phasing ourselves out would actually enable us to progress toward a peaceful coexistence with others.

Knight’s is an extreme view to be sure. But he does bring up an interesting point about dystopia: are we already living in it? Dystopic fantasies seem to be based on the idea that all things have already gotten so bad that they can’t be fixed, and that everything is just going to get worse. This is called cynicism and it’s a comfortable view and an easy escape. Imagine everything turning to shit and sooner or later it will. Then cynics will predictably say, “Well, that’s what I said would happen.”

In the last century, there was this belief in progress, that things were just going to get better and better. People built railroads and went to the moon. In this century, such optimism is ridiculed. Artists, writers, filmmakers who want to be taken seriously deal in darkness, not lightheartedness. In a recent article for Walrus Magazine, designer Bruce Mau describes his irritation with the pessimism among artists and designers:

The prevailing mood feels dark, negative, harrowingly pessimistic, and tending to the cynical. Bizarrely, this kind of negativity has become the vogue even in creative fields, which are traditonally committed to vision, beauty, and pleasure, to notions of utopia – to possibility, in other words. This is especially true of design. How, I wondered, had the virus of pessismism crept into the one area of art that is charged with looking forward?

Optimism is unfashionable. It invites the stock response “How can you be happy when there is so much wrong with the world?” To that question I have no real answer, only a belief that there are still beautiful things in the world. To give in to the dystopic fantasies is to assume that everything will go wrong, in the worst way possible. If we’re just going to give in, I suppose we might as well do it now and stop torturing ourselves with images of a bleak future.

It’s shockingly easy to get cynical about where the world is headed at Christmas – on one hand, we’re bombarded with crap advertising that tells us Stuff=Perfect Gift!, and on the other, news of war, bombings in the Middle East (home of Jesus), etc. Yesterday, supposedly the frenziest shopping day of the year, I was walking the streets of the downtown shopping district, and I was struck by how everyone looked absolutely miserable. Everyone except the Salvation Army kettle people who were shaking their bells and singing like they just didn’t care who knew it. The shoppers looked fucking grim.

I feel happy, and I don’t know why. Call me a reformed cynic. I refuse to believe that everything will just get worse and worse. But I don’t believe in utopia any more than dystopia – things will never be absolutely perfect. The other day, a friend described how another friend of theirs bought a plot of land and was planning to build solar panels for energy to live off once the world’s energy ran out. I said I would just keep turning off lights when I left a room.