How does one achieve and maintain a consistent state of happiness? Is such a thing even possible considering the hardships that come with relationships and life in general? These are some of the questions that directors Stefan Sagmeister and Ben Nabors attempt to answer in The Happy Film, a film about happiness that, within its opening moments, proclaims it will not make viewers happy.
In an odd way the claim sums up the film nicely. The Happy Film is not so much concerned with defining what happiness is, that is too broad a subject, but rather the journey one man takes towards his own self-discovery. A graphic designer famously known for his iconic album covers for The Rolling Stones, Jay Z, and Aerosmith to name a few, Sagmeister’s sets out to fix the design flaws that he sees within himself. Embracing meditation, cognitive therapy and drugs with equal measures of apprehension and creative curiosity, he commits himself fully to the three-month project that ends up spanning years.
Despite various avenues he takes in hopes of a better state of being, these divergences cannot mask the fact that Sagmeister’s issues stems from his inability to connect with others. It is no coincidence that the highs and lows of all three therapeutic experiments are directly intertwined with new romantic relationships. This results in an interesting but uneven film at times. As much as Sagmeister wants the The Happy Film to resonate on an emotional level, his love life never feels as intriguing as the experiments he endures or his creative graphic design work. The viewer cannot help but wish the film included even more detail about the creative collaborations he embarks on with others, including filmmaker Hillman Curtis whom passed away during filming.
Furthermore, although Sagmeister states at one point that he is “extremely aware that the little graphic shots will not make the movie,” it is these same images that frequently overshadow many of the emotional beats in the film. Using his design background to his advantage, Sagmeister and his business partner Jessica Walsh create some truly memorable visual moments in the film. Whether using sugar cubes and Jello to covey inspirational words, or incorporating colourful ink drops in water to signify the trajectory of one of his relationships, Sagmeister knows how to grab one’s attention.
In a roundabout way it is the film’s innovated moments, and not so much Sagmeister’s journey, that truly holds the secret to happiness. The designer himself seems most at peace when he is throwing himself into his work; a space where he thrives on collaborating with others. While an enjoyable film, The Happy Film does not provide the deep answers some seek for a better life. Instead it reminds us that life is full of emotional highs and lows. Rather than wallowing in the sadness, the key is to embrace the things we love doing which ultimately help to brighten both our own life and the lives of others.
Saturday, May 7, 3:45 PM, Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.