Hot on the heels of Black Friday, a film which takes a direct stab at the consumer ‘holiday’ and the culture which it personifies might be a bit on the nose, but this season is the timeliest moment to look at Steve Cutts’s literal and allegorical rat race. Happiness – a four-minute piece with no dialogue, but plenty of meaning-laden imagery – portrays the soul-crushingness of a life spent pursuing joy through monetary and material means.
The film is not big on subtlety: in this human-like world inhabited by rats, the adverts are almost all selling happiness (literally – the word appears on almost every one), signage the Underground direct commuters to ‘nowhere,’ and rodent customers fight over items labelled ‘Black Friday.’ This literalism sets a wry, self-conscious tone, which makes the descent of the rat followed by the story ring true despite its exaggeration.
When the protagonist rat is on some sort of prescription drugs, the animation becomes less realistic and more Disney-like, with our rat sprouting Mickey-esque ears. This section is the weakest; it oversimplifies the issues of prescription ‘happiness’ and the reasons people turn to them, casting a negative connotation. However, there is not much time for nuance in a short film.
This section is also the only one not scored to an orchestral version of Georges Bizet’s ‘Habanera,’ instead set to Edvard Grieg’s ‘Morning Mood’. This reprieve from the Habanera’s repetitive refrain suits an altered mental state. Elsewhere, the sing-song continuous loop of Bizet’s aria gives the sense that the madness depicted has continued and will continue for a very long time.
While perhaps veering towards proselytising, Happiness is tangibly recognisable to anyone who has braved London, Los Angeles, or a search for fulfilment and bliss in today’s relentlessly commodified culture. The blackly comedic allegorical story and quasi-realistic visual style create a world just distant enough from ours to register as a fairy tale, but close enough to foster examination of advertising messages we take for granted.
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DIRECTOR: Steve Cutts
ANIMATOR: Steve Cutts
MUSIC: Georges Bizet and Edvard Grieg
SYNOPSIS: In a literal rat race, a daily commuter attempts to escape the grind by means of all the happiness – however hollow – he can find.