Not so long ago I happened to see a letter written to a theater chain lambasting them for the practice of bringing the lights up before the credits ended. Setting aside the fact that most theaters only bring the lights up half-way in the belief that most viewers aren’t going to sit through what has come to be five to 15 minutes of credits, it should be noted that the customer wasn’t some diehard cineaste who just has to know who drove the honeywagon and who catered the food. No, his complaint had to do with his personal discomfort in cases where the movie had an emotional impact on him, and he liked to be able to sit in the dark to compose himself. In other words, he didn’t wish anyone to witness his shame at having been moved to tears by what he’d just seen.
The question that immediately comes to my mind is why this is an issue for him—or anyone else. Assuming for the moment—and I think we may unless the gent in question is a barking loon of the no-holds-barred variety—that this bout of copious weeping wasn’t brought about by, say, Alvin and the Chipmunks, but rather was the result of having witnessed something of genuine merit that touched him deeply, where is the shame in such a response? Should we be so embarassed by our emotions?
Of course, as a film critic and a more or less serious (it’s no good being too serious all the time) enthusiast of the art of film, I get to hide behind various coded bits of critic-speak. Understand this—when a critic tells you he or she found something “deeply moving,” or talks of its “emotional resonance” or “emotional power,” most of the time you may safely translate these phrases as “I cried like a baby.” (The actual wailing noises associated with infants, however, are probably absent, which is frankly just as well.) In itself, that rather suggests that critics are somewhat embarassed by their emotions, too. We probably mask this via a denial mechanism and assure ourselves that it would be unprofessional to claim we’d sobbed like a child.
In many ways, criticism is hemmed in by this approach. Were that not the case, terms like “women’s pictures” and “weepers” and “three handkerchief pictures” would not exist. (Yes, I know there’s a shorter term often used for handkerchief in this case, but it’s not one I care for for some reason.) Those appellations are clearly derogatory. They’re meant to cast a negative light on any film that aims for the viewer’s emotions. Why? No one feels the need to set up a set of demeaning terms for films that aim to make the viewer laugh. But there’s some sense that a movie that makes the viewer cry is automatically a lesser work.
Well, I say it’s spinach and to hell with it. I’m not sure my critical comrades in arms will join me in this, but I think it’s time to come out of the crying closet when it comes to movies. Oh, I’m not suggesting we get all touchy-feely and nauseatingly boo-hoo-hooey over every slab of unalloyed shamelessly manipulative tripe that comes along. I can—and will—attest to the fact that I can sit unmoved and dry-eyed through Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook. I’ll add that the trailer for his upcoming My Sister’s Keeper made me burst out laughing the first time I saw it. And I didn’t buy the goo of Rob Reiner’s The Bucket List for a minute.
Why? Well, it’s admittedly subjective, but it’s a kind of cinematic BS detector—a sense that the emotions are spurious and that all I’m seeing—and not feeling—is a well-oiled machine engaged in an exercise so manipulative that it would make Pavlov blush. These films—and others I could name—remind me, in fact, of an old single panel cartoon where one dog in Pavlov’s laboratory says to another dog, “They want me to salivate, but I’ll be damned if I’ll give them the satisfaction.” Much like that dog, I get stubborn and dig my heels in at every fresh assault on my tear ducts.
At the same time, one of my most treasured moviegoing memories—and I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before—was witnessing a college crowd in 1973 exiting a showing of King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) wiping their eyes or even openly weeping. It was a beautiful sight—as was the knowledge that we’d all been a part of a shared emotional experience that touched a common humanity, even if only for a little while. The man who wrote the letter to the theater chain would be in a bad way with this one, because there’s only a single “The End” credit on the film—no recovery time there—and it immediately follows the fade-out of a mother (Irene Rich) walking through a silenced crowd of fight fans with her heartbroken son (Jackie Cooper) in her arms. It feels absolutely essentially real. That’s the key. What’s even more remarkable is that it’s in the artistry of it all, because the truth is that eight-year-old Jackie Cooper couldn’t stand the actor (Wallace Beery) he was crying his heart out over.
Looking back over the past few years of movies, I find that the ones that have meant the most to me have been films that touched me in very significant ways. But more to the point, they aren’t by any means what we traditionally think of as “weepers.” I’m sure I need explain to no one why I choked up at least three times during the last 15-20 minutes of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire last year. I’m probably on reasonably safe ground when it comes to that final shot in his Sunshine the year before. But neither of these films qualify as any of those pejorative terms—even if they do use many of the same elements to provoke an emotional response.
I’m equally sure that no explanation is required for my emotional response to Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, though I certainly know people who are completely untouched by it or who even dislike the film. But having said that, I’d have to add that the things in the film that make me tear-up aren’t necessarily the most obvious aspects. Yes, I’m a big enough goop to buy into the exchanged looks between Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood across the rooftops at the ending, but I know that part of that stems from the manner in which the climactic rooftop concert brings a sense of closure by recalling the last public performance of the Beatles on the roof of the Apple building. Other moments, however, are even stronger for me—such as T.V. Carpio singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a painful ballad of unrequieted lesbian longing.
Then again, no one is likely to think of Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind or Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou as tear-jerkers. All three have that effect on me, however—not in their entirety, mind you, but in pieces that give them a kind of cumulative emotional power. I find, however, that I am as apt—or maybe more so—to be moved to tears by things that strike me as unbearably beautiful as much as by those that are traditionally sad. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! touches me with its ill-fated love story, yes, but the things that go deeper for me are actually celebratory moments in the film—the high spirits of “Your Song” and the joyousness of the “Children of the Revolution” reprise with altered words near the climax. Why? I suspect not because they reflect life, but because they reflect life as I wish it were. As such, these moments fill a need.
Thinking back over my years and years of movie watching, I find that the things that make me cry—or at least tear-up, since the only film I can think of that will actually reduce me to tears that can cross over into stifled sobs is Ken Russell’s 1972 biopic on the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (Scott Antony), Savage Messiah—are a curious mix. Some of these emotional moments—moments that cause me show my “affective side,” as a friend who works in spiritual and psychiatric counselling tells me it’s called—are straightforward enough. By that I mean that they’re housed in traditional dramatic stories that lend themselves to such things. The Savage Messiah ending certainly qualifies in that regard. I suppose that the uplifting ending of Russell’s Tommy—which comes under the heading of the unbearably beautiful—does, too.
Some things, however, come out of nowhere or sneak up on me. Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) is a romance/adventure, but it’s in a very cynical key for the most part. Of course, as is usually the case, there’s a damaged romantic underneath that cynicism, which is perhaps why the purposefully ridiculous line, “What good is a watch without you?” is simultaneously funny and moving. It’s such a perfect way of capturing the cynic’s inability to say what he means that he says it anyway—even if absurdly.
George Stevens made a fairly deep romantic comedy with sociological/philosophical overtones in 1942 called The Talk of the Town. It’s a good film—in some ways it’s a great film—but the scene that sticks with me, causes me to tear-up and resonates with me at all times is a side note. It involves Ronald Colman’s valet (Rex Ingram) watching Colman shave off a beard he’s worn for 15 years. The image of the valet crying at this action—because it marks change and the end of an era, and suggests his boss is likely to get hurt from what may result—is absolutely heartbreaking. (This disproves the idea that you can’t induce tears by showing them. It depends on who’s shedding them and how it’s handled.) It is probably not what Stevens wanted to have stick with me.
Of course, I’ve largely skirted the essential type of film that defines the tear-jerker by not admitting to any fondness for the traditional “soap opera” (a term that’s become largely meaningless)—apart from expressing distaste for The Notebook. We can’t have that, because there are many fine films that could be—and sometimes are—dismissed as “soap.” And more than a couple have been responsible for unseemly displays of emotion on my part. Almost anything from director John M. Stahl qualifies, especially Imitation of Life (1934) and Magnificent Obsession (1935). What of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)—as a drama about old age, it may not quite qualify as “soap,” but it uses the same tools and its aim is the tear ducts without question.
Tay Garnett’s One Way Passage (1932) tells the story of the shipboard romance of a man (William Powell) being transported back to the States for execution and a young woman (Kay Francis) who is dying of a heart condition. A plot like that is as close as you’re likely to get to the textbook definition of “soap opera.” It may be written with wit and acted with complete conviction, but that hardly changes the actual nature of the material. We are talking about a film with a recurring motif of the lovers smashing cocktail glasses and crossing the stems—a ritual the film has mystically occurring even after they meet their respective fates. Is this a sudsy romance? You bet. Does it work on me? Every damn time.
I could go on and on with other examples, but now I think I’ll turn the floor over to you. What movies make you cry? And if you find the question troublesome, I’ll rephrase it—what movies do you find emotionally powerful?