Excuse me while I lay my boot a little bit more into this decaying horse blocking your front door entry, but last week I briefly spoke with a prestigious Academy member and voter. My question was if he was "part of the problem," which is to say, quite simply part of that group lassoed into voting for a film that will be seen as a bad decision, at least when compared to its competitors in retrospect. He admitted that he voted for The King's Speech over The Social Network, saying that when he saw the picture with his wife, he turned to her and said, "This is going to win Best Picture." He explained his motivations for voting the way he did. "While you can be impressed with The Social Network technically and everything else, it didn't move me the way The King's Speech did." The King's Speech, plainly, made him cry, and that's what drove his vote. This individual is also of the mind that if a film is "the best picture," it also necessarily has the best director and the best writing. Consequently, he voted for Tom Hooper over David Fincher. It didn't matter that David Fincher had somehow constructed a fast-paced, almost thrilling multi-dimensional film that many people had a lot to say about, but rarely the same thing; Fincher didn't make him, well, cry. The ability to move people to tears, as Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, and The King's Speech prove, goes an incredibly long way with Oscar voters. Fincher got Costnered by Hooper, thanks to this Academy member and others like him. I declined to ask him if Benji, the Hunted was a little more British and had some fancy costumes and Beethoven, would it have also been worthy of such prestige?
With age I've become a little brittle emotionally, my veins icing up. A broken heart or loved ones passing on might depress me, but I don't cry. It's a little frustrating, and I fear that maybe I'm becoming desensitized. However, at the movies, in a dark theater or if I'm closely concentrating on a DVD at home, I'm amazed by how easily I find myself getting misty-eyed. Sometimes, because of whatever tactics employed by the filmmakers, I may be ashamed and feel duped. But still I get goosebumps and have to work in order to keep the waterworks from going. Perhaps this is a sign that I still have a little humanity left in me, or rather it's a signal of certain entropy. Have I so given myself over to moving images that I fail to be emotionally engaged in the real world, while I'm like a bridesmaid in a Cineplex? Or maybe the way the movies can move me is a perfect reflection and cathartic outlet for the kinds of emotions I must necessarily repress. I don't know. Mark Twain apparently observed how the melodramatic 19th century theatre was the one place where men were allowed to cry.
Though crying in response to performative art has been around for ages, primarily examined by Aristotle and the concept of catharsis in Greek Tragedy, it was that 19th century theater that gave us the emotional tearjerker film. The plots were fairly simplistic with easy-to-identity character archetypes, the emotions enhanced by a live orchestra. One of the key architects of our cinematic grammar, D.W. Griffith, worked at adapting this kind of theater for film in the early 20th century, tirelessly forming our moving-picture norms for sentiment in films such as Broken Blossoms. The endgame for melodramatic theatre was to stir the audience, hopefully to tears. And oftentimes, if the play was successful in such stirring, the people would come back and experience it again.
We see this aspect of our dramatic history almost anthropologically explored and felt in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. During a performance of one such play - Dion Boucicault's The Shaughraun - in 1870s New York, Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is nearly brought to tears when the curtain falls before the intermission. Archer goes to mingle with colleagues in Manhattan's aristocracy, one of whom (Richard E. Grant) notes, "It's fascinating. Every season, the same scene, the same play, the same effect on the audience." Archer responds, "Yes, it's better than the London production." A cynical patron (Stuart Wilson) comments, "You traveled to follow it? I travel to get away from it." This is all fine talk, but Scorsese wants us to observe the irony of our own role as audience participants. Archer and his gossiping colleagues are much like an audience in September 1993 would be, going to the Edina Cinema at 50th and France Avenue, where The Age of Innocence premiered locally on September 17th. Most of the audience will afterwards comment safely on matters in the story, the acting, the aesthetic, and the costumes worn by Michelle Pfeiffer. But Newland cries at the performance because he identifies with the unrequited and unconsummated passion in which the play's characters are entangled. We all have "drama" in our day-to-day lives, or at least I imagine a great many of us do. Scorsese is a director who makes movies that are secretly about movies and his love for movies, and The Age of Innocence's tip of the hat to 19th century melodrama is no different. We may see ourselves in something akin to Newland Archer's predicament of loving the Countess Olenska (Pfeiffer) while being married to May Welland (Winona Ryder), but like so many of us in the cinema lobby, the truth of his emotions are repressed. Archer can't talk about his own longing for Olenska, but it's safe for the audience to weep and express their sentimental attachment to the play. Archer and Olenska discuss the play during intermission, but really they are trying to talk about each other. Scorsese accentuates this by having cinematographer Michael Ballhaus set a spotlight on Olenska as if she and Newland were in their own drama (which, of course, they are – for us). He says to her of the last scene, "I usually leave the theatre after that scene to take the picture away with me." People may be so estranged from their genuine emotions in this world of aristocratic New York – as they may too have been in 1993 Edina – but Lord, they are able to discuss and feel when art is involved.
Did Scorsese's own film succeed at making people cry in the theater? It does for me, but in general, not enough apparently. When 1993's Oscar nominations were announced, the Star Tribune had a subheading saying that "Spielberg's victory is Scorsese's loss," referring to how Schindler's List, a movie that had people crying in droves, would probably be Spielberg's first Oscar when months before it was speculated that The Age of Innocence would finally be Scorsese's. In reference to the general Academy member and Scorsese, the same thing happened three years before (Dances With Wolves = Cry; GoodFellas = No Cry), 13 years before (Ordinary People = Cry; Raging Bull = No Cry), and 17 years before (Rocky = Cry; Taxi Driver = Definitely No Cry), to say nothing of 11 years later (Million Dollar Baby = Cry; The Aviator = No Cry). Yet in almost each instance, some of which I may examine later, those "No Cry" entries have more crumbling and cathartic emotion for me than their victorious counterparts, particularly The Aviator and Raging Bull.
All due respect to Schindler's List, and how it made so many people cry, I remember watching it as a youth and almost being frustrated that the crying didn't come too naturally, almost as if I had to force it. I think a part of me was secretly suspicious of the "I could have done more" scene near the end, while years later I'm much more moved by the scene in another Holocaust movie, The Pianist, where Adrien Brody tells his sister, "This might be a bad time to say this, but I wish I'd gotten to know you better," a moment without any manipulative trappings whatsoever. 1994's Forrest Gump also worked the waterworks. Based on a satirical and somewhat sardonic book by Winston Groom, screenwriter Eric Roth, director Robert Zemeckis, composer Alan Silvestri, and star Tom Hanks made Forrest Gump an epic of awww-shucks syrupy American nostalgia. The movie was effective, but in an irritating way for me. Like the book, Forrest Gump was sometimes hilarious, but then it took an all-too somber dive when the narrative turned the corner into the mid-1980s. Not only does Mama Gump die (an event not in the book), but Forrest's love, Jenny, gets AIDS and delivers Forrest Jr. to the front door with the good news that the boy is not plagued with his daddy's low IQ. Forrest seeing the boy off to school at the end is way too much "warm emotion" for my comfort. It's a diabetic coma. Forrest Gump won Best Picture of 1994, beating icier – if superior – films like Pulp Fiction and Quiz Show. The Kleenex helped, just as it helped Tom Hanks win his second consecutive award. And let's not forget, the tears elicited by Philadelphia a year before were only too helpful in overpowering the critics' choice, Anthony Hopkins in Merchant/Ivory's The Remains of the Day, much like The Age of Innocence a film about a man whose tragedy is that he is unable to embrace his emotions or longings. The only tears we see in that film occur when Emma Thompson looks out through a train window obscured by rain, her expression at last dropping the veneer of polite manners, expressing the sadness of a love that never happened and is too late to even be acknowledged.
Failed Love and Loss spiced up the tears of subsequent Best Picture winners, like The English Patient, where it's hard to keep composure while watching Ralph Fiennes carry Kristin Scott Thomas' corpse out of a cave; Shakespeare in Love, where Gwenyth Paltrow is doomed to leave the Bard and be Colin Firth's wife on an American tobacco farm; and of course, Titanic. James Cameron had a lot of things going for him here, not least of which was James Horner's music. He also had an epic backdrop that was engineered to reflect the weight of melodramatic emotions in the foreground between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Losing Leonardo DiCaprio was felt by the audience as a kind of equivalency to the loss of countless other lives that went down with the ship. People cried watching Titanic, and there was a lot of social discussion about the crying. Teenage girls apparently had crying parties, where they would get together, listen to the soundtrack with "My Heart Will Go On", see the film, and just cry. The result: Best Picture of 1997. Hey, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, The Sweet Hereafter, etc – those other movies from that year didn't make anyone cry. It's quite fitting that during Titanic's box office ass-kicking during February of 1998, there should be a smaller film just released where a key character says, "Are you surprised by my tears, sir? Strong men also cry, Mr. Lebowski. Strong men also cry…."
But it's not just the melodramatic loss of life or lost love that rouses people to tears. More "manly" sagas, like Braveheart (Best Picture, 1995) Gladiator (Best Picture, 2000), or heck, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Best Picture, 2003) emit tears through Inspiration. The pictures plug into a certain malaise we as moviegoers might have, with protagonists who want to stir us into dreaming with them, boldly staring down the blank face of death and despair with our throbbing passion. When Mel Gibson is getting his guts pulled out and is about to lose his head, people weren't weeping because William Wallace was about to shuffled off this mortal coil, but because he channels our own beliefs in "Freeeeeeeeedom!" The same goes for "the dream of Rome" that is renewed with Russell Crowe's death in Gladiator, or any number of the sacrifices and triumphs in The Lord of the Rings. In each case, by the way, it certainly helps to have a feminine aria behind you, or Celtic music. This was also the kind of inspiring emotion triggering tears of redemption that led Academy voters to vote Crash over the just-as-moving (but more complicated) emotions of Brokeback Mountain in 2005. There was a communal, collective catharsis in Crash, fitting for a confused country in the middle of the Bush II Era. The homosexual cowboys were too specialized a case. The same could be said for The Return of the King's triumph over the ambiguous, more hidden sadness at the conclusion of Lost in Translation.
The psychology of tear-jerking is then a fascinating thing. What is it about crying? It brings people together, maybe? When we encounter loss, or a communal belief in a particular dream, our foundational empathy perhaps opens up and the line between I and Thou is blotted out? Beyond the manipulations, there's something beautiful and primeval about it. James Jones, author of The Thin Red Line, was wounded in combat and believed he was dying. At that moment, he looked around him and felt a profound, inexplicable love for everyone surrounding, regardless of how well he knew them. Watching Paul Greengrass' magnificent United 93, a similar thing happens. All of the passengers are put into that primeval place as the Reality of Death appears, and strangers turn to each other and say, "I love you," placing them into the same psychological place that the hijackers are at. And because Greengrass directs United 93 so well, transporting his audience into the moment, I almost feel the same way about whomever I would be watching the film with.
The King's Speech, as I noted, makes people cry. But I believe that women are in fact less prone to cry during it than men. It was the men in the theater, when I saw it, that were nearly hyperventilating and unable to catch their breath. They were trying to restrain themselves in a packed movie house, their wives and possibly children close by. In seeing King George VI I think a lot of men saw themselves. We know how it's socially acceptable for women and children to cry, but not men. Men, like kings, are supposed to be invulnerable, assertive, and strong. But they have their weaknesses and closeted insecurities; society – or "A Man's Gotta Do What a Man's Gotta Do" custom – denies a good outlet for these insecurities to find a voice. George VI's stammer may be less of a mechanical difficulty than a personal problem rooted in early childhood, aided by a domineering father and a teasing older brother. If he's a conscious individual, he doesn't fail to feel unfit as a king because of his inadequate voice. There's a dreamy warmth for hurt men in The King's Speech, both in the crying King, and in his wife, Queen Anne, who stands by him without fail like a guardian angel. We saw the same thing in A Beautiful Mind, Forrest Gump, and Cinderella Man. In doubt, the King cries, and there is his woman there to maternally comfort him.
Tear-jerkers are seen as a "Woman's Genre," but this is bollocks; in spite of Beaches, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Mermaids, etc, the genre really belongs to men. Even Terms of Endearment, winner of the 1983 Best Picture Oscar, though its two principal characters are women (Shirley Maclaine and Debra Winger's mother/daughter), is the work of men: writer Larry McMurtry and director James L. Brooks, not to mention a man's man in a key supporting role (Jack Nicholson). Beyond that, I maintain that Men's Films with vulnerable Masculine Agency are the supreme tear-jerkers: take the football movies Brian's Song (with guys' guys James Caan and Billy Dee Williams) and Rudy; baseball movies The Natural and more especially Field of Dreams, where the sport is almost a rite of passage between generations of men; the runners in Chariots of Fire; both of Frank Darabont's Stephen King prison movies, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. And most especially, war movies. These are about men. "There's no crying in baseball!" was a line uttered by Tom Hanks, but in a movie about women's baseball, directed by a woman (Penny Marshall). Field of Dreams, The Natural, Bang the Drum Slowly, heck, even Major League, all tell a different story.
Beneath the profound ground concept questions that stir awe in The Thin Red Line, there are the war films that study the community of combat, where men share in the spectacle and sorrow of death. Going back to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the pain of war is the most powerful kind of tear-jerking because of how many people who fought in so many of those wars are reticent to ever talk about what happened. One of the reasons Platoon was such a sensation in 1986 was because of how absolutely necessary it was psychologically for a whole generation of veterans. There was a triage of classic Vietnam movies before Reagan -- Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now -- and there are many scenes of powerful emotion in them. But you could argue that none of those films honestly wrestled with the reality of field combat so much as they channeled the nation's collective hangover in the late 1970s.
On the other hand, Platoon was a movie written and directed by a twice-wounded Vietnam vet, Oliver Stone, who had killed other human beings. Hollywood had not really dealt with the existential problems of such a confused war as Vietnam was, and with Reagan's election in 1980, Stone would say that the country had undergone a process of active repression or voluntary amnesia. Platoon, particularly with the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings music, was the long awaited requiem mass for the casualties of Vietnam, both physically and mentally. It was the outlet for a lot of men who were able to at last communally share in the secret of warfare's toll. The kinds of music and emotional tropes that Oliver Stone uses here, and in his two subsequent Vietnam pictures Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth, could be interpreted as being manipulative tricks of basic melodrama (he doesn't have Barber for July, but he has the next best thing in John Williams), but I don't believe that's true. Stone's cinematic Vietnam is certainly mainstream art for profit, but more than that it is an individual's quest through his own traumatic neuroses, and he was successful enough in portraying those neuroses that his sorrow became our sorrow – for veterans and non-veterans alike.
Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, Black Hawk Down, and even The Lord of the Rings trilogy all explicitly deal with the sentiments between males developed through combat. The Lord of the Rings is quite interesting because of the seemingly superfluous amount of man-hugging that goes on during the final minutes. Some have snickered mischievously while reading a gay subtext with the Hobbits (especially since Sam and Frodo seem more into each other than any females of their species), but the closeness and affection between the Hobbits apparently was an aspect of J.R.R. Tolkien's books connected to the author's experiences as a soldier during World War I. His fiction, and Peter Jackson's film adaptation, is really about the emotions men share in combat. Saving Private Ryan was instantly a motion picture that men recommended other men see, "because it's about men." The people who recommended the picture to me based on this aspect could not get more specific about it; apparently I would just "understand." Saving Private Ryan is impeccable in its design to show strong men at their most vulnerable, from the opening moments when an old man becomes emotionally overwhelmed at Arlington, his family looking on, or Tom Hanks' soldier, whose hand trembles even if he is not consciously afraid. There is the scene where Giovanni Ribisi confesses that he pretended to be asleep when his mother would ask if he was awake. And finally there is the plea to Private Ryan, and to the audience, to "earn this." Black Hawk Down winds down with Eric Bana saying, "When that first bullet flies past your head, politics and all that shit goes out the window. It's about the man next to you." Ending on the coffins being lifted onto a plane with Hans Zimmer's overpowering music (with arias, mind you), this testosterone-fueled action spectacle of 1993 Somalia by Ridley Scott reduces most of its (male) audience to tears, just as his Gladiator did a year before.
Tear-Jerking, or Just Jerking?
What's the equation then? What constitutes genuine tear-jerking versus false or cheap tear-jerking? A retired professor friend of mine would say that the former simply has, well, "no jerking." I asked him about his own experiences as a moviegoer, and though he claims to rarely cry at movies, he provided some examples and explanations, being that he spent a long time studying 19th century melodrama as a student in the 1950s. When it's real – and you're not being jerked – you'll know upon reflection, when your eyes have been long removed from the screen or page. "Probably the greatest example I know is Paths of Glory," he told me, "the end scene where the German peasant girl sings for the French soldiers." Describing the moment in Stanley Kubrick's 1957 masterpiece starring Kirk Douglas, also a favorite of mine, my friend was simply in the recollection starting to choke up. The sequence features a peasant girl (played by Kubrick's future wife, Christiane Harlan) forced to sing for the rowdy, boisterous, and rude soldiers who eventually come to collectively hum along with her melody, and then all start weeping. Particularly for a director known for his coldness, like Kubrick, the ending of Paths of Glory is an emotional affirmation, and following the absurdities of militarism documented by the previous 85 minutes, this scene is a startling outlet not only for the soldiers who are doomed to go back to the frontlines, but for us. We cherish the warmth of this unexpected conclusion, and Colonel Dax (Douglas), looking on, has to say, "Give the men a few minutes more." These are men in uniform reduced to their most vulnerable and fragile; Paths of Glory makes us feel how precious life is, just as it makes us feel its absurdity.
I wonder if that's what is necessary, the juxtaposition, or the contrast of the vulnerable with the dignified, and consequently why I feel tear-jerking may ultimately belong more to men than to women. It's in a woman's constitution to cry; not so, as Twain noted, for men. At the University of Chicago, my professor friend took a Shakespeare class in the early '50s taught by Norman MacLean (A River Runs Through It), who was discussing genuine tears versus false tears during a session on Macbeth. In Act IV, scene 3 (lines 219-223), Macduff is given the news that Macbeth's henchmen have murdered his wife and children. As Macduff laments, Malcolm says to him, "Dispute it like a man." But Macduff answers him, "I shall do so, / But I must also feel it as a man. / I cannot but remember such things were, / That were most precious to me." In other words, Macduff will indeed "man up" and take his vengeance, but he has to acknowledge his sorrow, he has to feel his loss without shame. Macbeth is a play all about sex roles and the confusion of what it means to be a man, and Macbeth's tragic flaw is that he's coaxed into manly action (murdering Duncan) after Lady Macbeth accuses him of being too womanly. He's a social performer whose self consciousness is always stifling him and creating more anxiety. Macduff's virtue, on the other hand, is to embrace feeling, and for him "feeling" is not contrary to his masculinity; quite the contrary, it completes his masculinity.
MacLean pointed out that Macduff's tears represented real emotional catharsis in art. What was the opposite? MacLean had a ready example from the headlines of 1952. It was vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon's now infamous "Checkers Speech," where the politician laid out his financial history, gradually becoming increasingly emotional. The crescendo, aided by having the camera zoom out to show wife Pat Nixon sitting nearby, was explaining the acquisition of a dog, Checkers, for his two daughters, who loved the animal dearly. The televised speech won widespread support from the duped public, and Middle America embraced Richard Nixon as one of their own. Today any shamelessly emotional speech by a politician is known as a Checkers Speech. Macduff's tears are an intimate and necessary affair for him, as he grapples with a survivor's guilt; Nixon's words were a soliloquy of self-pity and justification, meant to communicate "how human" and "down to earth" he was.
The Architect of Childhood's Loss
The great tear-jerker director of the last 50 years is Steven Spielberg. Whether it's genuine or just jerking varies on which side of the aisle one sits. At times he is shameless, at other times he is so effective that what he is emotionally communicating can only be from the heart. Because of how well he uses his cinematic toolbox in achieving emotions, with John Williams' music and camera close-ups, he may seem little more than a cheap magician for some of his more cynical viewers. At times I am inclined to agree, though I've made the analogy before that both he and Ron Howard are like two seducers at a bar. Yes, they both are practicing an art of seduction, but Spielberg is actually capable of being a very good lay, unlike Howard. But beyond the toolbox, Spielberg is emotionally effective given his own private obsessions and need to work out his childhood domestic traumas on a movie screen canvas. Our emotional life is in so many ways tied to our relationships with our mothers and our fathers, and Spielberg has consistently channeled his childhood imagination wrestling with both the Mother and the Father. Stripping away the years of education and adulthood exposes our vulnerabilities, assuming we are open to identifying with the director. Men can't cry – but children can. One thing we are all destined to lose is our childhood, which is a sustained period of burgeoning hope, and Steven Spielberg is the premier architect of our collective loss and hope in that period before adulthood.
In his career, it begins subtly, with the dinner table scene between father and son in Jaws, something I find more beautiful the older I get. 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind has a man walking away from his family and responsibilities, looking for the sublime, but it also has a strong woman looking for her abducted-by-aliens little boy. In both cases, one could argue that the films are quests for domestic stability and comfort in the chaotic malaise of the 1970s, spanning from the domestic household to the intergalactic. But E.T. The Extraterrestrial from 1982 represented a new pinnacle for unexpected emotional heights in dealing with longing, loss, love, and hope. The lonely middle child Elliot is clearly Spielberg's own counterpart, an adolescent whose father is absent and mother is busy. E.T. has been described by its director as a love story, except between human boy and alien instead of boy and girl. I don't know if it's because of the iconic film's resonances with a generation whose youth of which I was a participant, or if it's the actual grit of the content; I am reduced to a sobbing mess by E.T. and its conclusion, where E.T. and Elliot part ways with the alien pointing his rosy finger to the boy's head and saying, "I'll be right here." The sentiment of acknowledging loss in E.T. is born out of how Spielberg makes spectacle out of childhood memory and the aspirations contained therein; that's what E.T. represents for Elliot, and for Spielberg. The alien has to move on as we all do in adulthood, but the glowing affirmation is the memory of childhood sensibilities and dreams. The Peter Pan nature of the theme would be again explored by Spielberg with Hook nine years later, an utter failure emotionally. Whereas in E.T. the dreams of youth render an audience in paralyzed amazement (the classic bicycle ride), Hook's children, the Lost Boys, are annoying and make me side with Dustin Hoffman's jaded Captain Hook. Indeed, his scenes are the only tolerable ones for me to watch. I wonder if this is because Spielberg's geography of childhood imagination has an isolated, lonely subject in Elliot, who is marked by his separateness from his peers. The Lost Boys are an in-group; there is no catharsis here, even if the protagonist (Robin Williams) recovers his lost childhood sensitivity. Hook is the only emotionally interesting character for me, because, as Peter's daughter says, "He's never had a mommy who loved him."
After E.T., Spielberg blockbusted (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) just as he kept on making people cry with fragile domestic circumstances (The Color Purple). The most emotionally satisfying of his Indiana Jones adventures would have to be the third one, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, probably because of how well it handles a character we're already quite familiar with (Indiana Jones) and etches a soulful heart in its non-stop summer action movie trappings linked to his familial insecurities. It is ultimately the tear-jerker of the series because of how it uses the formula I identified before: dignified masculinity acknowledging its feelings. Its emotions work on the collective summer movie audience, because Spielberg has two generations of guys' guys as father and son, Sean Connery and Harrison Ford, as the emotionally distant father and consequently neurotic son. When Henry Jones (Connery) fears that Indiana – or "Junior" as he calls him – is dead, he crumbles. "He's gone. He's gone. And I never told him anything." Indiana emerges alive and Henry grabs him. "I thought I lost you, boy!" The moment works beautifully, precisely because it's the dignified and manly pair of Connery and Ford, regressing back from adult niceties and into the lost domestic warmth between parent and child. It is the reacquisition of lost time.
That contrast of tears and dignity again works for Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler. This is another example of a strong, dignified man, even grossly cynical in his machinations to maintain his stable workforce. When we see Schindler overlook the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, on horseback with a ladyfriend, the whole movie starts to generate something, because this man of iron is stirred, ever so slightly, to compassion. He hides his emotions from himself until they unfurl during one of the final scenes. Presented with a ring of gratitude by his workers (there's a motif of expressing thanks and gratitude running through the whole picture), Schindler at last loses his composure. He begins to laugh hysterically on how he lost so much money, and his laughter turns to cries of regret and a survivor's guilt. "I could have done more," he says, "I could have saved so many more." Neeson is another actor known for playing masculine father figures, which makes him perfect here. His outlet and release is ours. However, is Spielberg here employing a Macduff, or a Checkers? Schindler's List author Thomas Keneally apparently thought that Spielberg and screenwriter Steven Zaillian went too far with it. Though I can acknowledge the scene as being effective, its gross verbalization of the theme may be something of an impediment. Not only does the music and performances tell you how to feel, but the dialogue does also: "I could have done so much more," again and again. E.T.'s concluding scene has less power in the words than in the extraordinary, wordless gazes between boy and alien, and finally the embrace with E.T.'s fingers caressing Elliot's back. Whereas I can focus on Spielberg's manipulative devices from the old toolbox in Schindler's List, it's impossible for me to even look at E.T. and see him as an animatronic special effect. He's as real as any actor.
There are subsequent Spielbergian sentiments examined throughout the remainder of his active years: Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the adoring son of an unfortunate father (Christopher Walken); Minority Report has a dad (Tom Cruise) addicted to reliving moments when his son was alive; War of the Worlds has Cruise as a single dad struggling to be a strong parent, while Martians attack; and Munich follows Eric Bana's Israeli assassin living in the shadow of his own venerated dead father and struggling with the distance from his newborn, necessitated by his dangerous work.
But second only to E.T., and possibly more than it, Spielberg has never been as successful in generating my tear ducts and channeling childhood loss and hope than with A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Spielberg's adaptation of Stanley Kubrick's long-in-development scenario follows a robot boy, David (Haley Joel Osment), who is programmed to love a woman (Frances O'Connor) as his mommy. The journey to find his mommy is framed as a science fiction fairytale, with deliberate allusions to Pinocchio. A.I. sharply divided critics and audiences upon its July 2001 release; some were mentally stimulated but found the picture's doomsaying reductionism draining the emotion; others found its ideas trite and emotions stupid; I loved it absolutely in every regard, and in it I see no division between the head and the heart; they are one in the same. The wonderful local critic Rob Nelson wrote a scathing piece for City Pages that seems to use the film's distinction from an actual Stanley Kubrick film as a suitable mechanism for the critic to voice everything he hates about Steven Spielberg. Nelson jumps aboard the wave of "unintentional laughter" the creepy domestic foibles of A.I. emits from a mainstream audience, his distaste for Spielbergian fulfillment, closure, and manipulation being an attempt by the director to "save Stanley Kubrick." I feel it's the other way around, and that Stanley Kubrick has saved Steven Spielberg. Nelson completely fails to grasp the irony of the picture's fairy tale warmth as a conscious tearful manipulation. I oddly enough can emotionally relate to David the robot, though a good part of the film's own emotional success with me has to do with its deconstruction of how our emotions and aspirations work; our ideals stir us to action and we "believe," despite their probable absurdity against the vast wall of time. A.I. and its quest for mommy fulfillment is plainly the most honest film Steven Spielberg has ever made, and beyond that, perhaps the most honest tear-jerker ever made. The "jerking" here is an integral part of its own mechanical architecture. The success of A.I. for me relies on the emotional trickery of Spielberg just as much as it does on the deconstructive skepticism of Kubrick. It is a dance of meaning and unmeaning, the need for meaning and the dual creation and deflation of it.
If Spielberg has an heir who even remotely approaches an ability to stir large emotions with treacly devices on an overwhelmingly successful scale, it may be Frank Darabont, whose success was completely unanticipated. A fairly successful genre screenwriter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 3; The Fly II; the remake of The Blob; Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein) who had only directed a few short films and done television work, he sold his screenplay adaptation of Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption to Rob Reiner's Castle Rock production company on the sole condition that he be allowed to direct it, a fairly audacious demand for a novice when Reiner himself wanted to make it his follow-up to A Few Good Men. Simply retitled The Shawshank Redemption and casting Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins as prison inmates wrestling with any kind of hope for freedom, Darabont's debut was released with little fanfare in the early fall of 1994. It got modest reviews, but not enough praise to draw moviegoers for a profitable run. However, the general audiences who saw it loved it. Over the late fall word of mouth accumulated and the curious were compelled to see it. By the time it hit VHS after a surprising flurry of Oscar nominations, it became a viral, populist hit. According to moviegoers at the Internet Movie Database, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the top five movies ever made.
Again, The Shawshank Redemption is a man's movie, with manly characters and nary a woman in sight. It's about the quest to reacquire something that has been lost, a sense of peace left to the past as the characters are trapped in a monochromatic present with no future. Darabont has his own John Williams with the composer Thomas Newman, and as director he deftly deals with hope, doubt, pain, regret, affirmation, and communal joy, with a main character who – quite literally – walks through a tunnel of shit in his inspiring trek towards salvation and freedom. Roger Ebert wrote of it years after its release, "It's more like a spiritual experience than a movie," noting how The Shawshank Redemption gives something audiences – and people in general – are hungry for: a message of hope, sewn within a deep friendship between two disparate people.
Five years later, Darabont found himself again adapting Stephen King, again in a prison, again getting modest reviews, again getting Oscar nominations (though again not for directing), and again making people cry fervently. The only difference was that because of the film's star, Tom Hanks, The Green Mile was profitable long before it hit video stores. Though its legacy probably doesn't approach Shawshank's, I think it's this movie more than any other that people answered when I asked the question, "What movie makes you cry?" We have all the ingredients again: hopelessness, lost time, regret, dignified strong men in uniform (Hanks, David Morse, Barry Pepper, Jeffrey DeMunn) weeping in sympathy, to say nothing of a Christ-like death-row inmate (Michael Clarke Duncan) with mysterious healing powers (Spike Lee would criticize the character as a rehash of "The Magic Negro"). But what strikes me here is a certain kind of repeated motif in Darabont involving how people are moved by movies. Here, the protagonist as an old man is brought to tears by watching an old Irving Berlin movie, Top Hat, because it reminds him of the distant past. Darabont is attuned to how we find ourselves looking for ourselves in movies, or rather, unexpectedly finding ourselves when we didn't know we were looking (a Rita Hayworth poster famously covers up the Tim Robbins' hole to freedom in Shawshank). The result is tears. It's no surprise that Darabont is a favorite of Spielberg, having reworked screenplays for the elder director (including Saving Private Ryan) and writing the first, albeit discarded, draft of the fourth Indiana Jones movie (Spielberg loved it; George Lucas disliked and rejected it. I wish Spielberg would have gotten his way). In 1999, Darabont said that he knew The Green Mile worked when he screened it for Spielberg, who was brought to tears. "I manipulated the manipulator," he remarked.
The third of Darabont's weepies was 2001's The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter during the McCarthy era, who assumes an alternative identity in a small town and helps to restore an old movie house. The movie was compared, unfavorably, to Spielberg's own predecessor, Frank Capra, famous for his affirmative and warm movies of finding meaning in a jaded world (It's a Wonderful Life; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Again, the emotions are laid on thick with music and inspiring speeches about the nature of America; coming out three months after 9/11, I wonder if the response to it would have been different had it been released at an earlier or much later date; the country was in a spirit of blind patriotism, and willing to throw out elements of the Constitution for the country's safety. Yes, The Majestic is a manipulative comedic melodrama, but it's far from being unlikable, and it lays its principles out squarely enough so that I can't call it a cinematic Checkers speech. The director returned to Stephen King for his fourth movie, 2007's The Mist, which was also interested in the same questions of hope, meaning, friendship, and family, albeit in a far less inspiring narrative where flesh eating creatures from another dimension terrorize people trapped in a small town supermarket. The Mist is in contention for the gloomiest and misanthropic of modern movies, and does not stir tear-drops. It's also, I think, Darabont's best film.
Tears of Awe
Returning to my earlier examination of The Age of Innocence and the audience's hidden relationship with the melodramatic performance on stage or screen, the psychology of tears is then something wound up in the viewer's own personal fabric. I suppose it's more interesting when the selected tear-jerkers are less universal. A.I., for example, doesn't make everyone cry; Nelson was right when he noted that it evoked scoffing laughter from a hefty fraction of the audience. But it was loved by an equal fraction. Scorsese's The Aviator is a more curious tearjerker for me, though it strangely is related to my A.I. love, being that Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is portrayed as an individual more mechanical than human: He's also a Mecha of sorts. But the psychological constructions in his engineering that give him the genius to accomplish the architecture for "the way of the future" (and make him a kind of precursor for The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's film six years later) are the same elements within him that result in his isolation and ultimate malfunction. A huge criticism of The Aviator was that it was perfectly constructed as an ornate and stunning period biopic, but otherwise was a rather impersonal for-hire venture for director Scorsese. That's how I felt during my first screening of it, but then I grasped how the film's impeccable form and sleekness in construction was a double for Howard Hughes, and the entropy hinted at throughout the film, and which finally envelops it in darkness at the conclusion, was bubbling through those steel surfaces throughout the whole thing. To me, it's one of the most emotional films I've ever experienced. If it does not work within the same paradigm of sentiment and tears that Million Dollar Baby, for example, does, that's perfectly appropriate because Howard Hughes is similarly damned to be a man unable to be on the same emotional wavelength with his peers.
Another offbeat tearjerker for me that probably has a lot to do with my own personal reflections is Francis Ford Coppola's fantastical comedy of nostalgia, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), with middle-aged Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) fainting at her high school reunion and going back to the late 1950s. The story presents an array of wish fulfillments people may have (and I know that I have) of going back in time after present-day circumstances have laid on great weights of disappointment and failure. But the sequence in the film that really just gets me is when Peggy goes to her grandparents' place. The moment earlier in the picture when just hearing her grandmother's voice on the phone is transformative emotionally. It's to her grandparents, who we can only assume are long dead by 1986 (one of Coppola's great virtues here is keeping so much information elliptical), that Peggy Sue can be honest with and lay out her extraordinarily magical predicament; and being grandparents, they believe her. She tells them things that she could only wish to tell them in retrospect, such as I can identify with perfectly: "Once you guys are gone, the whole family falls apart." A recurring dream I have is encountering my own grandfather, whom I last saw on Thanksgiving 1995, where I have the chance to spend more time with him and tell him the things I never got around to. (Just hours before this writing I had one such dream). Peggy Sue Got Married is a comedy, but Coppola perfectly captures the dream of acquiring lost time and faces.
A director who has not received the right amount of acknowledgement for his ability with sentiment is David Lynch, whom most people see as a dark surrealist rather than a tender humanist. When his cult developed in the 1980s, fans dismissed The Elephant Man as a contract job, not related to the director of Eraserhead or Blue Velvet. But that attitude not only undermines The Elephant Man's own achievements and Lynch's impact on it, but also the emotional complexity of the more personal and dark Lynch pictures (Blue Velvet is satirical, yes, but it is also genuinely tragic and emotionally interested in its characters, and far from being simply countercultural mischief). It is Lynch's eye and his ear that gives The Elephant Man its soul, particularly at the end when John Merrick (John Hurt) stares at his framed drawing of a little boy sleeping comfortably, Barber's Adagio for Strings the complementing music. The moment goes beyond the sorrow and pity generated by Merrick's longing to sleep like a normal person and his consequent suicide in assuming that position, and enters the realm of transcendent awe in man's encounter with the universe. Merrick's soul, or an abstract sense of his soul, travels through space, his anima/mother image speaking to him and to us, "Never, oh never nothing will die. The stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats. Nothing will die."
Lynch is then even more interested in the transcendent one-ness of the universe, the infinity within each moment and individual, than he is in the individual tragic details of Merrick. His 1999 film The Straight Story is another tear-jerker, probably even more effective than The Elephant Man as Lynch had become a more seasoned filmmaker. The narrative frame is personal, as Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) travels 370 miles on a John Deere riding mower to make peace with his stricken brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), whom he hasn't spoken to in several years. But that's merely the surface of The Straight Story; its soul and capacity to move me is contained in its relation to the infinite, and how Alvin's quest to make peace with Lyle is reflective of an old man, who has probably done terrible things in his time, aiming to make peace with the universe. In Farnsworth, Lynch has a pair of eyes that communicate more life, regret, and wonder than any sentimental dialogue ever could. A sensualist, Lynch's film acts like music, and the sweetness or wisdom of Alvin's words becomes totally secondary to what he sees and feels. At the end there is no conversation between Alvin and Lyle. They sit together and look at the stars the way they used to when they were children. We do not see what they actually see; it's still daylight and Alvin's almost functionally blind. But as Lynch's image moves through the universe, we are seeing what they feel.
Maybe to me that's the most overpowering kind of tear inducing movie, being something that induces crying not from Aristotelian pity or terror, or tears of inspiring joy, but tears of awe, specifically the kind of feeling induced when the ego is crushed after encountering the sublime. This is why I would cry during The Thin Red Line, for example, or possibly upon reflection a movie like Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas, Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE, Kurosawa's Ikiru, von Trier's Breaking the Waves, or Bergman's Wild Strawberries. A.I. would probably also fall into this category of weeper, as there's kind of a religious and existential longing at the root of it. The sense conveyed in these films is how mysterious and undefinable our existence is; it may be without purpose or meaning, but it is still filled with amazement and dread. A documentary like Grizzly Man falls into this category, as I observe how I'm moved while the song "Coyotes" plays shortly before the end, the lyrics reflecting the mystery and fate of Tim Treadwell, a life as glowingly ecstatic as it was foolishly doomed.
That brings me to probably the last leg I can cover this week when it comes to crying. Animals. Mysterious, wordless, and yet beautiful and adored animals. They are both with us, virtually a part of our domestic families, and yet without us. We anthropomorphize them into something they perhaps are not, give them human qualities and identities of which they are innocent. And when they die, in movies and in life, they make us cry. The screenwriter Stuart Beattie has a rule: "Don't kill the dog." But when they do kill the dog, or even more so for me, the cat, it's excruciating, and subsequently brings me closer to the emotional life of the story. Harry and Tonto has Art Carney (in his Oscar winning role from 1974) as an old man traveling on the road with his aging cat Tonto; the emotional clincher is Tonto, essentially the old man's best friend, dying. Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy is about a woman and her dog, and in the end Wendy (Michelle Williams) understands that the only way Lucy will get a good life is if Wendy leaves her behind at an affluent foster center in Oregon. The moment Wendy realizes that her "baby girl" is better off without her, it's heart shattering. The biggie for me is The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where married couple Tomas and Tereza's dog, Karenin, whom has been with them since they first met, is dying from cancer. Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) prepares an injection to put Karenin out of her misery while Tereza (Juliette Binoche) holds the dog and tells her to not be afraid, "There will be cows for you to chase. You'll be happy." She looks at Tomas and says, "I love her in a way more than you, or love her in a better way. I love her just the way she is, and would never want her to change." Milan Kundera is fascinated by how human beings behave towards animals in his book, noting that the mark of a person's capacity to love is reflected in how they are disposed to animals, which are essentially helpless and reliant on their masters. He writes, "True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when the recipient has no power. Mankind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which is deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals." It's a pure and untarnished love without any expectations, far different from the love between a husband and wife, or parents and children.
As my friend remarked on Paths of Glory's finale, this whole week's session has been marked with a lot of cathartic exhaustion on my part, as even merely thinking about many of the scenes contained within these pictures has choked me up. The psychology of crying is, again, puzzling. One man's release is another man's shrug. The thrust of my argument is that, contrary to popular belief, the most popular kinds of tearjerkers aren't those made for women and children, but those intended for men. These past few months have featured an array of male characters in more or less "masculine" centered films that have provoked tear ducts: in addition to The King's Speech, there's The Fighter, 127 Hours, and oddly enough, True Grit. Maybe we are fooled into thinking something's better than it honestly really is with the aid of tears, a reminder of how we're all human, vulnerable, mortal, what have you. Maybe in the dark we can finally open up and share in another person's misery or joy, even if they're fictional, bridging the uncertain gaps in our existence with sympathy. True, my ability to emote in real life has kind of died with age (so I observe for now). I don't know if being able to only do that in a movie theater is a positive or negative sign, but I like how it reminds me from time to time that there's still a spark in me.
Beyond that, and this returns to my self-justified Academy voter, I've always been bothered by the question of sentiment vs. sentimentalism, this literary movement of mass emotion. In the cult of sentimentalism, the ability to track earnestness becomes hazy because everything is judged based on its emotional content. And contrary to unexpectedly crying at movie theaters, maybe we have become addicted to it; feeling then is intrinsic to value. Consequently, The King's Speech and Dances With Wolves win. In his novel Immortality, Kundera thinks about this new species of absolute feeling, homo sentimentalis. Feeling has been elevated here to the level of supreme importance, with detriment too often to our reasoning. People go into something expecting to be swept away with feeling - in which case, the whole affair can only be a simulation and a little disingenuous: "As soon as we want to feel...feeling is no longer feeling but an imitation of feeling, a show of feeling." It becomes emotional masturbation. Consequently, Titanic provokes girls to have crying parties; The King's Speech wins Best Picture; Werther induces rejected young men to shoot themselves across 18th century Europe; Nazis and Stalinists get political power; and Sarah Palin becomes a viable candidate for president ("Reason" becomes "Elitism"). Sometimes the distinction between good sentiment and the bad is more difficult than I would like, almost like being in love with the wrong person: you'll become a junkie to your smack at the cost of ruin, and justify foolishness on an elevated pitter-pat to which you've given transcendent value. If it makes us cry or "moves us," is it good? Does it channel the repressed childhood dream state, or are we simply regressing into our own infantile wish fulfillment?