Movies almost never make me cry, even in private. I think the last time I cried in a movie theater must have when I saw Free Willy when I was about seven. I get close to crying, though, and quite often, too. That beautiful prologue with the Händel aria in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist? Just barely dry-eyed. The recounting of Carl and Ellie’s marriage in Up? Same thing. But although nothing seems able to push me just over the edge, I revel as much in this feeling of emotional cleansing as any other guy. For a few minutes, it feels like what I’m watching is no longer fiction, it’s life. That’s where I should have been able to let go of all my inhibitions. I just never have.
I know people who can, of course, and I kind of admire them for that. It has to take obscene amounts of empathy to be able to cry your heart out to trasparent tear-jerkers like I Am Sam (2001) or The Green Mile (1999), but they do. And when they watch a second time, they start crying the very minute a character that’s going to be wrongfully executed or otherwise act heroicall, appears on screen. It’s no longer the sadness of what happens that’s the point; it’s about bracing yourself for how you know that you’re going to react. If I sound condescending, though, I don’t mean to. Everybody have their own experiences to relate to when they watch a movie, and some people have a very good ability to suspend disbelief and stay within a movie’s own universe, and if any of these are triggered by movies designed to give that feeling of sadness anyway, then I won’t judge. If people cry from movies, you won’t find me rolling my eyes. If it’s a bad movie, I’ll ask myself what I might have missed about it’s emotional punch, and if it’s good, I might simply sit there, silently, wishing that I could join in.
When I spoke to my sister, herself a movie wailer, about this, she told that she gets a sense of closure from being able to wear her emotions on her cheek like that. An intense reaction to a movie comprises so much emotion that you actually feel like you’re better able to move on afterward. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s usually very little cynicism involved in crying over a movie. Sure, it can be effective if you want to cuddle up with your date, but other than that? Nothing. If anything, your showing that you don’t care what other people think of you. At the same time that you’re sharing an experience with everybody else, you show that your reaction is yours alone. People may think your easily manipulated, they may even think your stupid, or irrational, or that you’re out to deliberately destroy their mood, but you don’t care. If you listen carefully, you might here me whisper Wail on, sister.
But I won’t be crying along with you. For those of us who can let quite let ourselves go, the most important part of digesting an emotionally exhausting experience is afterward. We sit out the end credits, thinking about all the things that the crying gang let out in tears. If we’re by ourselves we may take a detour on the way home from the theater to delay the moment when we have to deflate the experience by helplessly trying to express to others how the movie made us feel. If we saw it with someone, we participate in the obligatory chatter about its quality only absent-mindedly, somehow feeling that the question of just how good it was is irrelevant, or silently blasting the one outlier in the group who didn’t get its power at all, and whom you now feel you never want to talk to ever again. You’re simple too different. He doesn’t get you. Things like that. All the while, we are trying to get some space to think. It’s never exactly pleasant to feel sad, but it’s something. It sounded a little banal in Revolutionary Road, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Wheeler insisted, even begged, “I want to feel things. Really feel them“, but he was speaking to a larger truth. When a movie can get you in touch with feelings deep inside you, be they of sadness or of joy, that’s when they’re doing what they’re supposed to. Escapism is fine, but such emotional arrivalism is even better. I guess that’s why I keep returning to the hard movies more often than the light and universally pleasurable ones.
Movies make me think, they make me feel unease or sadness, but they don’t make me cry. I used to think that it had something to do with the public act of movie-watching, but it’s no different when I’m alone. Then I thought the answer may lie in the kinds of movies that generally move me the most. Sardonic comedy/dramas about middle class American families tearing each other apart may contain plenty of pain and tragedy, I told myself, but on their way to an open-ended conclusion, they usually also contain healthy doses of acerbic satire. Only after having seen them many times, and having struggled with my lack of emotional closure every time, have I realized that although both The Ice Storm (Ang Lee, 1998), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002), Imaginary Heroes (Dan Harris, 2003) and The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2004) are not so much comedies as they are unusually quotable dramas. They would have been easier to deal with if I could simply convince myself that their bite was a sign of shallowness or cynicism, or that the characters didn’t really learn anything. But they do, and the raw portrayal of how pathetic and petty we’re able to treat other people is not a plea for bitter laughs, it’s a truth about family relations.
An example: Whenever I see the final scene in The Squid and the Whale, in which Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) finally breaks away from his father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), it stays with me for days at a time, because Bernard’s honest attempt to save face as pater familias has been so painfully and poignantly ridiculed already. Asked by his ex-wife (Laura Linney) when he ever made his family dinner, he struggled to come up with more than one occasion, and she laughed him off, bitterly. That’s the Bernard I saw in that final scene, and that’s why it always keeps gnawing away at me, long after the end credits. Nothing makes me sadder than watching people trying to look good by being utterly pathetic. I thought it was the subdued tone of this kind of movie that didn’t invite the great emotional outporing from me as a viewer, but now I’m started to suspect that it’s more about me. No issue is too small to be powerful, and if you end up thinking about whether it’s worth agonizing over or crying about, that’s a sure sign it is neither of those things.
If the theory about the tone and scope of the movie were to hold up, I should have been crying uncontrollably from Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). The story of the young Chris McCandless rejecting mainstream society to wander off straight from college to go live in Alaska has everything a grand movie is supposed to have: Big questions about the meaning of life, families stricken with troubles and grief, old, lonely people granted a new purpose in life only to see it taken away from them, and the tragic death of a complex protagonist I had slowly learned to love. When it ended, I felt almost paralyzed. It wasn’t supposed to be my kind of movie, but it had gotten to me, deeply. But still there were no tears. It happens every time. I listen to the soundtrack, and the haunting feeling is back. I’m grateful for what it gives me, but because I’m never exactly able to get emotional closure, I can’t just switch off the sadness when I don’t want to be sad anymore. It’s kind of frustrating, but I keep coming back to the movie.
With Brokeback Mountain, the same thing happens. I embrace its unverse completely, but when that cathartic scene of Heath Ledger’s Ennis clutching Jack’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) old shirt comes, I once again end up comtemplating it in complete silence. I feel a little like the stoic protagonist, who shields himself from his true feelings by never letting them take control of him, but unlike Ennis in the forbidden love story, I would love to lose control. And again the music has a deeper emotional resonance with me. Every time I hear Willie Nelson’s He Was A Friend Of Mine, the song that accompanies that scene, I have to take a minute to gather myself. It’s like the entire Brokeback experience is captured within that song.
Maybe the answer is as easy and as complicated as that. What I treasure most about emotionally draining movies, by be the memory of how the movie made me feel, and what it made me think about, even more than the film itself, and for that, music is the ultimate memory bank. That may explain what happened when I saw Titanic. I meant it when I said that movie almost never make me cry. But Titanic is the one exception. Sure enough, I sat in the theater totally absorbed in the story, and I was on the verge of crying along with the rest of the audience when the tragic love story that we had hoped against hope for a happy ending to went down with the unsinkable ship. But instead of crying, I channeled all my pent-up emotions into gushing about how satisfied I was with a movie that I had been waiting for for months.
Titanic was my Lord Of The Rings moment, with its rich opportunities for delving into the production, the pr strategy, the box-office expectations, or simply drinking in the beauty of Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the guiltiest of many guilty pleasures in a very gay movie. It was actually emotionally draining just to finally get to see what I had been waiting for so long. And then, two days after the screening, I cried. Whatever you think of Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On, that song is everywhere in Titanic, and when it came on the radio, it was like a levee broke. To this day I don’t know exactly why I was crying, but it could have been partly because it reminded me of the movie, playing key scenes from memory before my eyes, and partly because I knew that something was over. I ached to see it again, but it wouldn’t be as magical. I kind I found that kind of sad. Now was the time for my tears.
In the end, then, perhaps it adds up to one of those eternal questions that I don’t want to know, much less do know, the answer to: What’s more important, movies or music? But if the most important thing about either art form is that they make me remember, and that they teach me something about myself, then why do I have to choose? It’s not the ambition or the genre that defines how important a film is to me, it’s how good it is at telling something that relatable and true to me, whether it resembles something in my own life or not. It may not make me cry, but it will make me think. And listen.
I just wanted to let you know that I read this essay and thought it was beautiful. You are a wonderful writer and really capture something about art and humanity.
Thank you for a great read!