All film journalists and critics are obliged to write at least one essay about why people cry at movies. Today, Washington Post critic Desson Thomson wrote his. He doesn’t expose his personal soft underbelly, though, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when you write these things. Unload, let it out, confess.
For me, unleashed emotion in the womb of a movie theatre is about as primal as it gets. I’ve had many, many more emotional floodgate moments in a theatre seat than I’ve allowed myself in real life. (Most guys tend to keep things in check when someone’s watching, even trusted friends or family members.) As Thomson says, “Guys will cry only if someone squirts Mace directly at their eyeballs.” In public, he means.
Thomson’s best quote is from Mary Beth Oliver, a Penn State University communications professor and researcher of the effect of media on humanoids. Films that make us cry, she says, “cause us to contemplate what it is about human life that’s important and meaningful. Those thoughts are associated with a mixture of emotions that can be joyful but also nostalgic and wistful, tender and poignant. Tears aren’t just tears of sadness, they’re tears of searching for the meaning of our fleeting existence.”
In my most recent movie-crying piece (which ran in ’02 or ’03), I said that most guys “choke up over loss. Stuff you once had in your life (a girlfriend or wife, a beloved dog, naivete) that’s now gone and irretrievable.” (This thought actually came from Owen Wilson, who was picking up the phone back then.)
My biggest proverbial meltdown is still watching the ghost of Gordon MacRae singing his apologies to the live Shirley Jones in Carousel (1955). Talk about loss. His Billy Bigelow character blew it when alive and now he’s stuck in a kind of 20th Century Fox sound-stage purgatory, and to make matters worse his genetic code and lingering reputation are helping to screw things up for his teenage daughter….whew.
I also tear up at my idea of happy endings. Old Rose returning to her youthful form as she returns (possibly at the instant of her death) to the Titanic’s grand staircase to say hello to all the people who went down with the ship.
Or when Willem Dafoe‘s Nazarene realizes he hasn’t betrayed his destiny and is suddenly back on the cross in Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ, and rejoicing over this. That moment when he slips away we hear that cosmic sound of Arab women doing that high-pitched yodeling thing as the image recedes into blinding white, like the film is running off the reel and going into the leader…man, I just fold.
I just remembered something a friend said to me when in my 20s. It has nothing to do with movies, but I’ve never shared it before. The friend was telling me about his very first time in bed with his girlfriend, whom he was totally in love with at the time. He said, “The sex was so good, I cried.” I’ve never heard that line since — not from anyone I’ve known or spoken to, and not in any movie, book, play, poem, song lyric or nightclub act. I didn’t believe him, of course — he was trying to amuse — but I felt the residue of it. If you don’t know what he meant you haven’t lived.