Thursday, June 22, 2017

Cue the Waterworks

by Eric Peterson

There’s a great scene in Blake Edwards’ Victor/Victoria between Robert Preston and Julie Andrews. She’s at the end of her rope, both financially and emotionally, and is sobbing uncontrollably in his arms. “There have been times I’d have given my soul to cry like that,” he says. She whimpers back, “I hate it.” He smiles, pats her back, and replies, “You wouldn’t if you couldn’t do it anymore.”

There’s something about crying that presents a puzzle to anyone who studies popular culture, even as a hobby, and it is this: We tend to avoid crying in life, or at least those situations that would call forth tears. And yet, some people don’t mind, even seek out, movies or television shows that cause them to weep in response to fictional characters and situations.

In a completely unscientific bit of research earlier this week, I asked my community of Facebook friends to weigh in on the movies that never failed to make them cry, and I learned a few things – about my friends, mostly … but also about me, and why we go to the movies, period.

Several of my friends named movies they had initially seen as children. Bambi was, of course, mentioned, as well as It’s a Wonderful Life and Old Yeller, which my friend Fay goes so far as to label “abusive.” An example mentioned several times by several friends was Disney’s classic Dumbo. In particular, the moment where Dumbo’s mother, caged and branded a “mad elephant” because she wouldn’t tolerate cruelty toward her beloved child, reaching her trunk through the bars of her cage, and cradling little Dumbo in her trunk to the strains of “Baby Mine” was a significant source of trauma for many of my friends. As my friend Ellen noted, “She every mother trying to protect her son from all the hurt in the world and it can't be done.

In fact, lots of people mentioned mothers. Like Stacey, Terms of Endearment was an immediate pick for my friend Franc, for a very particular reason. “I watched it … with my mother. My sister died from cancer and viewing this movie with Mom, still so lost in her grief at the time, just gutted me. Anytime I have ever watched it since, I can't separate that memory and sense of loss from the film.

Any kind of mother seemed to elicit tears, even the gorilla mother of a human child. My friend Dennis noted that “when [Tarzan’s] mother sings, ‘You’ll Be In My Heart’ … my daughter just gets the tissues out for me.”

And of course, there’s Steel Magnolias. I told my own story in this week’s episode, but my friend Kathy sees that final scene in the cemetery from a slightly different perspective than I. “No parent can watch that scene without tears,” she says, “seeing Sally Fields try to grapple with her daughter's death.

My friend Kyle had a pick I wasn’t expecting. “As a kid, it was a VHS we had of Danielle Steele's Fine Things. It made me cry every time, mostly because it always made me think of what it would be like if I were to lose my mom.

And the dads got to join the party, too. My friend Brent (who just happens to write the best dad-blog ever) mentioned Finding Nemo, particularly the scene “at the end, where Marlin realizes he has to let Nemo grow up and experience life on his own. As a dad, I'm so not ready for that [talk].” And my friend Steve had a similar reaction at the end of Field of Dreams. “The last scene when his father says, ‘want to have a catch?’ … I start peeling onions.” My friend Leticia picked The Little Princess. “especially when she sees her father after being told that he's dead and he doesn't remember her! And then when they are finally reunited!” (She was clearly crying as she typed this.)

Familial bonds aside, stories about friendship were mentioned a lot. Beaches was a popular pick, as was Babette’s Feast. There were also some surprises in this category. My friend Erick remembers a scene from the end of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (and no, he wasn’t crying from sheer exhaustion, as I was). He notes, “when Sam says to Frodo on Mt. Doom, ‘I may not be able to carry the ring for you, but I can carry you,’ and hefts him up and climbs. What a heroic gesture, what an amazing friend, what an amazing bond between them.

And then there’s my friend Jeb, who teared up at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy, of all things. “Remember when the ship was crashing and Groot decided to weave his tree-like body around the group as a last-ditch biological protection? Rocket starts crying and asking Groot, his ONLY friend, ‘Why are you doing this? You'll die!’ Groot gazes into his eyes and simply says... ‘We are Groot.’ … That physical embrace and emotional union is something I cherish whenever I can find it with friends in my life, probably because I grew up in a culture that taught men not to be affectionate and not to say what is really in their hearts.

It might not surprise regular listeners to learn that there are a lot of gay men in my Facebook feed, and some of the choices reflected that as well. Latter Days, a film I’ve actually not seen, was mentioned by several friends. Jon wrote, “I really related to it and felt really lucky that I was never tortured at one of those conversion places. Never fails to get me when they are putting him in the ice bath and dunking his head under.” As pleasant as that sounds, I think I do need to see this film, given the sheer number of mentions it received.

Other LGBT films mentioned were Brokeback Mountain, Boys Don’t Cry, Freeheld, Longtime Companion, Philadelphia, and several votes for It’s My Party. “[I cry] for so many different reasons,” wrote my friend Eric. “The "what ifs: What if they hadn't broken up? What if they'd gotten back together sooner? The love story is so heartbreaking.

Finally, there were some political choices. “When Yvonne starts singing the Marseillaise [in Casablanca] and the tears run down her face, I'm right there with her,” wrote my friend Katherine.

And my friend Dan remembered the scene in Schindler’s List, “where Schindler looks at his Nazi pin and says ‘How many more could this have gotten?’” At the movies as in life, the political is often personal, too.

I admit that I had a similar experience recently, watching the national tour of The Sound of Music at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center. When the Captain got choked up halfway through “Edelweiss,” he was singing at the Kaltzberg Music Festival in front of four enormous swastikas, I could feel hot tears streaming down my face. And I wondered if I had seen this same show last year, if I would have cried. (Probably, but I did wonder.)

Other tear-inducing films that weren’t mentioned above include Avalon, A Beautiful Mind, Beauty & the Beast (2017), Big, Brian’s Song, Broadway Danny Rose, A Christmas Carol (1951), The Champ, Cinema Paradiso, Cooley High, The Deer Hunter, A Dog’s Purpose, Empire of the Sun, The English Patient, Ever After: A Cinderella Story, The Fault in Our Stars, Forrest Gump, Fried Green Tomatoes, Fur, Ghost, Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog, Harold & Maude, Heartburn, The Hollars, How to Train Your Dragon, The Ice Storm, Imitation of Life (1959), Inside Out, Lawrence of Arabia, Life is Beautiful, Little Women (1933), Love Actually, Love Story, Madame X, Me Before You, Moana, Mulan, The Notebook, Pretty Woman, Pride & Prejudice, Rudy, A Star is Born (1954), Stepmom, Toy Story 3, The Trip to Bountiful, W;t, and The Wizard of Oz. That’s a lot of Kleenex, right there.

Sometimes we cry about things that are sad. A parent or a child (or worse yet, a dog) dies, lovers are parted, people are lonely. Sometimes we cry because the joy we feel witnessing a long overdue reunion or the birth of a child is so overwhelming that we start to leak. Sometimes we cry because people – or hobbits – are wonderful and capable of so much good that it makes our hearts swell.

But in every case, I believe, we’re not really crying at hobbits, or clownfish, or a broke Buildings & Loans manager at Christmastime, or a girl from Kansas lost on the Yellow Brick Road. We’re crying because we see something of ourselves up there. It’s probably not a coincidence that everyone in my Facebook thread who mentioned Latter Days was at one point in their lives a young gay man afraid to come out, or that everyone who mentioned Beaches was a woman who could tell me a story about her very best friend that she’s known for years. Crying at the movies is basically the same thing as looking at yourself square in the mirror and telling yourself that it’s going to be okay … or that it’s already better than okay … or maybe just that you’re not alone in the world. (Or that if the Von Trapps could smuggle seven kids over the Swiss Alps, we’ll survive Donald Trump.)

I believe that we throw ourselves up there on the silver screen whether we’re watching an action movie, a silly comedy, or a maudlin tearjerker. That’s why we’re willing to give two hours of our lives to people and situations that don’t even exist. When a movie is just okay, it lets us get away from ourselves for a little while, but when a movie is fantastic – or just the right movie at the right time – it allows us to find ourselves. 

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