Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The logic of tears

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Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What pop culture made you cry at an inopportune time?”

I’ve never been much of a crier. There have been plenty of novels that left me emotionally devastated, but none, as far as I can remember, that caused tears to flow, although The High King in fifth grade and The Magus in high school probably came the closest. Part of me sees this as a personal failing: I tend to read books with an eye toward craft, and I’m often too conscious of how the author is achieving the effects to be moved in the kind of raw, unmediated way that leads to real sobs. And it strikes me as a loss. Around the time he turned thirty, Charles Darwin found that he could no longer enjoy poetry—Shakespeare bored him “to the point of physical nausea”—and he memorably described what he saw as the human cost:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

But the movies have always been a little different. Maybe it’s in the way they present themselves to us in a form that requires little, if any, intellectual intermediation, or the fact that we often watch them in a darkened room surrounded by strangers, but I’ve teared up at movies as dissimilar as Apocalypse Now, The Last Temptation of Christ, and the documentary Ballets Russes. (This last film probably holds the world record for speed: I’m pretty sure I choked up within the first thirty seconds.) As I’ve noted before, the films that get to me are the ones that make me reflect on my own mortality, and particularly on the passage of time. Many of them center on the image of a young man’s face juxtaposed with that of the same character in old age, which may be why the only movie that has destroyed me to the point of embarrassment in the theater is Saving Private Ryan. Subsequent viewings haven’t had quite the same impact, but after the closing scene, I stayed in my seat throughout most of the end credits, trying to get it together, which hasn’t happened before or since.

Harrison Young in Saving Private Ryan

What’s funny is that many critics I respect, from Roger Ebert to David Thomson, have argued that the last scene isn’t necessary, and the movie as a whole might be stronger without it. (Although it’s only in rereading Thomson’s review now that I realize that Ryan’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who I later came to love through her performances in Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room.) On the whole, I agree with them. But there’s a wide gap between what you can objectively know as a critic and your subjective experience as a moviegoer. Pauline Kael puts this in somewhat defensive terms in her famously negative review of The Sound of Music:

Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and readymade are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.

I wouldn’t go so far with Saving Private Ryan, which, whatever its faults, can’t be described as cheap or readymade. But it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to regard movies on two levels at once, even if it seems hard to argue against the logic of your emotions. I can admit that the ending of Ryan is powerful as a necessary moment of audience catharsis, while also suspecting that denying that catharsis, which dissolves our higher faculties in tears, might have been the braver choice. As Ebert writes:

Saving Private Ryan is a powerful experience. I’m sure a lot of people will weep during it. Spielberg knows how to make audiences weep better than any director since Chaplin in City Lights. But weeping is an incomplete response, letting the audience off the hook. This film embodies ideas. After the immediate experience begins to fade, the implications remain and grow.

Which may be why I distrust tears a little. When we cry, it’s hard to think. Yet sometimes we can do both, and when we do, it’s worth asking what would have been left—or what we might have thought—if the tears had refused to come.

One Response

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  1. Great post! Now that I think about it, movies make me cry pretty easily but novels, not as often. I bawled through the entire second half of “life is beautiful” in the theater. Like a baby. That was the most memorable tearjerker for me.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Contrary Mom

    October 3, 2014 at 4:38 pm

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