Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Saving Private Ryan

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.

As tears go by

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Jon Hamm and Kiernan Shipka on Mad Men

I’m not really a crier. I don’t think reading a book has ever caused me to shed tears, although many—from The High King to The Magus—have left me an emotional wreck. And the short list of movies at which I’ve cried is an eclectic one. I almost always tear up a little during The Last Temptation of Christ, although invariably at a different time; I welled up during the first minute of the extraordinary documentary Ballets Russes, as it cuts between archival images of ballet dancers in their prime and the same dancers fifty years later, all of them still beautiful; and the only time I’ve ever really lost it at the movies, I’ve got to admit, is during the last scene of Saving Private Ryan. As different as these films are, all these moments have one thing in common: they take place during or shortly after a scene when the face of a young man is juxtaposed with the same man in old age. If I’m moved, it’s both at the thought of the fleetingness of human life and at the ability of the movies to express it. Cinema can cross enormous expanses of time and space in a single cut, and the ones that we remember are often those that push this ability to its limit: the cut from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, or the bone and the spaceship in 2001. But it’s especially powerful when it’s applied to something as simple as a human face.

Of the three movies I mentioned earlier, Ballets Russes might be the most haunting of all, because its leaps over time are real. The Last Temptation of Christ uses makeup to effect its changes, much as the intensely moving fantasy scene at the end of 25th Hour did many years later, and Saving Private Ryan simply uses a different actor to convey the passage of five decades. But there’s nothing quite like seeing time itself do the work. You get a glimpse of it at the end of The Godfather Part III, when we cut from Michael’s final tragedy to images of him dancing with the women he has loved and lost—Apollonia, Faye, Mary—and remember, in passing, how young Al Pacino was when the series began. The Up series by Michael Apted is structured around such a miracle, as, in their own way, are the Harry Potter films. And now we have Boyhood by Richard Linklater, shot over the course of twelve years, allowing us to watch actor Ellar Coltrane age from first grade to a senior in high school, and to witness time work more subtly on his parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I haven’t seen Boyhood yet, but I’ve watched its trailer several times, and I’m as excited about it as any movie I can remember: Richard Linklater has always been one of the most inventive and ambitious directors of his generation, while gaining only a fraction of the acclaim of his peers, and this is his most daring gamble yet.

Kiernan Shipka and January Jones on Mad Men

Television, of course, allows us to see the same process unfold, and though it’s usually so gradual that we barely even see it, it can still catch us by surprise. I don’t think there’s ever been a greater stroke of casting luck than when Matthew Weiner selected Kiernan Shipka, then eight years old, to play Sally Draper on Mad Men. When we set the earliest episodes of the series, with Sally running around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, next to its current run, as she takes on aspects of both her mother and her father while negotiating her own adolescence, it reminds us of the creative coups that television can achieve almost by accident. Sally, in a way, has become one of the three or four most essential characters on the show, a visible marker that expresses the show’s themes of change more vividly than its writing ever could. (Comparing Sally to Bobby, who has barely registered as a character over seven seasons, only underlines how much chance is involved.) Television, by its very nature, is about the passage of time, and its presence in our lives lends it an almost unbearable intimacy. Seeing Sally grow up in real time, or going back to watch the earliest episodes of any series that runs for many seasons, informs us that we’re all aging, too.

This may be why I’ve grown more sentimental as I watch my own daughter grow up. It happens so slowly that I can’t see it from day to day, but when I look back at her baby photos from a few months ago, or hold my newborn niece in my arms, I’m amazed by the changes that have taken place right before my eyes. And it’s affected the way I think about the books I read, the movies and television I watch, and the music I play. If I choke up at unexpected moments these days—playing “Two-Headed Boy Part 2” on the ukulele, reading The Lorax aloud—it’s partially because I have another life apart from my own to think about, but also because my subliminal awareness of the passage of time charges everything with new meaning. In The Nature of Order, the architect Christopher Alexander makes a surprising statement, and I’m just going to leave it here:

To set the stage further for understanding unity in a building, I go back to the emotional underpinning of the living structure, its personal character, its rootedness in feeling…What feeling, exactly? What am I aiming for in a building, in a column, in a room? How do I define it for myself, so that I feel it clearly, so that it stands as a beacon to guide me in what I do every day?

What I am for is, most concretely, sadness…I try to make the building so that it carries my eternal sadness. It comes, as nearly as I can in a building, to the point of tears…

What makes it sad is that it comes closest, in the physical concrete beams and columns and walls, as close as possible, to the fact of my existence on this earth. It reminds me of it, it makes me take part in it. So when it happens, it is also a kind of joy, a happiness.

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