Cinema, Tears, Catharsis
(Notes for a Radio Discussion, 1996)


There is a famous adage that the single tear on an actor’s cheek allows the film viewer to shed a flood of tears; while too many tears on screen overwhelm and embarrasses the spectator – ‘hysterical tears’. An example of the latter phenomenon: a scene of all the women crying in Woody Allen’s Interiors. And a famous minimalist French film by Jacques Doillon: The Woman Who Cries! Or Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, always crying!


There are incredible conventions of discretion governing how crying happens within films. Often, actual tears are displaced … onto rain! Scenes like Clint Eastwood in the rain in The Bridges of Madison County and Woody Allen in a phone booth in Hannah and Her Sisters provide examples.


Melodrama is of course a key genre for showing – and causing – tears. I recall a brilliant article by Steve Neale called “Melodrama and Tears”. In it, he argues that tears are created by a tragic gap in a character’s knowledge or perception – often a misunderstanding, leading to crossed wires. Classic examples: Letter from an Unknown Woman and An Affair to Remember.


Both these films make me ponder the link between tears and themes of illness, ageing and – of course – death. The melancholia of pondering different signs of mortality. Different ways of treating death in film produce different kinds of tears: from the noble, bloodless, stoic death in Heat (De Niro clasping Pacino’s hand) to the agonised, protracted death of a woman who first turns into a veritable vegetable in Pialat’s La guele ouverte.


Of course, men tend to cry less than women in film fictions. Nonetheless, I think the genre of the male weepie – fairly separate to the more well-recognised woman’s weepie – is an enormous one. For instance, most stories in the (disappointing) Australian TV series Naked, devoted to male problems. The theme of old age comes up a lot in male weepies: loss of vital spirit, etc (but far less so in women’s weepies). Model male pathos example: Toto the Hero. Or Wim WendersWings of Desire: the pathos of an angel who longs to be human. Or the android Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, discovering the inner self programmed deep within his system. And, also, many father-son stories of male pathos, or mentor-pupil: Ridley Scott’s White Squall is the most recent case.


Personally, I find myself crying most often and most heartily with male weepies – often very unusual ones. For instance, a film that really made me weep was David Cronenberg’s The Fly!


Catharsis is a curious and pretty controversial term. To my generation, it is a kind of old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy word – stressing too much the purgative, cleansing, optimistic, uplifting function of tears in art. I do not believe I have actually ever experienced this sensation in a cinema. Crying is more likely to make me feel moved, or disturbed, or even wretched. There are many films that produce a kind of troubling, jammed catharsis. Incredible example: Jon Jost’s film The Bed You Sleep In, where we watch the slow auto-destruction of an entire family – there’s an image where the ‘bad father’ (who may have abused his daughter, although the film remains resolutely ambiguous on this) stops to splash his face with water from a creek, before shooting himself in the head: it made me cry and cry.


People try to distinguish between good sentiment and bad sentimentality – like between erotica and pornography! All such attempts are doomed. The idea is that sentimentality is a manipulation of the spectator – but don’t all films manipulate us in some way? Nonetheless, even I get annoyed at what I call Spielbergian manipulation. The classic example: Spielberg lets E.T. actually die, and then, a few seconds later, he just comes back to life! Sad tears, happy tears flow in quick succession; the film jerks them out of us.


Then there’s the role of a very conventional kind of movie music, heavily orchestrated, as a device to pump our tears, overdetermine and often overstate the emotional content of a scene. Recent Spielbergian-style example: Powder. As compared to very restrained uses of music at key moments: for example, the heartbreaking use of a simple folk tune, “I’ll Never Forget Those Blue Eyes” in Diane Keaton’s little-known Wildflower (a female version of the Wild Child/Kasper Hauser/Bad Boy Bubby story), or the country and western songs in Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man. Or the delicate piano score in Smoke.


Other films that have made me cry buckets: Once Upon a Time in America (which runs through the full inventory of male pathos or melancholy: lost vitality, old age, stolen life, unrequited love ...). Many Robert Bresson films, not so much catharsis as a tragic sense of waste, of lost life and lost opportunities: Au Hasard Balthazar, The Devil Probably, Mouchette. Certain very sad and wistful Old Hollywood romantic comedies: Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.


On the other hand, I can shed tears of joy – of euphoria – when I watch Hong Kong action films like Woo’s Hard Boiled, or extravagant Jerry Lewis gag comedies!


© Adrian Martin May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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