Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Sob story

Here’s another question that has popped into my head. Why do some people cry at certain movies?

It’s a question that has occurred to me from time to time, but it was most recently put in my head while listening to a podcast of an April broadcast of an interview done on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program with documentary filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill. Toward the end of the interview, each of the two confessed to having broken down into emotional tears while watching in-flight movies on separate inter-continental flights. One cried during the animated feature Racing Stripes. The other sobbed toward the end of an unnamed Ashton Kutcher romantic comedy, which I’m guessing was A Lot Like Love.

Okay, so unless you happened to hear the same interview I did, right now you’re wondering, why on earth would two grown men burst into tears upon watching such ordinary, standard, middle-brow Hollywood entertainment? There is nothing about either movie to explain why this would have happened. The root cause lies elsewhere. The two men were returning from Iraq, where they had been making a television documentary called Baghdad ER. This involved spending a fair amount of time in the U.S.’s 86th Combat Support Hospital, in which they chronicled the work of doctors trying to save the lives of wounded soldiers (as well as some insurgents). Not surprisingly, much of what is depicted is graphic and disturbing. The filmmakers said that they considered themselves tough enough to deal with the upsetting situations they were documenting, but when pressed about the effect it had on them personally, they each told their story about crying at an in-flight movie.

I am sure this is a phenomenon that has already been documented somewhere, but it is interesting that it took a completely unrelated stimulus to allow somebody to grieve openly about a separate horrible situation. Neither man suggested that he was crying merely because the movie he was watching was so bad. And, as filmmakers, they would have been more immune than most people to recognizing and resisting the manipulation of a standard Hollywood emotional movie moment.

This raises the interesting question of whether every time someone cries at a movie, they are really crying about something that has happened in his or her own life. I am sure this is true at least some of the time. I am certainly more likely to get emotional watching a movie that depicts a situation that I have experienced, or have been close to, myself. And with that observation, I guess I should confess to something that I don’t really like to talk about. I sometimes get teary watching movies. It’s embarrassing. Especially if you are sitting next to a friend or significant other who is totally bored or annoyed by what is making your eyes well up. Or if you are in the company of other guys, quick to spot and ridicule any perceived sign of weakness. So I do my best to suppress any overly emotional responses. And I tend to avoid movies about children and dogs.

But since I have admitted to my tendency toward in-cinema weepiness, let’s use me as a test case about what may or may not make movie watchers cry. The right thing, of course, would be to do a study with rigorous sampling of the general population. But since I lack the resources to do this (and besides I’m too lazy), we’ll just go with me as lab rat. We’ll stipulate at the outset that I am a unique individual and that what is true about me will not necessarily be true about most, or even many, other people.

The overly obvious answer to the question of why people would cry at a movie is: because the movie is sad. But I have watched many movies (some of them documentaries) about very sad and terrible things and not shed a tear. Mere sadness does not seem to be the primary cause of in-cinema weeping. Another immediate thought that may occur to many people is that women are more likely to cry at movies, especially the kind that star people like Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. At the risk of sounding sexist, my personal (non-scientific) observation is that this is probably true. There has been much written about the tendency of women to cry more easily than men generally—with some observers seeing this as feminine weakness and others seeing it as a strength in that it is healthier to be in close touch with one’s feelings. When men do cry at movies, do they cry at the same things that women do? Based on my own experience, that’s an easy no.

My earliest memories of crying at movies were at Disney films, usually those that involved (guess what) children and dogs. I nearly lost it at the end of Incredible Journey, when it looked like the old dog hadn’t made it home. Then I did lose it when he finally came limping in at the last moment. In fact, I’m starting to tear up just typing these words. (Please give me a moment.)

There. That’s better. It turns out that I am particularly susceptible to the gambit of stragglers limping home at the end of the story. When I was in high school, an uncle bought a TV set he didn’t really want but which he couldn’t pass up because it was so cheap. (A motel upgrading its rooms was unloading them for next to nothing.) That TV wound up in bedroom, an unlikely occurrence that turned me into a connoisseur of old movies that played on the local station late at night. A couple of those old flickers still stick in my mind for making me sob like a little girl. One was the 1950 biopic Three Came Home, in which Claudette Colbert played Agnes Newton Keith, a woman confined in a series of Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II. When she is finally liberated and scans the throng of released men prisoners for her husband and son, from whom she has been separated for years, they all pass by and there is no sign of her loved ones. Then, finally there they come (limping along, again), and only a stone heart could not start sobbing. Another flick that similarly affected me was the 1946 movie Smoky, in which ranch hand Fred MacMurray bonds with a beautiful black stallion. (Spoilers ahead!) But the horse is stolen and has his spirit broken. Years later MacMurray crosses paths with him, and the two old friends barely recognize each other. But finally Smoky comes home to be serenaded by Burl Ives, by which time my sheets were well wet with salty tears.

I’m guessing that the fact that I reacted so emotionally to the plight of animals in movies had to do with my own bond with my dog. So I suppose the evoked emotion had to do with, not so much past events, but fears of future ones. Interestingly, two recent movies that have affected me emotionally are both about young boys in England. And, in both cases, the boy is the younger of two brothers. One movie was Danny Boyle’s Millions, which was my No. 1 movie of 2005. The other was Paul Weiland’s Sixty Six, which was my No. 2 movie of 2006. Neither of the two family situations depicted was anything like the one I had as a child, but I was the younger of two brothers, so there may be something there. I’m going to stick with my hypothesis that, when we cry at movies, we are not reacting to the events depicted but to emotions over own lives, memories of which those depicted events subconsciously dredge up. This, of course, doesn’t apply solely to movies. It can also apply to other forms of entertainment, such as music and (as my wife’s aunt, who is a nun, reminded me just today) also to funerals.

The very idea of men crying at movies has been a source of amusement to guys for some time. The Nora Ephron rom com Sleepless in Seattle (the quintessential Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie) got a fair bit of comic mileage out of a bit where two men imagine what it would be like if they got as emotional over their favorite movies as women do over theirs. And, in a few minutes of non-research with Google, I found more than a few online discussions about why people in general (and men in particular) cry at movies. In a blog, a Dr. Melissa Clouthier reached more or less the same conclusion I did, and noted that personally she was moved to tears over Sean Bean’s performance as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings and particularly by the song “Twilight and Shadow,” sung by Renée Fleming. (She said it brought up memories of the loss of her son.) There is no bigger fan of Peter Jackson’s trilogy than I, but if I experienced any tears during the movies, it was almost purely out of joy at seeing the beloved books so well adapted.

In March MSNBC compiled a list of seven movies that make men cry: Dead Poets Society, Gladiator, Legends of the Fall, The Notebook, Rudy, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic. Maybe a few sniffles at Private Ryan (my dad was WWII vet), but otherwise I can’t agree with that list—especially Gladiator and Titanic (which was well done, but basically a chick flick camouflaged as a disaster movie). Creative Screenwriting magazine did its own list, which likewise didn’t correspond to my reactions, with one notable exception. After Babe at No. 1 (okay, “That’ll do, pig” was kind of choker), it listed Field of Dreams. “Dad, wanna play catch?” (or however the line goes) gets me every time. It must have had a similar effect on my brother (a pretty darn good ballplayer) because his wife bought the videotape for him one Christmas so that he could watch it with our dad. Anticlimactically, our no-nonsense dad was mostly bored by the movie and couldn’t make heads or tails out of it.

Last month Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass had his own go at the “guy cry” movies, generally having a laugh about the whole thing. He invited readers to submit their own entries for a more definitive list. Finalists included Saving Private Ryan, Brian’s Song (yeah), Rudy, “Old Yeller (meaning any movie in which the dog dies),” Cinema Paradiso, The Shootist and Gunga Din.

Frankly, based on my hypothesis of what makes us cry at movies, I think such a list is very difficult to compile. While many of us will have certain emotional reactions in common, people’s reactions are going to be as diverse as, well, people. In the end, this may be the ultimate “your mileage will vary” movie fan exercise.

-S.L., 10 May 2007

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