Cinema and the Lachrymose
What is cinema, Bazin famously asked, throwing the question onto the medium of film, but one might equally wonder, throwing the question back at ourselves, why cinema, why do we watch films? Where Bazin was obviously very interested in how the question of cinema also asks questions about oneself, how much film theory has really attended to the self as a viewing subject in all one's affectivity? What we want to look at here is how films affect us, how they create movements of feeling within us. This isn't based on general techniques, in the manner that the cognitivists talk of general emotional states that the film provokes, in the Pavlovian manner of cues and expectations, but what we might call affective surprises - strong feelings that are individuating as opposed to generalising. This isn't to deny that films allow for general feelings, and anything from the thriller to the weepie insist on bodily affects to succeed on the terms upon which they are made. But can we call films like Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, My Dinner with Andre, La Strada, The Elephant Man and It's a Wonderful Life weepies, even if they all may provoke tears in us as viewers? The viewer doesn't cry as one cries at the end of Love Story, Terms of Endearment or Titanic, or when Wallace's father dies and leaves the boy orphaned in Braveheart, where we notice the tears are engineered and provoked; the tears are instead in these other films, we're suggesting, evoked and invoked.
To engineer tears is to utilise the conventional methods of image, music and narrative timing to create the appropriate emotional response and at the appropriate emotional moment. This moment is usually at the end of the film and utilises a strong cue score, an unequivocally emotionally determined soundtrack that indicates how we should respond. Indeed Tom Lutz talks of crocodile tears in film, and says "when crocodiles fully extend their jaws to swallow a victim [their] lacrimal ducts are squeezed and...tears are produced. Real crocodiles' tears are in fact meaningless in emotional terms." These are the sort of tears of ready emotion, and Colin McArthur (who utilises the Lutz quote) in Braveheart, Brigadoon and the Scots says that the composer James Horner's music for both Titanicand Braveheart "is designed wholly to produce emotion in the audience, which inevitably means that much of it will be coldly calculated to elicit tears.
Such an approach engineers tears; it doesn't invoke them from a deeper place inside us. It is also true that at the end of The Elephant Man, My Dinner with Andre and La Strada they all work with strong scores and conclude on the most emotionally intense moments, yet can we not discern a difference of feeling that transcends the devices, and also as a consequence say a little about how these apparently normal devices are used differently? We may notice that the films we name-checked positively are all inner crisis films - even The Elephant Man concerns itself with the inner man no matter the external deformity. His death at the end is a choice he makes, as he lies down to sleep in a position that he knows will kill him. It is partly the inner crisis in each of these films that are moving us, as opposed to the external crisis and event of the other movies. The deaths inTerms of Endearment and Love Story are due to cancer; in Titanic due to drowning. One reason why they invoke a strong emotional reaction at the conclusion is because the lives are concluded externally - there is external event not an internal problem.
In all the other films we have mentioned, one reason we think the tears can come surprisingly is because of the internal communion they invoke rather than provoke. The provoked tears work with strong cues and external events; the invoked tears weaken the cues and allude to internal feeling. Why should we at all be moved at the end of My Dinner with Andre, when we have witnessed nothing more than a conversation between two friends who know each other reasonably well and where one of them (Wallace Shawn) seemed reluctant to go through with the meeting in the first place? Why even in Life is Sweet might one be moved when the father tells his bulimic daughter that he and his wife have worked so hard all their lives just to make their kids happy, or when sister Cynthia asks her brother for a hug in the attic of her house in Secrets and Lies? In each instance, and in La Strada and The Elephant Man also, they provoke the feeling of yearning, the sense not only of a life lived but other lives half lived, feelings and thoughts suppressed, repressed, unable to find an outlet. These are the tears of melancholy rather than tragedy, of internal regret and loss that is all the more moving in its equivocalness. Even if in La Strada, Giuletta Masina dies, she dies long before our anti-hero played by Anthony Quinn hears about it. It is not her death that moves us, but his awareness of the emotionally wasted life he has lived where he has for too many years suppressed his feelings in womanizing and drinking. It is his inner melancholy that releases the emotion; not her demise. It is to this inner melancholy that all the films we admire here are attending - even The Elephant Man and It's a Wonderful Life.
Frank Capra's film moves us partly because of the yearning within James Stewart's character, a figure who longed to escape his home town but never did, and now believes his life a failure as he contemplates suicide. The genius of The Elephant Man is that it doesn't asks us to pity the external figure of John Merrick, but empathise with his inner hurt, his sensitivity that makes him a man trapped inside the body of a monster. "I am a man, not an animal", he insists as he is backed into a corner at the railway station: the form disappears as the soul becomes manifest.
It is in this manifestation of the soul, without giving it any religious connotations at all, that we are recognising in all the films of invocation. It is an inner movement in the character that allows consequently for an inner movement in the viewer. In such instances we don't feel cheated by the filmmaker; don't feel that the tears are the emotional equivalent of a sequence that turns out to be a dream in say a horror movie, but that the tears have been earned because they somehow access the tears within us and not only the tears of the form. They are also the tears of our own ontological sorrow. This may seem a little vague, so let us say more first of all about the horror film that utilises dream sequences to get the audience to have a physiological feeling of shock or surprise, but that has no impact on character and narrative consequence at all. This is obviously not quite true in the case of the weepie, or a film that is engineering tears: we don't expect the filmmaker to offer up a dream sequence to generate the lachrymose, but it might feel almost as superficially and irrelevant if the filmmaker provokes tears in us without quite invoking them. If the horror filmmaker kills off his leading character in what turns out to be a dream as they wake up clearly alive, then the weepie equivalent is to generate tears that are equally generic in the sense they must have a pay off. It is this notion of the pay off that matters, and how we have been manipulated into expressing them. Now when someone watches a horror film, screams when the hero is killed off and then moments later realises it was a dream, they will express their irritation or relief that they've been tricked and the hero is still alive. They will be well-aware they have been cheated. However, in films like Braveheart and Titanic they are unlikely to comment in quite the same way about James Horner's manipulative score, or the sentimental reaction shots to other characters. Yet in terms of manipulation they function very similarly. The latter jump starts the tears; the former jump starts the jumps. One senses though that in My Dinner with Andre etc. the films wants us to find the tears within us deeply, more than extract them from us superficially. The sorrow in such instances should always be deeper than the tears extracted.
A good example of a film that fails to achieve its deeper affect because of its insistence on making the tearful moment too categorical is Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. As Tom Hanks WWII Sergeant dies, he tells the Matt Damon character he has sacrificed his life so that Damon can go on living. Just afterwards we flash forward to the present day and Damon at Hanks' grave with the family looking on. Damon turns to his wife and asks if he has been a good man, and she looks at him inexplicably. It is a great moment of the yawning gap between even the closest of couples, and of experiences they will never quite make comprehensive to the other. But Spielberg can't quite trust its ambivalent depth and insists on its shallow certainty. The bugle music strikes up and the film cuts to an American flag. Instead of it being a great moment of marital inexplicability manifested in a moment of recollection to Damon's past, Spielberg turns it into a jingoistic scene of audience gratification. Rather than risking the partial and deep feeling of one being moved by the marital chasm, Spielberg plays up the maximum emotional resonance by making sure that it links strongly to the story, strongly to the sense of the mission accomplished that allows Damon's character to live, marry and have kids. Of course he has been a good man, the film says, and Hanks' death was entirely justified.
It is a typical Spielberg example of making sure of the audience pay off by minimising ambiguity of response. When we think of the scene where Cynthia asks Maurice for a hug in Secrets and Lies, the textual significance is minor next to the viewer's sense of the scene. It contains the kernel of feeling that Spielberg's film furnishes, but leaves it as kernel to allow for the viewer's sensibility to permeate the moment. We don't exactly know why Cynthia wants a hug, but if we think about, or better still feel our way about, the scene it makes perfect sense. She has a difficult relationship with her daughter, no man in her life and their parents are dead and here they are in the attic surrounded by their past. Why wouldn't she ask for a hug, we might say, giving it some thought and feeling of our own? The film feels under no obligation to think that thought and feeling aesthetically for us, and gives the viewer room to breathe emotionally in the sequence. Spielberg offers instead emotional asphyxiation and ruins a great moment.
A particularly strong example of this emotional single-mindedness is evident in one of the most famous weepies of all, the already mentioned Love Story. Throughout the film, the emotions it extracts are singular in the sense they have nothing underpinning them, no sense of crisis that is bigger than the situation the character is in. Now the situation might be monumental as the girlfriend ends up dying of Leukemia, but what we have been arguing for is the importance of the minor registers of feeling - the tears that cannot so readily be cued to one event. When it looks like the couple will split up and Ryan O' Neal goes looking for Ali MacGraw, the music plays on the idea of the tragic loss to come. We know from the beginning of the film that he will lose her to illness, but this then gives every argument and moment a sense of loss because of the little time they will have together. Though the dsipute between them comes out of O'Neal's refusal to talk to his rich dad, and McGraw saying to the father on the phone that O'Neal nevertheless loves him, the purpose of the scene is to create the necessary conflict that will lead O'Neal to get desperate as he searches for her presence in the streets. We know as an audience what he doesn't yet know as a character - that he will soon lose her permanently to the disease the film has set up from the very beginning. What happens is that with the music playing up a tragedy far greater than the scene itself justifies, there is little nuance in the scene : no sense of multiple variables that can allow us our emotions within the sequence.
Cognitively the scene works very well, well in the sense that it leaves us unequivocally responding to a moment in the film: the emotional response is hardly ambiguous. Yet in the invoking of tears we are often left responding equivocally, complexly. One way to explore this further is to differentiate between Jean-Francois Lyotard's comments on trauma and loss in Heidegger and the jews, and Noel Carroll's cognitivist take on emotion in an article called 'Film and Affect'. When Lyotard invokes Freud and says "the hypothesis of an unconscious without "representational formations"...necessitates a break from the philosophy of consciousness, even if the term "unconscious" still refers to it," we might choose to say no more than what he offers here that is pertinent in relation to cinema and tears, is a sort of traumatic thought within thought. It is the idea behind the feeling that can surprise us, because it lacks ready representational, readily cause and effectual emotion, and this seems very much to contrast with the decidedly un-Freudian cognitivist Carroll, whose Post-Theory (co-edited with David Bordwell), was an attack on much psychoanalytic film theory. "My hypothesis has been that by critically prefocusing the film text - where the criteria in question are the ones appropriate to certain emotions - filmmakers encourage spectators to subsume the events onscreen under certain categories, namely the categories pertinent to the excitation of the relevant emotional states." He also says "a cognitive approach holds that an emotional state is one in which some physical state of felt agitation is caused by an individual's construal and evaluation of his situation."
Carrol does say emotions are mixed, but they are still clear, evident in his interesting comments on dysphoric (depressive) and euphoric (joyful) emotions in cinema, as he gives an example of our hero being wronged in a film called The Arrival as an example of the former, and the sheriff finally defeating the shark in Jaws as an example of the latter. However, Lyotard addresses the problem of trauma as an event within an event that cannot readily by cognitively seized, that must be prehended rather than apprehended, sensed rather than categorically felt. He says that one must "fight to remember that one forgets as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain. It means to fight against the precariousness of what has been established, of the reestablished past," before adding later, and more complexly still, ""a past that is not past...is thus not even there as absence, as terra incognita, but it is there nevertheless."
The further reaches of Lyotard's argument needn't concern us here; we offer it chiefly as a brief counter response to the sort of assured cognitive expectations of Carroll, especially when he so readily dismisses psychoanalytic criticism unless it can prove to be doing something that can't be covered by cognitive approaches. "Confronted by cognitivist hypotheses about the perception of the cinematic image, the psychoanalytic critic must show that there is something about the phenomena that is alien to cognitivist theorizing." In the examples of the films that interest us here, what counts is the prehension of emotion, the sense that the emotion we feel is indeterminate, but all the stronger for its indeterminacy. How one then chooses to access that emotion depends on the critic, but the psychoanalytically inclined approach might be more useful at hinting at emotional depths over immediate cognitive responses.
In a scene from The Elephant Man for example John Merrick is first introduced to the doctor's wife and we see simultaneously a beauty in her that can also register the pain in Merrick, and that Merrick can register her beauty all the more because he can see in her gaze the beauty that is within her and not only manifest in her looks, and in turn would seem to know that she can recognize his inner beauty in the look she gives him. When he tells her how beautiful she is, this is a complex moment of emotional indeterminacy. When Ali McGraw's character dies at the end of Love Story, it is categorically tragic, a loss that leaves no traumatic surprise, no emotional residue. It is this traumatic surprise that the films we admire seem to be searching out as they try to find an emotion that cannot be reduced to cause and effect feeling.
Yet this indeterminacy can nevertheless allow for a stronger first principle than the one where the categorical emotion is expressed narratively. What principle underlies the death at the end of Love Story - our response is quite simply that it is sad, a tragic waste of a young love. It doesn't seem to search out a principle of emotion in the Spinozan sense where he breaks down emotional states into various categories. The moment quoted from The Elephant Man is a complex exploration of the first principle of compassion. We are moved more by the principle within the scene, than the categorical emotion expressed on top of the scene. Now if we compare it to the moment in Saving Private Ryan, we can see how Spielberg sacrifices the principle to the ready emotion. If Spielberg had held only to the wife's baffled look after her husband asks has he been a good man, the film would have achieved a great moment of emotional incomprehension as understanding: a fine scene of the gap between two people even in what is no doubt a close and clearly long lasting marriage and who nevertheless sense each other's depths. Instead Spielberg wants to turn it into a jingoistic one; he turns it into a scene that becomes a hymn to patriotism and self-sacrifice with the bugles and the flag. The deep and subtle principle becomes subordinated to the weaker stated emotional fact; the weak but clear feeling takes precedence over the subtler emotional idea. If people find themselves crying at the scene in Saving Private Ryan the emotion is unlikely to surprise them; but in the scene from The Elephant Man, or Secrets and Lies, or My Dinner with Andre, there is no broad, tragic dimension moving us, but there is instead some feeling being invoked.
Perhaps to clarify some of the ideas we've explored here it is useful to try and understand in the Spinozist sense what these emotions happen to be, and by the same token explain the more obvious cognitivist assumptions that allow films like Saving Private Ryan, Love Story and Terms of Endearment to work on a more superficial level, and subsequently lack the deep feelings we believe are present in the other films. When we mention Spinoza we are thinking of his analysis of the emotions in Ethics. Here he isn't interested in broad stroke approaches to feeling, but their minutiae, evident when he says, for example, on the difference between dejection and pride: "dejection can be more easily corrected than pride, since the latter is an emotion of pleasure, while the other is an emotion of pain; and therefore the former is the stronger of the two." This is the sort of nuanced emotion one feels in films like Secrets and Lies and the others are searching out. Indeed if we think about the scene in the loft in Leigh's film we might analyse it in a Spinozan way. It is not only that Cynthia is lonely, though she is, and not only that she wants a hug, though she does, but that she feels the need for a hug in the place which contains so many memories, and requires it from the one person left who can share in them. The hug isn't the general one of demanding sympathy for her loneliness, though she clearly would like this, but a more specific and textured one that asks for someone to share the loneliness of memories recalled.
In Love Story the girl dies of Leukemia but the death seems to be without subtlety, and so though the tragedy of a death is much greater than that of someone needing a hug, the latter has greater nuance. If Ryan O'Neal's character asked for hug, we would know exactly why he would be asking for it. To ask for a hug is a gesture of feeling against an indeterminate loneliness in Secrets and Lies; in Love Story it would be a typical response to a tragic event. Indeed, how many films work with character tension resolved by a tragedy that dwarfs that tension? Ali McGraw's death in Love Story helps contextualize the triviality of the father and son dynamic, while in Terms of Endearment, tensions between the mother and dying daughter prove irrelevant next to the latter's forthcoming demise. Is the film moving towards predictable or textured emotion, we might ask?
The central question here is whether one sees film as a medium for exploring emotion or stating it. Carroll says "in this chapter I have proposed a sketch of a theoretical framework for analyzing the relation between film and what I have called the emotions proper (or, alternatively the garden variety emotions)." These garden variety emotions are organised by the filmmaker who "by critically prefocusing the film text" allow for clear responses. Here we have common feeling, where what we have been looking at is uncommon feeling, affects not so readily of the garden variety.
To explore further let us take an example of a film famous for its Capra-corn, for its perceived sentimentality. For the fine critic Gilberto Perez, Frank Capra's portrayal of the "'little people' he purportedly loves tends to sentimentality and condescension," (The Material Ghost) but is this a rare moment of Perez simplifying an emotional position, and putting the film into the Love Story/Terms of Endearment category while we feel it taps into more precise emotional responses? One way of making sense of its relative complexity is to compare it to a moment not entirely dissimilar in dramatic purpose: a scene near the end of Schindler's List where Schindler says to the crowd of Jews in front of him how he could have helped more than he did. It is if in a very different and rather more ostensibly harrowing a way, also a scene of people populism, a moment where the little man (the put upon Jew) is aware of the importance of one figure in the community, no matter how awful an environment it happens to be. In It's a Wonderful Life, people realise how despairing James Stewart's character is, how desperate happens to be his financial situation, and person after person comes to the rescue as they offer money. Now of course in Schindler's List, Schindler gives all he has away, while in It's a Wonderful Life George is the beneficiary, but what is interesting is the nature of response to the main character's significance. In Schindler's List, Spielberg reduces the supporting players to little more than a gliding track along their faces, where in Capra's film each person has their own reasons for helping George out. It is a scene of almost Renoiresque bustle as George realises that he has many friends, and where, as the Burns poem they sing indicates, old acquaintances won't be forgot.
Where Spielberg's use of music, Schindler's speechifying, and the emphatic body language create a singular feeling of remorse on Schindler's part, and gratitude on the Jews', as he realises he could have done more, and that they are pleased that he did something, Capra's film seems to be underpinned by an interior need to explore the feelings generated by the community that are singular and communal simultaneously. The characters aren't simply reaction shots to George Bailey's thoughts and feelings, but Renoir-like figures of singularity contributing to the character's own realisation that here are people who care. Yet we have a sense not only that people care about him, as people in Schindler's List show awe and respect for Schindler, but that they care about people. It gives the beautiful scene where everyone comes and delivers money to George's house not the sentimental singularity some might accuse Capra of offering, but a sense that everybody has their emotional reasons, and thus giving the viewer some freedom in one's own emotional response.
When critic Jonathan Rosenbaum admits that "the fact remains if [Spielberg] weren't this ruthless or this efficient I wouldn't have wept at the end of Schindler's List both times I saw it," (Movies as Politics) we might say instead that it is Spielberg's ruthless efficiency in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan that deny our tears. There is certainly nothing surprising in them if we do shed a tear, where in some of the other films we have talked of, the surprising tears may be saying as much about us as about the formal skills of the filmmaker utilising the devices to make us cry. Spielberg is a masterfully conventional filmmaker, but he cannot drag out from us anything but the most conventionally lachrymose response, where perhaps what we are asking for is the thought that is a little like Maurice Blanchot's notion of a thought from the outside, a thought Gilles Deleuze expresses well. "The outside in Foucault as in Blanchot from whom he takes the word, is something looser than any inner world...Thinking doesn't come from within, but nor is it something that happens in the external world. It comes from this Outside, and returns to it, it amounts to confronting it." (Negotiations)
Can we thus conclude by suggesting tears ought to come from the outside also? "The fright of real tears", to borrow a comment made by Krzysztof Kieslowski, are perhaps a combination of inevitable formal intention without overt manipulation, an inner realisation of its impact, and finally the Spinozan sense of it formulating a principle for us of feeling. Since tears are hardly commonly offered in adulthood, perhaps we need to be very wary indeed of films too easily extracting them from us. The fright of false tears, of crocodile tears, is nothing if not ontologically troublesome: perhaps a final failure of empathy rather than its ready success.
© Tony McKibbin