Archive for December, 2008

Mamma mia, for crying out loud

December 15, 2008

Hello blog world. I guess I am coming late to the blog party but here goes. I want to open up by inviting discussion of an issue that bears upon writing for movies but which, like many things I write and think about, has applications far beyond screenwriting, and that is “Why do some movies make me cry?” And I’m not talking about weepy scenes where somebody dies, but a different kind of crying that expresses something quite distinct from grief or sympathy with the dire plight of a movie character. I’m talking about tears of joy, tears of appreciation.

This came up recently when my wife and I went to see a screening of “Mamma Mia”. I confess I went with low expectations, my default setting these days when most movies seem to be disappointing, a waste of time, or actually painful to my eyeballs. I had little data on MAMMA MIA going in; I hadn’t seen the musical on stage and had no history to speak of with the Abba music. I figured I’d give it a shot mainly because of Meryl Streep, a trouper who usually manages to turn in a good performance no matter what movie she’s in.

As we left the theatre, my wife was wiping the corners of her eyes and remarked “My God, I don’t know why but I was crying buckets in there.” I admitted that I too had been crying off and on throughout the movie, and not just a tear and a sniffle, but great gushers pouring from both eyes and meeting in a stream under my chin. As a man, I am skilled at concealing such displays of emotion, so my wife thought she was alone in her tearfulness, but the movie had affected me in the same way. (It’s one of the joys of our marriage that we usually see the same movie — we both love it or hate it to much the same degree and we rarely disagree. If it’s bad, we both want to get up and leave at the same time, and if it’s good, we find later we enjoyed it for much the same reasons.)

In this case we both reacted spontaneously, involuntarily, to some mysterious emotional triggers in the movie. At first we were baffled and put off, as many people were, by the production’s odd rhythms and eccentric choices. We felt embarrassed for the actors who seemed to have been directed to pitch their performances way over the top, and we felt apprehension as they approached the moment of truth when they would open their mouths and start to sing.

But as soon as the performers broke the ice and began to sing, something magical happened. We found ourselves deeply moved by the simple spectacle of people singing and dancing with joy. We got choked up every time a musical number kicked in, and the tears began to flow like someone had turned on faucets in the corners of our eyes. The weeping grew to an almost ridiculous extent, climaxing with the big show-stopping “Dancing Queen” production number in the middle of the movie, where my sweater started getting wet from the tears falling on it.

I am no stranger to this kind of crying; it’s a rare experience but one of the main reasons I love movies and chose to spend my life working in the movie industry. But MAMMA MIA offered such an extreme example that it made me return to a lifelong interest in the emotional triggers, the kinds of scenes and situations that evoke these strong emotions.

I tried to analyze what was making me cry so freely in this case. I thought of other movies and situations that evoked a similar response. The same kind of thing sometimes happens when I am watching movies on an airplane, like MY DOG SKIP or OCTOBER SKY. I start out cynical, expecting the movie to underwhelm, but after a couple of reels the tears are running down my cheeks and the flight attendants are wondering if something’s wrong with me. Maybe it’s something about the high altitude but that doesn’t account for the fountains of tears evoked by MAMMA MIA which I saw at a theatre about ten feet above sea level.

If I had to put a name on the emotion I was feeling it would be “gratitude.” I was somehow deeply grateful that people were risking something and expressing their feelings through music, dance, and film. There was a kind of admiration for the audacity of the filmmakers’ vision, and appreciation for people attempting good old-fashioned entertainment.

There was also something powerful about what I call “choral movement”, a technique of film and stage directing in which masses of people move in unison. I first became aware of this as a young film student watching the early films of Sergei Eisenstein, who made crowds of people flow like rivers across the screen to evoke strong emotional responses. Later I noticed and enjoyed it in the work of directors like David Lean and John Ford, and in movie musicals from the heyday of MGM and Warner Bros. Ford in particular could wring tears from my eyes by directing a small group of people to act like a Greek chorus, moving and speaking all together. He does it a number of times in his remarkable series of movies about the U.S. Cavalry, beginning with FORT APACHE, where he stages a dependably tear-jerking sequence set at a formal dance. Officers, enlisted men, wives and sweethearts all join hands and dance together, becoming a single organism that makes a strong visual metaphor of the young nation. (Anybody know what song the regimental band is playing?)

MAMMA MIA makes effective and conscious use of the Greek chorus idea, literally providing a chorus of Greek extras, non-professional actors playing villagers who comment on the action and often move in unison to express the solidarity of the community or the infectious energy of the dances and songs. It was this sense of an entire community being moved by music and emotion that brought about the biggest explosion of tears for me.

Other things in movies and life bring about those tears of gratitude. Sometimes I get them watching movies about history, science fiction, or fantasy, when an artist has pulled off a particularly effective image or sequence. The balletic fight scenes in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, for example, or certain scenes in GLADIATOR, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, JURASSIC PARK, or occasionally in a Star Trek movie. Sometimes it’s a matter of wish fulfillment for me — I have read and vividly imagined a scene, and am thrilled at some deep, tear-triggering level of my being that someone has realized the same vision skillfully on the screen. In this way, the passion and commitment of Peter Jackson and his team in bringing THE LORD OF THE RINGS to the screen caused the tears of gratitude to flow every ten minutes or so as one after another of my favorite scenes was executed brilliantly.

Such tears are not the exclusive province of the movies, of course. Music, theatre, and even current events can trigger them. I’m thinking about the strong emotional response many people, including me, had to the election of Barack Obama. It can still bring tears to my eyes to think about that night or go back to the unforgettable image of Jesse Jackson, tears running down his cheeks and finger pressed to his lips to keep them from quivering with the strong emotions at play.

I guess what MAMMA MIA was providing with its floods of tears was catharsis, the sometimes explosive physical response to emotional situations that Aristotle wrote about. I’m curious to know if other people had similar reactions to the movie, although I’m aware some people didn’t, and in fact walked out after ten minutes because they just couldn’t handle Pierce Brosnan trying to sing. I’d like to hear from you about movies and situations that bring about tears of joy or gratitude. What is the organ of the body that is affected by these scenes? Why do we cry with joy rather than laughing or smiling? What do you think?

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