Mamma mia, for crying out loud

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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7 Responses to “Mamma mia, for crying out loud”

  1. chrisvogler Says:

    Thanks for comments from Rishi and Frankie from Hungary. I’m trying to get WordPress to post your comments but I can’t see them yet.

  2. Luanne Brown Says:

    Hi Chris, I took your class many years ago in Vancouver, B.C. I had the same reaction you did to “Mamma Mia.” I’m a crier from way back but even I was surprised by my emotional reaction to the film. I connected to the ‘desperate longing’ these characters conveyed especially through song. I had the same reaction to both leads in “Julie and Julia” and while I totally agree with your analysis of what is lacking in the “J +J” film, I really didn’t care–or even sense it at the time of viewing. Is that because I identify with the quiet desperation of a writer dreaming of success in the case of this film? Or with “MM” is it because I am a woman of a certain age still dreaming of youthful romance? Perhaps. But that’s not all it is–for me. I think I responded to the rawness of emotions portrayed in both films. The masks most characters (and people) wear come off at various times in both these stories and to reveal realistic emotion. As humans we are wired to respond to this. We may respond on individual levels based on our own experiences but respond we must! Interestingly enough, my four-year-old grandson begs me to watch “Momma Mia” with him. While I haven’t seen him cry, he bounces up and down and sings along with all the songs–responding at his own level to the joy in the film. Thanks for the work you do. Best wishes, Luanne Brown (Seattle, WA)

    • chrisvogler Says:

      Luanne, Yes to raw emotion. Emotion pictures is what they really are, or should be. There’s a terrible phrase used in the movie industry — “It’s just a piece of business” — meaning that a studio or distributor will release something, not because it’s a good movie that someone was passionate about, but for other reasons: maybe they just need a picture of some kind in theatres at a certain time to fufill a contract with theatre owners, or maybe doing an indifferent or emotionless movie as a vanity piece to please a star will buy them a good performance in a more important film later.

      Very important to watch movies and read stories with your grandchild. He will pick up subtle clues from you and that will all pay off later. My whole career is based on Mom and Grandma reading to me and critiquing movies with me.

  3. Margaret South Says:

    Hello Chris,
    I met you a couple of years back at the Hawaii Writers Conference; of course I feel like I know you because of your book!
    Thanks for your comments on the Julie and Julia issue. Ms. Ephron did pretty well but I agree with you that the “Julie” character’s biggest flaw was that sometimes she was cranky with her husband. And yes, you’re right, she did nothing herself to fix the problem. But I guess why they pay Meryl Streep the big bucks. Anyhow just saying Hi and I love your work.

  4. youscreenwriter Says:

    As a 53 year old man, together with my 24 year old son, had the same magical tearful experience in watching the singing musical movie “Footloose,” played so tenderly by a very young Kevin Bacon.

    What happened to these old fashioned musicals? How can we start writing and producing these again? Is it possible to trigger those emotions in the Millenial audience?
    Or, are we just a severely endangered species, writing for the new generation numbed by violent sexual rollercoaster flicks?

    • chrisvogler Says:

      I think the ground is being plowed for a resurgence of emotionally charged movie musicals with the great infusion of singing and dancing energy that has poured into the culture through TV talent shows and series like Glee and Smash. And the coarse, sensationalistic movies that now dominate our screens are creating a void and a hunger for something simple and heartfelt, entertainment on a human scale. Movies do both ends of the spectrum very well — magnifying reality to show the colossal, the epic, the monstrous, the shocking, but also working at the simple human level to show life in all its painful beauty.

  5. seesawlife Says:

    Hello, Chris. I’ve just discovered your work, but it was by accident. I was searching for information about a theory I had once been introduced to many ages ago in a college course. The course was Mythology; the theory was the hero’s journey. I recalled Joseph Campbell’s name, and, after twenty years of storing that name and vague information about his theory in my head, I decided it was time to finally learn about it. Ater all, the kids are mostly grown, and what’s been stored in the recesses of my mind is beginning to emerge in one form or another. I think it was caring for my mom full-time while she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease that began my journey backward. I reflected on her life in defiant opposition to Alzheimer’s stealing it away. Her life is my life. After all, I am of her. Her hero’s journey was nearing its credits. It was her elixir that sent me diving into boxes to find a still elusive copy of Joseph Campell’s, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Not finding my copy from long ago drove me to the internet and to you. The story is the same, just the names and the faces have changed. I thank you for that. My mom’s journey, her hero’s journey ended on December 12, 2015. Her elixir wasn’t in her hands that morning. It was in her presence the whole time she lived with me. It was the blessings and the growth that I was gifted as her caretaker. She passed her elixir on to me. The hero’s journey as you have redescribed it is everyman’s story. I am so thankful to have found your work, your blog and youtube videos to guide me along my new journey. Thank you for this slice of mentorship as I embark on this new path. It’s fascinating.

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