08 Jan

Blog: Cinema and the tear-jerker

Visitors to our matinées will be familiar with the Light House tissues – the official box which gets handed around the rows when we have a particularly emotional film. New Wolverhampton resident and Light House’s newest ambassador Ron Moy examines the tear-jerker in his latest blog:

That “Little Tommy” moment: or the semiotics of tearful emotions.

(Please be warned, there are a few plot-spoilers in this article)

Cinema is a great, populist vehicle for conveying and evoking big emotions. I remember telling a group of students about Toy Story 3 and one of them said, “ Is it a tear-jerker?” and I replied “ Oh Yes!”, to which this alternative-looking young male said “ Right, now I’m definitely going to see it!”.

Now I like a good cry as much, probably more than the next person, but it depends how the tears are prompted, as well as the setting and how those around are responding. I recently viewed The Fellowship of the Ring for about the tenth time, accompanied by my partner, seeing it for the first time. The death of Boromir has always provoked tears (“I would have followed you, my Captain…”), but my partner, as a big Sean Bean fan, was deeply affected, and that set me off unexpectedly in empathy. We had what is generally known as “a moment”. Maybe that’s the key; Cinema is a profoundly empathetic form. It can transport us to another place, a literally ecstatic state. Now we all recognize that there is shameless manipulation involved in this process, but if it’s done well that old notion of the willing suspension of disbelief rings true. However, if it’s done badly, you get the “Little Tommy” moment. Let me explain.

This term has been used in my family for many years as shorthand for scenes of excessive sentimentality. How it originated, I’m no longer sure. There may well be a film that features a character in tears emoting over a recovering child, or one assumed dead or missing, but if there is, it escapes me (answers on a postcard, please…). I certainly do recall the Elizabeth Taylor character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof hamming it up in her best Southern Belle accent as she proclaims “ Big Daddy, y’all gon’ be well!”. Maybe in a strange way that scene has entered my psyche, with Big Daddy somehow becoming Little Tommy. Emotive memory defies logic.

Of course, sentimentality is not the property of Hollywood, or American mainstream cinema, although on occasions you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s as much part of that culture as Yankee Doodle or mom’s apple pie. Contrast the death of the otter in the adaptation of Ring of Bright Water with equivalent animal death scenes on Hollywood movies and you’ll see what I mean. The British take on tragedy is stark and visceral, the American alternative often cloying and melodramatic. The phenomenon of alternative endings for the same film when shown in Europe or North America was established in the silent screen era. It was assumed, rightly or wrongly, that American audiences could not handle the downbeat or “unsatisfactory” conclusion. Thus endings for imported European films were altered to allow for more sentimentality, melodrama, or good ole “feel-goodness”. Again, there’s good melodrama and bad melodrama. Many would judge the death of the King of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven to be melodramatic, but it still wrecks me, every time. Love Actually is another work that divides opinion and of course, it throws in multiple, interwoven plots and a Christmas ending to rack up the tear factor. However, the Liam Neeson moments alongside his cute son with the big brown eyes (a Disney trait – over-sized peepers) leave me beyond cold whereas Colin Firth’s faltering proposal in bad Portuguese is pure schmaltz, but still hits the right emotional note.

Thankfully, historical connections between sentimentality and the notion of “Womens’ films” have now been dismantled. It is said that Victor Fleming, the third director to have a shot at Gone With the Wind was hired as it was felt that George Cukor’s influence would have made the film less “masculine”. Apparently, macho lead Clark Gable’s influence in this regard was considerable. Having said that, the normally understated Gable’s Rhett Butler, when shedding tears during one dramatic scene, is all the more affecting as a consequence. Many of the “old school” of movie stars didn’t cry, whereas more contemporary actors are less constrained, sometimes to their, and the film’s detriment.

Am I alone in judging Demi Moore’s ability to shed one polite, single tear on demand to be the reason why her performance in the film Ghost is far too “Little Tommy” for many? Yet again, many love this film for the same reasons I dislike it; it all comes down to deeply emotive, subjective responses. I remember being left cold by Truly, Madly, Deeply whilst others dissolved in a pool of blubbing. Conversely, the moment the first cannon ball hits the walls of Avila in The Pride and the Passion, accompanied by a cheer from the army has me in sobs. The scene in the cafe between Morgan Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en is hugely affecting, yet later, Freeman’s final words relating to the Brad Pitt character just don’t ring true – too much sentimentality and too much of a sense of harking back to historical notions of “ a man’s gotta do…”. Ben Afleck’s character and son have a particularly cloying moment at the end of the otherwise worthy (if historically inaccurate) Argo. The effect is to leave a sour (or is it sweet) taste in the mouth that undoes much of the goodwill generated by the rest of the film, which was in the main, resolutely dour. It does partly come down to differences in national character as well as relationships to parenthood, faith and emotion.

Am I alone in having films I just can’t bear seeing again because of the emotions they provoke? Paul Bettany’s performance as Charles Darwin in Creation, tussling with loss of faith and a dying child was so powerful and tragic that it engendered in me that condition that we doctors call “wet shirtcollar-itis”. The Green Mile is another I won’t be returning to in a hurry, another one is Cast Away (but hanks for the memories, Tom). I cry at several points during It’s a Wonderful Life because I know there is a scene coming up that will make me cry…I usually stop watching the aforementioned Gone With the Wind at the halfway point because of its conclusion. Give a damn, Rhett! I can’t watch the last half hour of The Return of the King because the emotion seems milked (and it doesn’t stay true to the book – which usually is not an issue!). Aren’t we a funny lot.

A friend of mine once made a simple statement that has always stayed with me. He said that the power of music lies in the fact that it speaks us. And of course, music is one element deliberately overlooked in this piece (I hope to return to that aspect in future posts). Cinema can be viewed in the same light. Yes, it helps explain the world to us, and our role within it, but it also allows us a unique insight into understanding who we all are as individuals; irrational, illogical, yet utterly unique. As the poet Walt Whitman once said “we contain multitudes”.

Ron Moy

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  1. Jane Fraser says:

    Interesting discussion. I was talking the other day about a showing of “A Tale of Two Cities” at my school for an end-of-term treat many years ago. The “little Tommy” moments left our English teacher cold, but we impressionable girls were in floods of tears at “It is a far, far better thing I do…etc”, but then Dickens himself was an arch-manipulator, whose prose did not move me. The interpretation by Dirk Bogarde, however, was a different matter……

  2. Steve Morley says:

    Perhaps the point of a film, be it a documentary or a drama, is to manipulate our emotions, whether to simply engage and entertain us or to inform and influence us. Perhaps this is a director’s duty. The film I’ve probably been most affected by is “Schindler’s List”, but I wasn’t moved to tears, just stunned into silence. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen after the screening of which the entire audience left the cinema without saying a word. I’m sure that everyone was thinking about what they’d just seen, and stories like Schindler’s shouldn’t be forgotten – so long as the film makers do justice to the truth. If points about human nature are to be made – such as the redeeming courage of Carlton when he goes to his “rest” – then we wouldn’t be able to understand them properly if we weren’t engaged emotionally.

  3. Jane Kidall says:

    My film that I can never see again is The Boy In The Striped Pajamas. A story originally written as a children’s book, I watched it with my three sons and Husband at the cinema, at the end I was the only one reduced to uncontrollable sobbing while my children( now adults) looked on in horror.I was fine until the final scene as the parents of the little boy who had just entered the gas chamber were frantically looking for their little boy, it was simple empathy with those parents and all the jewish families for whom there was no choice, and of course it was based around truth making that empathy very real.For me not a “little Tommy” moment.

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