Here come the waterworks

What the hell is wrong with me? I never used to cry all the time — well, I was a crybaby kid up to the age of about 16, but that was bawling for entirely selfish reasons. I fell down, grazed a knee, wanted attention. Eventually got that under control — if you’re bullied at school, you don’t also want to be a hysteric — and didn’t cry once until the age of about 28, in which I had a dream my mother died and woke up teary. Floodgates opened? I then became somebody who might blink furiously at a moment of high emotion, suppressing the urge to blub with manly dignity — actual weeping was still practically unheard of.

But lately I’ve been more and more a soft target for sentiment — this was brought home to me spectacularly when I screened THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK for students. Now, Sturges uses schmaltz almost shamelessly, that is he ladles it on with barefaced cheek, but he also peppers it with humour, declaring that he’s really above that sort of thing. When I first discovered his work, I felt like he was making fun of the sentimentality of Hollywood movies, and I was completely with him on that. Any set-up to a moment of emotion in a Sturges film is likely to be savagely punctured by the pinprick of laughter.

There are exceptions in the noirish crime stuff in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the social conscience stuff in that same picture (a social conscience film parodying the impulse to make social conscience films), and certainly in the screenplay of REMEMBER THE NIGHT, maybe my favourite Christmas film, and THE GREAT MOMENT, but neither of those were executed by Sturges alone: the first was directed by the great Mitchell Leisen, who was compelled to shorten Sturges’ script, and the second was subject to egregious studio interference by Paramount boss Buddy DeSylva, whose talents as songwriter did not transfer to his productorial or narrative activities.

I still feel that, in a major sense, Sturges’ use of pathos is all part of the set of tricks he uses to bum-steer the audience before hitting them with gags. And yet there I was, blinking back great salty globules of eye-water as Trudy Kockenlocker and Norval Jones are brought together by an outrageous narrative contrivance which ought to achieve the heights of Brechtian alienation by virtue of its sheer implausibility.

It’s a very real problem. If this goes on, I may require a Perrier drip just to stop me dehydrating from the leaking of clown-spray eyeballs. A dog-weepie like the terrific DEAN SPANLEY would make me shrivel to Angelo Rossetti size, a wailing wrinkled dwarf saved from complete desiccation only by the fact that I would be unable to see over the heads of anybody in front of me in the cinema. If I attempted to watch Jack Clayton’s sublime THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE again, I would probably dry up and blow away like so much dandruff. As it is, handkerchiefs may soon become hopelessly inadequate, as if one stood in the path of a bursting damn or DeMille’s Red Sea, holding up a tiny swatch of fabric before the tidal onslaught. I would need to carry a couple of buckets everywhere to wring my face out into. Or attach suction pumps to my tear ducts to drain off the excess fluid into a plastic bag strapped to my leg, maybe. Perhaps a Fremen stillsuit, as modeled by Kyle MacLachlan in DUNE, would be the ultimate answer.

Can you see me in one of these?

What’s more worrying about this than the idea of evaporating mid-sniffle is what it may do to my critical acumen, such as it is. It seems to be quite hard to take against a movie that makes you cry, and if all movies make you cry, where are you? I’ve had conversations with people who cried at DANCER IN THE DARK, and they seemed to think that proved it was a good movie, or at least suggested that it might be. I wanted to say, Your emotion is real, you had a genuine emotional experience, and I don’t intend to belittle it. But that movie is a turd, a giant unspeakable shit, as thick as a kettle, taking 140 minutes to emerge into the light, unspooling on the floor in great drooping coils, hissing noxiously to itself the while, reeking of effluent and paraffin. No wonder your eyes watered. But I didn’t say that.

I felt coolly superior to those saps then. Not anymore. Not anymore.


32 Responses to “Here come the waterworks”

  1. DANCER IN THE DARK is a wonderful film, one of Trier’s best.

  2. Now I’m crying … with laughter! I’ve had to be helped from cinemas and supported by a strong arm in order to make it home on many occasions. The times when it has been most shaming are when the strong arm has been provided by my 8 year old son after we’ve seen the children’s matinee … There are films I’m unable to watch again, and I’m not sure whether that means they’re good or just simply too ridiculously manipulative that I refuse point blank to let them do that to me again (Bridge to Terabithia being one such, Finding Neverland another. And anything on the telly starring David Jason). Judith Hearne I can watch at five or ten year intervals, when I’m in the house alone and don’t need to be anywhere or do anything afterwards for an hour or so. Dean Spanley I’ll happily weep along with any day of the week.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Worry not, I cry all the time at movies…but only at the really cheesy, tacky sentimental ones. Show me Ingmar Bergman at his bleakest and I’m perfectly calm, but don’t let me near any of the following.

    My favourite sob-a-thon for years has been TEA WITH MUSSOLINI, especially when Fascist blackshirts try to throw Dame Judi Dench’s dog out the window of the Uffizi Gallery. (I don’t even like dogs!) As for the bit when Cher’s toyboy turns out to be a Fascist agent who wants to sell her to the Gestapo and steal all her money…I’m a helpless puddle on the floor.

    Another great favourite is THE HONEST COURTESAN (aka. DANGEROUS BEAUTY) where Jacqueline Bisset as an ageing Venetian working girl dies a lingering – but oh-so-photogenic – death from bubonic plague. Bidding farewell to her daughter, she says something like “Oh darling, I’m so frightfully sorry I turned you into a hooker. Trust me, I’ll never do it again!” What her daughter says in response has always been lost on me, as my own howls of grief inevitably drown it out.

    I’ve even been known to cry in anticipation at movies I know well, notably those starring Catherine Deneuve. For example INDOCHINE where her adopted daughter gets locked up for Marxist agitation, gets out of a labour camp and doesn’t love her any more. Or THE HUNGER, where her vampire lover (David Bowie) gets old and withered so she locks him up in a coffin and stores him in an attic full of angel choirs and fluttering pigeons. I can feel scenes like this coming up so start weeping a good 5 minutes before they happen!

    And there’s one word I dare not even say out loud…Disney cartoons! After my very crying fits at both LADY AND THE TRAMP and HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME my partner now refuses to go with me because he can’t bear the public humiliation.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    “No Waterworks” guaranteed by Kubrick, Clouzot, and Haneke.

    “Waterworks” guaranteed by Ozu (TOKYO STORY), Bresson (a donkey dies to a Schubert dirge!), Ray (gutted by the ending of at least three of his films: IN A LONELY PLACE, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, ON DANGEROUS GROUND).

  5. Funny but I’ve never had that reaction to Sturges — especially The Mitacle of Morgan’s Creek. I thought it was a scream from start to finish.

    As for films that make me cry, number one is Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante closely followed by Jacques Demy’s Lola. Impossible Happy Endings really get to me.

  6. I’ve always been a softy. It’s unmanly, sure, but I can take it. And crying at the end of an emotionally involving masterpiece can fool me into thinking I’m entirely evolved and human. The conundrum is that I also feel the urge to cry at button-pressing sentiment in quite awful movies. For someone like me, someone who would likely be less kind to those cretinous bawlers at DANCER IN THE DARK, this is quite embarrassing, humiliating even. I refuse to divulge the particulars of what turns me into such a spineless, blubbering mess, but it certainly has nothing to do with incredibly noble, self-sacrificing, unconditionally loving, cute-as-a-button li’l doggies.

  7. specterman Says:

    Yes, the ending of Au Hasard Balthazar is the worst. I have to blow my nose as well as wipe away the tears with that one. Distant Voices, Still Lives has made me greet a few times too.

    The ending of The Railway Children always seems to catch me, the events are joyous but the mood created is so sweetly melancholic. Where the reunion of mother and father is forever left as a private unfilmable moment, such tact, and the children walk off across the field and then that voice over that has such a distant quality to it. It all combines to create one of the most beautiful endings in film (imho).

  8. Any movies with animals makes me cry, even the ones with happy endings. Some animal movies I’ve avoided altogether. I’ve had the DVD of Au hasard Balthazar for years but have never worked up the courage to watch it.

    The one that had me laughing where all were crying was The Passion of the Christ. I saw it in a packed theater, everyone was sniffling and tearing up, including the men, and I was puzzled at how such a ludicrously drawn-out gorefest could elicit all the waterworks.

    Borzage always gets to me… whether the ending is happy (Lucky Star) or sad (Mortal Storm), I’m left a wreck.

    Saddest movie ever made: Grave of the Fireflies. Could only watch it once, although it’s a great film.

  9. I was just reading some E Nesbitt last night. Lionel Jeffries may have only hit the nail on the head once as director, but he certainly has one he’ll be remembered for!

    Agreed on Grave of the Fireflies. Felt desperately sad from about one minute in, knew exactly where it was going, was in shreds anyway.

  10. Ever been surveyed on the way out of a theater? Usually it’s with those useless multiple-choice cards (“I would recommend this film to friends?” “Strongly disagree”) but once I was offered free passes to another film if I just narrated my thoughts on the movie I’d just seen to a woman with a clipboard. And I’d just seen DANCER IN THE DARK. It was a sold-out advance screening full of people thirty years older than myself, and a hundred of them gathered ’round in horror listening as I unleashed my rage on the film, trying to protest but hushed by the survey-taker (“you’ll all get your turn”). One of my happiest (or at least most cathartic) post-screening experiences.

    But right, I’ll start crying at work, or while driving around, if I so much as think about certain films. Up, Sunrise, 35 Shots of Rum, The Long Day Closes… gotta run now.

  11. Just read today that Gilbert Adair died last week. Sad news. He was a nice man.

  12. Finding Neverland is a lovely little film.

  13. Bullied in school…we have more in common than I thought! My bullying ended just before junior high when I flattened someone with a lucky punch. After that, I was just another kid whose answers got copied, which started me being cynical. I can’t say I ever cried at a film, just stood at the precipice (shimmering eyes). I credit this to being shown the most emotionally manipulative Disney live-action movies when I was small. I’d bawl and then hate myself for it, so Walt inoculated me such that I didn’t even cry at Bambi when I finally saw it.

  14. Yes, Adair is a sad loss.

    I made intermittent attempts at BEING a bully at school, the worst behaviour of my life: I was so hapless I could only bully the truly craven, tiny or slow, and it just made me feel terrible so I quit. After that I had even more contempt for the people bullying me, which didn’t help. But if you’re going to be picked on, you at least want the moral high ground.

    I have nothing against those who like Dancer in the Dark. I just think they’ve been conned.

  15. Paula, I thought I had grown too old and too cynical to ever cry again at a movie, until I was recently introduced to Borzage. Lucky Star! Seventh Heaven! Just pick me up, dust me down, and dry my tears.

    The one that had me laughing while all around other women were sobbing? Out of Africa. Which is one reason I will NOT see Meryl Streep play Thatcher.

  16. I once lightheartedly threw another kid (yes, he was smaller than me) into a locker while I was in junior high and almost immediately apologized for it. That was the begin and end of any bullying I did.

  17. Your reaction to Morgan’s Creek makes sense to me. The first couple of times I saw it I was preoccupied with the madness, but later was struck by how sweet so much of it was–both Trudy and Norval get kicked around so much, despite having such essentially good hearts, that our sympathy is covertly built up behind our laughter. The line comparing Trudy’s plight to the Virgin Mary’s even warmed the heart of this old atheist.

    I think a lot of the schmaltz in Strurges is genuinely felt, though some is badly executed. There are also streaks of strongly felt pathos in DIAMOND JIM (especially the ending), THE POWER AND THE GLORY (viciously ironic pathos), CHRISTMAS IN JULY (which made Manny Farber break down and rush out of screening held by Jonathan Rosenbaum) and the even more emotional play it was based on (A CUP OF COFFEE), and the climactic scene of HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO. Also, Sturges apparently spent years flogging a script called MATRIX to every studio he could, despite everyone else concurring that it was a soppy, masochistic love-gone-wrong story with nothing to recommend it. The scripts of TRIUMPH OVER PAIN and REMEMBER THE NIGHT also strike me as more emotional than the films made from them, though the latter is an excellent movie.

    On the topic of waterworks, I’ve teared up at the endings of SANSHO THE BAILIFF and Ghibli’s ONLY YESTERDAY, and, on more embarrassing occasions, at HILLS OF HOME and TAE GUK GI. I felt especially embarrassed about the latter, a blatantly manipulative war film, but I saw it with a predominantly Korean-American audience that bawled en masse and was swept away.

  18. I haven’t watched any major Borzage since becoming a major crybaby, but I’m sure he’ll do it for me. And I always found Christmas in July emotional — first time round, the terrible suspense around the prank was sick-inducing.

    I’d love to read Matrix but the Sturges family won’t part with it.

  19. If you’re ever in LA and have time to kill, you can find Matrix in UCLA’s Collection of Sturges’ papers:;style=oac4;view=dsc#c02-

    If you have time afterward, I also recommend reading his scripts for Nothing Doing and Look Ma, I’m Dancin’ (they’re good enough to be published).

  20. This thread makes me want to watch Lubitsch’s THE WILDCAT again. The scene where the guy cries a river at the end is always good for a laugh.

    In junior high I once bullied a kid who was smaller than myself. His friend who was as big as piano proceeded to knock the shit out of me. I was cured! (I believe I cried at the time.)

  21. I just saw what was in the UCLA Sturges collection. I may need to relocate to have that amount of “time to kill”!

  22. I’ve heard of Nothing Doing in his biography, Christmas In July. Certainly want to read that.

    The too best films of Sturges’ are Sullivan’s and Morgan’s and both of them have moments that make you stop laughing and just plain think. With Chaplin everybody always talks about pathos, as opposed to his comic Tramp. But Sturges plays with the tragic within the comic. So, in Sturges you can’t misinterpret sentimentalism, as is nearly always the case in Chaplin.

    For instance, the mother-loving soldier in HTCH is like a pre-PTS syndrome case of, well, PTS. And, also the total conundrum of feeling sympathy for people more unforutate that yourself as displayed in Sullivan’s. Not that it’s not profound, only that with Sturges, for the audience at least, it’s rarely sentimental that is the end of it’s profundity.

    In other words: Crying during Sturges is crying for the right reason.

  23. Walter Kerr is very good on Chaplin and sentiment: as he says re The Kid, everything involving Edna Purviance as the mother is sentimental and bathetic. Everything involving Chaplin and Coogan is real emotion, earned by characters we spend time getting to know. So emotion outweighs sentiment by a considerable margin.

    In Morgan’s Creek, I’m moved by the way Trudy moves from exploiting Norval to refusing to do so even when she’s in real trouble and he’s all too willing to help.

    Re Rock: I’d love to see that — hope somebody can upload!

  24. Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden is another lovely film.

  25. Oh, Mr Boxwell… I’ve welled up and stifled chest heaves of emotion at the opening swell of music in Kubrick’s 2001 just for the sheer overwhelming magnificence of it. The slow poignant death of HAL 9000 gets me too.

    I resisted E.T for a long time then finally relented and found myself wiping a tear but hating myself for falling into Spielberg’s emotional blackmail trap. Now that I’m a parent I well-up at the slightest thing – Wall-E, Finding Nemo, adverts, music, an old man dining alone in a restaurant (true – my wife had to console me then we went and chatted with him). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian experienced something similar associated with new fatherhood and writes about it quite acutely.

    David, I love that fact that you cry at films and that you are unashamed to admit it. Stay lachrymose.

  26. Michael Herr, just back from Vietnam, welled up at 2001 because he saw it as full of hope. I’m not sure how optimistic it is, personally, but its certainly magnificent.

    I can never decide if the death of Barry Lyndon’s son is an unsuccessful attempt at pathos or a successful attempt at something I can’t define…

    I keep meaning to watch The Secret Garden. I enjoyed an eerie BBC adaptation as a kid.

  27. It’s a successful attempt at depicting and unsuccessful depiction of pathos.

    I’ve been hesitating whether or not to say anything more about Gilbert. We used to be friends (I’m cited in “Flickers”) but his erratic behavioral shifts got in the way. What’s truly distressing is that felled by a stroke he spent the last year of his life blind. However such a fate didn’t deter Rick Sanford — a friend of the isherwood-Bachardy’s and mine. Rick was a minor gay porn star and a major Hollwyood extra. His breathless daily reports of the shooting of Spielberg’s 1941 (the longest dress-extra job he ever snagged) were marvelous beyond belief. Rick’s posthumously published memoir “The Boys Across The Street” is, as they say, “an eye-opener.” He was quite like Gilbert in his sexual tastes. But considerably less deluded about it.

  28. Like Sirk, Adair apparently found the literary trope of blindness (which he used in his 1991 novel A Closed Book) pursued him into reality. (Haven’t yet seen the Ruiz film of that book, though I dislike the way they’ve heterosexualized it. Of course, it isn’t fundamentally about sex so it doesn’t matter enormously, but it seems cowardly.)

    I didn’t realize he was originally from Edinburgh until the obituaries appeared.

  29. It was heterosexualized because Gilbert wanted it to be heterosexualized. That’s why Louis Garrel and Michael Pitt DON’T get it on in The Dreamers, as they had in Gilbert’s novel “The Holy Innocents.”

    As I believe I mentioned he had a “mid-life crisis” ( that marvelous new term for a narcissistic hissy-fit) in which on discovering he was no longer Tadzio-bait decided (with the assistance of some malevolent female picking her teeth in the wings in anticipation of such an entrance) that he wasn’t really gay after all.

    That’s a neat one to try and pull of when you’ve spent your life as a Kinsey 6.

  30. david wingrove Says:

    The film of THE DREAMERS was the dismal ruination of one of my all-time favourite novels. I prefer to blame it on Bertolucci (ghastly man!) as I’ve always had a soft spot for Adair himself. Not that I knew much about him…but it never occurred to me he was anything but gay!

  31. Well, it sounds like he was gay but just went off the idea…

    Since A Closed Book is about child abuse, it really makes no difference to heterosexualize it: abuse is abuse. Which makes the fact that they DID change the sex of a character all the more suspect.

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