Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

Why Movies No Longer Make Us Cry

Where did our tears go?

When I learned, via the TV news two nights ago, that director Tony Scott had jumped to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in my hometown—San Pedro, CA, best known for flanking the LA harbor—tears stung my eyes. But to say Scott's suicide made me cry would be a lie. When I switched on the news that night, my fingers were already wet with tears—because I had just finished watching a film that spurred them.

It was not one of Scott's. Rather, it was Beyond Tomorrow, a now-obscure 1940 black-and-white neither starring nor directed by anyone very famous, in which three elderly businessmen invite two random strangers off the street to celebrate Christmas with them. The strangers—conveniently, a sweet young woman and a self-effacing young man, both newly arrived from out of state—fall in love, and the wealthy old men show them the best of New York City: theater, ice skating, the Waldorf. Halfway through the film (spoiler alert!), the old men die in a plane crash. Their ghosts return to watch over their young friends, saving them from grave danger before ascending to heaven. The final scene finds the last of the trio ascending as an unseen woman calls his name: "Michael! Michael!" 

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"That's my mother," he says.

At that point I lost it. But I had already lost it near the beginning of the film, when during the Christmas party various members of the household sing "Jingle Bells" in their own native languages: the chef, for instance, in Italian and the housekeeper—a countess in exile, ruined by the Bolshevik Revolution—in Russian. The "Jingle Bells" scene did me in. But why?

Not just because my mother died last year after she spent 41 years volunteering at an international charity gift shop whose motto was "Many hands from many lands" and whose newsletters always featured cartoons (sometimes drawn by me) of people wearing foreign costumes, dancing arm in arm. Not only that. The "Jingle Bells" scene made me cry because it was so pure and innocent, conveying only "holidays are happy times that bring us all together."

Other scenes drew tears too: the young pair parting on the night they meet, eyes wide and shy; of course they do not kiss. One of the old men meeting his dead son enroute to heaven:

"David," cries the old Brit in astonishment. "I thought I'd never see you again."

"We all think that—at first," says David, wearing a World War I uniform, taking his father's hand. 

My tears startled me. It had been ages since any movie made me cry. But why?

Because most postmodern films share a singular motive: to jerk you bodily out of your comfort zone, to freak you out, to gross you out, to dog-whistle the cool and shock the squares. To present troubled, shattered, lost and/or amoral characters who are never redeemed, but simply go on ruining their lives or die. This usually occurs alongside graphic violence and meaningless sex. In a sense, most postmodern films are horror films. You might have noticed that nearly every movie made in the last decade includes at least one puke scene. Why? Because this manifests, with every spasm and splat, the nihilism that pervades postmodern cinema.

I like many postmodern films and watch one nearly every night. Yet somewhere back there, without my quite realizing it—somewhere between American Beauty and Dogville—watching films came to feel like an endurance test. 

Pre-nihilism films such as Beyond Tomorrow wrench and wring but eventually warm our hearts— bringing us, tear by tear, into our comfort zones. Their current counterparts smirkingly blare that love and hope, family and friendship, dreams and quests, and the difference between evil and good are cruel myths. Postmodern filmmakers dare us to watch their works—her head blew off and hey, he's going to puke!—without looking away. Eyes squeezing shut against—or forced to watch—such scenes tend not to cry. 

Which brings me, astonished, to "Jingle Bells." 

RIP, Tony Scott.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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