Movies to cry to

27 June 2011

from Yôjirô Takita's Departures

Here’s my rule: I don’t want to put any movies on this list that feel like cheap manipulators. Did I cry during The Notebook? Well, of course, and the whole time I felt as if I’d been used. In fact, I have a list of films I refuse to see because I anticipate that those tearjerkers will merely make me feel jerked around (Titanic, etc. — and despite the promises of my Dear Friend I can’t bring myself to watch Love Actually).

That said, readers of Feminéma know that I emote at the movies all the time — why, only recently I’ve mentioned having unexpected outbursts during Summer Hours, Killer of Sheep, and The Beaches of Agnès. (What can I say, but that I feel movies truly, madly, deeply?) Let me explain that this list emerges not from an eagerness to weep, but rather the firm belief that some of the best films draw tears without making you feel cheap — in fact, I’d watch these movies again this minute if I had the chance — and without making you determined never to watch them again (ahem: Breaking the Waves. Never, ever again). The tears they provoke seem to spring from something honest and human. Inspired by a comment from Tam (and borrowing shamelessly from the list she offered) this is a preliminary attempt to think about when, and how, outpourings of sentiment at the movies seem authentic as well as pleasurable.

Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson in Truly Madly Deeply

Weeping ritually with Departures (Okuribito, Yôjirô Takita, 2008). A beautiful film about a young man who finally gives up on his plans to be a musician and returns to his hometown to start working — mostly by accident — as someone who ritually prepares dead bodies for burial. It’s funny and surprising for many reasons, and you start to wish someone will display that much care with your body when you die.

Weeping for lost chances with 84, Charing Cross Road (David Hugh Jones, 1987). I’ve already discussed this film, which is oriented around the long, beautiful, eccentric correspondence between a New Yorker and the London bookstore clerk who supplies her with good reading material. Books, letters, and a quasi-romance between Anne Bancroft and Antony Hopkins — weeper heaven.

Soulful, stiff-upper-lipped: Anthony Hopkins in 84, Charing Cross Road

Weeping out of pride for your fellow humans with Harlan County, U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976). I have a whole post a-brewin’ about labor, but suffice it to say that this might be the most amazing documentary you’ll ever see — about a strike by coal miners in Kentucky who express eloquently their rights as workers in America. It brings tears to your eyes for what we’ve lost: a sense of pride in labor and the strikers’ certainty that employers are not always right. Oh, how far we’ve fallen as a nation since 1976.

Harlan County, U.S.A. and their proud signs

Weeping for reality with The Return of Navajo Boy (Jeff Spitz & Bennie Klain, 2000). Another documentary. Sometimes my students make statements that reveal that they don’t think Indians exist anymore. This documentary about the most-photographed Navajo family in history — people typically photographed in “traditional” clothing, making blankets or some other goddamn “traditional” Indian thing — is about their real lives and the difficulties they face when most Americans refuse to believe they are anything but cardboard cutouts, much less a people whose history is always changing.

The Begays talk back to John Wayne in Return of Navajo Boy

Weeping for love with Truly, Madly, Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990). Back to narrative film with this amazing tale of a woman missing, terribly and deeply, her dead boyfriend — when suddenly his ghost returns to her. She’s so happy to see him, except having a ghost for a boyfriend turns out to be more of a problem than it might appear at first.

Weeping for nostalgia and happiness with Up (Pixar, 2009). Criminey. Who would’ve thought, walking into a big 3-D Pixar summer release, that within 5 minutes you’d have lost weight from the weeping? Loved everything about this movie, and I’d see it again this minute, but next time I’ll have a stockpile of kleenex close by.

Why does Up kill off the fabulous Ellie so early in the film? Dang.

…and Tam also recommends The Winter Guest (Alan Rickman, 1997), which I haven’t seen yet.

Honorable mentions, for their massive tear-jerking capability primarily in the very last scenes:

  • Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004).
  • Three films by Ang Lee: Sense and Sensibility (1995), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). What can I say but that that guy is crazy good at drawing big tears out of me.
  • Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003).
  • Toy Story 3 (Pixar, 2010).

Note that I’ve left off all the overdetermined tearjerkers: An Affair to Remember (1957) because of that cringe-making scene from Sleepless in Seattle (1993); all those dude weepers that I don’t quite get, like Good Will Hunting (1997), Field of Dreams (1989), and Brian’s Song (1971); and a couple of films like Dancer in the Dark that are just too goddamn much.

I know we’ve got a whole set of cheap stereotypes about women weeping at the movies. But the best films make us cry because we can’t help but feel with those characters. Admit it: you love it.

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I can only hope that when I’m 80 I’ll have the good humor and creativity to make an autobiographical documentary as delightful, visually rich, and oddly modest as Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès), which won the César Award for best documentary that year.  She fills it with her own photographs and clips from her films, re-creations of tiny moments from her past, and whimsical stagings of props — for example, she uses a cardboard cutout of a car to show how the garage at the end of her alley in Paris was so tiny that it required her to make a 13-point turn (if everything went right) to manoeuver her car inside.  Only slowly do you realize that the sum total of these flickering memories and scenes of her gently directing her young staff is more than just deeply moving; it’s a cinematic achievement of its own that seems akin to the most magical and innovative of documentaries, like Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

The film takes a loosely chronological view of her life, from her early life on the coast of Belgium through her family’s houseboat existence during World War II, her work as a photographer in Paris in the late 40s and 50s, her long career in film, her marriage to director Jacques Demy.  But it’s interspersed with moments simply revelatory of her sparkling personality:  her unapologetic loves of cats and the water, her appreciation for great images and great actors, her enjoyment of working with young people, the way art infuses her with energy and life.  As she paints in impressionistic strokes the path she followed, she gradually allows her dyed hair (styled, by long habit, in a bowl cut to exaggerate a face she describes as the shape of a pancake, and dyed a dark maroon) to return to its natural white.  It’s a decision that does more than symbolize her seeming absence of egotism; it enhances that slight sense of melancholy that infuses moments of the film when she reminisces about family and friends long dead.  By doing so, she references — but never dwells on — her own mortality.  I can’t capture in words how much this aspect of the film is done gracefully and lightly; above all The Beaches of Agnès is an utter delight.  

Netflix describes her as “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” but that’s slightly misleading and certainly not a claim the modest Varda would make.  Sure, her early film La Pointe Courte (1954) was a precursor to the New Wave, and she certainly held her own when that boys’ club of Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol et als ruled international cinema (the way she tells it, their success opened opportunities for her and others to follow).  But she had her closest artistic ties to a filmmakers and writers such as Marguerite Duras and Chris Marker, sometimes called the Left Bank group — artists perhaps more experimental and less marketable than the Right Bank directors of The 400 Blows and Breathless.  One need only think of her best-known films, such as Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Gleaners and I (2000), to recognize that she always sought to tell different stories (and, for that matter, to make different political points) than some of her male counterparts.

In the end I’m struck by her slightly self-mocking self-characterization:  of a squat woman in a baggy dress with a pronounced nose and a bowl of hair that nearly conceals her enormous, curious eyes.  Don’t be fooled.  It won’t take long till you wish Varda was your mother, your granny, your boss, your friend, and your future self, all at once.  It’s secretly a film about the love of life and art — and who couldn’t use a dose of that right now?