This article contains spoilers for the films mentioned. If you don’t want a film spoiled, don’t read the entry for it!
Traditionally, men have only been permitted to cry over two things: sports, and nothing else. But surely this skewed view is nothing more than a by-product of many centuries of fallacious cultural conditioning and gender stereotyping. Surely men aren’t the cold, selfish, aggressive, genitally-obsessed automatons our history books and lads’ magazines would have us believe. Surely women don’t have a monopoly on tears at the cinema?
Well, they don’t. Because I cry at movies… and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Well, okay, I am a little bit. But obviously not so ashamed that I won’t write a lengthy article about it.
I won’t cry at anything and everything, though. Oh, no. Thankfully, most traditional weepies and epic romances are out. In fact, the only contortions that were visible in my face during the first – and only – time I watched Love, Actually were sneers; and so many configurations of sneer that I’m sure I discovered at least 30 that even Desmond Morris didn’t know about.
But there are movies that make me leak, bubble and howl like an animal; that catapult me back to the days before cynicism and machismo enveloped my angry Scottish heart like a force-field. I wanted to delve, and to share, and so I created a Chronology of Crying; a greatest hits tribute of the movies that have touched me most over the years. And please: add your own in the comments at the end…
Watership Down is a 1978 animated feature based on the book of the same name by Richard Adams. It’s about a band of rabbits that flee their warren in search of a new home after one of their number, Fiver, experiences chilling, prophetic visions of death and destruction. Some say it’s an epic tale in the mould of the ancient Greek odysseys, filled with quests, heroes and adventures; some say it’s a tale awash with religious symbolism, and chock-a-block full of political themes; others still decry the chauvinistic, perhaps even anti-feminist, subtext of the source material. In a 2005 interview in which Adams seized the opportunity to respond to the multitude of interpretations of his work, he said: ‘For God’s sake, it’s just a story about wee rabbits, you pretentious knobs.’ I’m paraphrasing ever so slightly.
Watership Down evolved from a free-form spoken-word story the author invented for his own small children, which over time became a novel and then a movie: a movie that was not only deemed too disturbing for small children, but is also considered to be the most violent animated PG-rated film ever made. So what better choice of family-friendly film for my uncle to force me and my young cousins to watch on a Boxing Day afternoon circa 1986? After all, there’s nothing quite like the sight of a river of blood running down a dark hillside as a small rabbit has a violent anxiety attack to really get you into the festive spirit.
I watched a lot of animated features as a child; very few of them sought to bombard my developing psyche with images of bunnies being slashed, snared, ripped, shot, gouged, eviscerated or flattened beneath the wheels of a truck. Disney this ain’t. In fact, Watership Down is like some hideous cartoon hybrid of The Shining and Apocalypse Now. If Richard Adams had been the pen behind Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I’m confident that the narrative would’ve included at least one harrowing ritual sacrifice of an Oompa Loompa.
But let’s put the ripped-apart rabbits and psychological horror aside for a moment. After all, this movie made me cry because I was deeply moved, not because I was deeply terrified. And make no mistake: Watership Down is a beautiful little movie. Harrowingly beautiful, certainly. But beautiful all the same. The animation has a dark and haunting quality, only amplified by the intense and mournful soundtrack (Bright Eyes still makes my skin tingle). The casting helps, too. I’m not sure the movie would’ve been half as affecting had its rabbits been voiced by actors from anywhere other than Middle or Estuary England. Can you imagine it voiced by bunnies from the Bronx? Or by rabbits with broad Liverpudlian or Glaswegian accents? (“Here, pal, youse had better no be pittin’ eyes on ma doe, or ah’ll kick yer fluffy erses in!”) No. The acting talent and rich vocal timbre of the likes of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Michael Graham Cox and Denholm Elliot all combine to lend the production the gravitas of a leporine adaptation of Shakespeare.
I can’t remember if I cried the first time I watched Watership Down, but I’ve certainly made up for it by crying during every subsequent viewing. I’m not a religious man, but every time the Black Rabbit of death finds Hazel resting peacefully on that hilltop, and whispers to him – ‘Hazel? You know me, don’t you?’ – I get lightning-flash goosepimples running up and down my back like a man who’s just ingested twenty-six ecstasy tablets. By the time Hazel looks round at his peacefully grazing family, and the Black Rabbit says softly – ‘You needn’t worry about them. They’ll be alright, and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.’ – I’m a goner. My eyes become like two water-filled paddling pools on the back of a rickety pick-up truck that’s careening down a pothole-strewn dirt track. Yes, there’s horror, but the ending of Watership Down possesses such immense emotional power and resonance precisely because of the brutality and horror that precedes it, not in spite of it. After all, what’s the rescue of Private Ryan without the D-Day Landings?
And the very fact that Watership Down invites an apt comparison with Saving Private Ryan tells you all you need to know about this animated ‘children’s’ movie
My sister and her friends took me to the cinema to see Ghost when it was released in 1990. I was 10, she was 17. Our relationship to that point had been characterised by her tormenting me, and me retaliating by betraying her secrets to our mother. But did I betray her because she tormented me, or did she torment me because I always betrayed her? Like the situation in Israel and Palestine around the same time, there had been so many attacks and counter-attacks that it was difficult to remember who’d cast the first stone.
You might very well think that it’s extreme to compare the relationship I had with my sister in the early 1990s to the coming intifada in Israel, but then you would say that, wouldn’t you? You weren’t the one tricked into flipping the bird at your mother, right in her face, because your sister told you it meant ‘I love you’, and promised you that your mother would ‘really love it’. Even though I didn’t execute the gesture particularly well, my mother got enough of a flavour of its meaning to undergo a Hulk-style transformation, whereupon she shouted so loudly that her words punched through time and wiped out three incarnations of Doctor Who.
So, as you can imagine, the last thing I wanted to happen that evening – as I sat vulnerable, outnumbered and outgunned in that cramped auditorium watching what had been described as ‘a supernatural chick-flick# – was to be caught crying by my sister. Which is probably precisely why it happened. Cheers, fate. The teasing that followed was as merciless as it was endless; my sister couldn’t have won a more decisive victory had I scrawled ‘I AM A GIRL’ on my forehead in permanent marker and ran naked through a crowded shopping mall. Don’t feel too bad for young me, though. I snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by going home and immediately telling my mother where my sister hid her stash of vodka and cigarettes. Who’s crying now?
The scene that got me – and still gets me – is the one right at the end of the movie where Sam Wheat’s ghostly form is illuminated by the light of Heaven, revealing him one final time to his wife and friend before he ascends to the after-life. Strangely, it’s not the moment between Sam and his wife Molly that moves me the most, but the understated exchange between Sam and his kooky pal, Oda Mae. (‘I’ll miss you too, Sam. You’re alright.’)
Sure, the final scene’s schmaltzy (‘It’s amazing, Molly. The love inside… you take it with you.’), and the accompanying orchestral rendition of Unchained Melody is specifically constructed to snake-charm the saline from your very eyes, but being armed with that information never seems to lessen its emotional impact.
I’m not sure if Ghost would have moved me in the same way had I only encountered it for the first time as an adult. In all probability, I would have rolled my eyes and said things like: ‘Well if there’s life after death, and she loves him so much, why doesn’t she just take an overdose and go join him?’ or ‘How awkward is it going to be when she arrives in heaven with her new husband?’ Instead of ‘crying like a big girl’, as my sister would put it.
In any case, despite the humiliation of having been caught crying in the cinema by a group of older girls, it’s nice to get some retrospective reassurance that I’m probably not a psychopath.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson rages against the machine in perhaps the defining role of his career, playing the impulsive, larger-than-life, silver-tongued crook R.P McMurphy, who cons his way into a mental institution to avoid the rigorous work programs of prison. Once inside he finds himself pitted against Nurse Ratched, the stoic face of a quietly brutal and soul-asphyxiating system. McMurphy takes the downtrodden inmates on a journey of reclamation and rebellion with unexpected, and often unbearable, consequences.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t just make you cry: it makes you ‘everything’ (if you’ll permit me temporarily, for the purposes of this paragraph, to enlist ‘everything’ as an adjective, and administer a swift kick in the balls to the laws of grammar). It’s become a cliché to describe something as ‘a rollercoaster ride of emotions’, so I’ll fish inside my imagination for a more suitable analogy: watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest forces you to feel such a wide range of flip-flopping, over-lapping, heart-zapping emotions that you may begin to suspect that you yourself are suffering from mental illness. The movie also has the distinction of being the only one that’s ever made me happy to see a senior health-care professional slowly choked to death.
As far as crying goes, the movie needs only to deploy two words to send me into torrents of tears: ‘Let’s … go.’
The Chief – a giant American Indian inmate and friend of McMurphy – arrives at McMurphy’s bedside to ready him for escape, but quickly notices the scars on either side of his forehead. The Chief’s realisation that his friend is now permanently imprisoned within his own limp body is heart-breaking. ‘Let’s… go’ are the two little words whispered by the Chief just before he presses a pillow into McMurphy’s face; a merciful act that releases the recently lobotomised lag from a lifetime of bed-strapped, slack-jawed insentience. Ultimately, ‘Let’s… go’ is the Chief’s way of taking McMurphy with him. ‘I wouldn’t leave you this way,’ he tells his friend.
The Chief was right about McMurphy, and the ways in which ‘they’ would work on him; the lengths the system would go to not to cede power. McMuprhy was a threat: he had a spirit as tall and as free as a God damned mountain, a mind as kinetic as a pinball machine, and a mouth as wide as the sea itself. In short, he shone through with raw humanity. So they worked on him; worked on him until the blinding flame of his essence – his very McMurphyness – had been sickeningly and irreversibly extinguished.
If McMurphy’s defeat makes the movie feel like a lost season of The Wire, then the Chief’s inspired and inspirational escape restores your faith in the power of one man to defy and destroy the system (even though, as a six foot five Indian, he’ll probably be recaptured within hours). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest always leaves me with the goosepimpled skin of a recently plucked turkey, and a pair of glistening oysters for eyes.
I Am Legend
Cards on the table. It’s highly likely that I Am Legend only features in this chronology because I’ve never seen Marley And Me, which apparently is one of the few movies capable of reducing men, en masse, to leaking, quivering husks.
If you’ve never seen I Am Legend, it’s about one man (Will Smith) and his dog (Abbey and Kona) trapped in a quarantined New York, surrounded by legions of infected human beings, who all resemble hellish zombie/vampire hybrids. Will Smith heroically – though needlessly – sacrifices himself at the end of the movie, a scene that left me merely dry-eyed, perplexed and irritated. But when he had to kill his dog? BOOM! Tear grenade. The whole doggy arc is horribly upsetting and heart-breakingly inevitable.
I saw I Am Legend for the first time in the cinema. At the point where Will Smith’s dog, Samantha, is bitten by a zombified dog in the process of trying to protect him, I unleashed a Vaderesque howl across the auditorium – ‘Nnoooooooooo!’ – that caused great embarrassment to my then girlfriend. I didn’t care. This was a dog in mortal peril – all bets were off.
A veteran of many a zombie flick, I knew – and dreaded – what was coming next. Back in Will Smith’s lab a short while later, the inevitable happens: his loyal, loving dog Samantha succumbs to infection and dies in his arms. But she doesn’t just die. She dies and then comes back to life again, slowly transforming into a zombie hell-dog through a series of confused snarls and violent spasms. With tears streaming down his face, Smith squeezes and cracks the life from his best – and only – friend’s body, leaving him utterly and agonisingly alone.
Throughout this emotional scene, even as poor Samantha breathed her last, a couple of young lovebirds a few rows down from me were having a loud, protracted and giggly flirt-a-thon; treating the movie as foreplay, and the audience as invisible. I couldn’t take it anymore. With tears streaming down my own face, and almost in synchronous with Will Smith’s harrowing act of euthanasia, I leaned forward and hollered: ‘SHUT UP, YOU C***S!’ And do you know what? They did. Hell hath no fury like a guy crying because he’s sad about a dying dog.
I don’t know what it is about dogs. Show me a movie where they put a gun to a guy’s head, or place a bomb in a school bus, and I’ll shrug my shoulders with the nonchalance of a stoned French waiter. But show me a movie where something horrible happens to a dog, and I’ll rage like a widowed Rick Grimes, and cry like a chronically depressed Carrie Mathison.
There’s something about being moved to tears by the death of an innocent dog that reaffirms your humanity, even though Tony Soprano and Hitler cried over dogs, too.
I knew nothing about Up. A bunch of friends were going to see it, and invited me along. Balloons, you say? A flying house? This is going to be shood, I thought (‘shood’ being a description of something that is both ‘shit’ and ‘good’ at the same time – like your own 50th birthday party, or an Adam Sandler film). I sat in front of the giant screen, anticipating nothing more affecting than your average Road Runner cartoon. Within ten minutes it felt like a beam of pure, undiluted beauty had been shot into my eyes; my soul felt like it had been acupunctured. I was crying – macho crying, mind you. No hyperventilation, contorted features or seismic shoulder shakes; just a silent line of tears queuing up to exit my face. On at least five occasions throughout the movie I had to battle against an onslaught of ocular fluid, alternating between pretending that I’d just yawned and scratching an ‘itchy eye.’ As I glanced around the auditorium I quickly realised that this was no place for shame as everybody else was crying, too.
Pixar has been melting hearts for a long time now. There’s a scene in Ratatouille in which the stern, cold-hearted food critic Anton Ego takes a bite out of the eponymous dish. His meal has been prepared, unbeknownst to him, by a young rat with pretensions of culinary genius, a fact that would have horrified and disgusted Anton had he known. However, the proof is in the pasta, and that one bite of ratatouille launches Anton on a Proust-like journey through his life’s memories; back to his childhood and to the days when innocence, wonder and warmth still coloured his world.
That’s how the opening of Up made me feel – except in reverse. I was forced to consider a life – an entire life – complete with its joys, hopes, happiness, pains and ultimate disappointments, and I absorbed it like a shock-grenade to the heart. I was propelled many years into the future, thrust into Carl Carlson’s shoes and made to identify so completely with the character that I was ready to check myself into a grief counselling session. Indeed, Up’s first 20 minutes – which show us a man’s life from almost-cradle to almost-grave, richly filled with its quiet victories, tender moments, laughter, anguish, love and loss – conveys more pathos, humanity and unsentimental beauty than a hundred movies stitched together, whether its stars be human, computer-generated or animal. Up reminds us that movies are not merely money-making machines, but art-forms, things of beauty. (The video game of the movie is currently available through Amazon.com)
There’s an argument that if Up doesn’t make you cry, then forget demarcations of gender: you’re simply not human. Best-case scenario, you’re a nine-year-old sociopath.
So, come on then. Which films made you cry?
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