I am told of a man who, after watching Kaufmann's Synecdoche, New York, sat quietly for a few minutes after the last of the credits had rolled before spontaneously bursting into tears. Whether this was due to the immensity of the film's last minutes or Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance being so singularly affecting, I never found out. Having said that though, I am told also of a man who cried every time Tom Cruise's Maverick said the immortal line: "I feel the need. The need for speed," (yes, it's only in the film once). Again, a response to the emotional impact of the brotherhood displayed in the film? Or the matches holding open his eyes beginning to dig in a bit?
Matches are not always necessary though. Play Survivor's Eye of the Tiger now and I guarantee at least one man in his forties wells up anticipating the final confrontation, and yet millions remain unmoved. Now, I am not denying there's a thrill to seeing Balboa overcome every obstacle in his path, but I am asserting the particularism of its emotional flow. Hence one man's Sophie's Choice is another man's The Road Trip: Beer Pong!. Unfortunately what should otherwise be an example of this great difference of emotion in people turns out to be an adverse reaction to a blank screen. And yet there are films out there with the power to move, and the power to render physical the potential within the frames.
Now, I have sat dry-eyed through Terms of Endearment; cheekily grinned my way through Love Story and even began separating M&Ms during the supposedly horrifying Emma Thompson cancer-stricken hospital scenes of Wit. And yet. In my many years of watching films both serious and otherwise, I have cried at exactly three. And what they were may be surprising.
St. Elmo's Fire
I must have been no more than six or seven when I first became aware of men and women affecting each other with things they say and things they do. Joel Schumacher put together one of the first of the great 80's youthful ensembles here, and there are moments between the various couplings and derailings in what is otherwise a standard life-is-crap-after-college story that still make me quiver. Peering through the window of the bar on a snowy day, cold and bleak, with all the joy unconfined just the other side of the frosted pane. Ever out of reach. Rob Lowe playing the saxophone, bringing his group together to witness music and life; Demi Moore locked in a room seemingly made out of billowing curtains, her friends, again, just the other side, unable to reach but fully able to affect. I realized during this film that adults and their world were a heartbreaking mile away from anything I'd imagined. And yes, it moved me to tears, even if I didn't understand why they were crying. Partly responsible for this is the soundtrack. David Foster's Love Theme... and John Parr's Man in Motion still provide a tingle or two, and still take me straight back to the drive-in where I first saw it. I still cannot listen to either of them today in a public place.
This, the best of the Golan/Globus films of the early to mid 80's, is by far the best action film ever made, and one of the few that wears its big human heart for all to see. The scene where the terrorists first start separating the passengers according to their passports is particularly powerful. Especially the blonde stewardess, I remember thinking she looked terrified and scared. She still does. Then there is the rescue, then there is Chuck's revenge. All very exciting, all very 'action', but it is when the plane is just about to take off for home at the end and Chuck suddenly appears on his bike, having been left behind, that the eyes redden. "It's the Major!" The scene isolated in itself is only slightly more suspenseful than those before it, and functions purely as an ironic audience-should-want-him-back-on-the-plane scene, (his young brother-in-arms has been wounded and has asked for him, we see). But it is when the swelling musical refrain, Alan Silvestri's master-stroke theme, begins to rise and then take over completely (so that Lee Marvin and Chuck Norris may as well be conducting it themselves) that the scene becomes truly heroic and memorable. Witness the rescuers' return, the hostages reuniting with their families to that same theme. I defy anybody to sit through this Silvestri-Chuck combination dry-eyed. Heroism is as great a source of cathartic tears as sadness. On this evidence.
Anthony Hopkins has been responsible for a few tear-jerking roles in his time (three leap to mind) and is perhaps the greatest exponent of playing powerful-men-rendered-vulnerable. In Remains of the Day he and Stevens Snr are beautifully inchoate and manage to cross a class divide between viewer and diegesis that is of the highest order, and that manifests real emotion. Or perhaps one of the many more serious scenes in The Road to Wellville. For instance where Hopkins' Dr. Kellogg ("It's not going in that end, Mister Lightbody!"), trapped unknowingly in a burning sanatorium, can think only to cleanse the bowels. This films leads only to tears of laughter though, (happiness has its tears too - somebody far cleverer than I). Shadowlands is the story of the marriage between CS Lewis and Joy Gresham. I have not seen the film since its initial slamming of my emotions, but remember the main details. Lewis marries Gresham, a son arrives (whether it is David or Douglas is unclear in my mind) and she develops some sort of cancer. And then dies. This would be all well and sad were I able at the age of 16 to sympathise with characters on screen. Or indeed anything. However. However, there is a scene near the end of the film when Hopkins and the son sit down in a room in front of a large wardrobe. One of the two opens the wardrobe and pulls aside the coats within to reveal? Nothing. No Narnia. I had never, and haven't in the seventeen years since, seen so true to a life an outpouring of grief from anybody. What makes this so affecting is the fact that the mature successful man and the innocent little boy are rendered exactly the same in one foul instant of emotional trauma. Powerful.
Titanic (hush now)
Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (Olivia. Hussey)
The Elephant Man (the death-motivation is heartbreaking)
The Road (apparently)
The Shawshank Redemption (that heroism thing again)
Bruce Bailey is a one-time serious academic, now to be found in Notting Hill. Mooching about.