Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Come on, let it all out

I've never understood people who enjoy a good weepie. Expressing your emotions might be healthy, but I struggle to see the appeal of being reduced to a sticky, gulping, sobbing mess in the name of entertainment. Then again, as a long-standing horror fan, I often find myself having to defend my genre of choice when discussing films with friends. "Ugh," they say, "why the hell would you want to watch that?"

I suppose it's a fair question - fear is also a decidedly unpleasant sensation, so why do people seek it out when choosing what film to watch? I'd like to think that there's an emotional catharsis in experiencing fear without any tangible danger or threat which might accompany the sensation in the real world. And even though the films might try every trick in the book to terrify you, they usually offer a sense of hope or relief along the way. Tearjerkers, on the other hand, seem to have just one objective - to cause upset and distress.

This is something that psychologists Robert Levenson and James Gross have spent the last two decades studying, in the hope of discovering the ground zero of tearjerkers. And they found it, in the form of Franco Zeffirelli's 1979 remake of The Champ. This wasn't just an excuse for a pair of movie buffs to wade through 250 of their favourite blubfests, it was part of a broader experiment to select the most effective scenes for testing on a bunch of subjects, in order to better understand emotional responses to various stimuli. The results of their study are documented in a fascinating article published by The Smithsonian, which details the most ethical ways of eliciting negative emotions in test subjects, "without punching them in the face".

According to Levenson and Gross, the closing scenes of the film, which see nine year-old Ricky Schroeder sobbing over the battered corpse of his boxer father, are officially the saddest three minutes in existence. And that's a scientific fact. There's no denying that seeing a blonde moppet weeping for his dead dad is a pretty devestating sight to behold, but there are a bunch of other films which could also squeeze a sob from the hardest of hearts. Here's my top five:


Anyone who thinks there’s nothing more pitiful than seeing a grown many cry was in for a shock if they went to the pictures to see Pixar’s masterpiece Up. The trailers promised a flying house, colourful balloons and an odd-couple pair up between an overweight boy scout and a cranky old man. Instead, what they got was an opening vignette that crammed more heartbreak into ten minutes than a Simon Bates’ Our Tune marathon. A love story told with almost no dialogue, just Michael Giacchino’s fantastic score and some of the most expressive animation you’ll ever see.

The Lord of the Rings - Return of the King

Peter Jackson got a lot of stick for the way he finished off his epic trilogy, with critics arguing that the denoument ran for longer than most ordinary sized movies. They have a point – once the ring has been safely dispatched, we get a series of reunion scenes where everyone gradually shows up to surprise their loved ones, until the only person missing is Cilla Black. However, the tears really start to fall when Aragorn takes his rightful place as the king of Gondor. The halflings drop to their knees in honour of the new king, only for Viggo Mortenson to state “My friends, you bow to no-one.” If Sam’s heroic offer to carry Bilbo up the slopes of Mount Doom didn’t have you blubbing like a five year-old with a scratched knee, this is definitely the moment where you found yourself telling your mates that you had something in your eye.

The Sixth Sense

Assuming that everyone now knows how this one ends, I feel safe talking about one of the weepiest scenes I’ve ever sat through. But it’s not the one you’re probably thinking of, where Bruce Willis sees his wedding ring drop, followed shortly thereafter by the penny. For me, the ultimate tearjerker scene in the Sixth Sense takes place in a traffic jam, as young Cole finally confesses his big secret to his frustrated mother. In less capable hands, the scene could have been mangled, but Toni Collete’s heart-breaking performance really nails the combination of grief, horror and shock.

Schindler’s List

Steven Spielberg’s finest film has a number of great moments in its three-hour plus running time. But the inane brutality depicted throughout the film leaves viewers either too numb or horrified to cry. It’s not until the end of the film, when Oskar Schindler finally breaks down and tells Itzhak Stern, “I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don't know. If I'd just... I could have got more” that the tears start to fall. Stern reminds him that “There are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.” But you probably missed that line, because you were too busy hyperventilating into a brown paper bag.


A talking pig in a wig. Not exactly the obvious choice for a tear-jerker, but there’s something about George Miller’s magical adaptation of The Sheep Pig that just gets me every time. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve all had a Farmer Hoggett in our lives – an implacable, immovable father figure, immune to emotional outbursts or gestures of approval. So that one simple “That’ll do, Pig” is enough to send the sternest grown-up staggering into the street, blowing their nose like they’re warning ships away from the rocks.

So come on, which films get you reaching for the Scotties Mansize tissues?

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