I’m a movie weeper. Always have been. I cry every time I watch my favourite movie (Roman Holiday), and I can probably count on one hand the number of Pixar movies I’ve watched without crying when I saw them the first time. (My failure to cry at Soul probably stems from COVID-fatigue, not any failing in the movie, and the fact that I saw it at home and not in the theatre, for example.) The funniest scene in Sleepless in Seattle, possibly the funniest scene Tom Hanks has ever done, is the “I cried at the end of The Dirty Dozen” scene. I was part of a large group of people who teared up when David Bowie started playing during The Martian, which we were all watching in the theatre shortly after his death.
More to the point, I firmly believe that crying at movies is healthy. I think it’s a valuable exercise of our emotional muscles. Roger Ebert, of course, coined the term “empathy machine” for film, and it’s definitely true that we use movies in part as a way to feel things. Not consciously, necessarily, but the most obvious example is when you need to laugh and therefore watch a comedy. But even when you’re watching a movie for the story, you get to use the movie to work on expressing feelings. The plot may not be real; the feelings are.
Still, there is a certain amount of mockery in that Sleepless in Seattle scene, and not just because these guys are incapable at crying at gentle emotional moments but start sobbing over an action movie. It’s more mocking the idea that we would cry. That does bother me, because again, it’s not that I merely think there’s anything wrong with it but because I believe it’s legitimately healthy. I believe you are modeling healthy behaviour for yourself by expressing feelings often considered negative.
Our society believes that it’s healthy to release rage—how many times have you heard the advice that you should yell or hit a pillow or something rather than keep those feelings bottled up? Yet that’s terrible advice, because what you are doing is practicing how to be angry. You are teaching yourself that the reaction to being angry should be to lash out in some way. Sure, you’re hitting a pillow and not, say, your partner or your coworker, but you’re not turning those feelings in healthy directions or processing them. You’re teaching your body a physical reaction to the feeling, and your body will expect that response to that stimulus in the future.
Similarly, by letting yourself cry when you’re feeling sadness, you’re teaching yourself that it’s okay to cry. Unlike hitting, crying doesn’t hurt anyone. If you cry too much, it can hurt your own body—your eyes, just for starters—but weeping on someone isn’t as harmful as hitting them, but we’re basically encouraged to be out of practice at crying. My son has never been told by us in his life that boys don’t cry; my daughter is never told that big girls don’t cry. I don’t know the biological mechanism behind crying, but it’s a species-level reaction. Crying crosses cultural lines. It can be repressed by a culture, but it’s still what your body wants to do.
Right now, I think crying at movies is more important than it’s ever been before. We are nearly a year from my plaint on this site that our schools would be out for six weeks, and I’m not expecting to send my kids to a physical school until September. (Our district is doing hybrid learning, which parents are allowed to opt out of and keep our kids in distance learning; Simon is home and Irene simply isn’t enrolled in preschool this year because what would be the point?) A friend, as of this writing, was about to lose his second parent to the disease. Everything is on hold except the things that are terrible. And more and more of us are simply feeling numb.
We could all probably stand a good cry, just to knock some of those feelings loose. I can’t cry at everything that’s lost in this year. I can’t cry that so much of the world shut down and broke but we were still able to keep in place systems that oppress people and even kill them. I can’t cry that my daughter’s doctor asked at her well-child visit the other day who her best friend is and she couldn’t answer because she doesn’t have one yet, as she’s still not able to spend time with other children. There are many, many things I can’t cry about right now. But maybe I can cry over Bing Bong and get some feelings out.