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Gilbey on Film: The crying game

I've blubbed at more cinematic dross than I care to remember.

Confession time. I'm a crier at movies. Always have been. This past weekend, I watched a new film that had me sobbing on the sofa. It was good but that's beside the point. Quality doesn't enter into it.

I'll give you an example: I cried at Stepmom. No, it wasn't a lost Ingmar Bergman masterpiece called Stepmom or a George Cukor curiosity that had been locked in the vault for decades. I'm talking about the Julia Roberts/Susan Sarandon movie Stepmom. Ordinarily, this would be the point at which I would say, "Oh, the shame." Except that I also remember seeing the laughable British thriller Who Dares Wins when I was 12 and crying at that, too. I could tell you that my childhood tears were summoned by outrage at this reactionary movie's nakedly anti-CND stance, or the thought that a fine actress like Judy Davis could be killing her career when it had barely begun, or by a premonition that, one day, a man named Andy McNab would haunt the bestseller lists. But no. I cried when a minor character got maced, a mere walk-on who didn't even have any dialogue. Oh, the shame.

So the emotional effectiveness of a film can't truly be measured by the dampness of my cheeks. I've cried at movies that are indisputably great (ET: the Extra Terrestrial, Rushmore, Hoop Dreams) but I've also cried at more dross than I care to remember. (Has anyone else even seen the soft-focus Italian terminal-illness tearjerkers The Last Snows of Spring and Last Feelings, released in a double bill in the late 1970s? And, if so, would they care to start a support group with me?)

It's strange to be making critical assessments of films that might affect me on a level that has nothing to do with their quality. It would be fraudulent of anyone to disparage a comedy that had made them laugh -- if you're chuckling and it's a comedy, then surely it works. It's slightly different with crying, since that response can be prompted by a film hitting a nerve particular to the viewer. Although, for the record, I don't have a stepmother and I've never been maced.

The critical consensus seems to be that it all comes down to whether a movie deserves our tears. In Pauline Kael's review of ET (which you can find in her collection Taking It All In), she wrote that "Spielberg has earned the tears that some people in the audience -- and not just children -- shed." Manipulation is such a contentious issue in cinema that our response to it can come down to nothing more sophisticated than whether or not we feel used or sullied when a movie has persuaded us to cry. Seeing again Disney's 1980 film The Fox and the Hound on its re-release in the mid-1990s, I was surprised to find that it was rather a crude and tatty work and I felt weirdly aggrieved on behalf of my nine-year-old self, sniffling into his Poppets while watching the movie first time around at the Harlow Odeon.

Critics in general don't make a habit of 'fessing up to tears shed in a professional capacity, so I was struck by David Denby's New Yorker review of Walter Salles's 1998 film Central Station. The full review doesn't appear to be online (though here is the capsule version) but I know it ended with a sentence that revealed a lot about the embarrassment surrounding the question of crying in the cinema. Reflecting on the picture's extremely moving ending, Denby wrote (and I may be paraphrasing slightly): "It's okay, I think, just this once, to cry." Something about the beautifully halting structure of that sentence, with each comma insisting on a kind of withdrawal or deferment, seemed to imitate the act of a person stifling their sobs. Then there's the formal language, the sense of Denby ratifying in advance what should be a spontaneous response, which is actually quite funny, not least that lovely ". . . just this once".

It's interesting but not exactly surprising that the tenor of the material that makes me cry now has shifted slightly as I have got older. Films are, after all, markers of our lives and our development, so now I find that the emphasis has moved toward middle-aged reflection of the "where-did-the-years-go?" variety -- Before Sunset, One Day or the final episode of Our Friends in the North, for example, have all done it for me. I'm sometimes tempted to look again at Michael Apted's astonishing Up series of films, which drops in on the lives of a group of British people every seven years from the age of seven, and I'm sure I will return to it in advance of the next instalment, 56 Up, due for broadcast next May. But I also know I'll need a few weeks to recover. That's the hard stuff. That's the mother lode.

Feature directors are beginning to use Apted's device in fiction -- Michael Winterbottom has been filming material on-and-off for the past five years for his film Seven Days (due out next year), while Richard Linklater has been amassing footage since 2001 for Boyhood, which won't even be finished and released until 2015. Whatever the eventual flaws or virtues of these works, at least they won't have to resort to the sort of ageing make-up which can sink any film where the narrative's time-span is substantially longer than the shooting schedule. The merest glimpse of an artificially aged Leonardo DiCaprio in the trailer for Clint Eastwood's forthcoming J Edgar is enough to make grown men cry.