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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era