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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear