This morning my Cousin Tom in Maine posted a video on Facebook and asked if people could watch it without crying. It involves an old elephant at an elephant retirement farm who has bonded with a plump golden retriever. They walk around together like BFF’s, eat together, hang out — then one day the dog was injured and had to recover indoors where the elephant couldn’t go.
So the elephant stood vigil for three weeks until the hurt dog was brought outside for a joyous reunion. The dog and the elephant make happy dog and elephant sounds. Dog recovers. Voiceover lays on the schmaltz.
I didn’t cry, but I am interested in media that consciously evokes a crying response. Guys are conditioned not to cry. The last time a movie got me going was Pixar’s “Up” which also made me laugh and nearly asphixiate. There’s an entire genre of classic movies known as “weepies.” A classic would be Sir David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a 1945 entry in the excellent Criterion Essential Art House collection. Here is the final scene — the one where everyone goes boo-hoo in their hankies.
Choking up is an interesting demonstration of physiological empathy. We see something sad, our tear ducts juice up, we sob. I wonder what the biological/evolutionary essence of weeping is? I can’t think of any other organism that cries. I heard an animal behaviorist say on NPR that chimps grieve when another chimp dies. But why do some combinations, sounds, or images pluck at the heart strings more effectively than others? Why did every kid in the early 1960s cry their eyes out when Ol’Yeller died? The shooting of Bambi’s mom devastated an entire generation. Animals seem particularly effective at wrenching out the handkerchiefs — the elephant and the dog, dead deer, etc.. I once read that the English are particularly crazed by sad animal news. Apartment building burns down, 10 people and two dogs die: the dogs get the cards and bouquets.
Men cry once a month, according to the scientists. Women cry an average of five.
Two pieces of literature are pretty effective at inducing tears, at least in me. (I am man enough to express my sentimental side and wear pink Brooks Bros. shirts). One was a John Cheever story, in which a suburban husband, stranded by the existential meaningless of his Westchester life, sits on his daughter’s bed and, holding one of her dolls, begins to cry. The image freaked me out as a 19-year old student and made me cry, probably because I dreaded more than anything else the monotony of career, commute, and responsibilities.
The king of all tear jerking writing for me is Giuseppe Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo, or The Leopard. The novel behind the movie by Visconti starring Burt Lancaster, The Leopard is about the decline of the power and fortunes of a fin de siecle Sicilian prince, who realizes in the age of Garibaldi and revolution that his family’s primacy over their fortunes is on the wane. At the end, as he dies in a dingy Palermo hotel room, the old aristocrat falls into a comfortable haze and as he expires he sees before him not his ancestors but all the dogs he knew and loved from boyhood to the end of his life. Reading that passage, alone in a beach chair on the outer beach of Sampson’s Island one late July, summer festivities sparkling all around me, I totally and unexpectedly choked up, the passage lighting off all sorts of sentiment about my dead father, dead dogs, and my own imminent senesence.
I cried when the Star Spangled Banner was played for the US women’s eight when they were awarded their gold medals at the Shunyi race course during the 2008 Summer Olympics. Standing in the grandstand, hand over my heart, singing the words by myself with 500 curious Chinese all looking at me and videoing me as I did what any good patriot should do when their team gets the gold. I sang, I remembered the words, and I got verklempt.
So what gets you bawling?