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?

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

17 thoughts on “Tearjerkers”

  1. That’s an easy question, and thanks to my English forebears it has to do with animals. I guess I like animals more than I like people, and the hardest thing for me is facing up to the eventual euthanasia procedure. The last time I went through this ordeal the vet’s assistant told me that many pet owners chicken out at the last moments leaving her to be their surrogate.

    I strongly believe that you owe it to your pet to be there for whatever small comfort that might provide for them — at the very least a familar voice and touch. Sometimes I’m able to hold back the weepies in the vet’s office, but never on the long drive home.

  2. Dogs. When I had to take our 11 year old lab to the vet’s office I thought the vet was going to have to tranquilize me. In fact I couldn’t bring myself to tell her to euthanize our lab at the first visit. I had to go back a few days later. It must be the big brown eyes and that trusting look.

  3. My husband made me (good) cry this morning with a lovely note he left for me when I got up.

    The biggest bawls I’ve had in the last year was when I euthanized two of my cats and found the third one dead in the yard. That brings tears to my eyes now thinking of it.

  4. Before I became a father I would of shot Bambi’s mom myself without dropping a single tear. Then came Agustin and I found myself weeping like a child to effing “Charlotte’s Web” flick. I’m such a douche lately.

    I don’t think that the things that make you cry stay constant. Given the same stimuli and the same subject, but a different moment in life the reaction will be different.

    One is supposed to “toughen up” as years pass by. I find the exact opposite to be true for me. I’ve become a sissy!

    Hope things are well for you Mr. Churbuck. I miss the chats (see? I told you I’m so tender lately! 🙂 )

  5. I’ve got to second all of those who mention animals. Count me right in among them, and probably more so.

    Old Yeller is a classic guy cry movie. Also, for guys, the movie Field of Dreams is as close to a guarantee for a guy cry as you can get.

  6. Human excellence. Perhaps because it points to something to which we are all called. Also, sacrifice for the good of another.

  7. The scene in Dr Zhivago, when Yuri returns to Yuriatin , after escaping Moscow & Strelnikov & reads the “I’m mad w/ joy!” letter from Lara…I can’t type..Talk amongst yourselves…

  8. Ever since my kids were born I have been a born-again crybaby. It doesn’t take much for the water to flow. What brings it on? It could be something schmaltzy like a movie or even singing the Old 100th in church. It’s a relief because for years I fought back tears and even disdained men who didn’t. But that’s how I was raised, and many men like me. Makes you want to cry… 😉

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  10. That damn Extreme Home Makeover gets me a lot. It’s ever since my wife and I had our baby.

  11. Brief Encounter?!? How about Wuthering Heights with fabulous-looking Laurence Olivier clambering and scowling all over the place? “Heathcliffe, Heathcliffe, take me to the window to see the moors, one last time”…. come on, I DARE you!

    Real tearjerker? Did I mention the 22-inch brown I caught in Patagonia (http://janiceb.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/been-a-while)?

  12. David,

    The video of the elephant and dog was a tear up moment for me. Having seen Old Yeller several times — I still cry when Yeller dies. I have two adopted sons (one 16 and one 20 now). They make me cry whenever they surprise me with an “I love you Dad” note or letter. Thinking about that — I’m teary right now.

    The movies Ordinary People, Fried Green Tomatos, and Steel Magnolias — all touched me and made me weep at the death scenes. I think it reminds me of my mom’s death when she was 52. [Yet I really didn’t cry when my dad died at 72.]

    Animals and heart warming stories make me cry. I last cried quite a bit while at a leadership conference with around 200 teenagers. The connection with them was intense and they (and I) talked about some deep life experiences. Leaving at the end of that conference was very emotional for me.

    Best wishes on your project!

  13. Anytime one of my kids gets up on stage, I get teary. I like big victories and for some reason, celebrate with wet eyes. Brian’s Song.

    It’s an interesting theme.

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