Watching a sad movie? Why don’t you cry about it?
I have always hated the laugh track. I find it to be wildly intrusive, often overused, and incredibly manipulative. Oh, I get it. Laughter is infectious, after all. But does a truly funny joke really need cueing? The laugh track is a crutch bad jokes can lean on and only distracts from the good ones. It is essentially someone telling you to “insert your laugh here.” Guess what someone? You are not the boss of me.
While laugh tracks are pretty exclusively a television device the film world has its fair share of manipulative tools as well, they’re just usually geared more specifically at emotional response. Before I get rolling, let’s be clear about something: I’m talking about emotional manipulation and NOT enhancement. Close ups, mood lighting and the swell of a soundtrack should be considered mere amplifications. I know, I know. It sounds like semantics, and in a way I suppose it is. But where one might argue that any form of storytelling attempts to manipulate its audience I would argue that intent is half the battle. Is your intent to seek empathy or an Oscar?
Pay It Forward (2000)—a regular whipping post of mine—is a prime example of emotional manipulation. It hurls Lifetime made-for-TV movie clichés at you until you’re either bludgeoned into submission or you turn away in disgust (The only reasonable response, in my humble opinion). PIF (Not only a useful acronym but a fine verbal sentiment towards the film itself) is the story of a little boy (Played by a doe-eyed Haley Joel Osment), prone to making trouble, who learns to pay good deeds forward from his teacher and becomes something of a folk hero. His teacher also happens to be scarred (both physically AND emotionally, of course), and his mother happens to be single. And alcoholic. And works at a strip club. Yeah, she’s a catch. But perhaps these two crazy kids might find something in each other?
As if all of that business wasn’t enough we are then faced with the ultimate in emotional manipulation: The little boy dies. Yep, he dies. He is a martyr. Sweet merciful Jesus (get it?).
Perhaps they would have won the Oscar if a sweet, mentally handicapped child who didn’t understand the full weight of what was happening had cradled the little boy in his arms as he died? Then, a butterfly could land on his head. PIF gradually makes its way from hinting that you’re supposed to be sad to aggressively challenging you not to be. It tries to evokes tears it has not earned.
PIF could have been a fine film. It could have been a simple, sweet story. As Roger Ebert stated in his review:
I believed in these characters and cared for them. I wish the movie could have gotten out of their way.
Now I suppose I must come up with a counterpoint, lest you think I’m some sort of emotionless robot. If there’s one film I can count on to start the water works every time it is In America (2002), written and directed by Jim Sheridan. It is the story—told from the perspective of the eldest of two daughters—of an Irish family immigrating to New York shortly after the death of their only son. They are forced, through both ignorance and lack of money to take up in a hole of an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Hardly the new life Mom and Dad had envisioned.
Their building is filled with criminals and drug addicts. Down the hall lives “the man who screams,” who lives up to that moniker nearly every night. Sloppily painted on his door are the words “keep away.” Naturally his heart will be warmed by the two little girls and he will be embraced by their family. It is certain, as an outside observer, he will have some insight into the grief they feel about their child’s death. And it is in the portrayal of this grief that the film truly shines.
It is rare that the film throws itself into melodrama. The most effective scenes, in fact, are quiet, fleeting moments. There is, for example, the scene where the father, Johnny, plays a game with his daughters, Christy and Ariel. We get the impression he has played this game with them many times before. He is blindfolded and clumsily chases the girls around the apartment declaring,
“Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Irish woman!”
The girls run and scream with glee until he slips up.
“Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Irish man!”
He stops and removes his blindfold as his wife approaches and quietly whispers in his ear.
“Play with the girls, Johnny.”
This is how these things tend to work. We keep on going, we keep on trying, but every once in a while our grief punches us right in the stomach. causing us to pause before soldiering on.
In America‘s finale is also a fine counterpoint to PIF‘s overwrought melodrama. As the father and his two daughters sit out on their fire escape the littlest one mourns the fact that she was never able to say goodbye to a deceased friend. Their thoughts then turn to Frankie, their son and brother. As the father and the eldest daughter try to convince Ariel that Frankie is flying across the moon and that she should wave and say goodbye, Christy turns to her father.
“Say goodbye to Frankie, Dad.”
When he does, we feel the weight of his grief lifted. It is a beautiful moment because it has been earned. We have not been told to feel his catharsis, we simply do, and that’s the difference.