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The Crying Game 

The first man I ever saw cry was Bryan West. A large, violent guy from a large, violent family, Bryan had just found out that his brother had received an eight-year prison term for armed robbery. This, apparently, was more upsetting than the time the same brother had beaten him with a plank.

Bryan had dazzled us kids by remaining tear-free after his planking, but now there he was, squatting on this little patch of grass, a twine of snot running from nose to knee.

For us, the idea that a bruiser like Bryan could be reduced to the status of crybaby was unthinkable. Indeed, his sniveling threw us for such a loop that we could barely muster the enthusiasm to taunt him for it. And when we did, Bryan didn't bother to beat us up.

After Bryan there was Michael Landon, who played Charles Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Though not quite a real man, Ingalls was a real weeper. In every episode, it seemed, the sturdy frontiersman would descend into a vale of sniffles. There was no snot, mind you, just a spangling semicircle of tears, often accompanied by a soft smile. This was the puzzling part: Mr. Ingalls didn't wait until he got a soccer ball in the groin; he cried when something good happened. I didn't get it.

In the intervening years I have learned that Bryan West and Mr. Ingalls were demonstrating two distinct forms of crying: the bad kind and the good kind.

The bad kind of crying is exhausting, depressing, even humiliating -- that is, it's real. The second kind, the fake kind, is far more rewarding. In fact, ever since I discovered the benefits of a good, Pa Ingalls-style blubber, I have been addicted.

Not that I am a weepy guy. Assaulted with images of global calamity, frustrated and disappointed by my personal life, I remain dry-eyed for months on end. Am I heartless? Too macho? I don't think so. Some socially conscious Victorian novelist -- George Eliot, I believe -- summed it up for me: if we could hear every bird and squirrel in the woods, she wrote, we'd go mad. By the same measure, if we cried at everything that was worth crying over, we'd all be walking around with faces that looked like huge cold sores.

Which is why we need movies. Or why I need movies. Every now and then, when the world is too much with me, I'll get myself horribly hung-over, settle down with a good weepie, and let it all out. It might sound harsh, but there's nothing like a dose of Sense and Sensibility to assuage the horror of an earthquake or a plane crash -- not to mention a bad day at the office.

The point is, bottled-up grief must be uncorked by artifice for it to prompt the good kind of tears -- the cleansing, phony kind. I'm not picky. Babe: Pig in the City will do the job.

A friend of mine thinks this is dumb. I'm being manipulated, he says. Well, fiction is manipulation. If sobbing over Shadowlands is dumb, then so is the entire Western tradition. Aristotle was not above getting lachrymose over the occasional Euripides sob story. Shakespeare was a notorious tear-jerker ("Speak of me as... one that lov'd not wisely but too well"). As tragedians and schlock merchants alike have long understood, fake crying is good for you. It's called catharsis.

A little more than 10 years ago, I spent an entire day in front of the tube, watching grimly, but utterly dry-eyed, as the atrocities of Tiananmen Square unfolded. Later that night, Terms of Endearment came on. By the time a terminally ill Debra Winger turned to her son and said, "I know you love me," I was juddering like a jackhammer.

Recently I rented Jerry Maguire. I'd had a terrible week, and I was set for a good psychic enema. Indeed, I'd already welled up at a couple of semi-weepy moments early in the film, and as it neared its climax -- where Tom Cruise rushes home to estranged wife Renee Zellweger and declares his true love -- I felt months of pent-up sorrow rising within me. I leaned forward. Cruise fixed Zellweger with a woeful stare. His eyes filled up, her lip quivered, then, then, then... my wife walked into the room: "I'm sorry, I can't take Tom Cruise seriously."

Pop.

Cruise's "You complete me" sounded as contrived and silly as it is. Zellweger's "You had me at hello" was eclipsed by a cloud of irony. I was left with emotional blue balls. That was a month ago, and I haven't been myself since. But I think it's going to be okay. Tonight I'm going down to the video store, I'm renting It's a Wonderful Life, and I'm going to rid myself of the Chechnya crisis once and for all.

-- Chris Wright writes for the Boston Phoenix and can be reached at cwright@phx.com.

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