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Huang Lijie
Thursday, Jun 19, 2014

Showbiz

Why do we cry at the movies?

The Straits Times | Huang Lijie | Thursday, Jun 19, 2014

Cinema still: The Fault In Our Stars starring Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley

I have been in two minds about stepping into a cinema of late.

No, it is not the recent rise in ticket prices at theatres that has made me waver. I am wary of the puddles, stains and moist tissues of tears that might be lurking in cinemas here with the screening of the new movie, The Fault In Our Stars.

The Hollywood hit, about two cancer stricken teenagers who fall in love with each other, has beget water-logged column inches in the international press, swollen with "tears" and spilling with words such as "cry" and "weep".

The ubiquity of these terms spell a certain fate - the opening of floodgates in cinemas around the world.

Already, the film, based on a bestselling young adult fiction of the same title by John Green, has spawned its own branded tissue. The publisher, Dutton Children's Books, handed out tissue packets printed with the book's cover design at the movie's New York premiere earlier this month.

The deluge has reached our shores. Sneak previews of the film began last week, ahead of its opening on Thursday.

I have not yet caught the movie, but its emotional contagion has found me. An article about the tear-jerker, on the website of New York Magazine, almost made me weep, from laughing too hard.

The piece pokes fun at the film's ability to wring tears from stones and suggests ways to remain stoic while watching it in public. Remind yourself repeatedly that you are being emotionally manipulated, pull on the eye mask at aw-shucks moments and, yes, run out of the theatre at points of emotional climax (unless you get an aisle seat, this move might also stop your neighbours from turning misty-eyed).

The article is mischievous but its levity teases out weightier questions. Why does art make us cry and what is the worth of those tears?

Critics in their reviews of The Fault In Our Stars have frequently ascribed its success to its ability to leave audiences heaving with sobs. Wall Street Journal columnist Marshall Heyman even spurned the usual star rating system to congratulate the film with four hankies.

It is hard to deny the power of a work of art when it is able to provoke audiences to weep involuntarily. But would equating such prowess with artistic merit smack of indulgence? And could it be a case of mistaken identity; should credit go, instead, to hormonally vulnerable moviegoers?

The "how we cry" is not altogether a puzzle. Science has sketched out the complex neurophysiological pathway that activates the lachrymal glands in the upper, outer region of our eyes and causes tears to flow. It has also determined that the cocktail of water, mucus, oil and proteins discharged from the glands helps to lubricate our eyeballs and keep them free of irritants.

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