Let’s put it another way: Somewhere, Aristotle is chortling into the sleeve of his tunic. It was the Greek philosopher and literary critic, after all, who foresaw the success of “Marley & Me” way back in 350 B.C. He figured out, long ago, why we flock to entertainments that make us weep, wail, wallow, sob, moan, sniffle, cry or otherwise express vicarious sorrow for tragic fictions.
Marley & Me
Jennifer Aniston, Owen Wilson, Eric Dane, Alan Arkin, Kathleen Turner
US theatrical: 25 Dec 2008 (General release)
UK theatrical: 13 Mar 2009 (General release)
Pity and terror: That’s the ticket, Aristotle believed. That’s why we spend quality time getting very depressed or very scared. We seek the catharsis of pity - C’mon, Marley! Lift your head, pal! Don’t get old and decrepit! - and terror: “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” opens in theaters next week, hard on the heels of “The Unborn.”
“Marley” is a hit, doing to the box office what the real-life Marley could do to a designer shoe: ripping it up with gleeful abandon. Lots of works that leave audiences in soppy puddles have been wildly popular, from films such as “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and “Old Yeller” (1957) to best-selling novels by Robert Waller or Nicholas Sparks. Yet we’re often a little embarrassed and apologetic about our copious tears; we self-report with words such as “schmaltzy” and phrases such as, “I know it was schlocky, but you can’t believe how hard I cried!”
An emotional response to art - as opposed to an intellectual engagement - can seem cheap and crude, the result of cynical manipulation rather than a creative gift. And nobody wants to look like a sap.
But there’s more to this issue than meets the tear-filled eye. For one thing, making people feel deeply is no snap. If it were, then every author, painter, filmmaker or songwriter (and newspaper columnist) would be doing it. Who doesn’t dream of the bodacious profits of a “Marley”?
Sentiment in the arts is tricky topic. A Charles Dickens novel can leave readers with a lump in the throat nearly as big as the book itself, and Dickens is regarded as master storyteller, a classic author taught in universities, the subject of innumerable doctoral dissertations.
But when a novel picked by Oprah Winfrey for her book club does the same thing - leaves readers awash in tears - it’s often ridiculed for its gooey melodrama.
If it’s OK for Dickens to tweak the heartstrings, why isn’t it OK for Tawni O’Dell?
Film isn’t the only art form that makes us weep. Those who behold the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, designed by Maya Lin and dedicated in 1982, often exhibit intense emotional reactions. When “Death of a Salesman” premiered on Broadway in 1949, many patrons had tear-striped faces as they left the theater.
Elia Kazan, who directed the original production, wrote in his autobiography that when he first read Arthur Miller’s play, the waterworks were waiting in the wings: “On page two ... I felt the tears coming as I turned that page.”
The unexpected death of Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) in a 1975 episode of the TV series “M*A*S*H” left many viewers in emotional tatters.
Both opera and country music - an unusual combo, yes? - are famous for their fulsome, tear-tugging content. Weeping at “Madama Butterfly” is practically a legal requirement. “The Christmas Shoes,” a country music song about a lad buying footgear for his ill mother (“And I want her to look beautiful/If Mama meets Jesus tonight”) is a staple of radio station playlists at holiday time - and the on-air requests rarely come without a sniffle or two.
Still, the suspicion lingers that emotionalism is a bit juvenile, a bit hokey - not worthy of association with true art.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, who used his novels to wrestle with dense moral and theological questions, was irritated at the large sales enjoyed by female writers with their sentimental love stories. He famously dismissed their ilk in an 1855 letter as that “damn’d mob of scribbling women.” His real target, though, wasn’t their gender, but the fact that their work aimed straight for the tear ducts instead of the frontal lobe - and that it sold like crazy.
Hawthorne, as it happens, was a bit out of step. The 19th century was an epoch when emotionalism reigned supreme in the arts, supplanting the rigorous rationality of the 18th century with its neoclassical fastidiousness. Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” (1774) helped initiate the Romantic movement and its excessive focus on an individual’s emotional life. The Byronic hero - a brooding figure tormented by love and loss, and not afraid to shed a few tears while rending his garments - became a familiar icon.
History, of course, is notoriously cyclical, and after 1900, the tears started to dry up, notes James Elkins, art historian and professor at the Art Institute of Chicago who writes often about cultural issues. “The 20th century was a ‘tearless century.’ It was not a common goal to have viewers moved to tears,” he points out in an e-mail.
“There isn’t a connection between the value of a work of art and its capacity to reduce people to tears.”
So what’s the deal with a “Marley & Me”? Why is this lachrymose bit of lightweight fluff fetching audiences en masse? “Maybe,” Elkins speculates, “we’re headed back toward more openness to the passions and the emotions.”
Gail Siegel, a Chicago-based fiction writer, believes Aristotle was onto something: We revel in emotional material - be it a novel or a poem or a film - because we require it. “Sometimes art allows us to feel things we suppress in our everyday life,” she muses. “The heroines or heroes, victors or victims are, for that brief interlude, our emotional avatars. So we live and die with them. We laugh or weep with them. Part of the human condition is to experience life in retrospect. We retell it, write it, text it, compose lyrics for it not just to remember it, but to experience, comprehend and re-experience it.”
Crying, as Tom Lutz notes in his 1999 book “Crying: The Natural & Cultural History of Tears,” is, as far as we know, done by no creatures other than human beings.
We understand the physiology of tears - ducts, glands, hormones and such - but our attitude toward tears induced by the arts has always been more complex and mysterious.
“Tears, Idle Tears,” Alfred Lord Tennyson rhapsodized in his 1847 poem, “I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depths of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes.”
Whether the source of those tears is a profound riddle of existence, or the fate of an overgrown, ill-trained pooch in a so-so movie, the result is the same: wet faces, shredded tissues and overweening sorrow at the realization of, as Tennyson grimly puts it, “the days that are no more.”
In other words: Marley, c’est moi.
// Notes from the Road
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