Sunday, March 04, 2007

Why Do People Cry in Movies?

Yesterday, I had the privilege of joining a friend during her annual, musical quest at the Houston Livestock & Rodeo. For her, the yearly pilgrimage is equal parts freedom and bondage. While listening to the music, riding the rides and watching the bull riders, for a few days, she's freed from the constraints implicit in rearing five children. And, for those few days, she indulges in her love, fandom and willful bondage to her favorite musical artists and one in particular: Clay Walker. Each year, she selects a few friends to escort her to her musical pinnacle and I was lucky enough to be one of those friends.

Riding home after watching this friend dance and sing with abandon, we ladies had a philosophical discussion about fame and money and being a fan. One friend said that she felt that artists, musicians, actors and athletes who had "made it" didn't deserve the money they made or the adoration they receive. "I mean, big deal, they can sing or they can catch a ball. Who cares?" My response with a little more to follow was along these lines, "It's a big deal to the fan because the fan feels they can be a part of greatness. Maybe the person doesn't believe they'll ever have that sort of greatness in his own life and being a fan is a way to be connected to it. Or, maybe the music or art resonates energetically, spiritually and emotionally with the fan. The art connects them."

I then told them about the experience of listening to Reneé Fleming sing Twilight and Shadow from Lord of the Rings. I found this clip on YouTube, ignore the video and listen. Fleming strips her voice of vibrato, and imbues her delivery with such raw grief and pain I find it soul-wrenching. In fact, this music caused me to cry when I was beyond tears after the loss of my son. Her artistic expression exactly matched my emotional resonance. It is difficult to describe, as the words, themselves are in Elvish (a language created by J.R.R. Tolkien) and not comprehensible. As I have made the point before, lyrics are only a part of music, the music itself, is a language, and its meaning can be manipulated--say if the lyrics are in contrast with the melody--a sad melody with happy lyrics ("What A Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong or "Hallelujah" as performed by Jeff Buckley).

Other artists come to mind for their ability to touch people emotionally. Some, like Elvis, have been accused of being marginally talented. Or, like Madonna, not talented at all. In Madonna's case, her music represented the voice of a generation of young women, and some men. Her lyrics, the pop sensibility and tinny anger must of spoke to someone, she sold a lot of albums. (She didn't, by the way, speak to me.)

And then there are the one-hit wonders. Gnarl's Barkley's song Crazy is a nice synthesis of crazy lyrics, crazy melody and his crazy voice. The lead singer for the Fray, meanwhile, has a rather flat musical delivery which conveys beautifully the song How to Save A Life. The singer's voice is depressed--how difficult and depressing is it to try to save a depressed, fatalistic person? Some silly songs like Mambo Number 5, Living La Vita Loca by Ricki Martin, and Toxic by Brittney Spears encapsulate the things people do in the name of love and lust.

And when we see an actor reveal a complex character so believably, we relate to that performance based on our own life. For example, I was deeply moved by Sean Bean's turn as Boromir in Lord of the Rings. There are so many people I have hope for, who, hopefully, before they die, will submit to God, and say, "I didn't see. Forgive me. I didn't see." And I hope for forgiveness for all those parts of myself, too, where I deceive myself, and seek that which destroys because of my own blindness or weakness, and I hope that some of my contributions will be a sort of redemption, and I hope for divine peace and comfort. I project my experience on the performer's art.

So this brings us to the question: Why do people cry in movies? (Or any art for that matter...) The question of why people cry at all is still not resolved scientifically. Never mind, the complicated social and psychological phenomenon of crying about something that doesn't touch your life personally. But I'll give a stab at an explanation:

Humans are social creatures with shared, universal emotions. Good artists tap into this universal well when they touch people significantly with their creations. The more intensely emotional the art, the more connected a person feels to him or her. The fan, the observer feels like they know the artist, and in a sense, on that level they do--intensely. The artist has to come up with his creation from that same universal well and reveal part of himself. Like Anna Nalick says in her song Breathe:

2 AM and I'm still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, its no longer
inside of me, threatening the life they belong to
And i feel like I'm naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you'll use them, however you want to

So an artist (the giver) dips into the same well the listener or observer (the receiver) dips into. To the extent that they experience the world the same way, is the extent they communicate. At the concert yesterday, Clay Walker broke down crying trying to dedicate a song to his grandma. His fans lifted him up clapping and at one point, singing for him. He was overcome and just couldn't get it back. I felt his pain, but not as acutely as my friend who has met him, knows his history and knows his life experience. While Clay Walker didn't touch me in the same way Reneé Fleming or Norah Jones or Chris Martin or Itzhak Perlman does. As much as emotion is universal, relationship is individual.

People cry at movies because the story shared resonates with their own experience. It is a form of empathy. Crying for art is one of the wonderful parts of being human. There is no evolutionary reason for these tears, are there? That purpose hasn't been found yet. Maybe God created us to be connected and to appreciate beauty in all its forms. Maybe God created tears as a gift to humanity, otherwise we'd be no more than an animal driven by instinct. Maybe tears ultimately connect us to God, revealing our smallness in the face of a big, beautiful, awe-inspiring universe.

And, in honor of the Anchoress:

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
You haven't heard Vivaldi until you've heard Itzhak Perlman interpret Vivaldi.

And what does a holocaust sound like? Perlman showed us:

And what does sex sound like? Well this:

And this, too:

And who does everyone love?

I think I'll make a music page at my Amazon Store. Stop by later for more favorites.


Anonymous said...

This song is very beautiful and very moving. There is a scene in Shaw Shank Redemption where a song is played and the entire prison comes to a stand still because of the beauty of the song that was played. It moved me to tears.

Thank God for tears!!! They express from such a depth, in such a language that simply cannot be understood. Each time tears are shed, it seems something profoundly spiritual takes place. And you are right, only those who share in the same kind of grief and pain can tap into that same language. For that brief moment, two hearts met with such purity, such intensity and such love. What a gift!

There is a verse in Ps.56.8 that I love so much. God puts our tears in a bottle. Perhpas one day we will understand each tear that has been shed by us and those we love the most.

You wrote this so nicely.

Mathilde Grissom von Hindenburg said...

That last sentance you said reminded me of astronaut ALan Shepard. When he was on the moon, he looked back at Earth and wept because God revealed Alan's smallness in the in the face of this aew-inspiring universe. It was on the moon where Alan Sheaprd had a total change of personality. I believe it is on the moon was where Al Shepard found God.

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