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Five emotional scenes that reduced us to tears
10 June 2014

There's a quote at the top of my review of Ray Lawrence's superb Lantana, taken from the film, where the lead character Leon tells a friend about a collision he had with another man whilst jogging, an accident that prompted the other man to burst into tears. Leon was bemused by the man's response. "But don't you want to cry sometimes?" asks his friend. "Well, yeah, don't, do you," replies Leon. Leon is a cop and an all-Australian male. Men, legend has it, don't burst into tears, particularly at something that happens in a film. And we're men, right? Hard-drinking bruisers who take no prisoners. Bull shit. If you love movies, you will respond to them emotionally as well as intellectually, and sooner or later that level of engagement is going to hit you square in the tear duct. If that's never happened then you need to watch just a little less Godard and a tad more Capra. For this High 5, Camus and Slarek have picked five scenes that left them wiping their eyes and snorting into their hankies...


1. It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra 1946)

For some reason there is an absurd societal stigma on the idea of men producing tears for anything other than a herculean kick in the balls. The gender could be forgiven for easing out a droplet at the birth of their children. On second thoughts, crying with mirth is completely acceptable and an experience to be savoured. However, this High 5 from me is about those inexpressibly moving moments that bring a lump to the throat and a fizzing tickle behind the eyes when you know the wet cheek trail is imminent. The more effective the scene, the quicker the brine production. There are many heart-warming moments of pure pleasure in Frank Capra's classic tale of small town George Bailey with grand ambitions, all of which are dashed by the importance his town and family place on him. When he contemplates suicide worth more to his family dead than alive, an angel appears to him and shows George what life would be like if he'd never been born. One scene features (and no internet research, we promised) a disgraced pharmacist whose life is in tatters after he dispensed the wrong medicine with fatal results while suffering from grief at the news of his son killed in the war. With George in the world, his fate is markedly different. So in the main body of the movie, we see George as a young boy serving in a Pharmacy. The Pharma... - oh God! It's starting already! The power of recollection. All I have to do is think about it and my eyes prepare for a subtle leak. Extraordinary. Where was I? Oh right. The Pharmacist makes the mistake and gives the pills to George to deliver. George spots the error and returns the pills and gets a good beating (on his already damaged left ear) for his insolence. As he tearfully tells his side of the story in between slaps, the Pharmacist realises his own mistake and goes to hug the boy with profound gratitude and of course George flinches but then gives in. It's a real wrench of a scene and certainly the first one that comes to mind of the five.

2. Dead Poet's Society (Peter Weir 1989)

I've mentioned this before on the site so I'll be brief. Never before in the history of motion pictures has the simple act of nine teenagers standing on their desks to say goodbye to a wronged teacher, elicited so much emotion and quite a shock it was too. The movie was enjoyable in its own sentimental way and I am a sucker for school movies. I'd never place it particularly high in any pole but the ending lifted that film in my memory like putting tractor tyres on a Mini Cooper. I hear "Oh Captain, my Captain!" and I'm a mess.

3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich 2010)

This was name-checked on this week's Big Bang Theory so I'm in good company. This is a moment utterly ruined for me in the heat of the actual moment, 'heat' being the operative word. Our toy heroes find themselves adrift on a sea of trash all heading inexorably towards the hellish furnace. In a gear change of such immensity, it almost stopped the movie dead - excuse the word - we go from a raucous, inventive, funny and lively chase scene to main characters suddenly accepting the inevitability of their flaming doom. From Walter Hill to Ingmar Bergman in one cut. Hands start to get seriously held as each gives in to fate and Buzz lowers his head. The toys are acquiescent and as an audience member you're starting to crack. You've invested in these characters for years... you watched your own son play with both a Woody (take thee not out of context, thank you) and a Buzz and here they are resigned to die a horrible death. The familiar behind the eyes tickle starts. It will be a welcome release. Just at that moment, a person in my party leans over and says loudly "This must be the bit that makes everyone cry." Wham - emotion over. It is the equivalent of nudging a draughtsperson's arm as they draw a straight line, the ice bucket on a match, opening the oven door on a soufflé. I was (thank you, John Finnemore) a rabbit of negative euphoria... Not a happy bunny.

4. Up
(Pete Docter, Bob Peterson 2009)

Rarely does a film elicit brine from the get-go. You usually have to spend some time with the characters. I have no idea if I'm alone in this particular choice or opinion but I will say this; the first eleven minutes of Pixar's Up - in terms of maximum effect in minimum of screen time - is quite astonishing. We are talking about a relationship from childhood's moment one to old age death in such a short period of time that it's almost unbelievable that directors Docter and Peterson can elicit such a depth of reaction. But they do. Two children weather the storm of a start-up relationship, an inability to have children and senile succumbing (when that second blue balloon comes through the hospital ward window, I'm gone). From the last moments of Carl climbing the house steps, we are so on his side, we will go anywhere he wants us to go. As moving openings go, Up's is one of the most touching.

5. Breaking The Waves
(Lars von Trier 1996)

I've put this at No. 5 (there's no specific pecking order in these choices) because it's particularly unusual. This one's a little trickier to justify for very peculiar reasons. Both my partner and I were completely swept away emotionally by Emily Watson's extraordinary performance in this tale of love in a repressed community in the 70s. I remember sketchy details, in particular Watson's naive and awkward physicality but what I remember above all else is being an absolute spent wreck at the end of the movie. We were both in such deep puddles, it was almost comic. Yes, there were CG celestial bells (God confirming Bess's choices were the right ones?) but the fact is that I cannot remember the incident or image or accumulation of events that hit the pair of us watching like a pair of gold bricks. I must revisit but it is a rare film indeed that leaves you with a hazy memory of what you were seeing but embosses on your soul your reaction to it. I guess you could say we were both blindsided by the movie and to this day, my partner and I cannot recall how it happened.


Grave of the Fireflies [Hotaru no haka] (Isao Takahata, 1988)

It's fair to say that Isao Takahata is generally the lesser known of the two supremely talented directors who co-founded Japan's Studio Ghibli (the other is the newly retired Miyazaki Hayao). His films also differed markedly from those of his celebrated partner, evidenced by his emotionally devastating first film for the studio, the story of an orphaned brother and sister and their struggle for survival during the final days of World War 2. I was introduced to it by a Japanese friend who knew me well enough even then to be able to predict exactly how I would react to the climactic scene, and had a box of tissues handy for an eruption of tears that I had confidently assured her would not materialise. Yeah, right. I'm not going to discuss the narrative turn that leads to this moment, and if you'd told me in advance that the music that pushed the button would be No Place Like Home I'd probably have laughed in your face, but when that song kicked in I completely lost it. Seconds later a box of tissues was stuffed under my nose, a handful of which I grabbed to bury my face in. Rarely have I seen the pain of loss so vividly communicated, and who would have guessed it would be through animated film? It was a long time before I was willing to put myself through this particular emotional wringer again, but when I did the same damned thing happened.

The Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1982)

David Lynch's Eraserhead is a film that genuinely changed my life. I'm not going to go into detail here as to why, but you'll find plenty of explicit clues in my extensive review of the film and the 2000 restoration DVD (just click on the film title above). Personally, I couldn't imagine what Lynch could do for a follow-up. I certainly didn't expect The Elephant Man. The story of how this art-house filmmaker landed the job of directing the first feature for Brooksfilms – a production company set up by director/comedian Mel Brooks and producer Jonathan Sanger – is now the stuff of legend. Sanger had seen Eraserhead and recognised in it Lynch's technical skills and flair for the unusual and surreal, and put him forward as a potential director. Brooks was unaware of Lynch or his cult debut feature, and requested a screening. He and Sanger apparently watched the film in an otherwise empty cinema while Lynch paced the lobby, aware that his singular vision could right at that moment be losing him the job. When the film finished, the doors were thrown open and Brooks flew across the lobby and hugged Lynch, telling him, "You're a madman, I love you, you can do the movie." It was an astute move. Against all the odds, Lynch not only created a hauntingly atmospheric sense of Victorian London, he made one of the most moving films of the 1980s. But it's in the final scene that he pulls out all of the stops (BIG SPOILER ALERT if you've not seen the film), as Merrick makes a very deliberate decision to end his life by fulfilling a lifelong desire to be finally able to sleep lying down, an action his severe deformity will render as fatal. The dreamlike poetry of the sequence that follows (more than one commentator has drawn parallels with the emotional ending of Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man), coupled with John Morris's perfectly pitched score, sent tears pouring down my face on the first viewing. And the second. And the third in the company of an equally affected friend. So tearful was I when I emerged from that first screening that I was approached by the cinema manager, concerned about my health. I explained my reaction and an enthusiastic conversation about the film followed, and his parting gift to me was the poster for the film, which I still treasure.

(Michael Curtiz, 1942)

I'm sure this choice has prompted a few raised eyebrows. Casablanca? Really? Was Dooley Wilson singing As Time Goes By really that upsetting? Ah, but there are many ways that a film can prompt you to well up. Just occasionally I've been known to shed a tear just because the filmmaking itself is so completely and utterly sublime. Here the scene in question elicited this response for a variety of reasons. If you know the film (and if you don't, where the hell have you been?) you'll probably have your own list of favourite scenes and moments. Mine is as long as my leg, but the one that gets me every time comes midway through the film and marks the first signs that bitter and self-centred bar owner Rick Blaine might be harbouring small seeds of righteous rebellion after all. At this point the former love of his life, Elsa, has come to Rick's bar (everybody does...) with her husband Victor Laszlo, a notorious resistance leader. A group of Nazi officers start boisterously singing what we can presume is a patriotic German song, to which Laszlo responds by approaching the house band and ordering them to play The Marseilles. They don't look too keen, but when their band leader looks over at Rick for direction, he gives a small nod of approval and the band strikes up the tune, and Laszlo leads the French patriots in a belting rendition of their national anthem. Now at the risk of pissing off the patriotic among you, I have to state up front that I find almost all national anthems to be dreary in the extreme, ours included (ours especially). The Marseilles, however, is a glorious and inspiring exception. I hear that being sung and I'm up on my feet ready to run into battle. It's a genuinely joyous tune, and here its power to inspire and uplift is a perfect repost to the loutish German drinking song, its emotional power wonderfully underscored by its considerable symbolic clout. But the trump card comes when a local woman, who has incurred the contempt of her fellow citizens by cheerfully prostituting herself to the Germans, joins in the protest – as she sings through her tears, her face a heartbreaking mixture of shame and defiance, my eyes water up every single bloody time. A perfect moment in a perfect movie.

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)

One of the most sublime westerns ever committed to film, one that both embraces genre tradition and turns it on its head and almost invisibly laces the drama with a biting critique of capitalism, Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West also has an ending that never fails to reduce me to jelly. It's always a tricky thing to start talking about endings when you know that not everyone reading this will have seen the film, but if that includes you then stop reading this now and get your hands on the Blu-ray and watch it immediately. Do it now! As it happens I probably don't even need to specify the moment, as if you have seen the film you should know the one I mean. In the film's immaculately executed final crane shot, beautiful Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) unexpectedly shakes off her previous stuffiness and takes a drink out to a group of railroad workers, as Ennio Morricone's hyper-emotional score climbs into your eardrums and beats your tear ducts into submission and the title spirals slowly into the distance. You absolutely need to experience the preceding 170 minutes of immaculately crafted drama for the full impact of this seemingly inconsequential action to make its mark, but so effective is it that even just listening to a few notes of the score can start me off now.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Skin of Evil
(Joseph L. Scanlan, 1988)

I could hear the cynical sniggers out there even as I typed the title for this one. Star Trek? Upsetting? Do me a favour! Well up yours, matey. A few too many so-called cineastes tend to look down their nose at series like Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the best episodes displayed a quality of writing, acting and direction that are now being more widely celebrated in the current appreciation of the adult US cable shows of today. Skin of Evil was an episode from season one, when the show and the writers were still finding their feet. And to be honest, it's not that great, hampered by a planet that was all too clearly a studio set, and an unconvincing oil-slick monster (it's a guy under a slimy black sheet) who talks in a pantomime evil voice. But in the course of confronting the creature, one of the regular characters – security officer Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) – is killed. Though startling at the time, the death itself is over too quickly to deliver an emotional clout. That comes later. And then some. Those select few of you who know the episode will know the scene I mean. Maybe it didn't affect you, but it really got to me, largely due to the quality of the writing and acting. By this point in the series we had made enough investment in the characters being addressed for Tasha's personal messages to really hit home, as did their responses, none more so than Will Wheaton's masterful display of barely checked emotion as young Wesley Crusher – Wheaton rarely got the credit he deserved on this show (young fans especially had it in for him) and really shows his worth here. But it was the response of the Android Data (an always fine Brent Spiner) in his attempt to make sense of this human ritual that really hit home. "Sir," he says to the stoic Captain Jean-Luc Picard (the brilliant Patrick Stewart), "the purpose of this gathering... confuses me." "Oh? How so?" responds Picard with just a hint of irritation. "My thoughts are not for Tasha, but for myself. I keep thinking how empty it will be without her presence. Did I miss the point?" Picard's irritation melts into an understanding smile. "No, you didn't, Data," he tells him, "You got it." A few months later I was left devastated by the unexpected death of my closest friend, and of all the things that should haunt me, it was that simple exchange. Oh, how well writers Joseph Stefano and Hannah Louise Shearer nail the essence of what it feels like to suddenly lose someone you've been close to for so long. I remember at the time telling Camus – who lived a considerable distance from me – how Data's words had come to encapsulate my own sense of loss. Two days later a letter arrived from him containing a picture of Data with the words, "No, Data, you got it" written underneath. Watching it again recently on the remastered Blu-ray edition, it still had the power to bring tears to my eyes.