As I sat watching The Fault in Our Stars, in a state of quiet, constant sniffling that occasionally gave way to gusts of outright weeping, I had to ask myself: Why do we go to the movies to cry?
Of course, most of the time we don't go to the movies to cry. Judging by box-office stats, we go for uncomplicated entertainment. We don't go to watch bad things happen to good people, which we can see easily enough in real life. We're looking for Hollywood endings, as we call them, where everything wraps up nicely, neatly and happily. Very happily.
But running against this feel-good tide is a stored-up need for sad movies, a down-deep longing that occasionally breaks out into a massive, My-Heart-Will-Go-On mainstream hit.
Every generation, it seems, needs a classic weepie. (As used here, the term means a drama with a sad ending -- not a bleak ending or a wrenching ending or a what-the-hell-was-that ending. This category does not include documentaries, Cormac McCarthy adaptations, or works by Austrian nihilists. It's about pleasurable sadness rather than draining existential despair.)
Deeply sad and wildly popular, The Fault in Our Stars is an adaptation of a much-adored John Green YA novel. In TFIOS -- as those acronym-loving kids call it -- two young cancer patients, Hazel and Gus (played by Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort), meet at a support group and fall in love, with inevitably weepy results.
TFIOS's perfectly pitched sadness has been highlighted in headlines about the film's opening weekend numbers. "A flood of young, female tears has lifted The Fault in Our Stars to the top of the box office," reported online magazine Vulture.
And it has raised questions for critics. Dana Stevens' review for Slate, another online mag, was comically titled, The Fault In Our Stars Didn't Make Me Cry. Am I a Bad Person?
The movie itself starts off by raising the whole sadness issue. "I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories," Hazel says in the opening scene. This is not a story in which "beautiful people learn beautiful lessons," she warns us. "This is the truth. Sorry."
Accordingly, TFIOS tries to meet certain realities head-on. Hazel drags around the oxygen tank that helps her breathe for the duration of the movie, for instance. Her breathing tubes stubbornly stay put. And then there's Gus and Hazel's big romantic moment at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, which is certainly non-standard (though also a bit creepy).
But if TFIOS avoids the soppy sentimentalism of, say, a full-on Nicholas Sparks hankyfest like A Walk To Remember, it is still an exquisitely calibrated crying-delivery machine. With wistful, whispery indie-pop songs and strategic close-ups of the leads' lovely faces, it serves up sad-movie clichés for a demographic that is hyper-aware of sad-movie cliches.
This is one of the sweet paradoxes of sad movies. Knowing how you are being manoeuvred, maybe even manipulated into crying is no defence against tears. I speak here as an indiscriminate movie-cryer, as someone who cries regularly, even during movies I hate.
The triggers of the classic sad movie bypass judgment and taste. They trounce film-school theory. Sad movies seem to link directly to the tear-ducts through the emotive, immersive power of the cinematic medium.
With TFIOS, for example, I felt for the young lovers, I really did. But what really grabbed at my heart was the grief of their parents. Laura Dern plays Hazel's valiant mother, and her wonderfully mobile face is always on the verge of crumpling into sorrow. I immediately developed a Pavlovian response to Dern, basically dissolving into tears whenever she appeared on screen. I cried more than she did.
That's another thing about sad movies. You can actually feel yourself reaching for the sadness.
The classic sad ending is, ultimately, not that sad. It feels fitting. In an odd, tear-drenched way, it feels good. Hazel and Gus might make cynical cracks about the motivational phrases his parents post around the house -- "Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? -- but TFIOS is undeniably uplifting. Despite its opening declaration, the movie is packed with "beautiful lessons." You feel like all that crying is worth something.
That's one of the reasons crying at the movies is so much better than crying in real life. Sitting in the dark, you can weep for Hazel and Gus.
And then you can walk out into the light, feeling somehow better. TFIOS might be drenched in teenaged tears, but it's not a downer. With a bit of contemporary irony and a whole lot of old-school melodrama, it's this generation's introduction to the paradoxical pleasures of the sad movie.