Thursday, July 04, 2013

31 Day Film Challenge, Day 4: A Film That Makes You Sad

Psychology researchers James J. Gross and Robert W. Levenson published a study about 15 years ago entitled "Emotion Elicitation Using Films" in which they determined that the "saddest" movie of all time was the 1978 tearjerker The Champ (starring Jon Voight and a very young Ricky Schroder).  In particular, Gross and Levenson determined that this scene from The Champ could reliably elicit sadness-- and, quite often, real human tears-- from almost all of their subjects.   (Stop reading for a moment and watch that scene.)  Now, it's hard to argue with the claim that a precious, vulnerable, eight-year-old bawling Ricky Schroder, begging his recently-deceased father to come back to life, doesn't genuinely rend the human heart.  But that sort of weeping, wailing and gnashing-of-teeth sadness is only one kind of sadness. And I'm not sure that, for me anyway, it's the saddest kind of sadness.

No one likes to feel pain or hurt or sadness, of course, but I'm of the opinion that acute pain is almost always preferable to chronic pain, just like injuries or illnesses with an identifiable source are preferable to mysterious, unlocatable and unexplained ones.  Similarly, films that reach inside and rip out my heart, but which allow me full view of their approach and assault, as well as the truly pleasurable experience of a cathartic cry after they have had their way, are not the saddest films.  They may be more intensely sad, but their blow is swift and sure and recognizable, even when it is cruel.  On the other hand, there is a different ilk of sad films, ones that burrow inside of you secretly and plant a seed of sadness that not only doesn't initially hurt, but doesn't even seem to be there.  When you leave the cinema, though, the seed begins to take root.  It draws nourishment from the deeply-embedded experiences of its host, it feeds on those subconscious nutrients like a parasite, and it grows.  You, the ignorant and unwilling host, find yourself a little emotionally sore and achy, a little psychologically cloudy and depressed, though you can't quite locate the where or wherefore of the pain.  It's not even pain, really, just a kind of dull sadness that hurts not quite enough to complain about but enough to keep the sunshine at bay.

My pick for today is a sad film of that sort, the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.  It's a slow, subtle, incredibly sensitive treatment of the kind of quiet desperation that we feel when we are lost and want to be found, when we are lonely and cannot find companionship, when we feel we have something to say and lack the language to communicate it, when we are not at home in the world, when everything seems foreign, and when we feel, deeply and existentially, as if we are lost in translation.  This is not a film that will make you cry, I don't think.  In fact, it will make you laugh, several times, but with an uneasy kind of laughter, the "ah well, might as well laugh" kind.  The relationship between the two lost, quietly desperate and longing protagonists in this film is sweet and episodically satisfying, but it is not deeply satisfying.  It is, in fact, quite the opposite.  Theirs is a connection that is accidental, inessential and peripheral, which serves as a temporary salve for an abiding hurt. The fleeting happiness that they experience together is, in large part, a consequence of those accidental, temporary conditions.  We viewers are fortunate enough to participate in that brief respite along with them, but as we laugh and coo and settle into the warm and fuzzy, Lost in Translation has already begun planting its seed of sadness.

You won't feel it immediately. You may even have to give this film a week or so before you can accurately assess its emotional impact. But eventually, maybe on the second or third viewing, a gentle but powerful wave of sadness will wash over you.  That sadness will not be crushing or devastating, but it will be real and really, deeply poignant. 

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