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Public weeping is back

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

The movies that make Margaret cry feature stoic female heroines who remind her of her grandmother, the woman who cared for her when her father left for war.

"I think that had a lot to do with how I feel about these movies," she said. "How many of us would be able to be so unselfish? How many people would do that?"

The 74-year-old is speaking of films made more than 60 years ago, when she was just a little girl growing up in the midst of world war and economic hardship. She and other Canadian women (whose real names are not used) have shared their cinematic memories with Brenda Austin-Smith, a film professor at the University of Manitoba who is studying why some movies make women cry.

"What I'm after is essentially a cultural history of weeping," said Dr. Austin-Smith. "Old films were once somebody else's pop culture."

Crying in movies has long had a bad rap. Men who tear up when Spiderman learns that great power comes with great responsibility may pass it off as allergies, while women who weep when star-crossed lovers reunite are teased for being sentimental, gullible or silly.

But Dr. Austin-Smith says that viewers who cry during films demonstrate a profound connection to the culture of the time.

She believes that public weeping is making a comeback as cinema revisits the melodramatic style of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Back then, the most popular films concentrated on the emotional suffering of women in trying times, a formula that has growing relevance for today's audiences.

"Those films came out during a time of great political upheaval," said Dr. Austin-Smith. "People responded to them because they were often going through things just as emotionally harrowing."

The lineup for this year's Toronto International Film Festival also reflects the turbulent politics of the current era and is heavy on female-focused melodrama, in which men disappear and women suffer.

Canadian director and master tearjerker Paul Haggis will show In the Valley of Elah, which examines a family's search for answers when a son goes AWOL after returning from Iraq. In Rendition, Reese Witherspoon and her furrowed brow attempt to find her Egyptian husband, who disappears amid allegations of terrorism. And in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's Booker-nominated novel Atonement, a young girl tells a lie and ruins the lives of those around her.

Dr. Austin-Smith said all these films, like their early 20th century predecessors, funnel the particular anxieties of the time through the camera lens.

And people who cry are just as likely reacting to real-world events as to the fantasy world laid out before them.

"Atonement is not set in our period, but the idea of atoning for a horrifically self-indulging mistake is massively relevant," she said. "How do you acknowledge a responsibility for things that are happening?"

While action-filled war movies are more likely to tug the heartstrings of male viewers, forcing them to contemplate the realities of sacrifice and bravery in battle, melodramas are specifically oriented toward women, Dr. Austin-Smith said.

"Once again, we're going to close-ups of beautiful women looking out of windows," she said. "They are our stand-ins for a kind of reflection, contemplation and inwardness that I think we've been lacking."

Back when Harriet, another of Dr. Austin-Smith's subjects, was young, the Second World War had just begun and films offered an outlet for her mother's fear.

"They were bringing up children who were asking 'where's Daddy?' " the 80-year-old remembers. "You had to be strong for the next person. So when you saw these sad movies, it was a way to let it out. That was the way you could let yourself go."

Linda, a 67-year-old subject of the study, said there is pain but also joy in watching the films that reflected her parents' hardship.

"It helps because you've felt like that and you've lost like that, but you know you can move on," she said.

A study of crying done by the psychology department at Stanford University found that people who weep at films are no more likely to suffer depression than those who remain dry-eyed, but women are much more likely to cry than men.

Dr. Austin-Smith plans to travel across Canada discussing melodramatic early cinema with women in their 60s, 70s and 80s, research for a book about crying, culture and cinema.

"What was it like to see these on first release when these films came out?" she asks her subjects. "How do they connect to your life and to culture during that period?"

It's not hard to imagine people asking similar questions 70 years from now, when a review of post-9/11 films could reveal the raw nerves of our time.

Dr. Austin-Smith said this year's film A Mighty Heart, based on the true story of Mariane Pearl, whose husband, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, was killed by Islamic terrorists, is a model of classic melodrama, which attempts to translate pointless suffering into art.

"That's why it's not wrong to weep," she said. "You've got a responsibility to weep."


Pass the Kleenex

Brenda Austin-Smith's top

weepies of all time:

1) Stella Dallas (1937)

2) Confession (1937)

3) The Old Maid (1939)

4) Now, Voyager (1942)

5) Dark Victory (1939)

6) Mildred Pierce (1945)

7) Imitation of Life (1959)

8) Madame X (1966)

9) Love Story (1970)

10) Terms of Endearment (1983)

11) Beaches (1988)

12) Shadowlands (1993)

13) Far From Heaven (2002)

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