Culture Vulture

Why do we cry at the movies?

Weepies such as the box-office hit The Fault In Our Stars have mastered the art of milking tears

I have been in two minds about stepping into a cinema of late.

No, it is not the recent rise in ticket prices at theatres that has made me waver. I am wary of the puddles, stains and moist tissues of tears that might be lurking in cinemas here with the screening of the new movie, The Fault In Our Stars.

The Hollywood hit, about two cancer- stricken teenagers who fall in love with each other, has beget water-logged column inches in the international press, swollen with "tears" and spilling with words such as "cry" and "weep".

The ubiquity of these terms spell a certain fate - the opening of floodgates in cinemas around the world.

Already, the film, based on a best- selling young adult fiction of the same title by John Green, has spawned its own branded tissue. The publisher, Dutton Children's Books, handed out tissue packets printed with the book's cover design at the movie's New York premiere earlier this month.

The deluge has reached our shores. Sneak previews of the film began last week, ahead of its opening on Thursday.

I have not yet caught the movie, but its emotional contagion has found me. An article about the tear-jerker, on the website of New York Magazine, almost made me weep, from laughing too hard.

The piece pokes fun at the film's ability to wring tears from stones and suggests ways to remain stoic while watching it in public. Remind yourself repeatedly that you are being emotionally manipulated, pull on the eye mask at aw-shucks moments and, yes, run out of the theatre at points of emotional climax (unless you get an aisle seat, this move might also stop your neighbours from turning misty-eyed).

The article is mischievous but its levity teases out weightier questions. Why does art make us cry and what is the worth of those tears?

Critics in their reviews of The Fault In Our Stars have frequently ascribed its success to its ability to leave audiences heaving with sobs. Wall Street Journal columnist Marshall Heyman even spurned the usual star rating system to congratulate the film with four hankies.

It is hard to deny the power of a work of art when it is able to provoke audiences to weep involuntarily. But would equating such prowess with artistic merit smack of indulgence? And could it be a case of mistaken identity; should credit go, instead, to hormonally vulnerable moviegoers?

The "how we cry" is not altogether a puzzle. Science has sketched out the complex neurophysiological pathway that activates the lachrymal glands in the upper, outer region of our eyes and causes tears to flow. It has also determined that the cocktail of water, mucus, oil and proteins discharged from the glands helps to lubricate our eyeballs and keep them free of irritants.

But there are tears, and then there are tears.

Science may be clear about why we cry when our eyes are dry, but it is fuzzy on how and why we shed emotional tears, for example, in response to works of art such as movies, books and music. Indeed, theories abound in fields of study ranging from philosophy to psychology and neurophysiology on what turns on the waterworks in such instances.

An expert on tears, Dr William H. Frey II, director of the Alzheimer's Research Center at Regions Hospital and professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota, has published studies that suggest emotion-based crying removes stress hormones from our bodies. This biochemical explanation may account for the catharsis people claim to experience after a "good" cry; through loss of this nature, one gains much more.

Dutch psychologist Ad Vingerhoets, who is based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and similarly dedicated to the study of why humans weep, adopts a socio-psychological approach. He believes the emotional tears we shed help us form and maintain social attachments. It is perhaps why infants cry for parental attention and why sports spectators and athletes of the same nationality swell with tears when they hear their country's anthem play at a game: bonding in progress.

Yet others, such as Professor Michael Trimble of London's Institute of Neurology, consider the outpouring of tears a display of compassion and empathy, making sensitive and profound social interactions possible.

Explanations for why we weep emotional tears may vary, but it remains that such effusion signals a deep, moving connection being made, and the stirring of strong, if sometimes complex, feelings that include sadness, anger and joy. The tears that fall when we watch a movie, read a book or listen to music thus merit recognition and should not be brushed away.

However, recent research has also shown that women are more prone to emotional tears than men. Studies suggest that testosterone, a hormone found in higher levels in men than women, may inhibit crying. The mastery of a movie at milking tears, therefore, cannot be overstated.

Indeed, appraisals of works of art that are tear-whisperers need to look beyond the messy sobs they bring on and offer a critical assessment of other elements in the creation.

As for the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars, it may well boast a water-tight script and a disciplined dose of acting but I cannot be the judge of that, at least not until I find a Noah and an ark to bring me safely through the maelstrom of mucus.

lijie@sph.com.sg