The Wall Street Journal’s Article about Hollywood and What Makes Us Cry at the Movies

a walk to remember “Hollywood is Working Hard to Make You Cry” explains Don Steinberg’s in his recent article in the Wall Street Journal. He looks at the neuroscience, the art of storytelling, the filmmaker’s intention behind making a scene tear jerking, the actors themselves, and the differences between men and women’s reactions to film.

Click here to read the whole article

Here are some excerpts:

Audiences love tearjerkers, but why? How do they work? Horror movies have their clichéd “jump scares” that can get us every time—the demonic face in the bathroom mirror, the knife-wielding maniac suddenly in the doorway. Tearjerkers have triggers, too, but they are more complex, wrapped up in how characters make us feel, with their awkward attempts to connect with each other, their bravery and fears, regrets and unspoken burdens. Other hot-button themes are faith redeemed, struggles rewarded and love requited.

Researchers are applying science to answer questions about movie-induced weeping. Princeton University psychologist Uri Hasson, who coined the term “neurocinematics,” led a 2008 study that used a type of magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity while watching a film. The researchers used “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”—hardly a tearjerker—in their project. Mr. Hasson and his colleagues identified similar brain activity among people watching the same film, and suggested such research might be useful for the movie industry.

love storyWhen asked which films choke them up, many men cite depictions of against-the-odds valor or understated affection, like “Rudy,” “Brian’s Song” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Women name relationship dramas like Steel Magnolias” or “Beaches” or “When a Man Loves a Woman,” in which Andy Garcia tries to preserve his marriage to an alcoholic Meg Ryan.

Men and women may sob at different parts of the same film. In “Gravity,” some women react when Ms. Bullock, while stranded in space, talks about her daughter who died in childhood (“Can you please tell her that Mama found her red shoe?”). Men may be more stirred by the dénouement, when the astronaut, having survived her journey, walks triumphantly ashore.

The “completely vulnerable human moment” is the key to great cinema.  It is then that the viewer connects with their own personal  trials with those of the character on screen.   In that experience we connect with the greater story of the human condition.  Exploring the meaning of human existence—to love, to suffer, to be vulnerable, to overcome—is the vocation of the artist and is what makes a film great.

  • Rocco

    While that sounds like a very interesting study it seems strange that “such research might be useful for the movie industry.” I feel like that suggested that applying science or a mathematical formula would improve the art…

    That brief thought aside…I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion…especially your last sentence…

    • Laura Billeci

      Thanks Rocco! I don’t think that “applying science or a mathematical formula” alone will improve the art. Rather, if art is trying to depict some truth about humanity, the more filmmakers know their audience – emotions included – the more they can gauge how well their own storytelling reflects truths about humanity. However, this could also (and probably has been) distorted by the movie industry and used as a merely formulaic approach, where the formula replaces the art. In the best case scenario, the art is at its best when science, formulas, and studies deepen the knowledge of the storyteller about the complexities of human nature.