I imagine that already some of you are completely disagreeing with me right now. Sad films are depressing I hear you say, they make you feel worse not better and if you’re in a bad mood to begin with you’ve had it. I can’t deny this isn’t true, some films really do make us feel awful inside and it takes a good while to shake them off. But I would class those as the wrong kind of sad film. A good sad film takes us through a very different process, a good sad film is worth ten times the admission price alone. I can now feel myself struggle to articulate what I mean by a good sad film while being well aware that one person’s idea of a good film may be another person’s drivel. Strangely enough I experience the same sort of struggle when I’m asked to define what therapy is and what therapists actually do in therapy. In many ways cinema and psychotherapy aren’t that different, they both entail a journey of thought and emotion. But there are some films that do more than just that and I’d go so far as to say that a very good sad film is therapeutic.
Therapy is not ‘one size fits all’ no matter how hard the powers that be would have us believe, and similarly we are not all affected in the same way when watching the same film. In fact it is our different individual responses that tell us how and to what extent a film has resonated with us personally or not. Of course there’s no denying that there are many many films that rouse near unanimous reactions from the audience where we all near enough are feeling the same thing. These films tap into what we have in common; our human condition. The really exceptional ones go a step even further by helping us recognise, understand and occasionally resolve a part of ourselves better through film. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these types of films are rewarded with various accolades for their naming of things and for managing to capture, albeit on celluloid, real life in the form of fiction. Though I must admit that I don’t think fiction really exists at all for all fiction is created by people and people are anything but fictional.
I am what I watch. This is perhaps what makes a film memorable long after we’ve seen it and especially what makes us cry about it. We’re not crying because we believe the actor in the film is really dying or ill or whatever the story happens to be, it’s not because we can’t differentiate film from real life but precisely because we can. Through film we vicariously experience our own stories and we cry for them. A good sad film can enable us to momentarily grieve, not for the character but for the part of ourselves we recognise in them. They don’t even have to be human! In 1942 Walt Disney’s Bambi introduced a whole generation of children to themes of loss and death and all during World War II. Over 65 years on and it still packs an indisputable emotional punch.
Sad films are cathartic that is to say they facilitate an opportunity to cry. Sometimes crying for someone else, be it a character in a film, is a way in to our own tears that may otherwise not easily surface. Perhaps we cry for them because it is one step removed from our own situation while at the same time imagining we are one step ahead and in the shoes of the character we are watching. It is a crying for the past and the future together. It is empathy and it makes no difference if our tears are for ‘real’ people or not for it’s the themes that hit the nerves which unite us all as human beings. And besides, what’s to say that all cries are about sadness (obviously excluding the happy cry). Some cries are more to do with letting sadness go than anything else, which is what makes them cathartic. What a relief to cry when watching a film that moves us, moves us to tears as the expression goes. But what does it actually mean to be ‘moved’ or to find something ‘moving’? I’ve been trying to figure out whether it’s an emotion or a state of mind or a mood but can’t get a handle on it yet I know what it feels like. I can’t decide whether being moved is about feeling sad or the complete opposite or something altogether quite different. It’s the films that move me which make me cry and they don’t necessarily need to be sad, in fact now I too disagree with myself on the title. Maybe being moved means exactly what it says; that our hearts, our thoughts, our world is shifted and re-positioned. Some films really hold the potential to do this. Some films do do this.