I’m man enough to admit it . . .
I cry at the movies.
Set some mawkish scene before me with all the right dramatic elements, insert several well-timed bathetic lines of dialogue, cue the magnanimous, maudlin swell of a Hans Zimmer or James Newton Howard score, and in seconds flat – Reason, be damned! – I’m that blubbering fool Charly McClain sang about all those years ago.
Time and experience can leave us calloused in many ways. We’re more cynical. Not as easily swayed by spurious displays of sentiment. But movies invite us to deliberately suspend judgment in exchange for a couple hours of willful emotional exploitation.
When life fails to move us, we turn to the movies.
The evening before I went back to work I pulled The Green Mile off the shelf. For emotional manipulation, Stephen King is my drug of choice. And Frank Darabont’s adaptation of this mesmerizing tale of forgiveness and compassion is a personal favorite. I’ve seen The Green Mile maybe ten times and the subtle way in which the supernatural elements illuminate the grittiness of life never fails to draw me in.
And I always end up crying.
Watching John Coffey, “like the drink, only not spelt the same,” take back the tumor destroying the warden’s wife. Hearing Arlen Bitterbuck pensively contemplate what heaven will be like. As Paul Edgecombe shakes an innocent man’s hand before they roll on two. I get these scenes. They resonate with me in ways that are familiar. Like an old friend sharing some pithy anecdote. Nuggets of grace given to shed a smidgen of light and hope upon the rocky road called life.
I am moved. And I cry.
But this time, I didn’t cry alone.
My nine year old son Ethan got drawn in as well. When it became obvious that John Coffey wasn’t going to escape his date with ol’ Sparky, Ethan got off the couch and wandered over to the computer to play a game. He’s an astute observer when it comes to movies, has a way of discerning when bad things are about to happen, and like most children will seek to avoid those moments however possible. But he kept glancing over his shoulder. While the game repeated its monotonous soundtrack, he ignored the noise and watched intently as the story revealed Coffey’s innocence. It made no sense to him. How could they execute a man who had done nothing wrong? He made his way back to the couch for the final scenes. And as Coffey walked the green mile, I heard him sniff. I watched as he hid his face behind a blanket and wiped his eyes. I reached over and drew him close. Rested his head on my lap. And we cried. Shook with grief as an innocent man, “one of God’s perfect creatures,” died.
As is our custom, when the movie ended we watched some of the extra features where they show how the movie was made. We talked about how Michael Clarke Duncan is only an actor portraying a part, and he’s still very much alive. He knows all this. But none of that mattered when John Coffey died. John had become an amazing friend with a heart as large as his biceps. And we hated to see him suffer.
I’d done this all before, many years ago at the end of Titanic with my oldest son Ty. And I had the same chat with him then as I did with Ethan last Sunday night. We talked about how it’s alright to be moved. To feel compassion. To care about others so much that our throats tighten, our breath catches, and we shed a tear.
Maybe movies are more than just an escape from reality. Perhaps they usher us into a place where we can experience empathy safely. And from there we can engage life with a small amount of that most glorious of emotions still intact.
And we won’t be afraid to cry . . .