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celluloid relapse : don’t cry for me, I’m already dead

Crying as an action of public self-dissection is invariably and perfectly exquisite. Be it subtle, spontaneous or blatantly narcissistic, its capacity to represent the diverse array of sentiment that it can is, quite frankly, incredible. Crying is introspective, histrionic and wholly fascinating. Almost nothing can beat the effortless allure of a tear sliding down a cheek, of frantic human desperation, nor of pure, unadulterated sorrow. Here, beauty is quite literally in the eye of its beholder – at least for one, unguarded moment.

Compounding such aesthetic pre-eminence, crying as an expositional activity can force or encourage empathy among spectators – especially in film. From wherever one may be – lounge room, cinema, boat – it is one thing to see, to witness, a person cry, but it another to be implicated and feel it with them. The sentiments of an unknown individual are foreign to the masses, but crying is something universally experienced which, if employed wisely, can inspire the emotional inclusion of strangers.

In this regard, cinema has little shame. Many films do certainly go out of their way to involve their audience in such a manner, some to great lengths of effort and varying degrees of success. However it is incredibly embarrassing when such an exertion falls flat on its face. For a viewer to feel nothing but a cocktail of mirth and revulsion, after having had osmotically absorbed ‘Susan’ and ‘Steve’s’ onscreen feelings, it is embarrassing. It violates the illusion of the film by laying bare the stark reality that it is a construction. It also denies empathy for the people onscreen who cease, little by little, to be little more than characters. Such manipulation is the very finest of tightropes; one wrong move can send the whole enterprise toppling over.

Steven Daldry’s The Reader (2008) is a film that, in spite of a very tragic narrative, fails to motivate a fitting level of emotional response with its viewer. Opening to pensive shots of Michael (Ralph Fiennes) pondering his current and very profound adult unhappiness, the film functions as a retrospective contemplation of the cause of his present despondency; his relationship with Hanna (Kate Winslet). Meeting in interesting circumstances over a bucket of vomit, the two are compulsively drawn together in a passionate relationship characterised primarily by Hanna’s insistence that Michael (here played by David Kross) read to her. One day, however, she mysteriously disappears leaving her understandably bereft lover behind with no indication of where she has gone; not one word. Nevertheless life goes on, or at least it does until their two paths cross in less than desirable conditions: Hanna standing trial for war crimes. Michael, now a law student, watches on in horror and almost abject fascination as the woman he once loved allows herself to bear the full responsibility for an atrocity for which she was only partially responsible. He knows her alibi, and yet he does nothing. One could not ask for a more depressing dénouement as this narrative, already sufficiently morose, worsens as the film approaches its sombre, humble conclusion.

It is evident throughout that the plot wants you to cry. Its overt tragedy, constructed through sustained extreme close-ups, a greying mise-en-scène and tears, could not practically be trying to achieve anything else. Such efforts fail. Our protagonists’ respective woes remain fully anchored within their make believe existence in which we are merely spectators and we cannot join them. Whilst this distance would generally be acceptable, the obvious lengths to which the film goes to solicit viewer empathy render it as little more than a caricature. This failure becomes amusing. One rapidly and reluctantly finds oneself laughing in incredibly inappropriate moments and filling in time that would otherwise be spent crying checking fingernails. It is unfortunate, but The Reader stands as a demonstration of what stands to be lost when a film fails to resonate as intended with its audience.

This judgement could be a very sound proclamation of insanity and overt sadism, but I know this not to be the case. I have cried in lesser films; I cried – much to my shame – almost throughout the entirety of Avatar (2009) and almost repeated this feat of lachrymation upon a second, unnecessary viewing. It isn’t fair for me to regard The Reader with such disdain, but unfortunately Stephen Daldry fails where James Cameron succeeds. The emotional note that is evidently being aimed for is missed, but just by a fraction. That said, do not let this judgement stand in the way of any forthcoming viewing. Apart from this, it is by and large very well constructed and especially pleasing to the tearless eye. Do not allow the proclamations of a cynical individual the satisfaction of your abstention.

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2 thoughts on “celluloid relapse : don’t cry for me, I’m already dead

  1. I liked your review ok, but I hope you don’t mind if I disagree with you!
    The Reader is a lopsided work in many ways but I don’t think cinema needs to be perfect to be enjoyable or thought provoking!

    There WAS a moment when I turned to my friend, who was watching the film with me, and said: I think Kate Winslet wants an Oscar. So I know what you mean about the heavy handedness the story was treated with. I think Kate was slightly miscast. But that’s the film industry; producers won’t risk an unknown, so we have Kate Winslet portraying a German woman.

    But The Reader is still an interesting exploration of politics, scape-goating and the nature of guilt. It’s an especially important film because it is one of the few to look at the complex relationship Germans have with guilt in the wake of the Holocaust.

    The public are anxious to find someone to blame for the crime, their moral righteousness and hatred echoing, in a tiny way, the evil that was done when the crime was committed; so that they let the true perpetrators off lightly and justice is never objectively served.

    Sure, Michael and Hanna could both have exonerated her, but so could anyone have, who had half a brain and who was able just for one minute to suspend their disgust at Hanna’s involvement.

    Everyone wanted to believe in her guilt, her sentence a triumph of groupthink.

    It’s such an interesting story, such a clever exploration of hypocrisy and human nature that I forgave the mawkish attempts to make me weep. There were deeper undercurrents that my friend and I talked about for more than an hour after the movie. That’s why I think, although it’s a messy film, and sometimes foolish in its attempts to make a person weep, it’s still definitely worth a watch, even if you don’t fall in love with it.

  2. It sounds as though you’re arguing that if a film doesn’t make you cry, it’s falling short of it’s emotional mark. Surely crying is not the only means by which can judge how a effectively film has emotionally affected us? (I cried during Godzilla but not Schindler’s List… what does that say?)

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