You could forgive me, I’m sure, for having kicked seat-backs in theaters, because everyone does it at least once when they are very young. You might even give me a second chance if you knew I was the annoying teenager giving the play-by-play commentary in the back row of Snow White and the Huntsman, or that I also accidentally spilled all the popcorn on the person directly in front of me on the same occasion. You might let me off with nothing but a disapproving glance if you know I was the nerd who complained throughout Desolation of Smaug that Smaug should have been a fire drake, not a wyvern. I sometimes care more for dragons than I do for fellow moviegoers, but this is certainly not the worst of my crimes. No, the sin for which I beg absolution is far worse than any of these, for it reveals my heart to be, at its depths, completely devoid of human feeling. The simple truth is that I have never once cried over a movie.
Imagine me, if you can, at age six, a monster in the midst of a crowd of sniffling children, unwilling to shed a single tear for Simba as his father expired in the fog. Age ten, watching incredulously as my grandmother cried for the end of Titanic. Age twelve, returning E.T.’s final, moist glance with a cynical half-smile (it was a rerun after all). I don’t remember if it had become a matter of pride by then, but it had certainly become an ingrained reaction: resist the upturned faces, the tears in the actress’s gigantic eyes, the whispered love theme cut tragically short, the muted colors coaxing me into the moment. By my final year of high school, I was sufficiently hardened to laugh at my sleep deprived, caffeine-filled friends as they cried themselves to sleep on the floor over The Notebook. As a freshman in college I glanced up from my sketchbook to comment, “Had it coming, bro,” as Dom Cobb watched his wife jump from a hotel window in Inception. I came close to tears for Bloom in The Brothers Bloom, but the field of sunflowers was so clichéd.
The fact is that the sunflowers, the blowing curtains, the park benches in the rain, the huge blue eyes, the sunset silhouettes, the screams in slow-motion, the vibrato in the violins and the quaver in the soprano’s voice, the lights dimming and the stars gleaming off the black screen make the same request of us all. “We’ve brought you on a journey,” they say. “Without us you would never have taken the first step.” For an hour and a half of life, a story we may never live, an intense IV of emotions we would never have felt, a few tears seem the slightest possible acknowledgement. Synchronizing, for two hours, the thoughts and feelings of the two or three dozen living souls at a matinee is a dizzyingly delicate task, and it must not go unrewarded. The guardian spirits of the screen demand a sacrifice, and the heroine’s slight head-turn, the one that ruffles her perfect hair and hides the first tear from her hero’s gaze, is a universal symbol that payment must be rendered. In 70 A.D. the Jewish rabbis thought that God required a sacrifice of liquid tears sufficient to quench his wrath before he could, or would, restore the ruined temple in Jerusalem. 1,944 years later, the glowing gods of the projector beam exact their own sacrifice of sorrow before they unclench their palms and release the triumphant ending.
The storytellers and the ancient deities they invented saw the value of tears: nothing but blood has held more value in the world of words. The Japanese myth attributes the birth of the Shinto gods and goddesses to Izangi’s tears for the death of his wife. Niobe fled weeping from Apollo’s revenge, and Eros cried out the morning dew over her petrified form. Jurate spilled amber droplets for Kastytis while Freja cried inconsolable red gold as she sought for Òdr. Tears represent the universal currency of narrative: a metonymy for sorrow and a fitting reward for the faithful few who build the myths of their own time.
Perhaps tears owe their significance to their universality. A common mark, a signature for human experience, a basic acknowledgement a movie director might expect for his efforts to build a notion or a world. Everyone cries, because at a basic level they cannot help it. Any strong emotion lingers in the mind and pools in the corners of the brain and the body until the tears come to dissolve and wash it away. If the body did not begin rinsing itself in this way, all emotions would run together into a single, nondescript sense of panic that would gradually overwhelm thought and then emotion itself. Tears are said to be honest, because somehow we sense that they are a final attempt, something that would be better done in private, alone. Something wild and shameful to keep hidden in company. Something that betrays our inner thoughts when we least expect to be understood.
Nevertheless, tears are simply a biological function designed to protect the surface of our eyes and release excess hormones that could damage the delicate chemical balance that is our thoughts. Humans have three kinds of tears: basal tears, reflexive tears, and emotional tears. Optometrists have understood basal and reflexive tears for more than a century. There is nothing complex in protecting the eyes from physical damage. The emotional damage restrained by emotional tears may never be understood. Like all tears, emotional tears pour, fully compounded and unique, from the lacrimal glands in the upper eyelids. They slide in a transparent sheet down the cornea of the eye, and pool on the ledge of the lower lid. If there are only a few tears, they may slide quietly into the nasolacrimal duct and into the nose, but if there are too many, as there often are, the nasolacrimal duct will back up, and the tears will slide freely between the lower eyelashes and leave shiny trails down the face. Only emotional tears are viscous enough to roll in a distinct teardrop shape, because the heavy solution of proteins retains its surface tension as it paints itself onto the skin. When the tears are gone, the trails dry and become rough paths of salt crystals. The fats and proteins irritate the skin and leave it red and mottled. The hormone prolactin, responsible for the emotion that brought the tears, has disintegrated long before the tears have even dried. It is the destruction of prolactin, rather than any symbolic solidarity with fellow moviegoers that eases the sorrow of a tragic ending. The mind washes its hands of its grief and shakes off the extra droplets, and the world looks brighter. No matter how desperate the heartbreak, the body can no longer communicate its grief to itself. A sad story dissolves, because there is nothing left to tell it.
A death, a betrayal, the loss of a first love might return and a recollection of the details of might cause a fresh sense of shock and despair. Cells in the brain might begin putting together new molecules of prolactin that will shout the mind’s grief to the blood and bones and then be ejected again through the eyes. A wedding, a funeral, a father returning broken from the war might bring tears two, three, a dozen times. A prodigal son might bring tears a hundred times. 239 hostages lost over the Indian Ocean or 52 souls in the London underground or 7 astronauts burnt to death in the sky, only once or maybe never.
What does it feel like, I wonder, when you leave the cinema with a ticket stub in your pocket and tear stains on your face? Does the spell dissolve quickly for you when the last whole scene dies away? I imagine you blinking in the brighter light of the hallway, face and collar still wet and smelling salty, hearing your companions of two hours stumbling from their seats and shuffling out behind you and wishing they didn’t know that you also lost it at the final farewell. You hurry to the bathroom to check your reflection, try to wipe your emotion off your cheeks with a rough sheet of paper towel, and rejoin the conscious world with a red, abraded face.
Maybe you stay until the crowd has left, watching the bigger names dance across the screen, melting into the sheltering dark, and you squeeze his hand, her hand, and whisper something like “That was good,” or “What did you think?” You force a laugh and your watery smile turns out a little shaky, but no one can see in the dark. You leave with a blotchy face, your eyes subsiding from red to pink, with that uncertain smile still on your lips and a hand in yours reminding you that you cared enough to cry.
Maybe you wait through the shuffling feet, the rock-reprise, the big names dancing on and off, and begin to sit tight through an endless scroll of smaller names (grips and gaffers you’ve never heard of, every piccolo in the orchestra). Your tears are dry before the last graphic designer has scrolled off the top of the screen. Your eyes might be pink, but only in the corners. Your face would fool anyone except the one or two who know you the best: your mother or your sweetheart could touch your cheek and feel the salt crystals embedded in the tiny cracks of your skin and understand the cat’s-tongue roughness of every tear you’d cried, but they don’t. They’re waiting on the Easter egg. A tiny clip at the very end, to tell you it’s ok. Because it never really happened: there will always be one more scene to tell. A funny glimpse of story separated from the flow of time. A face that should be gone returning to crack one last joke. You know the movies too well to believe the finality of your own tears. When you leave the theater, you’ll have had two stories, one in which the end came sadly, and one in which it was all a farce, your tears included in the setup for one last, terrible pun. Reaching the sunlight will be like returning from reality to a horrible dream, but you know you will return laughing.
E. M. Parsons writes, draws, and daydreams in western Ohio, and attends Cedarville University. Since one must take breaks even from writing and illustrating, she also occasionally plays racquetball with friends, beats her family at Dominion, and enthuses over the most recent Dr. Who episode to anyone who will listen.
© 2014, E.M. Parsons