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You'll laugh... you'll cry...

The movies we love become part of us on some deep level. They tell us how to live, touching tender chords.

By David Sterritt Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2001


In "It's a Wonderful Life" when George Bailey's friends spring to his aid, stopping a horrible injustice against a good man, does a tear or two well up in your eyes?

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Did you cover them and scrunch down in your seat in terror when Janet Leigh took her fatal shower in "Psycho"? Did Bogart leaving his true love Bergman at the airport in "Casablanca," the epitome of unselfish affection, set your heart soaring?

If these and other films struck deep and lasting chords in you, you're hardly alone. Tugging at your emotions is Hollywood's stock in trade.

But why do movies touch our sentiments so deeply? And is it true that film - which many find the most influential art form of our time - reaches our feelings more richly and readily than any other medium?

A recent conference on "The Emotions in Film and Literature" at Florida State University in Tallahassee took on these questions and others. Is the power of film to evoke emotions a good thing, lending cinema much of its importance and allure? Or is it a cause for caution and even alarm, suggesting that movies may bypass our intellects and alter our views, values, and attitudes in ways we don't fully understand?

The event didn't produce any broad consensus, judging from the panels and presentations I attended. But everyone seemed to agree that emotional involvement is at the heart of watching a film, even if all the causes and implications are as hard to grasp as the shadows on the movie screen itself.

Indeed, our feelings are stirred by movies not only as we're watching them, but afterward as well, when we discuss them with our friends and families. "It's amazing how personally people take it if you don't like the same movies they like," says Krin Gabbard, chairman of the comparative-literature department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, who delivered a paper on how pictures like "Pleasantville" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" appeal to our emotions through African-American music even though it's white people that populate their stories.

"When you really like a movie," Mr. Gabbard explains, "it becomes part of you - not just on an intellectual level, but in such a personal way that things in the story become essential to you as an individual. People learn from movies how to be men, how to be women, how to be good lovers and faithful friends ... and they also associate films with important things that happen to them. 'It was just like in that movie,' they'll say."

Reason vs. emotion

William Luhr, an English professor at St. Peter's College in New Jersey, who spoke here on patriarchal power in "Gladiator," also stresses the personal impact of films. He adds that moviegoers often have unwarranted notions about the "thinking" and "feeling" aspects of our minds.

"Most people assume that emotion is the opposite of reason," he says, "but I think the two are inseparable. One way of getting an emotional charge is to use your reason effectively. So they must be intertwined!"

This said, Mr. Luhr adds that "virtually all commercial film goes for emotional engagement, from the best movies to the worst." He points out that hits like Steven Spielberg's hugely popular "Jurassic Park" and "Saving Private Ryan" gain much of their effectiveness by "putting the audience into an emotional low, then rapidly switching this to an emotional high" with a last-minute escape or heart-stirring rescue.

While these films became blockbusters by cleverly appealing to wide audiences, Luhr notes that more openly emotional pictures have long been associated with the soap-opera and "weepie" genres traditionally aimed at female spectators.

"There's often the dismissive notion that 'women's films' appeal mainly to the emotions," he says, "which renders them saccharine and second-class.

"Men's films aren't questioned in that way, but they appeal to the emotions just as much. Action films and James Bond movies aren't about rational aspects of a situation. They're total emotional highs!"

The question of whether it's good or bad for movies to manipulate our feelings - making us laugh, cry, or shiver on cue, whether we want to or not - was another issue that arose often at the conference.

Does a horror yarn like the recently released "Valentine" terrify us on a truly visceral level, for instance? Or does it merely startle us, like the sight of an unexpected face or the sound of an unanticipated thunderbolt?