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.

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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?

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.

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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?

Critics here generally agreed that manipulation is part and parcel of the movie-going experience, and therefore it can be beneficial or detrimental.

"There's a difference," Luhr says, "between a filmmaker touching genuine chords in me, the way Alfred Hitchcock does, and crudely manipulating me, the way 'Patch Adams' does. In the latter case, the artist hasn't done his work. The film doesn't have resonance or precision."

Gabbard agrees. "Cinema is manipulative almost by definition," he argues. "So to say 'manipulation is bad' is a naive and moralistic way of thinking about how films work. We should only be concerned about manipulation when it seems to be going against things we would like to achieve as human beings."

As the author of "Jammin' at the Margins," a study of jazz in American movies, Gabbard is especially interested in manipulative uses of music.

"Filmmakers take tremendous amounts of care to get exactly the right emotional effect washing over us," he says. "They have incredibly elaborate sound systems that are designed to get to us on a subliminal, under-the-radar level."

He cites the popular 1998 drama "American History X" as an example. "It's a liberal-humanist film," he points out, "saying we should get over our racial hatred. Yet in a crucial scene where the white and black guys are playing basketball, there's this standard heroic music that uses all the conventional gestures to connote suspense and triumph - and make us more sympathetic to the white guys.

"This is the kind of manipulation we should beware of: the kind where we enjoy it in the theater, but hate ourselves in the morning."

Enlightenment or manipulation?

If movies are so good at manipulating our emotions, should we be optimistic about their ability to enrich our lives, or pessimistic about their intimate ties with economic and commercial interests?

A cautionary note comes from communications professor Christopher Sharrett of Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., an authority on film violence and apocalyptic ideas.

"A movie like 'Gladiator' gets all these Oscar nominations and accolades," Mr. Sharrett says, "but it's basically just a sword-and-sandal epic with [effects] that try to wow the audience. It's a somewhat more stately stab at what Spielberg and George Lucas try to do, which is to recycle stuff from old Saturday matinees and just do it a lot bigger, so it looks unusual to kids raised on video games, who have no sense of history."

Many recent movies, Sharrett says, "stroke the emotions of the audience with a consoling message that makes us think everything will somehow turn out fine." This is simplistic and superficial, he argues, prompted not by genuine insights but by Hollywood's knowledge that it's a reliable way of selling tickets.

A complementary trend is toward the "apocalyptic misery" found in movies ranging from "Seven" and "The Silence of the Lambs" to "Blue Velvet" and "Eyes Wide Shut," which suggest that antisocial behaviors are caused by "all-pervasive evil" rather than social or cultural factors that can be understood and corrected.

This notion reinforces the attitude that life is always a matter of "them" against "us," with "them" seen as "a monster that we need to drive out so things can be made whole again," in Sharrett's words.

Such viewpoints are based on unexamined feelings rather than analytical ideas, he argues. "They work against concepts of human development, self-expression, and freedom," he contends, "appealing to a set of emotions that aren't particularly healthy."

Does this mean we should give up on the movies? Not necessarily.

"There's always hope," Sharrett says. "John Lennon once commented that the Beatles' contribution came out of the '60s, when people were fed up with the status quo and demanded new avenues and different directions. That can happen again with film. It just isn't happening much right now."

This, most critics here would agree, is good reason to engage our intellects and emotions in encouraging cinema to play a more constructive, invigorating role in our hearts, minds, and society.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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