A good cry in the dark: Most of today's big films are blub-busters. Blake Morrison asks what keeps the audiences weeping

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A WEEKDAY afternoon in central London, and hundreds of people have gathered in a dark place to cry. For over an hour, the blonde woman on my right has been pressing her cheek gently with a tissue, dabbing and dabbing as if at a wound.

The dark-haired woman to my left has taken longer, but is now weeping enthusiastically. The older woman in front tries vainly to more discreet. Her partner, a smily man in a chunky jacket, glances over at her, part-mocking, part protective, also a bit nervous. He's holding out well: there can't be more than 10 minutes left to hang on. But then someone up there on the big screen lets fall a tear, and it's no good, he's had his permission, I see his glasses mist, he's going under, he's gone.

When the lights come up, the woman at the end of the row turns to her friend, laughs and says: 'Oh my God.' They go off to the Ladies together to fix their make-up. The Gents is a weep-free zone, but the mood is sombre, as if we've all just witnessed a terrible traffic accident not the fake demise of an actress playing a woman who in reality died 40 years ago.

The film was Shadowlands (Anthony Hopkins as C S Lewis, Debra Winger as his short-lived Joy). But it could equally well have been Philadelphia (Tom Hanks as US lawyer who gets Aids and sues employer for wrongful dismissal: 'profoundly moving'), or Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (the Holocaust), or The Age Of Innocence (doomed love: 'Scorsese's most poignantly moving film'), or The Joy Luck Club (Chinese-

American, multi-generational melodrama: 'if (this film) doesn't make you cry nothing will'; 'a four-hankie classic'), or even Cool Running ('tear-jerking sentiments'), and especially My Life (Michael Keaton as a cancer victim: will he live to see his first child?).

Leicester Square is thick with weepies. Tragedy, terminal illness and mass extermination are packing them in. Eight of Time Out's current 'top 10 grossers' are films acclaimed for their emotional power. These days, when you tell a friend you've seen a film, it's not your opinion they want to know but 'did you cry?' And the tears we shed are not innocent ones. Most of us have read the reviews and seen the adverts; we know what we're doing. We are paying good money to feel gutted.

What is it that makes people sob at the movies?

'It's embarrassing, but I find I feel better for it.'

'I started during the trailer for Shadowlands. I even cried during Terminator 2.'

'I cry a lot more since I had babies.'

'It's the music that does it.'

'Anything with a kid in gets me going.'

The answers people give are various. But they fall broadly into eight categories.

1 The 'new race of Britons' theory. We are, it's claimed, an increasingly extrovert people, more able to express our feelings openly. Since entry into the EC (those expansive fellow Euros), since Paul Gascoigne's inspiring performances in the last World Cup and Margaret Thatcher's brimming sadness through the window of her departing car, public blubbing has become socially acceptable. Crying at the movies is all part of this.

Comment: Sorry, but to cry in the dark, among strangers, is not an indication that we Brits have become more open. The appeal of the cinema to most weepers is that it feels private - you're less visible than at the opera or the theatre, and able to emote more freely than at home watching television, where ads, snacks, phone calls and family irony break the spell.

2 The catharsis theory. This derives from Aristotle, who held that to watch imaginary or dramatic characters suffering was purging and health-inducing. The term catharsis, as used originally in the Hippocratic school of medicine, meant the discharge of those bodily elements that cause sickness. In aesthetic theory, it also implies a teaching process. The idea is aired in conversations in Shadowlands: 'Why should we want to be hurt?' 'That's when we learn.'

Comment: The last bit is bogus (what do most people learn from Shadowlands and My Life except to remember to bring the tissues next time?). Otherwise, highly persuasive. Even therapists largely accept it, despite its implicit threat to - or diminution of - their profession: a couple of hours in the cinema costs a third of the price of an hour with the shrink.

3 The scientific theory. We're helpless pawns in an overwhelming physical process. Crying is automatically 'triggered' by certain signals (including someone becoming tearful on screen), and as we cry stress-inducing hormones are expelled while others with possibly opiate-like effects come into play. This is why 'crying it out' makes us feel better.

Note: This theory is based partly on the work undertaken at the Ramsay Dry Eye and Tear Research Centre (the Americans really do have research centres for everything) in St Paul, Minnesota, by Dr William Frey.

Groups of 30 or 40 volunteers are given test tubes, ushered into a darkened amphitheatre and invited to collect their tears. (A previous experimental device, a pair of spectacles with cups at the bottom of the frames, did not prove so effective a receptacle.) The tears are then frozen in liquid nitrogen and analysed. The films Dr Frey has found most lachrymatory are usually based on true stories, and they include All Mine to Give (US, 1956: 19th-century pioneer couple in Wisconsin train their children to carry on the family after their own deaths), Brian's Song (Chicago- based football player gets cancer) and The Champ (US, 1931; remake, 1979, with Jon Voight; young boy has faith in washed-up prizefighter).

Comment: A much resented theory: we don't like being described as automatons: it's our movie and we'll cry if we want to. Moreover, what's infallibly tear-jerking in Minnesota may not be outside, and vice versa: Dr Frey's biggest flop was a film which had moved him when he was a young man, Sundays and Cybele (France, 1962, subtitles): not a moist eye in the house. 'It was most distressing,' he says.

4 The artistic manipulation theory. We punters haven't a chance (cf theory 3). All it needs is an emotive, few-months-to-live plot, two stars, a child, some rural scenery, and above all a mushy musical score, and no one can resist. ('Extraordinary how potent cheap music is': Noel Coward, Private Lives.)

Comment: Yes, but the new weepies have to be more subtle than the old. The trick is to hold back on passion and deathbeds, and to make the central characters stoic and/or funny about impending tragedy. The most moving scene in Philadelphia works not because of seeing Tom Hanks die but by hearing Maria Callas and watching Denzel Washington's face. In Shadowlands and Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins is mostly frozen and repressed - so it's all the more moving (to British men especially) at those moments when he displays feeling.

5 The political conspiracy theory. The last great wave of weepies came in the 1940s, when Britain was at war, or recovering from war, and the public ethos was one of gritting one's teeth, backs-to-the-wall, chin up, never say die and so on. Films provided a necessary emotional release from this privation and restraint. In John Major's ugly and corrupt Britain, we are being enticed to engage with imaginary private tragedies so as to assuage our upset about the society we inhabit and distract us from trying to solve its problems. No wonder Richard Attenborough was knighted.

Comment: Not as daft as it sounds. Aristotle took a similar line in defending Greek tragedy - catharsis, he thought, helped prevent anarchy. Montaigne, too, argued that 'the soul discharges its emotions against false objects' instead of real ones. The tears we shed at weepies are often edged with guilt. As Peter Ackroyd has pointed out, the Victorians who cried at the death of Dickens's Little Nell 'were lamenting the state of the society which they themselves had created'.

6 The new man / new woman theory. Women trying to prove themselves in predominantly male workplaces can't afford to be seen crying there. So they go to the pictures. Men are constantly being told to be more open about expressing feeling. They have to start somewhere. So they go to the pictures.

Comment: Neat. But there are easier and cheaper places for women to cry than the cinema - the Ladies loo at the office, for example. And most men are more easily reduced to tears by the national anthem at a rugby match than by Michael Keaton.

7 The seduction theory. We're bored with sex films. But being moved to tears together is arousing - and a traditional part of seduction. She cries, and he's made to feel protective; he cries, and she's convinced he's sensitive.

Comment: Very quaint. The absence of sexual passion in the new weepies is certainly one of their most noticeable aspects: the 'bed scene' in Shadowlands (the terminally ill Joy lying back while Hopkins describes his usual nightly routine of toothbrush and pyjamas) nicely subverts traditional bed scenes. But cancer as arousing? Besides, heterosexual couples in the early stages of courtship form only a small proportion of those weeping at the movies.

8 The millennial theory. We are entering the last stages not just of a century but of a thousand years of civilisation - a jolly unsettling feeling. Fin de siecle culture always tends to despair and mawkishness; all the more so in the 1990s.

Comment: A bit Late Show-ish. We all like to pretend we cry for dignified reasons. But how many people really suffer millennial anxiety?

The best answer to all this may have been that of Diderot, who countered the objection that melodrama was cruel and superfluous - haven't we enough troubles already? - by describing 'the pleasure of being touched and giving way to tears'. Pleasure, ah yes.

As for me, on duty watching others cry, and repelled by the film's pastoral and patriotic designs on me, I remained dry-eyed throughout Shadowlands. Which puts me in the heartless bastard camp. But Othello's 'Soft you, a word or two', a bit of Ravel, the hymn 'My Song is Love Unknown', starving children on the news, the national anthem (not shaming enough yet?), E T, Kenneth Wolstenholme's 'They think it's all over . . .', election victory waves even when the wrong side has won, anyone's old cine films (still not?), Stevie Wonder's 'Isn't She Lovely', Torvill and Dean only last month. . .

(Photograph and list omitted)

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