Let’s talk about crying in movie theaters. In a review of the film Short Term 12 for the LA Review of Books, you call out the sort of satisfaction that people experience when they cry at the movies—and you deconstruct that satisfaction.
It’s funny, I was just speaking on a panel a couple weeks ago and that particular piece came up. Someone was asking about the intersection between being a critic and a creative writer, and how we felt about writing criticism about genres that we didn’t make ourselves. That was the first piece of writing that came to mind. I don’t make films, and because I don’t make films, I’m not an expert in the craft of bringing a film into the world, how you put its various pieces together. But where I feel like I’m an expert is my own feelings in response to a film. And so with that review of Short Term 12, I felt like, “Wow, something has happened in this afternoon in which I watched this film and I went through all of these emotions, so, let me just look at that process and those tiers as a kind of artifact in their own right and scrutinize that instead.”
What I’ve seen before is the critic accusing the filmmaker of emotional manipulation—saying, “Well, they did this, that’s how they got me to feel this way.” But instead you took all the responsibility for your own feelings, turning the review into an essay on the ethics of how we respond to art.
I think that’s right. Part of what I’m interested in interrogating is this kind of collective shame that we feel about sentimentality, and I think sometimes that shame manifests as accusation—accusing a film or a piece of art of manipulating our emotions. And sometimes it can show up as self-recrimination. Things we describe as “guilty pleasure” reads [are] things that bring us to these cheap flowings of sentiment that aren’t really “earned” or aren’t rigorous in some way.
I wanted to be analytic about the way feelings are happening in a film but also not entirely dismissive of it. I did think it was a very incredible movie. I didn’t want to just level the statement that I had cried as a fact that would relegate the movie as something lesser or limited.
You mention Oscar Wilde’s definition of sentimentality—“the luxury of having an emotion without paying for it”—here and also in one of your essays in The Empathy Exams, “In Defense of Saccharine.” Though you defend sentimentality, do you agree with Wilde’s definition?
Part of what I’m doing in that essay is trying to define what other people mean when they use that word as an accusation. So in that sense I think the definition that I’m invoking of sentimentality is, when the word sentimentality is used, it is being used as a critique of work that is overly emotional in some kind of cheap way.
But, I think the understanding of how sentimental affect can be working in art that I want to defend or make a case for, is: [When] art makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t explain, there can be a sort of second stage to that feeling where we reflect on why those feelings happen and how they might guide us going forth. It’s in that second stage or second layer that I want to offer something to what sentimentality can be or how it can play out.
What if, to quote from your essay again, this “strokes the ego of our sentimental selves”? How do you make sure, when you’re having this second layer of experience after feeling something, that you’re not just patting yourself on the back for having feelings?
Right, right. I quote Milan Kundera in that piece, too: “We cry one tear for the children playing on the grass, and then we cry another tear for our ability to cry at the children playing on the grass!” I think the way we escape the endless cycle of just back-patting ourselves for our own deep feelings is by being willing to be critical of what those feelings are and being willing to question whether those feelings are doing any good.
Some of that gets into the relationship between art and action. So instead of thinking of it as a kind of closed circuit where you’re like, “Okay, I had the feeling; I’m a good person for having that feeling; now I’m done with my work for the day!” To [instead] think about that feeling as kind of an open door. And if you’re going to open that door there’s some responsibility behind it.