Monthly Archives: February 2013

I Always Cry at Scary Movies

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Last night, I watched Ghost, the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore movie, with my wife. If you haven’t seen it, it’s mostly about pottery and Patrick’s soulful eyes, with just a daub of romance and the supernatural mixed in for good measure.

It was my first viewing, to my wife’s surprise, and I think its familiarity has blinded people to what a strange movie it is. Here is a romance, a story of love from beyond the grave, that has at least 3 gruesome deaths and ends with the protagonist literally walking into the light. Swayze also spends a decent portion of the movie acting like Rocky, if Rocky’s hands were incorporeal and he was murdered before the big fight.

Ghost, in spite of its title, isn’t a scary movie, although it has a couple creepy bits, what with the evil characters being pulled into Hell, but it got me thinking about the relationship between horror films and what I’d like to tactfully call “tear-jerkers”.

I enjoyed Ghost, but it’s undeniably designed to make you cry. In fact, at its Mexican premier, boxes of tissue were passed out to women in the audience. It has a nice story, some funny bits, Patrick Swayze’s abs, but mostly–mostly–it’s supposed to make you bawl like there’s no tomorrow. And it’s pretty effective in spite of its undeniable 80-ness.

Horror films, on the other hand, may sometimes have romantic subplots–though they’re usually there to add a minimal amount of pathos when said love interest is pulled into 4 pieces or whatever–but, although their body count is usually a little higher than Ghost‘s, they aren’t trying to make you cry–they want to make you scream.

So maybe what I’m getting at is painfully obvious to everyone. Maybe I, like Demi Moore, am the last person to realize the truth. But regardless, I can’t help but conclude that horror films and tearjerkers are basically aiming for the exact same thing. They want to cause a deep, visceral reaction, and not one that’s normally considered desirable. They also tend to go at this in a similar manner–by exploiting the fears of their audience. If we weren’t afraid of death, or at least losing someone we cared about, neither genre would be effective. But we are, all of us, and so, when we leave the latest Nicholas Sparks sobfest, we sell it to our friends with “Man, I sobbed like a colicky infant”. And if our friend responds, “Paranormal Activity 17 kept me up all night last night”, well, maybe instead of recoiling, we should move in for the hug. We’re all in this together, after all.

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Why You Should Read Jane Austen (and Everyone Else)

ImageI have a confession to make: I am sexist.

Not that I’ve been paying my female employees less or expecting my wife to wash my feet every night, but… actually, let’s put it another way: I’m sexist when it comes to art.

I began having this realization two years ago, when I finally got around to reading Jane Austen. In my mind, her novels were about women chasing after men or vice versa, storylines whose protagonists could be replaced with Gerard Butler and Katherine Heigl without compromising their integrity. Imagine my surprise, upon reading them, to find novels that were as sparkling, clever, and poignant as any other classic I’d read. I felt pretty good about myself.

Fast forward to now. I’ve read over 300 books since 2007, and, by my count, less than 25 were novels by women. Of those 25, approximately half were Young Adult books and 2 were Harry Potter. The fullness of my prejudice hadn’t even occurred to me until earlier this year, when I was asked to review a biography of Sylvia Plath. Not having read anything of hers, I sat down with The Bell Jar, expecting an emo-tastic slog, and was amazed–amazed–when I loved it. Where had my bias come from? The blurb on the back said it was like a female Catcher in the Rye, a widely misunderstood book that I love, and that turned out to be a fair description.

And why do I feel this way? I can think of one main reason: I always assume I won’t be able to relate as well, because, well, I’m a man. That’s silly, of course–I can’t relate with Hemingway’s protagonists either, but I can understand their feelings and motivations. Leopold Bloom and I don’t have much in common either, but I don’t mind journeying through Dublin with him.

The worst thing about this assumption, though, is that it drives a stake through the heart of one of literature’s primary benefits, the chance to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to see life through their eyes, to understand the weight of the things that oppress them, things that would seem silly to us without that empathy. In this way–maybe primarily in this way–literature can help make us better people; but how can it change us if we never stretch outside our comfort zone?

So I’m trying to stretch.

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