It seems we love films that make us weep literal tears. Happy tears, sad tears, hard-fought tears, full-on sobbing… we don’t mind. But when the film is over we can leave the characters behind and go back to being happy feeling better for having a good hard cry. It would be mean to begrudge the public a bit of harmless escapism to get out all that angst and emotional build-up with a very forced, artificial, heart-breaking tear jerker that packs a metaphorical punch to the throat and cuts off circulation to the brain, but that’s what I’m about to do.
It’s all well and good having a good cry about two made-up people on the voyage of the Titanic but what about the real one and a half thousand passengers and crew who died due to negligence that was never properly investigated. When we cry during a film, we usually get emotional because we’ve got attached to the main characters and we feel involved in their stories, we even start thinking of them as real, but this allows disaster movies to gloss over hundreds or even thousands of background characters and their plights, even reducing their deaths to mere warnings or distressing action for the protagonists; we feel nothing for their deaths except for how it affects the main characters. The truth is that these films can desensitise us to natural disasters and mass murder, only allowing us to feel upset when it affects us or someone we know directly.
Obviously, not physically crying over mass death and not feeling sorry for the deaths of strangers are two different things, and we can feel emotionally driven to fix a problem without having any personal connection or breaking down in tears. But disaster movies rarely do a good job of promoting good causes and they are far more concerned with making you emotional about fictional elements than real truths. If you are unable to apply the fictional story to the real world or transfer the situation of the characters to your own social network, then the film is just an empty tear-jerker that offers the audience nothing to ponder.
There are lots of tricks to make an audience cry. It’s not just the plot that brings on the tears; its all about music and camera work. This means that you are essentially just being manipulated by the filmmakers into thinking in an emotional way. It’s hard to engage your brain when your heart strings are being pulled so even if there is a serious message to the film, you could find yourself distracted by the emotional rollercoaster that whips you away from reality. And sure, you might be persuaded to donate to a good cause or tell your friends about a sad fact, but you’ve only fallen under the spell of an advert. Lots of emotional appeals use sad stories to get you to donate but they rarely get anyone to engage longterm with a subject or think about the issue for themselves. Like all advertising, films mostly appeal to our emotional brains rather than our sense of logic. We need cinema that makes us think as well as cry.