In Defense of Cheap Sentimentality
On the book and film of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
“Crying is one of the great pleasures of moviegoing.”
So Manohla Dargis reminded her readers in her New York Times review of Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the 2011 screen adaptation of the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer. Dargis, however, was quick to add a caveat: “[B]ut tears can be cheap.” In this economic taxonomy of emotions, tears evidently become valued when they demand one to expend a certain amount of effort. Cheap tears, on the other hand, are symptomatic of feelings that have been “unearned.”
Those were the kind of tears, according to Dargis, at the heart of the movie based on Safran Foer’s so-called “Sept 11 book.” Daldry’s film was kitsch, merely exploiting the atmosphere of emotions surrounding the events and aftermath of 9/11, and trying to “make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling. And, yes, you may cry,” she added, “but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.” The use of the passive voice in her final damning sentence is indicative of what we associate with “cheap sentimentality,” that feeling of losing control over one’s emotional responses, usually against one’s better judgment. The tears are “milked” as if by force, despite our awareness that we are being manipulated (another charge which Dargis levels against Daldry’s film). Cheap sentimentality needles at us for the very fact that it robs us of our agency. Then again, the distinction between sentimentality and its bargain-priced counterpart is policed less through an intrinsic differentiation between them than by the arbitrary limits that are carved around them. Cheap or otherwise, “sentimental” remains a coded putdown in the contemporary vernacular, invoking as it does gendered ways of both reading and being.
“Did they cry?”
Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), retracing what he believes to be his late father’s (Tom Hanks) last “reconnaissance expedition,” has found himself in a house in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He’s visiting Abby Black (Viola Davis), the first on his list of possible New York-residing Blacks who may hold some knowledge as to what the key he found among his father’s belongings might open. The surname “Black” is the only clue he has to go on — and the only thing he believes still tethers him to his father, who died, as he tells us, “on the worst day.” This is no deterrent for eleven-year-old Oskar, an “amateur entomologist, Francophile, archeologist, computer consultant, pacifist, inventor,” as his business cards read. Once he explains his reason for knocking on Abby’s door she reluctantly lets him in, his awkward charm so endearing that she allows herself to be interrupted on what we later learn is the day her marriage has finally fallen apart. We are allowed brief glimpses of her husband, on the phone, before he exits without addressing his recently ex-wife.
Oskar points to a postcard lying in one of the many packed boxes littering her hallway, and tells her that he likes the image: a close-up of an elephant’s eye. When he describes how a pachyderm researcher played old tapes with the calls of now-deceased elephants back to their families, Abby muses: “Did they cry?”
In the film, as in the book, Oskar dismisses the question out of hand. “Only humans can cry tears,” he says. Abby looks at the postcard once more, countering that the elephant in the picture appears to be crying. Oskar has an answer handy: “It looks like it, but it was probably manipulated in Photoshop.” In the novel, as if on cue, Abby “started to cry tears.” For those unfamiliar with Safran Foer’s narrator, the phrase is indicative of Oskar’s literal-minded descriptive language. What else would she have cried if not tears?
The postcard is cheap sentimentality at its most blatant — a vision of a heightened reality, at once depicting and hoping to elicit tears. The paragraphs that follow grant us insight into the thoughts of this eleven-year-old in the face of an unselfconscious, tear-streaked show of emotion:
Then she started to cry tears.
I thought, I’m the one who’s supposed to cry.
“Don’t cry,” I told her. “Why not?” she asked. “Because,” I told her. “Because what?” she asked. Since I didn’t know why she was crying I couldn’t think of a reason. Was she crying about the elephants? Or something else I’d said? Or the desperate person in the other room? Or something that I didn’t know about?
His immediate reaction is telling: after all, Oskar is the one who lost his father on 9/11. His grief, he suggests, should have primacy. In its place his probing questions (after he tries, unsuccessfully, to police Abby’s emotional condition while in his intrusive presence) speak to Safran Foer’s uncanny ability to have his narrator’s earnestness mirror our own codified and constricted social interactions. If only Oskar knew why Abby was crying, he might be able to offer a valid reason for his imperative that she not cry. This episode hits at the center of most criticisms of sentimentality (such as Dargis’s): once you’ve seen the manipulation and understood why you’ve been made to cry, you should be able to refrain from indulging in it.
In his adaptation, Daldry makes this connection — between the elephant image and Abby’s tears — all the more revealing. Viola Davis portrays Abby as a woman very clearly on the verge of tears. They are right on the surface, waiting to be deployed at the slightest nudge. Which explains why, after an innocuous close-up of the front of the postcard, she appears to instantly break down, as though triggered. It is also the very reason that we, as knowing audience members, are expected to detest the sentimental, the mawkish, tawdry, mushy, schmaltzy, saccharine, and cloying, for being too easy: rather than exploring the great depths of emotions they are merely skimmed, the elicited outpouring well beyond the scale of the circumstance that brought it about. Nothing in the scene, either in Safran Foer’s text or Daldry’s film, can describe the immensity and complexity of the marital discord being signified. Both opt instead to merely index it, through the evidence of Black’s emotional distress.
I must admit that Dargis’s critique of the film irked me at the time. Not because I disagreed with her outright, but perhaps because she vocalized something I’d struggled with while reading Safran Foer’s novel (which had often moved me to tears, usually in conspicuously public places where the sudden gush felt all the more inappropriate and shameful) and likewise while watching Daldry’s adaptation of it (sitting in the darkness, unable to contain the sobs that kept rising up at key points in the film). Not that I begrudged having been brought to tears (as perhaps Dargis and many others did). What I actually begrudged was my instinctual — and, let’s face it, intellectual — desire to disown them. Couldn’t I, after all, see the manipulative strings above and all around me? The twinkling score and picture-perfect casting, the implausible plot, the melodramatic climaxes? Hadn’t I been trained to read closely and coldly, to arm myself with critical skills such that I could parse how easily this post-9/11 fable-parable was merely a collection of clichés clicking neatly into place?
Perhaps. Yet I felt protective of my tears which, in hindsight, did not seem to have been unearned, easy, or cheap. Or if they were cheap then I didn’t care. What cheap sentimentality can do is to short-circuit our connection to the depths of our emotions, precisely by making us feel that they are closer to the surface than we’re perhaps comfortable with. In instances where the emotional manipulation is so obvious — as I will admit it is in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — our tears can feel like they have less to do with the narrative at hand than with things deep inside or even wholly outside ourselves. Do I cry alongside Oskar because I, too, lost my father at a young age? Or because I’m encouraged to think back to the trauma, which many of us experienced, seeing the towers fall on our television screens? Is the political here collapsed into the personal in ways both brazen and craven? Aren’t my tears (for Oskar, for myself, for the film) merely a working of the complicated emotional knots that these self-serious issues gave rise to in the first place?
Ultimately, these questions remain intellectual exercises. They have yet to stop me from becoming a blubbering mess when Oskar and his mother (Sandra Bullock) engage in a melodramatic shouting and crying match at the kitchen sink, that ends in the heartbreaking moment when he tells her, with wounded assuredness, “I wish it were you.” When a film milks your tears, the critical discussion should turn to what this effect on the audience (or even the audience’s need for it) might indicate. I will admit, the total emotional surrender that such sentimental texts encourage can be terrifying (or ‘enraging,’ in Dargis’s summation). But there is value in losing oneself to them, to wallowing in their shallow emotional registers. Especially those that beckon you, from their title alone, to inch closer, while also warning of the deafening blow they’re about to let loose.