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Crying at the Movies: A Film Memoir

Madelon Sprengnether

Crying at the Movies: A Film Memoir

Author:Madelon Sprengnether
Publisher:Graywolf Press

By Heather Joslyn | Posted 2/6/2002

Anyone who considers watching movies a passive activity should take a gander at Crying at the Movies, in which poet and University of Minnesota English professor Madelon Sprengnether chronicles her history of bawling her eyes out while watching dramas ranging from Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali to Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue. For decades, she writes, film has brought her to emotional catharsis as no other art form has, helping her face undercurrents in her psyche that flow from a life-altering trauma: The author saw her father drown when she was 9, though she claims to have no memory of the event.

From that tragedy, Sprengnether writes, came her mother's emotional withdrawal from the family and remarriage to a man her children disliked, the author's attraction to and sexual involvement with her older brother, her sometimes health-threatening feeling of disconnect from her physical self, and two marriages ended by her own adulterous affairs. In 1969, at age 26, the shy, emotionally repressed pregnant wife of a depressive husband, she went to see Ray's film. A delicate family tale in which a vivacious young girl dies, Pather Panchali was a catalyst for Sprengnether's buried emotions to rise up in choking wails, which continued for hours: "Once home, I continued to cry--deep, wrenching sobs, cast up from somewhere in my belly, like blood clots."

Each chapter of Crying at the Movies is built around a single film and the personal issues and revelations it brought up for the author. Peter Weir's raw-edged plane-crash tale Fearless, for instance, triggers flashbacks to her father's death. Jane Campion's The Piano brings her to address her stepfather and his own tragic end. Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden, about teenage siblings who form a quasi-marriage after their parents die, causes her to reflect on her own tangled relationship with her brother. Her approach is fresh and welcome, reminding readers of film's potential for interactivity, and her perceptions about the movies' emotional content are sharp and thankfully free of film-geek jargon and pretensions.

But as the book goes on, the reader becomes aware that watching weepies hasn't begun to heal this woman's legacy of loss and hurt; it has only made her painfully aware of it. By the end of Crying at the Movies, you may find yourself wishing Sprengnether had spent less time watching films and more time making sense of those impulses that impotently bubble into sobs in darkened cinemas. The hell of it is, the author kind of knows that herself. "I am inclined to think that my body knows everything there is to know about me," she writes, "the problem being that it is largely mute, a larger problem being that some part of me does not know how to listen."

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