I am not a Capra guy; despite what you’re about to read, I really don’t think of myself as a weeper. As far as I’m concerned, you can take Steel Magnolias, The Notebook, My Girl, Beaches, My Life, any and all Meryl Streep cancer flicks, traditional romantic-comedy fare, and even the weepiest moments of Grey’s Anatomy and shove them right back up your tear ducts. I don’t fall for that bullshit; it’s too easy.
With that said, I do occasionally give in to a soft moment and — when the football buddies aren’t around, or Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate is into her third Kleenex and too busy to notice, or a theater is dark and mostly empty — I’ll allow the emotion of a scene to overwhelm me. My stomach will clench, I’ll tremble a little in rebellion, and — if the moment is powerful enough without resorting to outright manipulation — I’ll let a tear or two drip from my chin before slapping myself back into reality and cursing myself for losing my shit. It doesn’t happen often, but even the most scathing of critics should allow themselves to weep occasionally — it’s cathartic, I guess. It reminds me that my heart hasn’t completely shriveled up from under-use and that, no matter how much cinematic offal I can withstand, truly brilliant scenes can still puncture me. I may be a film critic, but way down deep inside me, there’s still a tiny speck of humanity shrouded in layers and layers of cynicism, distrust, and outright hate.
As such, I want to honor a few of those moments, scenes in television and film that have pushed me over the brink these last 20 years or so. I realize, of course, that what works for me may seem melodramatic and maudlin to others. Also, I’d be hard pressed to call this list all-inclusive, which is where your always thoughtful comments (“I can’t fucking believe you left out ______, you asshole”) are welcome. I should also note that most of these clips, which are mostly in the two-to-three minute range, don’t really work outside of the context of the entire film — some of them, in fact, seem kind of ridiculous without the 90 minutes leading up to the heartbreaking moment in question. I’ll also note that most of them are chockfull of spoilers; if you haven’t seen the film or television show, please disregard the clip and Netflix the item in its entirety. The scenes are here mostly for nostalgic reasons; if you’ve already witnessed the scene, you can fill in the context yourself and, perhaps, work up enough tears to create an awkward situation when your boss sneaks a peek into your cubicle.
So, as XTC would proclaim: Let’s begin.
Dead Poets Society: I didn’t buy into E.T. when I was a first-grader, so Dead Poets was actually the first film I can ever recall provoking tears. I watched it on VHS, in a trailer home, with my surly, “Walker: Texas Ranger”-lovin’ stepfather hovering above me, sighing throughout its entirety, bellyaching because I was forcing him to watch a highfalutin’ flick about Walt fucking Whitman (20 years later, I can now appreciate that Dead Poets was about as deep as a inflatable pool, but that doesn’t retroactively take away its impact). But when this scene arrived, even my step-kin was dead silent. In fact, he paused the film and left the room for a few minutes, leaving me alone long enough to blubber alone at the foot of his waterbed. Man alive, waterbeds, trailer homes, and “Walker: Texas Ranger.” I must have had years of tears backed up inside of me.
Rattle and Hum, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”: When you’re 15 years old and the heaviest thing you’ve ever really heard were the lyrics to Bon Jovi’s “Bed of Roses” (holy shit — is he admitting that he cheats on his wife?), U2 can seem kind of overpowering. It seems absurd now, but I actually held a grudge against the band for months, simply because “Angel of Harlem,” knocked “Bad Medicine” off the top spot on MTV’s TRL (or whatever it was called when Adam Curry hosted it). But when I popped in Rattle and Hum, my perception of music was forever changed. In fact, I replayed Bono’s extended bridge of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” every day after school for weeks; I never could tell if “No more!” (at the 5:18 mark) was a crack in Bono’s voice or simply feedback. Either way, the emotion in his voice, combined with what I thought was the heaviest political statement I’d ever heard (“Fuck the Revolution!”), prompted unheard-of levels of goose bumps. Indeed, it wasn’t long before I retired Bon Jovi, Poison, and Winger from my tape collection for good (though, in the iTunes era, I do occasionally return to them for novelty’s sake). And surely there are a few people my age who can relate. (Go back to your old copies of Rattle and Hum and you might find that “Running to Stand Still” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” can still incite chills.)
“The Wonder Years,” Series Finale: Hang on to your hats for this one, 28- to 35-year-olds. Hands down, “The Wonder Years” was the best show of my childhood. I loved almost every single episode, which I watched with the fervor of Ted Haggard with a checkbook and a room full of male prostitutes. It was a brilliant program that somehow made the 1960s infinitely relatable to a kid growing up at the same time during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Almost every episode ended with one of those Daniel Stern-narrated moments of poignancy, which stuck in my craw for hours. By the time the series finale rolled around, however, most had given up on the show; it had been moved around the schedule repeatedly and taken off the air a time or two, as I recall. But I stuck with it, even when it moved to (I believe) Friday nights. Listening to the last five minutes of the show again, it at first seems bizarre that I would’ve fallen for the obvious hokum and clichéd platitudes, but when Kevin recounts the final outcome of his and Winnie’s relationship, I still get a little misty-eyed. It was the perfect, heart-wrenching end to a defining show of my own wonder years. (And for those who remember it, tell me that this episodedidn’t make your soul ache.)
Jerry Maguire: Oh, screw off, you bitter come-buckets. It wasn’t the “You had me at hello,” moment that did it for me. And besides, there was a time, before the pop-culture machinations chewed it up and ruined it, that Jerry Maguire was a pretty goddamn good flick. Still, you can lump the Zellweger bullshit in the same category as The Notebook. It’s the preceding scene, when Rod Tidwell gets the call from his wife after scoring the TD, that kills me every time. I thought Jerry and Dorothy’s relationship was kind of forced and manufactured, but there was something really authentic about Rod and Marcee’s marriage, which really struck a sweet note for me. And the cracking emotion in Cuba’s voice still resonates — who’s not a sucker for emotionally underdeveloped meatheads opening the floodgates? Gooding hasn’t done a decent flick since, but by God, he deserved his Oscar for this role.
“The West Wing,” Two Cathedrals: It seems as if Aaron Sorkin is a mainstay on our Guides; we should probably just do a Sorkin Guide and be done with him. There were many great moments in the first four seasons of “The West Wing,” but the one that hit me the hardest was the season-two finale, after Mrs. Landingham was killed in a car crash, and here, where President Bartlet rails against God, in Latin. It was an incredibly organic moment; righteous anger that weirdly evoked tears. And of course, the next scene, in which Bartlet stands at a podium, rain-drenched from a tropical storm, ready to announce his candidacy for another term, hits with equal force. (And if that doesn’t do it for you, this scene — from the third-season finale — certainly will) … and if Sorkin’s brand of politics doesn’t get to you, then maybe his take on the break-up of Jeremy and Natalie in “Sports Night” will. It’s truly great television, which makes “Studio 60” all the more disappointing now.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: On the list of my favorite films, Eternal Sunshine sits firmly in my top five. But unlike any of the others, I’ve only seen this one once. In fact, I own the DVD, but I didn’t rip the plastic off until I decided to upload this scene, and it’s the only one I’ve now seen twice. I want to wait until all of my residual memories of the film have completely faded and I can relive the experience of watching it anew. I know there are lots of folks out there who dislike it as much as I love it, but — to me — it captured the essence of what it’s like to be in love better than any film I’ve seen before or since. Even still, this is the perfect example of a moment that fails without the context of the rest of the film — it doesn’t make much sense at all as a standalone scene. But watching it now, I’m flooded with the entire feeling of the film all over again. What can I say? Maybe I am a bit of a sap.
“Scrubs,” My Screw Up: Like Sorkin, “Scrubs” is another popular show in our Guides, or at least for me (having also appeared in my pop-culture mix-tape). Because like no other show since “The Wonder Years,” “Scrubs,” manages to be hilarious and then hit you at the end with whiplash poignancy, usually accompanied by some of that lily-white-sensitive-guy music. This scene, which I just saw again a few days ago while riding a NordicTrac and doing my best to keep it together, is really no different, but any moment that has Dr. Cox showing his soft side (which he does maybe once a season) is sure to get me all verklempt (the music of Joshua Radin doesn’t hurt, either). In “My Screw Up,” Dr. Cox’s best friend and brother-in-law Ben (Brendan Fraser) has been following him around all episode, trying to get him to attend his son’s first birthday party and forgive J.D. for his role in the death of a patient. When he finally arrives, Dr. Cox realizes that it’s not a birthday party after all, which comes as a surprise to both Dr. Cox (who is in denial) and the viewer, who learn simultaneously that they are at Ben’s funeral. It’s like Shyamalan, only good.
In America: If you haven’t seen In America, I strongly urge you not to watch this clip and instead, Netflix it immediately. It’s an amazing film, mostly about life and death and letting go, based on Jim Sheridan and his wife’s experiences after losing a child. There are a lot of great moments in the film (which should’ve garnered Oscar nominations for Paddy Considine and Emma Bolger, in addition Djimon Hounsou and Samantha Morton, who were nominated, along with Sheridan’s screenplay), but the final scene will sneak up on you and just … it will just murder you. If it doesn’t leave you in big puddle of your own human-manufactured saline solution, then just give it up, man. Go back to your emotionally detached life of Adam Sandler flicks and episodes of “According to Jim,” because you don’t deserve to see films as good as this one. You cold-hearted bastard.
Brokeback Mountain: I steered (bad pun, right) clear of the movie for a few weeks after its release, mostly because I wasn’t assigned the review and I refused (temporarily) to give in to the hype surrounding the film (though Jeremy’s review may still be the best thing written for Pajiba since its inception). I mean, c’mon: Gay cowboy love. Really?! And I still maintain that the first half of Brokeback Mountain wasn’t all that great — I found it slow and meandering and overly focused on the scenery, much like Annie Proulx’s prose. But the second half was a big wallop of heartache. And believe you me, I tried my damndest to keep it together during the closing scenes; I wasn’t going to give in to the gay cowboy movie, goddamn it. I wasn’t going to be one of the millions who fell for some silly gimmick. But hell if Brokeback Mountain turned out to be less about the homosexuality of the characters and more about a really powerful, organic love story between two people who just happened to be of the same sex. So, yeah, I fell for it. Pretty hard, too. How could you not, really? After all those years, he still had his denim shirt. So, whatever: Take my heterosexual credentials away if you must, but it really was a great emotional love story.
“Six Feet Under,” Series Finale Seriously, the hardest I’ve ever wept in my entire fucking life. And I’m not even ashamed to admit it. It also makes the “Six Feet Under” series finale the best that’s ever aired in America (rivaling the finale to the Britain’s version of “The Office”). I can’t imagine a more appropriate way to end a television show’s run, especially this particular drama (one of my favorites), and it totally made suffering through seasons four and five worth the effort. Warning: If you value your dignity, this clip is not safe for work.
Billy Elliot: January of 2001 was, well, a seriously messed up time personally. I certainly won’t bore any of you with the specifics, but let’s just say it was Epic. And like any self-respecting cinephile looking to hide from the pain of real life, I escaped into dark rooms and flickering images. I probably went every single day, sometimes twice, for three or four weeks straight. Fortunately, it was a pretty decent time to be stuck in a movie theater; the Oscar flicks had been released and re-released during that January, which allowed me to see Almost Famous again, as well as You Can Count on Me on multiple occasions (another film that very nearly made this list). I had heard a little about Billy Elliot but I was reluctant to see it — really, it was a movie about a British kid and ballet; I couldn’t have imagined a worse premise. But one day when I just couldn’t bear to go home, I snuck into it after another film. And then I saw it again the next day. And the next. I probably kept that discount theater chain in business for the entire week. And if you haven’t seen Billy Elliot this may sound comically absurd, but it was the first time I really believed in the transformative powers of cinema; that fucking film saved me during a period in which actual therapy could not. And in the end, what’s not to love about Billy Elliot? You got the political backdrop (the miner’s strike), a beautiful family drama, your sports motifs, and T-Rex (who loves to boogie?). But it was this scene, in which Billy’s father crossed over the picket line because he wanted to get his son into the Royal Academy, that never fails to hit me in the emotional sternum like a goddamn wrecking ball. For half an hour after, every time I see this it, I’m the ninniest of all ninnies.
So, there you go. Laugh. Poke fun. Get it all out. And then swallow your goddamn pride and admit your own cinematic weaknesses. You’ll feel better afterwards. And then you can do the chicken dance:
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
Guides | February 14, 2007 | Comments ()