Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at email@example.com.
This week’s question is from our copy editing team:
What pop culture has made you cry at particularly embarrassing moments?
Laura M. Browning
In fourth grade, I looked forward to DEAR time (Drop Everything And Read), in which we had 15 glorious minutes after recess to read whatever we wanted. As I was also a dog lover, I had picked up Wilson Rawls’ Where The Red Fern Grows, about a boy and his two hunting dogs. My own dog, Molly, had died within the previous year, which left me devastated, and I buried my sorrow in the immense “dog-and-kid-lit” section at the library. I’d torn through Where The Red Fern Grows, and had just a little bit saved for this particular DEAR time. As I neared the end of the book, I was unable to control myself as the tears came—and oh how they came—but being 9, I was also too embarrassed to get up and ask for permission to leave the classroom. So I flipped up the top of my desk, rested my head on my arms inside my desk, and sobbed. I’m sure nobody noticed.
Someone should have told me that reading The Fault In Our Stars on an airplane wasn’t really the best idea, because that shit was rough. I literally bawled through much of John Green’s novel on a flight earlier this year, and while it was certainly cathartic, it might have been a little weird for the strange woman sitting next to me for two or three hours. (For some reason, my husband was in another row, meaning he couldn’t even throw a thin airline blanket over my ugly cry face.) When I think about it now, I wonder why I didn’t just close the book and stop reading the second I felt the tears coming—but I guess that’s a testament to Green’s work and the book’s compulsive nature. I just had to know what happened to Hazel and Gus and was willing to endure abject public humiliation to find out.
Fifteen years ago now, when I went to see Gladiator in theaters, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t even want to go—my mother might have wanted to see it, or my dad, who knows. I went into the film indifferent to the charms of Russell Crowe and entirely ignorant to the history of ancient Rome. I somehow managed to cry three separate times during an action film that is incredibly inaccurate and serves mostly to showcase the weird and wonderful acting skills of Joaquin Phoenix. Even now when I watch it I’m inexplicably moved; residual effects of being severely brainwashed in my impressionable youth. Apparently nothing tugs at my heartstrings like a dude bro-ing out in the name of what is good and right in Rome.
I view pop culture as cheap therapy. I’m normally stoic, or so I like to think, but give me an emotional movie or television scene set to just the right music, and I’m crying. Put me alone in a car with Iron & Wine’s nine-plus-minute epic “The Trapeze Swinger,” and I’m sobbing. Sit me in front of a computer that’s playing select Best Actress Oscar acceptance speeches, and I’m blubbering. Most often, the emotion is probably tied to something else, but nonetheless, I take the opportunity for release and don’t find it too embarrassing. After all, I’m alone in all these situations. Except for that time I wasn’t and instead was accompanied by my best friend and my boyfriend at the time when I began bawling almost hysterically in my living room. The cause? The 100th episode of Gossip Girl, “Blair’s Royal Wedding.” It’s bad enough I was 23 and watching this show, but when I saw the scene where Louis says, “From this moment forward, there is nothing between us but a contract…” and goes on to explain what a sham of a marriage this will be throughout the couple’s first dance, I lost it. Meanwhile, the two gentlemen in the room sort of nervously smiled while I worked though my apparent fear of an utterly hopeless marriage. Did I mention the relationship with my boyfriend was relatively new? Yeah, I’m a charmer all right.
I’m not entirely sure this is embarrassing, but embarrassment was surely part of the emotional mix. I saw Dancer In The Dark at the beautiful Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee. As a fan of Breaking The Waves, I should’ve known it wouldn’t exactly have a happy ending, but as anyone who’s seen it knows, it’s more than a little bleak—a fact compounded by its lovely songs. I was with my very dear, very emotionally reserved-when-not-drinking friend Mike, who got up after the credits and headed to the bathroom, I assumed to compose himself and avoid conversation. I stood in the lobby trying to keep it together when out of the same theater came a friendly acquaintance/local bartender. We knew each other well enough that it would’ve been awkward not to say hi, so she came over, and we both basically just burst into tears and hugged—I’m not sure there were even any words exchanged. I think they should put that on the poster instead of a critic’s quote: “So emotionally mortifying that people break down and embrace afterward!”
In the way-back times of 2010, I wrote about losing my composure during an in-flight screening of Pixar’s Up, but I left out a lot of the specifics. For instance: I’ve always seen a lot of myself (anxious, head-in-the-clouds, bespectacled) and my wife (adventurous, artistic, determined) in the young versions of Carl and Ellie Fredrickson. The fateful trip, meanwhile, took place on Thanksgiving 2009—less than two months before our wedding, and on one of the last major holidays we’d ever spend apart. But here’s the kicker: A cartoon made me—a grown adult about to enter into the very adult realm of matrimony—weep while I was seated next to a uniformed soldier, presumably on leave and headed home to family of his own. I got all post-modern emotional next to a living, breathing symbol of old-school stars-and-stripes masculinity on American Thanksgiving, and while I’m not truly ashamed about it, we must’ve made a strange tableau for the people in the rows ahead of us.
Five years ago I found myself broke, depressed, and standing at a crossroads. I’d just spent three years as The A.V. Club’s Denver City editor, a job I walked away from in order to focus on my writing—specifically my insane ambition to become a novelist. Freelancing wasn’t paying the bills, so I fell back on my first vocation: warehouse worker. I got a job pulling four 10-hour shifts a week at a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, a gig that required a long commute by bus plus nearly a mile walk to and from the bus stop each day. I started this job at the beginning of winter, so I made those long trudges through a snow-blanketed industrial wasteland. I only listened to two albums: One of them was Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love. In my defense, it took at least a month before I cried to it—mostly because of one beautifully brutal line in the album’s title track: “I’ve always been a coward.” It’s the softest knife your gut could ever bear, and Bush delivers it with a merciless twist of the wrist. I needed that. I quit the warehouse after four months; within two years I was holding a copy of my first book. But whenever I hear Hounds Of Love today, which is gladly and often, part of me still feels like I’m making that long, cold, motherfucking walk in the opposite direction of the things I love. (FYI: The second album was Metallica’s Ride The Lightning. So basically I had two settings that winter: crying or air-guitaring.)
Marah and I obviously got a similar “bad idea” memo (except I was a bit luckier in that I watched The Fault In Our Stars movie on the plane after having previously read the book—knowing what was coming mitigated some of the potential sobbing, I think). But my real, embarrassing, wracking sob moment came from an altogether different book-turned-movie: Atonement. I went into book not knowing anything about the story, and had I known what was coming I definitely wouldn’t have kept reading it in the middle of Tampa International Airport. I especially wouldn’t have kept reading through that part. (You know the part.) When I realized the story Ian McEwan was actually telling, I burst into immediate, loud sobs and had to quickly gather all of my carry-on items and hightail it to the bathroom to cry in peace, consoled by the comfort of a dirty public toilet. The people sitting around me when I fled the scene probably thought I just found out a loved one died, but the only thing that died that day was my dignity.
I have always had this weird pride about never crying at movies. That is, if I’m watching them sober. When Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull hit theaters, I was but a poor college senior looking ahead to a very low paying job in journalism. Going to the movies was a special occasion that I found much more productive if I got shit-faced during the film. As a kid who was straight-up obsessed with Indiana Jones, I was so goddamned excited about this movie. I bought the biggest, best bottle of whiskey I could afford (let’s be honest, it was probably Bankers Club). So when Marion Ravenwood and Indiana Jones got married at the end, I immediately burst into heavy sobs, much to the confusion of my best friend. It was all I had ever wanted as a little girl! Indy and Marion getting married! This was my dream! Somewhere in the bowels of my Facebook are pictures of me smiling outside the theater with eyeliner streaming down my face. I remember raving that it was the best movie I’d ever seen. I watched it again later. I was wrong.
The better question: “What pop culture hasn’t made me cry in some embarrassing way?” I think my lowest point, however, came when I had an emotional breakdown while watching the Katherine Heigl rom-com 27 Dresses. It was during a family movie night so the location wasn’t particularly embarrassing, but really, there’s no non-humiliating time to start sob-crying at a Heigl vehicle. It wasn’t the romance that got to me, however; it was the scene in which Heigl’s self-absorbed little sister (played by Malin Akerman) cuts up their dead mom’s wedding dress to refashion it into her own. I really related to Heigl’s competent but bottled-up character (although not said character’s love of weddings), and the idea that this item she cherished was gone forever was just too much for my little heart to bear. I’ve since been able to watch the film without crying, but I always grab some tissues when it comes on TV lest I need to quickly hide the extent of my emotional instability from confused friends.
Ten years ago now, I saw an ex for lunch. Ruffled by the experience as ever, I went to a matinee, not caring much what I saw. In my—or the universe’s—wisdom, I ended up at the Nickelodeon Cinema in Portland (Maine) just in time to see Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Smooth move, universe. Watching Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet’s relationship be born, die, and born again, seemingly forever, was a kick in the already-sore guts, sure. But it was Beck that really gutted me, his cover of The Korgis’ “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime” echoing in my head as I stumbled out into the dying light of a shitty, confusing day, avoiding the eyes of my fellow moviegoers and then the people on the street until I found myself on the mercifully sheltered steps of a closed bank. (To this day, I don’t know how I crossed the four-way intersection to get there without getting splattered.) With the movie and the song echoing in my head, I sat there and wept until full dark, the mournful chorus of the song exhorting me to learn a lesson I knew I never would.
As an adult, only three things have made me cry. Witnessing the birth of my two children. Visiting ground zero for the first time after the World Trade Center was destroyed. And every damn time I see It’s A Wonderful Life. I’ve had to excuse myself more than one family gathering over the years because something was in my eye. Yes, the ending gets me—the community George Bailey has made sacrifice after sacrifice for coming together to lift him up in his hour of need? You’d have to be a warped, frustrated old man indeed to not feel a pull on your heartstrings. But what really gets me is the scene at the grave—“Every man on that transport died, George! Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry!” The film’s timeless messages—the importance of community, the toll selflessness can take, and the way our good deeds ripple outward in unexpected ways—all hit home powerfully in that one moment. By the time George begs Clarence to take him back to his wife and children, he’s not the only one sobbing.
Generally, I’m not embarrassed to cry at movies; I’m usually impressed, because most movies that make me cry have to do it the same way that movies make me laugh the loudest: by surprising me into it. Maybe I should not have been surprised that About Time could push those buttons; it was clearly designed as a tearjerker with a father-son hook, and I was watching it less than a year after my father died. But the first hour of the movie does a splendid job lowering expectations: it’s basically a riff on The Time Traveler’s Wife, only with writer-director Richard Curtis doing his late-period cutesy shtick. This means it has to involve a faux-everyman figure looking down on all the crazy quirky colorful sidekicks in his life while pursuing a romantic relationship involving superficial love-at-first-sight pablum. But after a lot of pointless throat-clearing and unfunny comedy, About Time shifts gears to become a story about the specific implications of time travel on the faux-everyman’s family. The father-son relationship between Domhnall Gleeson and Bill Nighy moves to the forefront, and while it’s idealized and possibly treacly, the movie’s ideas about how one might use time travel to cheat loss, only to re-experience it in a different way, really hit me. It doesn’t hurt that Nighy is an effortlessly charming actor, or that I’m a sucker for a good time travel story (even, apparently, for one that takes half its running time to find its footing). Or rather, it does hurt: Not only was I suddenly choking back sobs at a movie that I had been regarding with some ill will, I was doing so at a press screening, which tends to be a somewhat reserved environment. I didn’t feel judged, but I did feel pretty silly. I guess that’s Curtis’ payback for my ability to sit stone-faced through Love Actually.
The first job I got when I moved to Los Angeles involved watching a metric ton of television (before you get jealous, none of it was any good). As the new girl, I was obviously trying to play it cool and prove I was someone worth knowing. It lasted about a week—and then every single show I had to watch started featuring commercial breaks with the trailer for the Winnie The Pooh movie. Winnie The Pooh is to me what I suspect Peter Pan is for others: a poignant story of childhood and the loss of pure imagination that comes with adulthood. That shit makes me feel things I’d rather never feel (you know, like feelings). The Winnie The Pooh trailer uses Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know,” a treacly song that would never usually affect me, but in context of Christopher Robin growing up and over the Hundred Acre Wood, the lyrics, “I’m getting old and I need something to rely on / So if you have a minute why don’t we go somewhere only we know?” suddenly wrenched my guts out. So I’m sitting at this new job, trying desperately to keep it together, but I’m crying and I’m crying and my new coworkers are just dying laughing. From then on, all any of them had to do to get me to tear up was blast that stupid Keane song. So much for staying cool.
I’m with Dennis; break-ups mess with your head. A while back I was at work, and feeling kind of glum about someone, and I decided the best way to deal with the bad feeling was to try and overload it—to force myself to feel as much of it as possible in as short amount of time as possible, in hopes I would burn out a circuit somewhere and everything would go numb. (I use this approach a lot. I’m not very bright.) To that end, I loaded up the most potentially devastating, and immediately relevant, movie clip I could think of: “When She Loved Me,” from Toy Story 2. In context, it’s a montage about a toy whose child grows up and leaves her behind, scored to a song by Randy Newman sung by Sarah McLachlan. As a simple, direct expression of what it feels like to have your heart broken with no real hope of recovery, it’s powerful even if you aren’t in a vulnerable state. In my mood at the time, it was a bit like dousing a very lonely fire with some existential kerosene. I ended up sobbing at my desk like an absolute lunatic. Fortunately I was working in the basement, so no one noticed.
I can get lost in a movie at the drop of a hat and I’m a sucker for sentimentality, so you can only imagine how many times that combination has led me to sniffle and suggest that there’s clearly some problem with the air conditioning, but I was embarrassed by the unexpectedly intense wave of emotion that hit me at the end of The Mist. Perhaps I can lay part of the blame on the fact that Frank Darabont added a new ending that wasn’t in the original novella, but that’d be a cop-out: The real reason is that I was still a relatively new father—my daughter was only 2 at the time—and the combination of Thomas Jane’s character trying to save his friends and his son from a horrific death, only to realize that he couldn’t follow suit, and that his actions turned out to have been wholly unnecessary, and then contemplating how I would’ve felt if that’d been me… Yeah, I kind of lost it. Thankfully, my wife knows me well enough that she understood what was going through my head at the time, but it was still embarrassing.