During the twentieth century, film secured its place in American culture as the dominant form of entertainment. It has become a force so central to shaping the way we live that movie actors and the films they star in have crept into our lives like old friends. Images from movies mingle with our personal experiences to such a degree that at times we lose sense of the line between filmic and actual events. In Madelon Sprengnether’s recent memoir, Crying at the Movies (Graywolf Press, 2002), this blur creates an interesting subtext, in a book that prefers analysis to sentiment.
If movies are cultural signifiers, then Sprengnether is right on in her use of their plots to parallel her own transformations. She analyzes films such as Pather Panchali, House of Cards, and Shadowlands to explore her past and describe the emotions she must confront in order to transcend her personal failings. Through movies she unlocks her trapped feelings, discovering by chance that certain films function as catharsis. To use film as psychoanalysis is original, tuning into the fact that we generally give movies tremendous importance, maybe too much so.
Sprengnether’s contrast of her life to those of the filmic characters she examines is both fascinating and disturbing. One wonders if she forgets that these individuals are fictional, that their pains and passions are not real, unlike her own. Although interesting, the comparisons begin to feel trivial to her story and it is unsettling that she gives the fictional characters equal weight with her own real life. This parallel to our national obsession with film is intriguing. However, it is not acknowledged or pursued by Sprengnether. Instead she tells her story matter-of-factly through very astute analyses of the films, detailing her transformation rather than bringing her reader to an experience of it.
The territory to be covered is outlined in the prologue, Home Movies. Here Spengnether summarizes her journey. In fact, what should be a revelatory, unfolding experience is described so thoroughly here that the rest of the book feels redundant. She continues to build the book section by section, each one analyzing a particular film in relation to her personal discoveries and attempts at change. Although quite appropriately describing the movie theater as “a special environment, a liminal space, between dream and reality, where anything seems possible,” (p. 11) she misses a basic rule of cinema: create narrative tension by allowing the story to unfold over time.
Filmmakers understand the sensory power of the movies, using it to create dramas that are likely to stir up both real and contrived emotions. To her credit Sprengnether reveals many personal aspects of her life; the book doesn’t feel vulnerable, though, and she never lets go of control. Instead, her prose feels clinical and emotionless. I long for a soundtrack, for a beautiful camera angle, for emotive lighting. The author doesn’t go for literary effect. She ends up demonstrating how difficult it can be to turn an interesting concept into a compelling read. Her volume is like a Dogma film, straight off the cuff. I might wish for a little more of the passion of Fellini, or the meditations of Tarkovsky.