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Walrod, S. (2005). Crying at the Movies. Madelon Sprengnether. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 2002. 244 pp. $15.00 (pb).. Am. Imago, 62(1):137-142.

(2005). American Imago, 62(1):137-142

Crying at the Movies. Madelon Sprengnether. St. Paul, MN: Greywolf Press, 2002. 244 pp. $15.00 (pb).

Review by:
Stephen Walrod

Nearly everyone goes to the movies. For the most part people go to be entertained, that is, for their “interest and amusement.” The entertainment industry likes it this way. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, where various amusements diverted the bourgeoisie from troubling social, political and libidinal realities, Sigmund Freud (1908) speculated on how works of art affect us, and his formulation pretty well explains the entertainment value of contemporary films. Works of art, he thought, contained the disguised satisfaction of forbidden impulses. Artists dress our impulses in aesthetic coverings so that, vicariously and at a safe remove, we can satisfy our sexual and aggressive desires. Art, by this definition, fulfills the rather conservative role of offering partial gratifications to socially unacceptable wishes.

Some years later another Viennese-born psychoanalytic practitioner, Ernst Kris (1952), elaborated on Freud's ideas. According to his understanding, artworks, in order to be useful to the observer, must be optimally distanced both from the impulses and from the ego's defense mechanisms. The just-right film would engage the desires of viewers while at the same time offering sufficient “aesthetic illusion” to spare them from guilt or, even worse, from a traumatic overstimulation (46). James Joyce alluded to something similar when he said that if you pull the artwork toward you too far, the experience becomes pornographic, but if you distance yourself too much, it becomes criticism.

In light of these ideas, what are we to make of Madelon Sprengnether's experience, as related in her memoir, Crying at the Movies, of the convulsive crying that overtook her while watching the closing scenes of the Indian movie, Pather Panchali? Clearly she was “underdistanced” in Kris's sense. Her body spoke, overwhelming her intellect; any sense of control and decorum in a public place was lost as her body did what it had wanted but had been unable to do since she stood on the banks of the Mississippi River as a nine-year-old witness to her father's drowning. She cried wildly, violently, unreservedly.

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