The word ‘cheap’ and the word ‘sentimental’ aren’t generally part of a lexicon of praise. Both might be used to describe things you make do with (even enjoy) while either actively or begrudgingly aspiring to something better.
And these days both have lost a lot of territory to the ‘something better’. In fact, far from shimmering behind the back of a public accolade, the word ‘sentimental’ gets tossed around abusively with devastating effect. It doesn’t seem to be part of our inherited twentieth-century view of things, except when it is channeled carefully into a piece of invective.
These days to use the word confidently, it must be delivered in a tone of accusation, which carries with it connotations of inadequacy. Or to turn this around, the suggestion is that a sentimental view of things can only ever be an inaccurate or self-deceiving one. And in the dogged search for accuracy, it is necessary to form the ‘right’ (i.e. critical) judgement about something we should really scrape off the heel of our shoes as a piece of meretricious hokum.
Sentiment and self-destruction
This (prevalent) attitude assumes that in recognising the expression of an emotion or a given aesthetic as tawdry, there must, therefore, be a better or more proportionate way to express that emotion. The ‘fuller’ and ‘more discerning’ perspective from which it is possible to recognise disproportionate exposure to any given sentiment, implies a safe and stable position of judgement.
Interestingly, though, the search for accuracy or a more hard-nosed realism over sentiment, doesn’t necessarily substitute something superficially rewarding for something intrinsically rewarding. To overcome the former, very often takes the shape of a self-subverting gesture, with the trail of destruction that leaves behind.
Take, for example, the eponymous character of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel The Bad Girl. The book’s first-person narrator repeatedly whispers ‘cheap and sentimental things’ in her ear to fleetingly retain her affection as she deserts him decade after decade in search of self-betterment. These cheap and sentimental things elicit emotional personality disorder: they are met with a frisson of fun and theatre from a loftier position of scorn.
In the novel, the bad girl’s disdainful attitude towards the book’s narrator, derives in part from her social background. Unlike the narrator who wallows playfully in sentiment, she is a social pariah, motivated by an insurmountable appetite to improve her lot in life. This leads her fatefully through a series of disastrous marriages that naturally enough take their toll.
In this story, then, the more puritanical mindset that seeks to overcome the superficialities of cheap and sentimental things, leads not to a sober, considered and proportionate emotional life, but a peculiar kind of self-destruction. Is this to suggest that the intellectually superior and more respectable attitude of mind that sneers at insubstantial sentiments cannot but fail to see mere appearances everywhere, including, finally, in the very act of observing them? Or to put it another way, the search for the kind of hard-nosed realism that disdains sentimentality, in fact only leads to self-destruction, because, under that degree of interrogation, everything looks tawdry. So from emotional ‘scientists’ we become emotional ‘nihilists.’
Another aesthetic that is, if not mawkish, then at least similarly false and theatrical is the world of folktales. Most folktales are no strangers to sometimes bizarrely macabre acts, but one of their near-universal rules is that they construct the drama – in often far-fetched and imaginative ways – out of a moral lesson. To the extent that the moral lesson always triumphs, they offer, on their own terms, an unnaturally optimistic, even distorted, view of life. Like sentimentality, they offer a self-consciously artificial framework out of which to construct value.
A boiled down and paraphrased version of a short yiddish folktale is enough to make the point: a charitable man has a daughter who is about to be married. But he discovers that there is an orphan in the town who is also about to be married. Out of charity he spends his money on a trousseau for the orphan rather than on his own daughter, and, with only a gildn left, he buys what little wheat he can, stores it in the pantry and goes off to the synagogue. On his return he finds wheat overflowing from the pantry, which makes his fortune.
The story and the lesson are simple, and, of course, illustrated in an absurdly unreal way. With folktales the reader frequently feels that the storyteller has plucked the nearest petal of suspended fantasy to hand, in order to perfume the morally rank air they are breathing. They aren’t just contrived, they are painfully and transparently contrived. At times, you can almost hear weary and embattled parents in the shtetl grasping at the farthest flung corners of their imagination to control their uncontrollable progeny and instil in them some kind of moral observance.
Like ‘cheap and sentimental things’, folktales, though they might take a detour via sometimes gruesome occurrences to hammer home the point, are contrived with a clear sense of purpose and, in some cases, homiletic fervour. They don’t aim to simply depict something cooly, and objectively; they are full of belief and intention: they want to believe in something to the extent that it determines the structure and outcome of the narrative. Both are, then, aspirational; they express a belief in, and a striving after, something larger than a comparatively narrow ‘realism’ can provide.
So what’s wrong with that?
The sneering use of the word sentimental provides the objection. I might want to think people will behave nobly and in a self-effacing way, but most of the time, they simply don’t. I might like to think that true love conquers all, or the underdog always triumphs but the level of divorce remains alarmingly high and many put-upon people clearly don’t win their personal battles.
Pleasant as it may be to sink into a world that offers romanticised cliches, or quixotic flights of the imagination, both are equally divorced from the grim social reality that confronts most people. And in this grim social reality the Italian approach to crime fiction is clearly the right one: perhaps some of the time the police find out who did it, but a lot of the time they don’t.
Looked at cooly, calmly and objectively, the ‘real’ world is the world of poverty, injustice, alienation, abuse, violence, racism, sexism (or just ‘…ism’), perpetrated by protagonists who do not fit easily inside discrete moral categories or upstanding behaviour consecrated by tradition. In the real world people die long protracted deaths at the mercy of invidious diseases, withering away eventually in under-funded, MRSA-ridden public hospital wards. Or they grow up disadvantaged and abused on Council estates without parents, or by parents who are drug-addicts, prostitutes or pederasts. In the real world, people don’t speak coherently; their sentences are fragmented, piecemeal, even incoherent. They talk over each other all the time. And they don’t speak either the Queen’s English, or Shakespeare’s English. They intersperse their breathing with the word ‘fuck’.
And what’s wrong with that?
If you accept that ‘waking up and smelling the coffee’ means accepting that life doesn’t vindicate either your or a wider human community’s sense of justice, purpose or meaning, then something like the sense of cynicism carried in the connotations of the word ‘sentimental’ stands up to scrutiny. But this is – perhaps by its own admission – a very bleak and impersonal view of the universe. It is one that has moved from a measure of optimism about the potential of human beings to one that is fatalistic, and sees human nature as somehow callously indifferent to, and cynical about, itself.
The cynical ‘realist’ views the flights of fancy in a folktale or the lavish emotionalism of a sentimental romp, as the product of a mind that cannot face up to hard-edged, and indigestible truths (in the real world people eat raw nutrients and minerals, and emphatically not toast). Both are forms of kitsch escapism.
It could be said, however, that this is the easiest and, paradoxically, most self-indulgent interpretation. It is also, arguably, one that is short-sighted, even narrow-minded, in its view of reality, rather than clear-thinking and adamantine. This is arguable if it can be established most accounts of things, or most depictions, are, in some sense, partial or perspectival. If it is the case that ‘facing up to reality’ does not admit vindications of meaning and value, but that any attempt to face up to reality can only ever take place from a perspective or partial point of view, then the ‘bleak’ view of reality is one that is relative to the perspective, and not necessarily more broadly applicable. Or, more succinctly, the view of reality as a bleak, austere and indifferent winter follows logically from an arrogated view of life.
So it could be said that the sombre, drugs-and-diseases interpretation that tends to imprecisely equate to the meaning of the word ‘realism’, comes as much from an inordinate sense of self-importance and complacency as from a level-headed and dispassionate account of things. This kind of ‘realism’ is, from this perspective, really a covert form of narcissism; the product of a mentality that cannot distinguish between itself and the world it inhabits, and inevitably discovers an abject belief in nothing precisely because all it understands is the idea of possession. It is a kind of realism that, grammatically speaking, lives permanently in the accusative case.
Sentimentality, on the other hand, admits its flawed sense of perspective with alacrity. Most sentimental stories – like most folktales – are written or contrived with a strong sense of irony and affectation. They create a world that is clearly subjective, but painstakingly contrived to be, in some sense, desirable. Sentimental stories and folktales maybe artificial but they are, at least, transparent to their artificiality – or simply their art. In that sense, they have more modesty.
Not only do they have more modesty, but this modesty gives them more freedom if their authors go about their business with a sense of purpose. What a sentimental story can dare to do, which a work of ‘objective’ realism would never even aspire to, is to use its own sense of perspective and the values that attend it, as an analogy for a perspective and meaning, bigger and broader than just itself. The internal logic of a sentimental narrative (because it is sentimental and internal) means that it can appeal to – or inspire – the better side of human nature, rather than just depict ‘indifferently’ its apparently ambivalent admixture of success and failure.
A folktale like the one above clearly isn’t meant to be real. But it is meant to improve the way human beings behave by imparting a sense of moral behaviour: a sense of right and wrong.
From Frank Capra to Steven Spielberg
The long history of romances, potboilers, and all-round low-brow art will provide a long list of cheap and sentimental things. But Hollywood film in the twentieth century, particularly in its ‘golden’ age, provides a powerful illustration of how commercial sense, the imagination, and a lot of artificial polish can draw international attention, and at the same time impart some sense of value. In fact the whole broad tradition – even the stereotype – of Hollywood film is founded on an approach to making films along these lines.
It is important to stress that ‘Hollywood’ refers to more than just a particular filmmaker or set of related filmmakers. It is a way of making films and an attitude born out in practice through the studio system. This way of making films, though it nurtured great talent, was more than the sum of its parts; it was a methodology with distinctive features.
First, and perhaps foremost, it was commercial, which is to say that the system was devised to exploit the commercial potential of cinema as a form of entertainment to the maximum. The moguls, creative supervisors, producers, stars, directors, writers and so on were all financially motivated (even if this was not always their sole motivation). The ambition of all those involved, therefore explored desirability, to the point where it provoked the creation of a code of censorship. In doing so, the system churned out sentimental, idealised versions of reality, and, in the process, desecrated sombre works of high literature with all their intellectual subtleties.
The commercial incentive, untroubled by any other ambition, undoubtedly produced a fairly unexciting production line of formulaic dross. But combined with artistic talent, vision and creative flair, it also steered film towards stories and acts of imagination that were desirable, popular, but also ideal in ways that realistic and naturalistic films are not.
At its most basic the commercialisation of desire leads to glamorised sex and fast or ostentatious living. More thoughtful cinematic provocations of desire at this time also fetishised values and emotions. The films of Frank Capra are something like a paragon of this approach. It Happened One Night, uses style, the glamour of stars, humour and a pretty improbable conceit to appeal to a simple value: the importance of love for its own sake. Mr Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (both brilliant variations on the same basic story) use the same aesthetic to emphasise the importance of (an albeit naïve faith in) honesty, and a natural sense of justice. It’s a Wonderful Life, is a sentimental and confectionary parcel of fundamental human and communal values celebrated over selfish and self-deceiving aims.
All Capra’s films narrate the triumph of an ideal through empathetic human characters and a light touch of comedy. But there is never any doubt that the films are immaculately and seamlessly contrived. The actors are clearly, even cleanly, directed – some even sound like they are simply breathing natural charisma into a textbook approach to speaking on screen, where others retain the exaggerations and projected drama of their stage careers. All films require male and female leads with ‘certain characteristics’ to put it loosely. All require convincingly detestable villains, a caste of charismatic secondary characters, and many lines of snappy repartee.
Most importantly, the tension of the narrative, though it is in storytelling terms perfect and though it shows a solid attention to craft, never really leaves the audience in any doubt; it must resolve to the expected outcome if it is to satisfy the film’s commercial prospects. The commercial incentive creates the need for a sentimental ending (or even a full scale sentimental style); but, under the deft hands of a filmmaker like Capra, it also allows the film to become an ‘ideal’ rather than a narrowly ‘real’ piece of cinema (that is, a piece of cinema that aims to proactively inspire rather than reactively portray).
A filmmaker who has inherited this tradition of filmmaking (though with a much stronger sense of the folktale) is Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has been unfairly criticised since the 1990s, for merchandising sentimentality and redemption through big screen blockbusters, and selling out on his roots in the edgy experimentalism of 1970s cinema.
It is a crude distinction to make but Spielberg’s films might be said to fall into two broad categories: popular, family entertainment, and films with a more serious social and moral purpose. The former covers Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, and more recently, War of the Worlds and Catch Me If You Can; and the latter might include Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich.
In the mind of his critics, both categories invite the same criticism: all films often portray an individual or a group of individuals who go through a personal ‘journey’ of some sort towards some kind of redemptive ending, or at least an ending that draws a moral lesson. In the case of Jaws, the individual’s personal challenge is a sea monster; in the case of ET, Close Encounters and War of the Worlds, the challenge is aliens. On the less light-hearted front, Schindler’s List is about an individual’s response to the moral turpitude of an insidious political movement; for Saving Private Ryan, it is about personal morality amid the chaos of war; and for Munich, it is about the extent to which revenge is justified as seen from the perspective of those who mete it out. All films portray individuals who have come face to face with moral dilemmas; and all films seek to resolve the dilemmas for the individual.
This typology includes the two basic elements of the criticism: that it simplifies issues that are fundamentally complex and ambiguous into personal terms, and suggests that those issues resolve within a moral framework that makes sense for the individual (when ‘in reality’ individuals are rarely so lucky). This criticism might be justified if the stated aim of the films were a kind of puritanical and literal depiction of the world, or, if it could be agreed, that this is the goal after which all filmmakers ought to strive.
But there is nothing puritanical or literal about any of Spielberg’s films. They are much more imaginative than that. Like Capra, Spielberg has a kind of genius for the ‘art’ of filmmaking. Unlike Capra, Spielberg has been able to push his films further as the technology has evolved, to the point where his film estate includes almost every technological innovation since the 1970s. Like Capra, on the other hand, (and perhaps unlike some of his equally technologically adept peers) Spielberg recognises the importance and centrality of storytelling. Quite apart from anything else, Jaws is simply a fantastic story, and the Robert Shaw USS Indianapolis speech is a microcosm of what cinematic tension should be.
Spielberg’s mastery of relatively simple storytelling is a fundamental part of what makes his films accessible; and a fundamental part of effective storytelling is that the narrative unfolds from a personal or intimate perspective. Without the personal perspective, the story would be less effective, and the film would be less accessible and engaging. As a trope, therefore, a personal story, crafted well, is a sensible and not unchallenging way to create a film that draws attention.
That these personal stories very often turn on a moral dilemma or a palpable sense of what redemption means (or even might mean) is the second plank of criticism. But it is this aspect of a Spielberg film that is most like a folktale: in spite of the reality or what may have actually happened, the films continue to look for a moral interpretation. This runs so forcefully and powerfully throughout Spielberg films that even where the morality is more complex (in Munich for example) the moral reflex movements of the filmmaker remain. But this cinematic storytelling instinct is not a bad one. Like Capra’s films, Spielberg manages to make you feel better, even when exploring the most desolate moral wastelands of the twentieth century. Not unlike a hasidic yarn, he cultivates hope from a fantastical medium at the expense of a languishing, uninspired and much more sombre view of reality.
This Spielberg style is perhaps easier to see in the films that fall more neatly in the family entertainment and blockbuster category. That it is not quite so clear in the films that aspire to more gravitas might grant living space to a different kind of criticism, which is paradoxically the opposite of the conventional assault.
In films such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List Spielberg is at pains to recreate reality through enormous attention to historical detail and accuracy. Yet these films, in suppressed form, retain the same storytelling motif with a more whispered and pensive sentimental ending. While a stony-hearted (but, according to this argument, self-kidding) ‘realist’ might want to scrap the sentimental ending and depict the full-frontal nihilism of something like Auschwitz, the moral optimist (which Spielberg certainly is) might remove the internal inconsistencies and enhance the dramatic force and power of the film by turning a concentration camp or the abject fear of a machine-gun battle into a ‘folktale’ rather than images that look like documentary footage.
Perhaps, by this reckoning, Indiana Jones is a better way to confront Hitler than Private James Francis Ryan? The deference to a prosaic reality – even a leering, voyeuristic, self-centred view of reality – is perhaps what occasioned his war and the deaths of his brothers in the first place, and left him struggling to find his conscience as an older man? A more honest (maybe even more balanced) way to look at things might have been to acknowledge the act of looking at things, its subjective whimsies and fantasies, study and refine them – give them a form, with a few cheap gags and a glamour girl thrown in. And the more they are studied and refined, the more it might be possible to use the power of artifice and imagination to suggest, inspire and idealise.
Or in other words, Jimmy Ryan would have probably been happier to stay at home watching cheap and sentimental movies. The error was that the literal-minded extremism of the twentieth century didn’t let him.