Smile Politely

All choked up

If there is a moment that most Harry Potter fans say they cried while reading the books (and if you have not read the books, please stop reading this column right now, run to your nearest library and read all seven books before doing anything else in your life, and also stop reading this column because it is filled with spoilers of all kinds, starting with the next phrase of this already too long sentence), it is the scene in The Half-Blood Prince where Dumbledore is betrayed and killed, while Harry is immobilized and hidden and not able to do anything about it.

Dumbledore’s death came as a major surprise to readers, because killing off powerful, lovable, old wizards is about as popular as blowing up planets with Death Stars.  And in this case, it left Harry without his greatest protection and requires him to face Voldemort wholly unprepared and alone. Given that the poor guy’s parents were killed when he was a baby and his godfather was killed a book earlier, taking away Dumbledore at the hands of Harry’s archenemy was as cruel as it was sad.

However, I am happy to report that I did not cry when I read it. This is a major accomplishment for me these days. As I age, I seem to have become a leaky sap machine. I must be making up for lost time, because I don’t remember crying over any emotion until 1993, when I was well into my late 20s.

I remember it clearly, because it happened at a movie. My unremarkable middle-class life had not yet produced a single tear-worthy event, so it wasn’t until I saw a movie about Nazi atrocities that I could prove that my tear-ducts actually worked. But it wasn’t the atrocities that did it. It was Oskar Schindler breaking down at the end of Schindler’s List.

Oskar Schindler: I could have got more out. I could have got more. I don’t know. If I’d just… I could have got more.
Itzhak Stern: Oskar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.
Oskar Schindler: If I’d made more money… I threw away so much money. You have no idea. If I’d just…
Itzhak Stern: There will be generations because of what you did.
Oskar Schindler: I didn’t do enough!
Itzhak Stern: You did so much.
[Schindler looks at his car]
Oskar Schindler: This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people.
[removing Nazi pin from lapel]
Oskar Schindler: This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this.
Oskar Schindler: I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!


Maybe reading it doesn’t quite do it justice. I dare you watch it and not get at least a little choked up:

By the time Schindler breaks down, I was literally sobbing in the theater. I was stunned that a movie could affect me so deeply. Despite all Oskar did to save Jews from the Nazis, in the end he regretted not doing more.  It’s a deeply human emotion, because it’s true of all of us. Lives may not be on the line much of the time, but we all could all do more to reduce suffering in the world. To have it so starkly contrasted between a gold lapel pin and a human life is devastating.

After Schindler’s List, my internal spigot seems to have gotten stuck in the “on” position, because since then, I find myself getting teery-eyed at many movies, even when I know I’m being manipulated, and even during some movies that totally suck.

But, it’s never evil or outright sadness that turns on the waterworks. Usually, it is when somebody does something exceptionally compassionate or honorable. My very partial list of personal tear-jerkers includes:

Hotel Rwanda: Paul Rusesabagina watches his family pull away on a truck to freedom, yelling out to his screaming, hysterical wife: “I cannot leave these people to die.”

Lord of the Rings, after the ring is destroyed and Frodo and Sam are trapped in Mordor, waiting to die:
Frodo: I can see the Shire. The Brandywine River. Bag End. The Lights in the Party Tree.
Sam: Rosie Cotton dancing. She had ribbons in her hair. If ever I were to marry someone, it would have been her. It would have been her.
Frodo: I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.

Juno: Bleaker, having no idea how to help Juno after she delivers the baby, climbs into the hospital bed to just hold her. And of course Vanessa finally letting go and just loving on the baby.

Yesterday: The character Yesterday’s only wish before she dies is to make sure her daughter gets into school. Near the end, her teacher friend says out of the blue: “When time comes, I will care for your daughter as if she is my own.”

The Wire, Season 1: After Kima gets shot, McNulty feels like he is responsible, and William Rawls, in the only compassionate thing he ever does in the entire series, yells at McNulty: “Listen to me, you fuck! You did a lot of shit here. You played a lot of fucking cards, and you made a lot of fucking people do a lot of fucking things they didn’t wanna do. This is true; we both know this is true. You, McNulty, are a gaping asshole. We both know this. Fuck if everybody in CID doesn’t know it! But fuck if I’m gonna stand here and say you did a single fucking thing to get a police shot! You did not do this, you fucking hear me? This is not on you! No, it isn’t, asshole! Believe it or not, everything isn’t about you! And the motherfucker saying this, he hates your guts, McNulty! So you know if it WAS on you, I’d be the son of a bitch to say so! Shit went bad – she took two for company. That’s the only lesson here.”

Millions:  “Have you ever seen a St. Marueen? She’s new.” (Damien, talking to one of the saints, referring to his recently deceased mom.)

These may not read nearly as heartbreaking as they are in context, but, man, they sure caught me at the right moment.  And, for the most part, these are good scenes in good movies that many people would fall for. My crowning achievement as sap, though, is tearing up in Return to Me, when Jim Belushi, who has been a complete douchebag the entire movie, gets angry and ready to beat up his wife’s friends’ boyfriend because he thinks she been mistreated. Jim Belushi? Really? Offering violence? What is wrong with me? 

But here’s the thing. Being surprised by a sudden outburt of compassion is a major component of getting choked up.  Even if the compassion comes in the form of someone doing the only thing they know how to do, like offering to beat someone up. Sometimes especially if it’s the only thing they know how to do, like Bleaker simply climbing in bed with Juno. Life is bearable because of connections we have to others, and when someone shows that by knowingly sacficing themselves or unexpectedly coming through with even a small act of compassion, I get choked up.  It is especially effective when it comes as a surprise from people you never expect had it in them.

Despite all this, no, I did not cry when Dumbledore died. It was an act of evil, and shocking, and sad, but it didn’t touch me in that way. I half-expected I might get teary-eyed during the Dumbledore scene in the movie, knowing now what an act of sacrifice it really was. But no, the movie didn’t do it for me either.

In fact, the movie didn’t even put in my favorite scene from all seven Harry Potter books. It involved Bill Weasley and his fiancée Fleur, whose entire storyline was edited out of The Half-Blood Prince. In the book up to this point, Fleur is a shallow, flighty prima donna, never satisfied with the Weasley’s provisions and always hogging the spotlight from the other women. When Bill’s face is mutilated by a werewolf in the big fight at the end of the book, I think everyone in the world had assumed that the engagement was now history.

But here’s how it went down:

“Dumbledore gone,” whispered Mr. Weasley, but Mrs. Weasley had eyes only for her eldest son; she began to sob, tears falling onto Bill’s mutilated face.

“Of course, it doesn’t matter how he looks….It’s not r-really important…but he was a very handsome little b-boy…always very handsome…and he was g-going to be married!”

“And what do you mean by zat?” said Fleur suddenly and loudly. “What do you mean, ”e was going to be married?'”

Mrs. Weasley raised her tear-stained face, looking startled. “Well – only that -“

“You theenk Bill will not wish to marry me anymore?” demanded Fleur. “You theenk, because of these bites, he will not love me?”

“No, that’s not what I -“

“Because ‘e will!” said Fleur, drawing herself up to her full height and throwing back her long mane of silver hair. “It would take more zan a werewolf to stop Bill loving me!”

“Well, yes, I’m sure,” said Mrs. Weasley, “but I thought perhaps – given how – how he -“

“You thought I would not weesh to marry him? Or per’aps, you hoped?” said Fleur, her nostrils flaring. “What do I care how he looks? I am good-looking enough for both of us, I theenk! All these scars show is zat my husband is brave! And I shall do zat!” she added fiercely, pushing Mr. Weasley aside and snatching the ointment from her.”

Of all the great stuff in the Harry Potter series, this is the scene that had me blubbering by the end of it. It was a total surprise, a total affirmation of what’s really important in a relationship, and shows us how people can rise up to be decent and honorable in a tragic situation.

It’s probably a good thing it wasn’t in the movie. Listening to a middle-aged man blubber in a theater during a children’s movie would probably have just made everyone uncomfortable.






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