Skip to main content

Sentimentality

I think I've mentioned here and there that I really liked A.I.  It's a movie that got a lot of undeserved crap when it came out and even to this day gets crapped on by film hipsters and other snots who aren't shy to tell you that it would have been way better if A) Kubrick got to make it, and B) it ended with David stuck in the submarine for the rest of time.

I won't argue the first point because there's no way to win that argument.  The second one annoys the crap out of me though.  Why is a story better just because it's miserable?

There's a weird backlash people have against emotional content in fiction.  Unless that content is angry or depressing, in which case it's.... powerful?  Or something?  I don't know.  I just know that if you made a movie where a guy strangled six kittens to death and then ate a baby, you'd win all kinds of Spirit Awards, but God help you if you make a movie where actual human growth is charted in a meaningful way.

The word everyone uses is "sentimentality."  People don't like it in their stories.

The uproar always ends up pissing me off.  I don't even like the word itself.  The textbook definition is "excessive emotions."  The mere existence of the term implies that there is a cap on the amount of emotions a story is allowed to invoke.  Like there's some asshole with a ruler up to his lips, and if that smile goes past three inches, then fuck you.

I understand there's a need for subtlety and I also agree that excess can change the weight of a scene in ways you might not want as a storyteller.  But that's not the same thing as sentimentality.  Subtlety and melodrama are tools, but the emotional destination would be the same regardless.  So why the backlash?

I also hate it when people raise a brouhaha about a movie being "manipulative."  Well... yeah.  All stories are manipulative.  That's the point.  You don't just feel your emotions at random when you watch a movie, do you?  No, of course not.  You feel them because the filmmakers are specifically trying to pluck those heart strings.  You might recognize that as one of the defining characteristics of art.

"Bah!  How dare you form chords and a melody?!  I told you to 'play that piano,' not 'invent music!'"

You might not like the rest of the story, and that's fine.  Or maybe you're just not feeling the emotions the storyteller wanted you to have.  That's fine, too.  Not all stories will impact all people the same way, and that's totally cool.  I don't mind if the ending of A.I. didn't resonate with you.  I just hate it when you say that it's somehow a flaw because feelings exist.

People are really arbitrary about it, too.  A.I. gets lambasted for being sentimental, but nobody bitches about Inside-Out.  (Which I loved, by the way.)  And why is it only a problem when the emotions are tender or nostalgic?  Why don't we get just as outraged when we see something like, say, Room or Saving Private Ryan?  Excitement counts as an emotion too, you know.  Why aren't we upset with Gravity and Speed for putting us on the edge of our seats?  Why aren't we infuriated with The Shining and The Babadook for terrifying us?

If you hate sentimentality, do you get pissed off any time you see a birthday party?  How dare that kid enjoy his cake, right?  Screw you, kid!  My feelings are REAL because they're full of PAIN and SELF-HATRED.  Also, I just realized I'm feeling ANGST and that's technically some form of EMOTION from my human core.  SYSTEM ERROR, because I'm apparently a big piece of shit.

Sorry, I'm getting kinda cranky here.

This stuff really gets to me when I write a story.  Look at I Need a Job, for example.  I grappled with every damn step of that book because I didn't know if I was laying it on too thick.  I wasn't sure if I was overdoing it with the tonal shift that happens about 3/4 of the way through.  I didn't know if I was being too blunt when Julia has her self-doubting pillow talk with her boyfriend.  I didn't even know whether or not I should have Julia give her sister a hug at the end.  (Mild spoiler, I guess.)  I second-guessed literally any moment at all in the story that resembled any spark of humanity because I was afraid some asshole on the Internet would go, "Gee, that's a real sentimental story, huh?"

You know what?  I'm 32 and I don't have time for this shit anymore.  If you don't like stories because they make you feel things, then you're just an asshole.  Now quit filling up the Internet with bullcrap and let me get back to work.