When does sentimental become creepy?

In my first “sidetrails” post, I talked about how the sentimental stories that truly survive are ones with something substantial behind them. The flipside of that is so many sentimental stories lack substance and don’t survive, and many even enter a weird zone. Peruse the romantic-comedy/family melodrama/faith-based fiction section of your bookstore (or streaming service) for a while, you’ll notice that a lot of what’s released has an odd tone. Stories that are supposed to be about bitter people learning to love again, turn out to be stories where “the bitter people” spout 30-year-old clichés and then are shocked when someone makes a generic comment (“have you thought that maybe people failing you make it hard to trust anyone?”) that they’ve certainly heard before if they’ve read or seen anything with a character arc. You end up with the sense that the real problem is that evidently the “bitter character” hasn’t read anything in the last 40 years, and needs to go back to high school.

In other words, the problem with a lot of sentimental stories isn’t just that they fall flat. They end up feeling bizarre in a way that other genres don’t achieve. Part of the dilemma is that fixating on a shadow of a good thing, a reduced version that lacks the particular details, can be unhealthy. Stylizing something is not necessarily bad – Werner Herzog talks about the idea of reaching a story’s “ecstatic truth,” its primordial themes, by filming it in a way that isn’t journalistic. Michael Mann makes stylized crime thrillers where everyone wears spotless suits and lives in rooms with a particular blue-white-grey color palette, but it’s an overt choice, forcing you to consider what Mann really wants you to focus on. You can stylize the way audiences look at a subject to point out different sides of it, showing new perspectives.

However, if you stylize something in a way that sterilizes it, removing substance, it can be problematic. Researchers studying pornography addiction have talked about how many porn addicts get so addicted to images of women (images that have been airbrushed, made more perfect than real women can ever be) that real woman don’t excite them. The addict becomes hooked on a super-sanitized version of something, and as the addictive cycle deepens, the addict find it harder and harder to enjoy the real thing. Philosophically, the problem with pornography is not just the fact that it incites lust, but also that it is insubstantial.

Some writers have raised the question whether inspirational stories can treat their subjects in a way that has a similar effect. Film critic Mark Kermode argues the problem with the movie Eat Pray Love is it wants to be about traveling to new places and exploring oneself, but the images of foreign lands are handled in a cheap way. The movie “eroticizes landscapes,” missing what gives them texture. What you get is an insubstantial copy, interesting for the wrong reasons.

Something similar can happen in stories that try to talk about dating, parent-child relationships and other sentimental subjects, without really grounding us in the subject. They indulge in too many clichés or play each element too far, and what is meant to relatable ends up seeming bizarre. Roger Ebert gives a good example in his review of She’s Out of Control, which aimed to be a movie about an overprotective father and his teenage daughter. However, the movie handled these ideas in an over-the-top way, and you came away with the creepy sense that this dad “seems to regard his daughter not in parental terms but in sexual ones.” Thus, talking about something that is commonplace and relatable becomes weird and creepy.

This takes us back to understanding the “thinginess” of a thing. Good storytellers doesn’t just tell you something: they show it to you. That means taking the time to really understand a subject, create unique details that ground the audience in the story. When that happens, a sentimental story goes beyond being stock characters, plot conventions, and good intentions: it becomes something that is living and breathing. When that doesn’t happen, a sentimental story will lacks dimension. What is supposed to be encouraging or interesting just looks odd.

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