The Saddest Movie Scene Since 1995: Slate-Chosen, Science-Approved

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 8 2011 1:09 PM

The Saddest Movie Scene Since 1995: Slate-Chosen, Science-Approved

A few weeks ago, a Smithsonian.com article reintroduced the world to The Champ, a 1979 boxing film that contains a three-minute death scene so harrowing, researchers have been using it to make people cry in the name of science since 1995. That was the year psychologists Robert Levenson and James Gross published their list of sixteen film clips that scientists could use to elicit eight distinct emotions from their test subjects.

The two winners in the "sadness" category—Rick Schroder watching his dad die in The Champ and Bambi watching his mother die in 1942’s Bambi—remain reliable tearjerkers. But Levenson and Gross’s list is pretty old at this point. So we asked you: What’s the saddest movie scene you’ve seen in the last 16 years? Hundreds of you replied. We culled the most promising candidates from the list—keeping in mind that each clip needed to be short and self-contained—and sent them to Robert Levenson for his expert opinion. Would these clips work in the lab?

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Here's Levenson’s take on the three finalists, which include the far-and-away reader favorite Up and Slate film critic Dana Stevens' nominee, Ponette:

"This clip relies heavily on dialogue, including a few cringe-worthy phrases that might cause viewers to grin or grimace, breaking the sadness spell. In addition, in this clip, the loss is yet to happen. Thus, the viewer needs to do a bit of emotional time-traveling to experience the sense of what the loss might be like. The viewer has to accept the strength and closeness of the bond between father and daughter based on a very short interaction. In this regard, the acting is powerful, but there is also a lot of potentially distracting technology, instrumentation, and complex visual montages that have to be processed. A bit of trimming to remove the brief cuts to the other team members (A.J. and Chick) would help focus the excerpt more completely on the father-daughter relationship. Bottom line: A CGI-heavy sci-fi movie isn’t the first place you’d look for a sadness-eliciting scene, but this one is quite good. Bruce Willis carries a lot of baggage (you know, that ever-present “wink-wink smirk”) and there’s a lot of visual clutter, but if you can get beyond this, it’s a powerful scene portraying impending loss."

"A good candidate to dethrone The Champ and a mini-masterpiece in the way it compresses a life lived together into a montage of moments. But like most lives, it is filled with moments of joy and moments of sadness. The viewer travels on an emotional roller coaster, with both highs and lows. The Champ scene, on the other hand, is all lows, with many images that might ignite sadness. This Up clip would have to count on the final image to produce a sadness that would actually reach its crescendo after the film ended. Bottom line: Pixar's artistry produces powerful emotion, and the absence of dialogue makes it useful for non-English speakers. However, the many ups and downs and the fact that the sadness would likely occur after the clip was over could work against our purposes."

"Another clip that draws for emotion with only minimal dialogue. Ponette doesn’t suffer from the ups and downs of Up. The beginning draws you in and the child’s sadness and her cries for her mother powerfully deliver the theme of irrevocable loss that is known to be the most potent elicitor of sadness. As with The Champ, the fact that it is a child who has experienced the loss makes it even more touching. My only concern with this excerpt as a sadness elicitor is whether viewers would pick up on the cues that reveal that the child is in a cemetery and that she is digging for her mother; my guess is that most would.  Bottom line: A very promising sadness clip. Ricky: You might have some real competition for the honor of being the champion of cinematic child crying."

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Still from Ponette courtesy of Arrow Releasing.

All three of the nominees, Levenson says, "merit careful study in the laboratory to see just how well they work. We’ll try to take that on sometime in the near future and let you know what we find out." Meanwhile, if you have nominees for any of the other emotions on Levenson and Gross's list—especially anger, which Levenson says is the hardest to elicit—leave them for the good professors in the comments.

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