‘Ma Hanky’s Soakin’!’

There’s a term in literary criticism, originally coined by W.K. Wimsatt  – the ‘affective fallacy’ –  which says that you shouldn’t judge the success or worth of a text by its emotional effect on you. That is, if you’re reading a book and it makes you feel very sad or very happy, that doesn’t mean it’s good. The affective fallacy has a big brother called the ‘intentional fallacy’, which is a jolly good thing (Google if necessary)  but the affective thingy I don’t agree with, and I haven’t since Zola’s ‘Germinal’ made me cry on a bus in West Lothian when I was 16. God, it was a good book.

Of course, the genres of television and film are probably where this idea is most relevant, because all of us have wept in front of the telly or in a cinema. Mr F and I have been watching ‘ER’ on Monday nights for a very long time (it has 331 episodes) and in a month or so we will watch the last one. ‘ER’ has made me cry many times, ditto ‘The West Wing’ and many others, but it’s in the cinema that crying is, I think, a pretty good indicator of quality.

I went to the cinema a lot as a child. For a long time, it was my parents’ only luxury – lunch out on a Saturday, then a film. I was not involved in the choice of film, which was entirely up to my mother, but it did lead to my seeing an eclectic selection of movies by the time was 14 and was trusted to stay at home if I wanted to. Often I was entirely unmoved by what was happening on screen and more interested in my Kia Ora, but I remember the ending of ‘Imitation of Life’ very clearly.

On that occasion, I was with my mother and my great aunt, Lizzie, a fine woman, a widow, one of Scotland’s first home helps, a kind and loyal person. She had been good to my mother during the latter’s troubled childhood; and my mother did not forget kindnesses. Anyway, there we were watching this sentimental American movie, which culminates in a teenage girl begging her dead mother’s forgiveness as the funeral hearse, drawn by four white horses, makes its way through the streets of New York City. ‘Mama, mama, I’m sorry!’ she cries, holding on to her mother’s coffin. The film ended, the house lights came up.

‘Aw Jennet,’ said Auntie Lizzie, ‘that wis great. Ma hanky’s soakin’.’

And in eight words she saw off Professor Wimsatt. The quality of the film was directly proportionate to how much it made her cry. And to be honest, I can’t say I’ve seen many films that left me sobbing that weren’t also great in my own critical book.

In 1977,  when I was a student, my friend Lindsey and I went to London and stayed with my brother. We went to see Fred Zinnemann’s ‘Julia’, a relatively unknown film, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, based on a memoir by Lillian Hellman. It is about brave women fighting the Nazis and it moved us both, but particularly Lindsey. We emerged into the Earls Court night, and she was visibly upset. Both of us were 20 but we looked about 14, and turning a corner, I was accosted by a young black gentleman, who said ‘What you been doin’ to that little girl?’ Lindsey, still sobbing, assured him that we had just been to see a film, which he clearly did not believe and stood watching us as we proceeded up the street.

I went to see ‘Schindler’s List’ with my friend Jane. It was a hot day, and I was late, and we were thus at the back of a very long queue trying to get into the Dominion, that fine old Edinburgh institution in Morningside. It is fair to say that she was not pleased with me, and she was quite right. We did – just – get in but we were separated, and I was placed on the end of a row next to a quite enormous man, who very quietly and mostly surreptitiously ate chocolate throughout the film.

It is, you will know, a long film, and it had, in the cinema, an interval, immediately following the devastating scenes of the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto. I was profoundly moved and sobbed and sobbed. The large man looked down and, thinking I was on my own, said in a friendly way ‘Are you ok?’

‘Yes, it’s just…’ and then I wept some more.

‘Would you like some chocolate?’

For nearly forty years now, I have gone to the cinema with my friend Iain; indeed, not being able to do this during lockdown is a huge miss, regardless of how many films there are on Netflix or Amazon Prime. We have been moved to tears together many times. The loudest wailing we ever heard was at the end of Louis Malle’s ‘Au Revoir Les Enfants’. Now, everyone in the place was upset by that magnificent, restrained, beautiful film, but a woman three or four rows in front was positively ululating in her grief. When the lights came up, it seemed rude to move in the presence of such emotion, but she didn’t stop, and the effect was to create a kind of community in the cinema, led by this sobbing lady.

In more recent times I could mention ‘Capernaum’, the closing, redemptive, moments of which remain seared on my brain, but the big winner in the past couple of years is ‘Manchester By The Sea’. Emerging with Iain from the darkness into the Film House café, I made the mistake, while waiting to order, of picking out a particular bit that had moved me, and then broke down while attempting to get two Americanos.

Lizzie was right; if your hanky’s soakin’ it’s a good movie. Stuff the affective fallacy.



  1. Ah. Imitation of Life. I’d never seen it until my other half bought the CD. And we howled together. (It’s Mahalia singing at the funeral that sets me off). And then he tells me of watching it for the first time, as a child, in Peterhead, with his granny Hettie, his mum and his auntie Eileen. It wasn’t a hanky soaker; it was a twa tooler. Not one but two towels required.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I nearly cried when my old man took me to see High Plains Drifter because he asked for one and a half and we obviously didn’t get in. The inept parenting fallacy.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I introduced Martha to A Naked Civil Servant last night (it’s on Amazon) and cried as I always do. Quentin Crisp would not have been impressed I think.


  4. We tend to agree with you especially with Au revoir les enfants.Iremember as s child sobbing at the film Song of the South Years later having just left school and spending some time in London I ventured into a Cinema showing yes you’re right Song of the South .Needless to say I sobbed once again.The version of Little Woman starring June Allyson as Jo also needed the application of more than one hankie..We are both blubbers


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