The Cinephiliac Moment
Proceeding off a tangent from Manny Farber, I'm now midway through Christian Keathley’s tremendously engaging book Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees. It has a central idea that's been clattering around in my head all week. Let me lay it on you and ask you what you think.
Keathley defines and develops the idea of “cinephiliac moments”—these are small, marginal moments that detonate an unforgettable little frisson in the viewer. The important thing to remember is that these are not moments carefully designed to exert great dramatic effect—not that there’s anything wrong with those—but instead they are fleeting "privileged" moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible (lack of) intention. We end up fetishizing these cinephiliac moments:
[Paul] Willemen cites his own fascination with “the moment when the toy falls off the table in [Douglas Sirk’s] There’s Always Tomorrow,” while Noel King, citing the famous dropped glove scene from On The Waterfront, writes, “I tend to notice the number of times Eva Marie Saint tries to retrieve the glove and the things Brando does to delay this happening.” Other cinephiles have their own cherished moments. Of director Nicholas Ray, critic David Thomson writes, “it is as the source of a profusion of cinematic epiphanies that I recall him: Mitchum walking across an empty rodeo arena in the evening in The Lusty Men, the wind blowing rubbish around him; that last plate settling slowly and noisily in 55 Days At Peking;….the CinemaScope frame suddenly ablaze with yellow cabs in Bigger Than Life.”
The American critic Manny Farber regularly devoted space in his reviews to such privileged moments. In an essay on the work of action genre directors like Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and Anthony Mann, Farber wrote that, although these directors’ films “are filled with heroism or its absence, the real hero is….the unheralded ripple of physical existence, the tiny morbidly lifeworn detail.” Indeed, far more than plot or character these marginal bits are what stick in his memory. Years after seeing these films, Farber writes, one most vividly “remembers the way a dulled waitress sat on the edge of a hotel bed [or], the weird elongated adobe in which ranch hands congregate before a Chisholm Trail drive.” In the course of celebrating Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, a film that “ignores all the conventions of a gangster film to feast on meaningless business and witty asides,” Farber provides what is perhaps an extreme example of a cinpehiliac moment: “One of the fine moments in 1940’s film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign.” As Greg Taylor put it, if American auteurist Andrew Sarris offered in his criticism a connoisseurship of lists, Farber offered in his a connoisseurship of details.
....Roger Cardinal, another critic who has written suggestively about the fascination with marginal filmic details,.…explains, “What I notice, or elect to notice, is necessarily a function of my sensibility, so much so that a list of my favorite details will equate to an oblique mirror-image of myself…”
I thought I’d record, off the top of my head, three cinephiliac moments that are stuck in my memory. If I had to do this tomorrow, three different ones might come tumbling out. A word of assurance: they are all spoiler-free.
(1) Early in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco (1998), Chloe Sevigny and Robert Sean Leonard meet at a disco over drinks, and go back to his place. She’s just been told by her not-very-kind best friend Kate Beckinsale that guys find her stiff and schoolmarmish. To overcompensate, she asks him to pour her a Pernod and upon seeing his first editions of Scrooge McDuck comics, remarks—with sweet ridiculousness—that she finds Scrooge really sexy. He puts on Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” and they dance slowly away from the living room, almost but not quite accidentally heading into his bedroom. We never go inside the bedroom but discreetly watch from a distance as they close the door; they’re still dancing.
And then—here’s the moment—a sharp straight cut to the bright morning and Sevigny emerging from the front door of his building, the cool wind lightly whipping her coat about, the last strains of the song fading quickly. I’m not sure why this moment affects me so strongly; perhaps it has something to do with the understated but deeply sad contrast between the romance of the night and the reality of the morning after, contained—perhaps not even intentionally—in that brusque throwaway cut.
(2) In Truffaut’s Small Change (1976), a young girl and her dad (played by Truffaut) visit a small town that happens to be located right at “the center of France.” She mails a card to a friend; we cut to a classroom and her friend reading the card in class when he’s supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. The teacher notices this, and instead of punishing him—as he might have done if this were The 400 Blows—quietly takes the card from him, turns to the blackboard, and uses it as a springboard for a geography lesson. It’s a casual moment that lasts all of a few seconds, but it always stops me short by reminding the teacher in me that there are two ways to go with every situation that arises in a classroom: you can suppress an errant impulse by punishing it, or you can constructively use it to collective benefit.
(3) Jean-Paul Belmondo is driving his babysitter Anna Karina home in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965). They're having a long conversation, but I can never remember what it’s about even though I’ve seen the film three or four times. Here’s why: The streetlights passing by are reflected on the windshield in crisp, crackling colors—electric blue, flaming yellow, tart orange—moving diagonally across the windshield like little comets, one every few seconds. It's so visually gorgeous, and hypnotic—due to its metronomic regularity—that I find myself doing little more than following the shifts of color and light that streak across the car, forgetting all about story, character and dialogue for the rest of the scene.
So, your thoughts on cinephiliac moments? And/or your own example(s), if you like.