from Ah fei zing zyun (Days of Being Wild - Wong Kar-wai, 1990)
"Leslie Cheung was a phantom.
Wong Kar-wai, his best director, and powerhouse generator of a 1990s-era cinephilia, realised this early on. He gave Cheung the most precious gift any director can give an actor: a cinematic form, an incarnation in light, shadow and movement – an embodiment triangulated between the gestures of the actor, the displacements of the camera and the dynamism of the edits.
Although, in Cheung’s case, it was more a disembodiment, a dispossession of his sweet self.
Cheung was born, to cinema, as a fugitive, forever fleeing the frame, merging with the dark, freezing and fading on a striking pose or a sudden, piercing glance.
In the pre-title scene of Days of Being Wild (1990), Wong conjures this phantom in ten, sinuous shots. Shots most often linked via odd transitions, tiny ellipses, strange moves in the space.
The camera tracks him from behind as he barrels in cockily, turning a corner and besieging a coke freezer. We see him more from the back from the front: sure sign of mystery.
He rolls himself lazily into a few shots, always languorously propping himself up, in mid-air somehow, for support.
He seems to be floating, or gliding on moving panels, more than simply walking or serenely standing.
He surprisingly slips into what we assumed to be his own field of vision; and slips out, just as unexpectedly.
Finally, he is only a sound: the footsteps that approach, that recede.
Beside him, Maggie Cheung is the figure of solidity: well-lit, well seen, hands in the cash register, stacking the crates.
Leslie is the master of the agonising, bewitching dance of possible seduction inaugurated in this scene. He has magic powers; he has already divined her name without her telling him this.
But, alas, he is also scarcely there: even the VHS cover on the old copy I once had calls him ‘a man desperately seeking his own identity’.
And the rest of the film will show us what extremes this phantom is capable of: languid alienation (happiness lasts only one minute) alternating with explosions of violence – and always, like for Bugsy Siegel the gangster in the Warren Beatty/James Toback movie, that narcissistic grooming in the mirror, as if to reassure himself that, after all, he exists, that he has somewhere to go, an origin and a goal.
But it is hard to be oneself in a Wong film: all his men and all his women look so alike, and their roles and functions and plotlines blur and merge so easily, so inevitably.
Better to be a phantom.
What does Leslie say as he sweeps out of this fragment of a scene, before the camera turns a little and Maggie looks, fixatedly, in his fuzzy direction of departure? ‘You’ll see me tonight in your dreams’."
© Adrian Martin September 2003 / July 2014
from Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)
"Boetticher knew how to make prodigious use of the landscape, of the varied substance of the earth, of the grain and shape of the rocks. Nor do I think that that the photogenic qualities of horses have been as well exploited for a very long time. For example in Gail Russell’s extraordinary bathing scene where the inherent modesty of the Western is humorously pushed so far that we see only the lapping of the water in the reeds while fifty yards away Randolph Scott is grooming the horses. It is difficult to imagine simultaneously more abstraction and more transference in the matter of eroticism. I am also thinking of the white mane of the sheriff’s horse, and its big yellow eye. Knowing how to use such details is surely more important in the Western than knowing how to deploy a hundred Indians in battle."
Found in: Un western exemplaire, Cahiers du cinéma 74, September 1957
from Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica, 1952)
"And yet the sore throat does play at least a small part in the story, whereas the most beautiful sequence of the film, in which the little maid gets up, potters about in the kitchen, chases away the ants, grinds the coffee … and all these ‘unimportant’ actions are recorded for us in strict temporal continuity. When I pointed out to Zavattini that this last scene sustained unfailing interest while Umberto D going to bed did not, he replied, ‘You see that it is not the aesthetic principle which is at issue, only the way it is used. The more the scriptwriter turns his back on drama and spectacle, the more he intends his story to conform to the living continuity of reality."
Found in: La Foi qui sauve, Cahiers du cinéma 13, June 1952
from Every Night at Eight (Raoul Walsh, 1935)
"I recently saw Every Night at Eight, one of the many maddeningly routine films Raoul Walsh has directed in his long career. This 1935 effort featured George Raft, Alice Faye, Frances Langford, and Patsy Kelly in one of those familiar plots about radio shows of the period. The film keeps moving along in the pleasantly unpretentious manner one would expect of Walsh until one incongruously in-tense scene with George Raft thrashing about in his sleep, revealing his inner fears in mumbling dream-talk. The girl he loves comes into the room in the midst of his unconscious avowals of feeling and listens sympathetically. This unusual scene was later amplified in High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino. The point is that one of the screen's most virile directors employed an essentially feminine narrative device to dramatize the emotional vulnerability of his heroes. If I had not been aware of Walsh in Every Night at Eight, the crucial link to High Sierra would have passed unnoticed. Such are the joys of the auteur theory."
Found in: Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962
from La Règle du Jeu (Jean Renoir, 1939)
"The third and ultimate premise of the auteur theory is concerned with interior meaning, the ultimate glory of the cinema as an art. Interior meaning is extrapolated from the tension between a director's personality and his material. This conception of interior meaning comes close to what Astruc defines as mise en scene, but not quite. It is not quite the vision of the world a director projects nor quite his attitude toward life. It is ambiguous, in any literary sense, because part of it is imbedded in the stuff of the cinema and cannot be rendered in non-cinematic terms. Truffaut has called it the temperature of the director on the set, and that is a close approximation of its professional aspect. Dare I come out and say what I think it to be is an élan of the soul? Lest I seem unduly mystical, let me hasten to add that all I mean by "soul" is that intangible difference between one personality and another, all other things being equal. Sometimes, this difference is expressed by no more than a beat's hesitation in the rhythm of a film. In one sequence of La Règle du Jeu, Renoir gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and, then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey to the heroine's boudoir. If I could describe the musical grace note of that momentary suspension, and I can't, I might be able to provide a more precise definition of the auteur theory. As it is, all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and, later, catalogue the moments of recognition."
Found in: Notes on the Auteur Theory, 1962
from The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
"Every time I see this film, this is the moment I wait for. As the dust kicked up by Ethan’s horse swirls around him, Martin’s leap seems to transform his motion. In contrast to the jerking and pulling of the horse, Martin’s body seems to float. While the rest of the action remains at regular speed, Martin’s action seems momentarily to slow down. This moment – this action – is, for me, the most beautiful in the entire film."
Found in: Cinephilia and History, 2006
from The Lusty Men (Nicholas Ray, 1952) and 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963) and Bigger than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956)
"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."
Found in: Biographical Dictionary of Film, 1975
from Au hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
"Balthazar is tired, he’s used up and wants to lie down. A herd of sheep surrounds him and we hear the clinging of their bells. And then they let him be for a while and Schubert‘s music starts. And it’s like all the sadness, beauty and pain of mankind comes together in this one beautiful moment. It never gets sentimental, the music stops, Balthazar dies and the sheep continue to do their thing. It so made me cry when I was a kid and it still does now. That sweet beautiful donkey stole my heart forever."
from I Clowns (Federico Fellini, 1970)
"A man sneaks out of the hospital to see an act of two famous clowns in the circus. We watch him, watching the circus, he laughs, and applauds, he sweats but looks happy like a child. It is an honest joy of somebody who is one with an act he is experiencing.
When the show is over, and everybody has gone home, two men are cleaning the deserted seats, and our man sits there in the same spot. He doesn’t move anymore. They poke him with a stick and he falls over. “È morto,” they say, and a sad accordion theme plays while we move on to the next scene and we forget all about him.
This scene always struck me as a kid, because it was such a tragedy. It was such a short and beautiful moment in the film, and it didn’t last. It felt like the man didn’t die, but the show died, and we had to go on. The circus was over, everything came to an end, and as a kid you feel this simple emotions very strongly. You feel this man was so much into the performance that he disappeared in it. He left me with a double kind of joy. I understood him when he was clapping and cheering, so I was a part of him. But seeing him now, dead, meant that I wasn’t a part of him anymore. I became a spectator, who goes home when the show is over."
from La Ricotta (Pier Paolo Pasolini - from Ro.Go.Pa.G., 1963)
"The End. The main character, also a kind of clown, is an extra in a movie about the life of Christ. He is supposed to hang on a cross next to Jesus. During the whole shoot he had to wait, and now, finally, they are going to shoot his scene. Everybody is watching: the producers, the director, a bunch of journalists and the crew. For the first time, there is silence. They rehearse his only phrase once more: “Lord, remember me when thou comest in thy kingdom.”
That is the first majestic moment, not the phrase, but Pasolini made him say it twice. Twice. In real life we can say the same things only once, in film we say things twice. Then the director (played by Orson Welles) cries out “action,” but the man doesn’t speak anymore. Somebody climbs up a ladder to see what’s wrong. “È morto,” he says, and that’s life. It lasts for nearly a minute, but yet everything that matters is told. It is said in the silence after the action, for once without words. All of Pasolini’s brutality summed up in a silent, gentle moment, harmless, just as we are."
from The Honor of His House (William C. De Mille, 1918)
"The cinema is ill-suited to the rational framework of the novelette and indifferent to it; barely sustained by the air of circumstance, it offers moments of a wholly distinctive flavour. The Honor of His House is an improbable yarn: adultery and surgery. Hayakawa, the tranced tragedian, swept the scenario aside. A few instances offer the magnificent sight of his harmony in movement. He crosses a room quite naturally, his torso held at a slight angle. He hands his gloves to a servant. Opens a door. Then, having gone out, closes it. Photogénie, pure photogénie, cadenced movement."
Quoted in: Cinephilia and History, 2006
from L'eau froide (Olivier Assayas, 1994)
"This lengthy, climactic set piece took place outside an abandoned château, and I still know of nothing else quite like it in movies: the camera is never less than excitingly mobile, but thanks to the visual scheme worked out between Assayas and his DP, Denis Lenoir, every wandering pack of adolescents, every cloud of hash smoke, every form that passes before the camera, maintains an impressive solidity. And as powerful as this somber conflagration is, I’ve always found the scene that precedes it even more remarkable. The teenage boy who plays Assayas’s surrogate, Cyprien Fouquet, walks his bicycle alone through the woods, lights up a Gauloise, opens a Ginsberg collection, and starts reading “Wichita Vortex Sutra” aloud in halting English. The winding path through the woods, tracked by the camera from a series of scintillating distances, the heartbreakingly cracked voice, the adolescent investment of faith in poetry and music, the comfort of unexposed solitude, conspire to make for a passage so acutely realized as to merit the adjective visionary. It is perfectly capped by Fouquet’s arriving at the main road, mounting his bicycle, and riding into the fog, as he continues his awkward recitation."
Found in: Summer Hours: A Time to Live and a Time to Die, Criterion.com.
from Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
"There is an extraordinary moment in Blade Runner when Pris, like a human missile, comes somersaulting straight towards us. One moment she is immobile (in a room full of mechanical and artificial toys she appears to be a wax doll); the next moment she is galvanized into life, her body moving at the speed of light. The force of her somersault charges the air; reconfiguring space and time, her bodily momentum is transmitted and experienced in the auditorium as bodily sensation. My stomach lurches. It is always surprising this moment, this movement, always and without fail it takes me aback. Yet what can it mean to yoke these incommensurate terms – always and surprising? Let me just say, at this point, that I am both surprised and haunted by this cinematic moment. I can’t quite put my finger on the feeling it evokes, though there is a phrase of Epstein that resonates: 'On the line of communication the static of unexpected feelings interrupts us'."
Found in: 'I Think, Sebastian, Therefore, I ... Somersault', Paradoxa, 1997
from The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)
"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."
Found in: Negative Space, 1998
from Le salaire de la peur (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
"In a crucial sequence the spectator effectively witnesses the explosion of the first truck from an indirect, objective point of view through a rapid succession of edits (shocks). As the two members of the second truck are driving along the unkempt road, suddenly tobacco is blown out of a cigarette paper. Jo (Charles Vanel) looks down, Mario (Yves Montand) also looks down nonplussed, a series of flash-like cuts of a blank white frame are interspersed into the sequence. Jo looks up, Mario too, both now understanding that the truck ahead of them along with its driving team has been destroyed. The scene is constructed as a series of rapid cuts. That the first truck has exploded does not entirely account for the shock generated in this moment. Rather, it is the abstract combination of the images, the rapidity with which they are realised and the clever use of sound throughout the sequence that achieves what might be described as sublime, a moment of epiphany."
Found in: Sublime Moments, Senses of Cinema, December 2000
from Porte des Lilas (René Clair, 1957)
"The only part of Clair’s Porte des Lilas I cared for was the little set-piece of the children acting out a crime as the adults read a newspaper account of it – an almost surreal little ballet with no connection to the rest of the film. The only sequence I recall from Rickshaw Man is the distant view of an Englishman’s little dance of rage as he’s kept waiting in his rickshaw. Aparajito was beautiful, but it is all hazy in memory except for that sudden ecstasy of the child reciting poetry."
Found in: Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?, I Lost it at the Movies, 1962.
from Queen Christina (Rouben Mamoulian, 1933)
"It is indeed an admirable face-object. In Queen Christina, a film which has again been shown in Paris in the last few years, the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance.
Now the temptation of the absolute mask (the mask of antiquity, for instance) perhaps implies less the theme of the secret (as is the case with Italian half mask) than that of an archtype of the human face. Garbo offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt. It is true that this film (in which Queen Christina is by turns a woman and a young cavalier) lends itself to this lack of differentiation; but Garbo does not perform in it any feat of transvestism; she is always herself, and carries without pretence, under her crown or her wide-brimmed hats the same snowy solitary face. The name given to her, the Divine, probably aimed to convey less a superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person, descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have consented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not she, however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal. The Essence became gradually obscured, progressively veiled with dark glasses, broad hats and exiles: but it never deteriorated."
And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo's face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.
Found in: Mythologies, 1993
from Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
"One of my favourite moments in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) comes early in the film. In a walk-and-talk-scene, very similar to the one in On the Waterfront, my attention is attracted by yet another dropped object. On the morning of his first day at Dawson High, Jim Stark (James Dean) nervously peers through the window. Suddenly his attention is attracted by the appearance of Judy (Natalie Wood), the enigmatic girl he saw the night before at the police office. He approaches her and, as they walk, the camera moves laterally with them. 'I’ve seen you before', he tries. 'Well, stop the world', she answers. 'You don’t have to be unfriendly'. And then it happens. 'Well, that’s true', Judy responds, while she nonchalantly passes her cigarette with her left hand to her right hand, and, only half smoked, drops it, and brings her right hand to her forehead: 'But life is crushing in on me'.
Time and again, this small gesture of Natalie Wood pricks me, as Roland Barthes would put it. The transient moment, on which she apparently accidentally drops her smouldering cigarette, and then, as in an improvised reflex, brings her hand to her head, is the most intense in the whole film. It is a revelation, an uncanny instance of doubling, as I simultaneously encounter an iconic representation of the character Judy and the indexical image of an actress, the late Natalie Wood. This discovery, enabled by the spectatorial posture CinemaScope requires, illustrates for me what Rohmer wrote in 1956 about Ray and Rebel: 'His tempo is so slow, his melody usually monochord, but its delineation is so precise, its progress so compulsive, that we cannot allow our attention to stray for a moment'."
from A Bill of Divorcement (George Cukor, 1932)
"In George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (1932) Katharine Hepburn’s character is saying goodbye to her mother at the door. She closes it and retreats back into the house. In most films this would be the end of the sequence. But Cukor defers the ending, and cuts to another shot, a narratively unnecessary one, inside the house, following Hepburn as she moves into another room. Hepburn’s walk starts out slow as she begins to circle the room; free of story – all the other important characters have left the house – Kate is now free to move about as she pleases. She languidly scratches her head as she walks into a living room, then yawns. A half-heartbeat later she lowers her arms with a little burst of energy that slices the air around her body, as if drawing it in towards her. She then circles around to a sofa on which she finds two pillows, and swings around to the rug in front of a fireplace, plopping the pillows on the floor. She is now ready to perform the most enchanting performance of prostration I have ever seen in movies: facing away from the pillows, she lowers herself backwards, hands first, knees up, onto them; then, dropping her head on the edge of the first pillow, she runs her hands through her hair again, juts her torso up twice to reposition her midsection slightly on the pillows, all before exhaling, unbending her knee, and crossing her right foot over her left.
Cue a dissolve."
In an article in Framework (issue 42), Christian Keathley wrote:
“In a 1994 dialogue with Noel King, Paul Willemen noted that in the varied body of critical writings associated with cinephilia there exists a recurring preoccupation with an element of the cinematic experience 'which resists, which escapes existing networks of critical discourse and theoretical frameworks' (1994: 231). Willemen and King locate this resistant element specifically in the cinephile's characteristic 'fetishising of a particular moment, the isolating of a crystallisingly expressive detail' in the film image (1994: 227). That is, what persists in these cinephilic discourses is a preoccupation or fascination with what the various writers 'perceive to be the privileged, pleasure-giving, fascinating moment of a relationship to what's happening on screen' in the form of 'the capturing of fleeting, evanescent moments' (1994: 232). Whether it is the gesture of a hand, the odd rhythm of a horse's gait, or the sudden change of expression on a face, these moments are experienced by the viewer who encounters them as nothing less than a revelation. This fetishization of the otherwise ordinary details in the motion picture image is as old as the cinema itself. Indeed, as the story goes, the viewers of a century ago who watched the Lumière Brothers's L'Arroseur arossé (1895) were delighted less by the scene being staged for their amusement than by the fact that, in the background, the leaves were fluttering in the wind.”
So we went out and searched high and low for instances of these 'cinephiliac moments'. This is what we found.