Tuesday, April 27, 2010

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Small, Striking Moments

A quick note: Blogger is forcing me to migrate to a new setup. It will likely happen within the next week or two. If the website experiences any convulsions or seizures, you'll know why! I'm crossing my fingers and hoping that it all goes well.

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Teaching a film class for the first time has meant that I've been watching the assigned films with an extra-fine toothcomb. Before the semester started, I thought I knew these films intimately. But I've been constantly surprised by new and previously unsuspected wrinkles and folds in, for example, Marnie, Safe, or The Gleaners and I.

I've resurrected the practice of maintaining a film journal, and have been keeping notes on all the films I see, not just the ones for class. Particularly, I've been recording "small, striking moments" -- those that arrest you (without always signaling their full import right away) but fly out of your head in a few weeks if you don't consciously capture them in writing. I'm defining these moments broadly: they may have to do with performance, or gesture, or movement, or camerawork, or editing, or any number of things. These moments have also proved valuable in class, providing new and unexpected 'angles of entry' in order to talk or write about a film.

For a past issue of World Picture, Christian Keathley wrote an essay [pdf] on Otto Preminger that excerpts a valuable exchange between film scholar Andrew Klevan and philosopher Stanley Cavell. Their conversation takes up this idea of "small, striking moments":

AK: I find that after I’ve watched a film I normally have a few
moments or maybe just one moment that really strikes me.

SC: Start there…

AK: Yes, I’ll start there. […] It feels intuitive. Anyway, I’ll have
only a dim sense of what it is about that moment. I’ll just go ‘hmmmm.’

SC: A moment you care about, however apparently trivial, can be
productive. Why did the hand do that? Why did the camera just turn

AK: And why is this niggling me? Our direction of thought here
reminds me that you have discussed Emerson’s feeling that primary
wisdom is intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions. The
occurrence to us of an intuition places a demand for us on tuition. You
call this wording, the willingness to subject one self to words, to make
oneself intelligible. This tuition so conceived is what you understand
criticism to be, to follow out in each case the complete tuition for a given
intuition. There’s a moment that really struck me in Frank Capra’s Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936, US). I read your piece on the film
after re-watching it, and was pleased to see you mention this moment. It
is when Mr. Deeds (Gary Cooper) is lying on his back on his bed talking
to Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur) on the phone. He has his right calf and
ankle resting on the knee of the other leg, and he’s playing with his foot
while he’s talking to her. The camera is behind his head so that most of
his face is obscured (this shot is repeated a number of times). Then when
the phone call is over you see him playing his trusty tuba and his face is
even more hidden than in the previous version of the shot. Why did they
think to execute it like that…like that?

SC: Like that

AK: And why was I drawn to these shots? […] I didn’t only
think the shots were unusual, or striking, I thought they were gently
mysterious, and that they were significant. They asked questions of me.
As the film continued, the memory of the shots kept returning. My
intuition was that because the shots were like that they might give me a
key to the whole film, and open it up in new and rewarding ways.

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I'm curious to know: Do you keep notes on the films you see? What sorts of things might you record there? Do you find them helpful in the long run? Also: any recent encounters with such "small, striking moments"? Please feel free to share.