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.

* * *

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.


Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Aha. So it happens to others too?! Most of the times, Girish. But it happens frequently that I remember only these small, striking moments and forget the rest of the film in the long run.

One extremely striking instance that I saw recently was in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (a film rife with such moments):

John Wayne flicks the Sheriff's hat off his head as he leaves the room. As the sheriff tries to pick it up, Vera Miles kicks the hat and it flies smoothly into James Stewart's hand.

I first thought it was just a improvised gesture for comic effect. But once I got the meaning behind the shot, I kept wondering how did Ford ever pull that off?

P.S: I hope you are moving to Wordpress. It's simply the best thing out there...

April 02, 2010 11:10 PM  
Blogger James said...

Great post! There wasn't enough space for my comment, so I posted it here.

April 03, 2010 4:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Srikanth, I've had this blog for over 5 years, and have published via FTP to my own domain ( Blogger/Google is now canceling that FTP service, so I'm being forced to move to Blogspot. Theoretically, they are offering me an option to publish to my site, but their help and support has been so frustratingly meagre that a non-Web-techie like me is totally at a loss. A friend who is an experienced Web designer has told me about the grave risks of importing my FTP blog and its archive into Wordpress. Wordpress would work well if I wanted to simply ditch my blog and start a new one, but I'm reluctant to do that. So I'll be moving to Blogspot--and will cross my fingers and hope that it'll go well!

Thanks, James, it's good to discover your blog. Where do you teach cinema? And what kinds of courses? Just curious.

April 03, 2010 6:42 AM  
Blogger James said...

Thanks Girish! I've been meaning for a while to pitch in on one of the discussion strands you initiate. I taught 'Hollywood Cinema' and 'Basic Criticism' to first and second year undergraduates at Warwick University in the UK. I'm between academic jobs at the minute...

April 03, 2010 7:42 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Whoa, I never imagined it would be so tough (because, AFAIK, Wordpress lets its users to download their whole blog as a single xml file and re-upload them elsewhere). But, surely, the archive is the most important thing. Better Blogspot with the site intact than wordpress without the wonderful collection.

All the best!

April 03, 2010 8:28 AM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

@James: What a bizarre coincidence. I was about to mention a moment from ROPE too, but somehow chose Ford's film instead.


April 03, 2010 8:29 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I do find that repeat viewings -- such as teaching requires -- encourage attention to such moments or details, in part of course because repeat viewings allow us to shift attention away from plot, and perhaps content generally. It might be interesting to pay attention to which moments are striking upon a first viewing, and which only emerge through repeated viewing(s). I accumulate these in my head (a poor storage device!) but should try to record them, in part to figure out what I noticed on first viewing and what I noticed only after a dozen screenings.

This discussion begs for a reference to Barthes' notion of the punctum (vs. the studium) in CAMERA LUCIDA, though he emphasizes that he finds these "wounding" details in photographs, in contrast to cinema. But he raises a crucial issue: can the impact of these moments be shared? If a "small, striking moment" strikes of "wounds" (Barthes' verb is the perfect one) ME, will it also wound YOU? Barthes assumes not, emphasizing in this final work the isolated realm of the personal or individual response, a surprising emphasis from a critic who had devoted his life to an acute analysis of our deep implication in the social and cultural. So I wonder, if responses to Girish's prompt accumulate, how many of these moments can really be shared? For instance, is anyone else obsessed with the strange way John Wayne pronounces the word" cartridges" in THE SEARCHERS? Can you say more than "that's interesting" (the response to the studium) when I seek your full emotional response to my "small, striking moments"?

April 03, 2010 9:47 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Oops: if a "small, striking moment" strikes OR "wounds" (Barthes' verb is the perfect one) ME, will it also wound YOU?

April 03, 2010 9:49 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for those thoughts, Corey!

Almost four years ago (gosh, how time flies!) I did a post on Chris Keathley's "cinephiliac moment" which resulted in numerous responses from folks who shared such moments. Barthes' "punctum" was also brought up in the discussion there, although no reference was made there to this fascinating idea of WOUNDING that you bring up.

April 03, 2010 10:07 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

These small, striking moments--these "wounds" if you will--have been much on my mind of late as well because, essentially, they are the ways (various) to emotionally access a film. In other words, as I have long suspected, wounds are doorways.

I think of it in two ways. First, following D.H. Lawrence, when you fall in love with something or become passionate about something, it is like an innoculation, a little bit of the poison. These "small striking moments" are like the prick of the needle.

Secondly, I was specifically thinking of this subject with regard to an upcoming interview with Patricia Clarkson. Especially with performances, or an actor who has a substantial body of work, I'm intrigued by where an audience member accesses their work, either which film they see first, or which scene in a film speaks to them first.

April 03, 2010 11:46 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Sometimes I write small thoughts that might as well be small striking moments I've found from films I watch, but I find it easier to keep a viewing log, especially since I only got into the practice several months ago, trying to record everything I've ever seen from memory (kind of Mathews-ish?). If there was a way I could log in movies I watch along with clips, that would be awesome. I'd pay for a program like that because repeat viewings don't happen often for someone trying to watch as much different stuff as possible. Sometimes though, it's hard for me not to feel like a machine viewing, recording and rating everything with factory-like precision. Homo cinematicus.

April 03, 2010 1:14 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

re: Corey/Girish - Barthes' "punctum"/"wound" has an awful lot in common with the cinephiliac moment, but it's very much rooted in stillness, in silence - the photograph's pensive quality. I agree w/ Corey - it's no doubt more productive to think of the cinephiliac moment as deriving from Bazin (as it does via Willemen & Keithley) because Bazin's project is inherently social - it's about our collective understanding of the world, and how we draw out (/express) the meaning inherent in reality. Camera Lucida isn't really about photography, it's about mourning, and that process is, of course, intensely personal. It makes sense to me that the punctum/wound is something to be expressed in a (personal) diary, or journal, to be made sense of by oneself in time. (But then, we now have blogs, and can express these small moments that strike/"prick" us however we like - in a way, isn't this what us screen-capture obsessives are all about?!) Also - the cinephiliac moment is inherently fleeting - a glimpse, or pulse, of material detail - whilst a punctum is/has to be contemplated with as much time as one needs. How can we mourn a passing out of time (or, a referent's destruction by it) if it's rushing by at 24fps?

April 03, 2010 2:33 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

*Keathley, not Keithley! Almost managed to leave a comment somewhere on the internet w/out a typo in it...

April 03, 2010 2:49 PM  
Blogger Gregory said...

In Akerman's Jeanne Dielman there is a shot in near darkness of Sylvain asleep on his side, his eyes closed. Not surprisingly, the shot persists, but just before the cut, a second or two away, you see Sylvain open his eyes. It's easily overlooked, particularly in the grainy darkness, but once I noticed it, I would replay it on DVD and every time his eyes opened, I would get the heebie jeebies. Did this make the child more sinister, more omniscient? Why did it creep me out so much? If it began as an accident--the actor opening his eyes before he was supposed to--it certainly didn't wind up in the film as an accident. Perhaps it was a "look back" at the camera that emphasizes, by contrast, Jeanne's involute secrecy, confined or disguised by daily rituals. Or maybe it was just an accident...

April 03, 2010 3:31 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

A fascinating spin-off question for me would lead away from the 'spectator as artist' here and back to the filmmaker: do filmmakers approach what they do as the sculpting of potentially thousands of small, striking moments? Or are they (depending on the case, and on the film) aiming for something else, more like a flow or continuum? (I remember a 'life statement' once made to me by a dear friend: "Forget the great moments, I'll take the continuous flow" !! I have sympathy for her stance, too.) I also recall what Kent Jones wrote of Monte Hellman: that he aims not for peaks or striking moments but an 'all over' attack in his direction, risking an ambience of flatness. That said, TWO LANE BLACKTOP is absolutely full of striking moments for me !! Maybe for filmmakers, 'flow/moment' is not a choice but something always worked with on both levels. SOmetimes I long for the moment when we get past the moment-mania and return to whole films, ha !!

April 03, 2010 5:55 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I still want to raise the question, deepened by Matthew, of whether these moments can be shared, or are in some sense social. Barthes' notion of the punctum is of something that cannot be shared (because of its affect, which as Matthew notes is in CAMERA LUCIDA linked to his mourning: hence, he won't show us the photograph of his mother which he knows might interest us -- that is, be shared as social or cultural studium -- but which he fears won't prick or wound us as it does him). Will fans of Hitchcock revel in the same "small, striking moment" if one Hitchcock fan notes it, and brings it to the attention of others? Cinephilia was of course developed in the social space of cinema halls, not by individuals watching alone in their own homes, but even in those cinema halls, did the gasp of one spectator spread to others in the same space, at the same time? Is there a risk that a "small, striking moment" I've noticed loses its power once I realize that everyone else who has seen the film notices the same moment (which I thought was special to me)?

April 03, 2010 6:42 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


Goodbye cinephilia, hello cinema. A great direction, and one I've been thinking about more and more -- the construction of films as an experience in and of itself (that is, editing moments together the same way you'd put words down on a page for the first time) vs. following a plan.

In interviews, I find myself asking filmmakers more and more about editing and how they approach the editing of their films (it helps that many of the directors I've interviewed edit or co-edit their own films).

I was struck (but not "wounded!") to learn that Ramin Bahrani never looks at the script in editing, building the film out of the moments / scenes as they developed during the actual production instead of trying to get what he filmed to conform to his original plan (this is made more significant by the fact that Bahrani -- like a fellow American screenwriter / editor / director with similar editing techniques that I happened to interview the same week, Andrew Bujalski -- works with full, fairly conventional scripts, and not, say, notes to improvise off of). And yet Bahrani's movies (and this is also true of Bujalski's) have an intense and purposeful coherence -- in fact, they seem more coherent than they would be had he followed the script in editing the film together. It seems to me that both directors aim to create a coherence between the filmed moments "as they are," instead of attempting to have the filmed moments cohere with the plan.

I think the issue is less plan vs. moments, than on what level (or how) directors choose to have the elements of the film cohere with one another. Sometimes schematic films can be very incoherent, and sometimes ones seemingly made only of stray moments can have remarkable clarity (I'd nominate Denis' The Intruder as the most straightforward film ever made).

And in regard to moments, there's always Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?...

April 03, 2010 6:50 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


In a sense, one person's wound can become another's, maybe everyone's. I think, for instance, about the spread of still and screen captures on blogs as a practice of sharing private moments. Often I'll see details I'd never noticed before in a still on someone's blog, and even if I never see the film again, their moment will become part of my understanding / experience of the film. I can think of dozens of examples of discussions that occurred after the fact, with someone bringing up an aspect of a movie just seen that I hadn't noticed, that forever colored my memory and understanding of the films in question.

April 03, 2010 6:53 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Corey, your question is totally fascinating. It is one I have often pondered, and also truly 'lived': I mean the discrepancy between 'my' moment in a film and 'yours'. I am sure we have all read texts or heard talks where the 'punctum'-type claims made for a particular moment are not at all convincing - especially if they are simply asserted: "Here is the amazing moment that wounded me for life!" But what this leads to is, that surely, all criticism (written, spoken, or edited in multi-media form) is rhetorical, and rhetoric is an art of persuasion, of storytelling-through-ideas. You can make someone else 'see as you do' a moment in a film, but that can't be flatly asserted in 3 seconds: it has to be slowly and carefully prepared, 'juiced', woven together, demonstrated and worked through, with an excellent after-aura: like love !! That is what criticism, at its highest level, truly is for me. But how rarely any of us achieve it ! It is an idea to strive for ... And I certainly do not dismiss the social/shared/communal dimension of striking moments in cinema: in a way, rhetoric is precisely about forming, inventing and holding together a community or group in the ephemeral here-and-now of an utterance, performance or screening. I learnt a lot about these processes from studying Meaghan Morris' work, who said somewhere in the 80s that she liked Lyotard for the way he can "light something up with a fabulous significance'< even if that something - film, painting, philosophical book, whatever - was never personally going to ever mean very much to her in any other circumstance. To be a good reader/receiver of criticism means allowing yourself to be open to such 'gentle persuasion' !!

April 04, 2010 12:04 AM  
Anonymous James MacDowell said...

Great post, Girish. Were you aware that there's a forthcoming book called Film Moments: Critical Methods and Approaches, which sees a number of scholars engaging with many such moments? It's edited by Tom Brown and James Walters, and features Andrew Klevan, among many others. I think it's being published by the BFI.

April 04, 2010 10:51 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I love this recovery of the classical function of rhetoric as a key component of film criticism! (Rhetoric is of course now commonly dismissed as "mere rhetoric," even as almost always a means to lie.) And I entirely agree that an emphatic assertion, while often intriguing, doesn't perform the full, perhaps necessarily slow, seduction of good rhetoric/criticism, which leads you to -- rather than demands that you -- share a view. I've also long been intrigued by the notion of "enthusiasm" (originally a religious concept, now almost entirely secular, but in both realms often treated with suspicion), which Freud in GROUP PSYCHOLOGY AND THE EGO (a key text on identification and as such greatly neglected in film theory) discusses as the possible animating quality of groups (including the one that formed around him): were he attuned to cinema (notoriously, he wasn't) it might be his term for cinephilia. But the role of enthusiasm in film criticism deserves its own attention ... I would cite as one high point Godard's insistence that we mention Griffith EVERY TIME we discuss cinema!

April 04, 2010 10:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, an amazing exchange here! Thank you, all!

A few musings:

-- Now that I think of it, I find that my own personal idea of "small, striking moments" is meant to be more inclusive and capacious than either the punctum or the cinephiliac moment, which, it appears to me, are more special.

To me, "small, striking moments" are connected with the need for preservation, for affixing in the mind the memory of everything that struck me about a film soon after I've watched it. Of course, this is an impossible task, since so many good films integrate these small moments so effectively into a continuous flow or "all-over attack."

Often, I'm struck by moments that are unexpected--particularly so because they contain the trace of an OTHER. e.g. in a fiction film I'll be struck by a "documentary" detail (or vice versa). Or in a "classical Hollywood" film that nominally and generally respects transparency and continuity editing, I'll be a struck by a moment that doesn't, especially so if it is a throwaway moment that doesn't draw attention to its own surprise or unexpectedness...

We bring a complex set of expectations to a film including director, genre, stars, country, period, and so on, and moments that perturb or overturn those expectations, even if for a fleeting moment, tend to generate a frisson for me.

So many small, striking moments for me have to do with medium specificity, i.e. this moment does something that would not be possible in the same way or with the same impact in any other art-form. I fetishize the medium-specific abilities of cinema--and find that my non-cinephile friends tend not to care about them so much. (However, to go back to what Adrian said, perhaps I've failed to make a good 'rhetorical' case for these moments to my friends!).

Finally, one way of looking at these moments for me is to pose a hypothetical question to myself immediately after I've finished watching a film: If you had to write down 5 (or more, or less) moments in your notebook that you'd love to hold on to and not forget about this film, what would they be?

April 04, 2010 10:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

James, I've heard of the book--and look forward to it! And I'm sure you know the DEFINING MOMENTS book that Chris Fujiwara edited (and that Adrian contributed to). It's a terrific collection.

April 04, 2010 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

As Girish suggests, my special moments are also most often medium-specific, and thus I tend to love almost any film that has wonderful tracking shots! This can be hard to convey to friends who either didn't notice them (?!?) or can't see how a lovely tracking shot outweighs a dull plot, weak acting, etc. But for me the sense of a camera moving into space is one of the pleasures of cinema that can enliven many otherwise negligible films! Is it any wonder then that Ophuls, Mizoguchi, Godard, or other masters of the tracking shot rise to the top of my list of great directors?

April 04, 2010 11:04 AM  
Anonymous Conall said...

In talking about Barthes in this context, it might be worth remembering that he did not always write with veneration and "wounded" fascination of "the detail" - take, for example, the well-known "Reality Effect" essay from the late 60s, in which the proliferation of details in literary texts is scrutinized for its role in the propagation of the 'realist ideology' in 19th century (and later) prose. The detail (Barthes uses the example of the reference to a barometer located in a room in Flaubert's 'Un Coeur Simple,' the mention of which has no narrative or thematic or "aesthetic" function) functions ideologically precisely through its superfluity - it is the presence of these described details which have no 'necessary' purpose in the text that establishes and makes viable the text's realism, that imposes upon the reader the transparency of the text as vehicle-of-truth ("By positing the referential as real, by pretending to follow it in a submissive fashion, realistic description avoids being reduced to a fantasmatic activity").

Perhaps the idea of the cinematic moment needs to be seen in mediation between the textual detail accounted here and the photographic punctum of CL (though it would be a mistake to straightforwardly extrapolate from these two texts of Barthes any underlying ontology of writing Vs. that of photography - much of Barthes' work is dependent upon such a dichotomy of text and image, yet he is always complicating and undermining these dichotomies). That is, in addressing and paying homage to these small, striking moments in films, one should be wary of too quickly privileging one's "personal" attachment to and discovery of them, with the Farber-esque idea that the small moment undercuts or subverts the grand, totalizing statement of "the film" in whole - what the Reality Effect essay shows is that in fact the opposite may be the case. But, offsetting that is the notion of "punctum" (or, perhaps more interestingly for our purposes, the analogous notion of the "obtuse meaning" of the image in Barthes' "Third Meaning" essay - more pertinent because in it he is writing of film stills rather than photographs) which liberates the detail, indicates its explosive, "mad" possibilities. This is the old debate of structuralist Barthes VS. late Barthes, a debate that doesn't need ever to be resolved but which can be incredibly productive for discussions of this kind.

Of course, the other great theorist of the detail is the Foucault of Discipline & Punish, about which much could be said in a similar light, but that will require further reflection. It's interesting also to think about how the difference between "detail" and "moment" could be defined (in the cinema, as against in writing), because I realise in this post I have been using the two terms rather too interchangeably.

April 04, 2010 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Richard Brody said...

Histoire(s) du cinéma is a living anthology of small, striking moments.

April 04, 2010 1:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Corey, and others -- Like so many other cinephiles, I also deeply cherish tracking shots. We know well the great filmmaker-masters of the tracking shot, but I'm curious: Who are the critics or scholars who have written with particular eloquence about or tried to taxonomize and/or account for the wonders of the tracking shot...?

April 04, 2010 4:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

For those of you who don't regularly follow Ignatiy's blog, I would urge you to take a look. Among the recent posts is a very interesting and provocative "Dictionary of Accepted Ideas" for cinema.

April 04, 2010 4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About "Small, Striking Moments", I'm astonished to see no mention of Raymond Bellour's recent "Le Corps du Cinéma", where he writes about such moments seriously. I should recomment it to anyone interested in this and other issues.
Miguel Marías

April 04, 2010 6:36 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Girish - probably not news, but re: tracking shots, Lutz Bacher's The Mobile Mise en Scene (published in 1978 and now long OOP) is essential. Also, Brian Henderson's neglected A Critique of Film Theory (1980, I think) - the two essays devoted to the long take + Godard's Weekend are v. useful. Perhaps worth mentioning too: Jakob Isak Nielsen wrote a thesis on camera movement in 2007, and there's a great addendum to it here.

My (current) vote for master of the tracking shot: Shimizu.

April 04, 2010 7:00 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Apologies for getting to the party so late.

In my book Cinephilia and History, I wrote about those cinematic moments we all seem to have, but that might not be sharable and are almost certainly not interpretable. The links to Barthes’s punctum is something Corey and I discussed many years ago. More recently, I have been interested in those moments that appear at first to be cinephiliac moments, but that, when pressed, open a doorway into the film’s narrative/formal system. That’s what I was up to in the essay on Whirlpool that includes the quote from Klevan’s interview with Cavell.

A more recent example is a piece I’ve done on Bonjour Tristesse. I was struck by a scene, late in the film, in which David Niven and Jean Seberg are walking along the rocky coastline in the south of France when they come upon a young couple napping under a tree. The scene’s formal approach – a single take that frames the two in a medium shot – attempts to conceal the flagrant implausibility that Niven would not have noticed this couple until he is, quite literally, almost stepping on them. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the scene’s particular use of the on-screen/off-screen dynamic (coupled with specific narrative elements) worked formal variations on another scene, … and then another. And that third scene also worked variations (but different ones, involving reverse field cutting) on two other scenes. The extraordinary complexity of the film’s formal system became clear – and it helped me to understand why I find the film so fascinating.

What all this had made me realize – speaking only for myself here – is that I was often so busy grooving on my response to some cinematic moment that I didn’t take time to do the critical work to understand whether my response was aberrant or whether it was a more honest and appropriate response to a rich and complex work. As Cavell’s best work shows, these individual moments are often the best place to start, because they engage our own particular curiosity. As he says, our intuition that a moment is important must be answered with tuition – the teaching to others that the moment is important beyond our individual response. This practice can yield sharable insights.

April 04, 2010 10:04 PM  
Blogger Steven Rybin said...

This great discussion, and Christian Keathley's last post in particular, gets at something that has been intriguing me about cinephilia and film analysis. How, exactly, are we to differentiate between those moments that strike us as so personal as to be almost beyond the realm of shareable discourse and those moments that are more immediately shareable? And how to combine these two different kinds of "moments" (if we even agree that they are different)? I sort of sense a dichotomy growing in this thread: on the one hand, we have those fleeting contingent moments that strike me, and perhaps only me; and then we have those moments that seem to be more a part of a legible system (Keathley's "honest responses" in the previous post), even if they are not necessarily "obvious," i.e. if they are part of the deeper texture of the film (here I'm using "texture" in the sense that Keathley uses it in the Preminger piece that Girish so generously pointed out to us above).

Further, maybe we can use those more shareable textural moments to help us draw the punctum (which always seems fragmentary, isolated, alone) into the world of shareable discourse? This would be a matter of writing analyses of films that, although primarily interested in the logical system of the work, are nevertheless dotted with occasional forays into the more deeply personal. Perhaps the inclusion of "cinephiliac moments" in this context could function as moments of persuasion (as has already been suggested in the thread) within a larger analysis: your acceptance of my analysis of the film doesn't hinge on us agreeing about *this* cinephilic moment, but when that cinephilic moment is presented in the body of a larger work of film criticism which pays attention to the textures of an entire film, auteur's career, etc., perhaps it gains greater persuasive power? Or becomes more shareable? The punctum wouldn't become discourse, exactly, but it would find its place in discourse, functioning more as a punctuation mark in a work of critical writing than as part of the logical system of a film or a body of work. (FWIW, I think Adrian Martin's recent essay "Beyond the Fragments of Cinephilia," now that I think about it, would be very useful reading here).

Ultimately, Girish, this is why I like best your use of the simple phrase "small, striking moments": it lets us place side by side those deeply personal moments (the punctum) with moments that are tantalizingly pregnant with meaning but are, for whatever reason, more immediately shareable.

Anyway, I've been reading this blog for a few months, but this is my first post. Thanks for a great blog, Girish. I'm in total admiration of it.

April 05, 2010 7:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, everyone!

Matthew, I didn't know the Lutz Bacher book, although I saw him lecture on Max Ophuls once. (Haven't read his Ophuls book either.) Thanks also for the Jakob Isak Nielsen reference!

Corey, I'm fascinated by this idea of "enthusiasm" that you bring up: I must look up the Freud text right away!

Chris, I'd love to read that Bonjour Tristesse piece sometime!

For my part, I wanted to add that I feel impelled to discover these small moments not only in rich, complex, good films but ALSO in films that are not very good. Often, when I see such films, these moments stand out (even shine) conspicuously (if fleetingly) against the rest of the work, and give me something small but memorable to take away from an otherwise lackluster encounter. Of course, not all 'bad' films contain such moments! (This thought puts me in mind of Ado Kyrou!)

Steve, this is an amazing coincidence. 2 weeks ago I watched Thief for the first time, picked up your Michael Mann book, and just started reading it. I'm glad to hear that you've found the blog of some use. Thanks for commenting!

Let me also second your nomination of Adrian's "Beyond The Fragments" essay in the Cinephilia in the age of Digital Reproduction collection: it's wonderful.

April 05, 2010 9:19 PM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

My favorite small, striking moment is in THE PINOCHET CASE (2001, Patricio Guzmán). It's the scene in which we see rocks falling down from a mountain. This scene occurs after the viewers have heard a lot of things about the cruelty of Pinochet. This rock-falling scene made me cry and I don't know why. I don't think Guzmán intends to make the audience weep with this scene. I also don't understand the importance and the meaning of this scene. This scene is not obviously connected to the story. It doesn't give any information about Pinochet at all. If the scene is excluded from the film, all the "content" in the film is still intact. This scene may have some symbolic meanings, but I don't understand it at all. However, it is this small, insignificant scene which (unintentionally) made me cry and makes me love this film very much. I'm not sure why I cried, but I think it may be because while I was listening to the various testimonies about the horror in Chile in the other scenes, I had to "think", rather than "feel". But while I was watching rocks falling down from a mountain, I didn't have to "think". My mind or my brain could rest. That's why all the sad feelings I had accumulated from the previous scenes rose up inside me and made me break down in tears.

This deviation from the storytelling in THE PINOCHET CASE unintentionally makes me think about the can-kicking scene in CLOSE-UP (1990, Abbas Kiarostami), though I think both scenes function very differently, or touch my feelings in very different spots.

April 06, 2010 6:35 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

A line from Freud's GROUP PSYCHOLOGY AND THE ANALYSIS OF THE EGO which could serve as the mantra for this site that encourages the community of cinephiles to come together: "... in exceptional circumstances there may arise in communities the phenomenon of enthusiasm, which has made the most splendid group achievements possible."

April 06, 2010 10:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Corey, every time I put up a post and join others in a conversation here, my Amazon orders seem to experience a spike! (Just ordered the Freud.)

April 06, 2010 11:07 AM  
Blogger Steven Rybin said...

I hope you find the Mann book useful, Girish. I'd love to hear your thoughts on 'Thief' at some point, too.

April 06, 2010 12:31 PM  
Blogger S.F. Perna said...

From VERTIGO: the first moment we lay eyes on Kim Novak. The camera pans from Jimmy Stewart sitting at the bar across the restaurant, then begins to track in on the back of Kim Novak. What makes it striking to me are the almost imperceptible movements of the camera as it tracks forward: it actually ducks a little as if the camera were a person sneaking up on her without wishing to be seen. That shot (along with the music which cues in at that moment) always gets to me. Another one: from LIFE OF OHARU. In the opening scene, there's a shot from inside a temple of a wall of statues. The camera pans right across the wall until it picks up Oharu as she enters walking left. The camera immediately begins tracking left with her. That change from panning right to tracking left always produces a shiver down my spine.

April 10, 2010 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

With all due respect, and in shared appreciation of the impact of those moments in VERTIGO and OHARU, neither seems to me "small": both are crucial to the introduction of main characters, and even if these are achieved by restrained cinematic devices, both seem designed to have the major impact they achieve. If the idea of "small, striking moments" is of moments that often distract from the overall film or forward motion of plot, even suggesting an alternative response to the film in general, these key moments seem to be essential to our investment in the entire film and the narrative that really begins to unfold from those moments. My sense is that these are in any case shared moments, designed by their directors to impact the entire audience, and hardly the private, "stolen" moments others on this list have noted.

April 11, 2010 2:38 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


You're right in pointing out that the Mizoguchi and Hitchcock moments that S.F. Perna cites are both obviously directorial gestures, and therefore "big" parts of the film. Is the definition of the "small cinephilic moment" then something that doesn't have intention or obvious gesture?

I feel that, because of the fluid qualities of editing digitally (instead of physically), and filmmakers' increased awareness of the images they are making (video replay, etc.), it's harder and harder to say that moments are unintentional or not part of some gesture.

There was a time when footage was shot then printed and when the director had less input into the editing than he or she does now. Now it's increasingly common for directors to edit their own films (or to at least make some changes themselves), and for them to watch footage played back instantaneously instead of having to wait for the dailies. They are more aware of their accidents then ever before.

This in turn brings up other issues of small vs. big gestures. For example, I feel that part of the reason the Tony Scott movies of the 2000s are disliked by so many -- and intensely loved by others -- has to do with the total lack of "big" gestures in his style. Those movies consist entirely of small moments, off-the-cuff moments, strung together into something massive, yet lacking an obvious grand design.

April 12, 2010 1:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ignatiy, a wonderful take on Tony Scott's films: I've been trying to account for my attraction to his recent films, esp. Domino, and I think you're on to something here.

April 12, 2010 4:54 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


Thanks -- actually writing those sentences and reading these comments has lead me to resume work on a long-delayed essay on Scott that will hopefully see the light of day sometime soon.

April 12, 2010 4:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Looking forward to that!

April 12, 2010 7:52 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

A fascinating issue, of whether the increased control, especially in post-production, of filmmakers over all facets of their films -- including sound as well as image -- leads to the loss of those moments which, in some cases, seemed to mark the loss of control and the contingency of the world being filmed. (The Hitchcock and Mizoguchi moments noted seemed to me moments of complete directorial control.) I'll admit that for the first time, I'm intrigued in Tony Scott, because this quality you find in his work has implications for contemporary film in general. Please write that essay!

April 13, 2010 9:13 AM  
Blogger tray said...

I could think of a couple such moments in Young Mr. Lincoln.

1. When Lincoln talks the lynch mob into dropping the log on the ground (a shot that Eisenstein more or less copies in Ivan The Terrible), you get a reaction shot of Lincoln/Fonda where you can almost barely see a hint of a smile of satisfaction with himself and his rhetorical powers. No matter how many times you rewind it or play it in slow motion, it's practically invisible, but just barely there all the same. You could argue that all the ambiguities of the film can be reduced to this smile.

2. In the tug of war contest, just before he hitches his end of the rope to the wagon, there's this momentary inscrutable look of anguish on his face, vaguely Christ-like almost, as if he's lamenting the time he has to spend with the common herd playing childish games if he wants to attain elective office.

In other films, a shot that's really stuck with me for months since I've seen it is in Under Capricorn, where Hitchcock pans across Bergman's bedsheets, dissolves into another shot of her sheets, pans across a wrinkle before finally arriving at the skull Margaret Leighton's placed on Bergman's bed. It echoes an earlier shot in the film of the white sheet that Michael Wilding removes to reveal a mirror in which Bergman, re-hussied up as the "real" Lady Henrietta, is reflected. And I think it prefigures the long shot of the water running off on the shower floor at the end of Psycho's shower scene. There's a certain horrifying quality in the shot, of a descent into pure nothingness, white blankness, that moves me more than anything else in the film.

Similarly, there's a shot in Topaz (which I've written about here*) of a blank white wall that's one of the most eloquent things in the movie. Frederick Stafford steps in to his bathroom, his wife says the name of his Cuban mistress, and Hitchcock cuts to what should be a reaction shot of Stafford - but he's not there and we just see a blank white wall and a white lampshade. It gets at the emptiness of their relationship much more expressively than the bad actors can.


April 13, 2010 5:08 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

While helping a friend cook this weekend, I came upon a moment in a very popular film that's very small -- and not an obvious directorial gesture -- that seems to be remembered by everybody who's seen the film: the moment in Goodfellas where an imprisoned gangster slices garlic with a razorblade while preparing a meal. I even recall it being a topic of discussion at Glenny Kenny's blog at some point. It's an interesting case of a minor moment in a famous film that seems to be better remembered by the people who've seen it than certain details of the plot (I, for one, can't quite remember the movie's chronology, but I remember that sequence).

[Shameless plug: today a piece by me went up at the Auteurs on a topic pretty much every cinephile has an opinion on -- Jean Renoir. Comments, observations and criticisms (and there are already some) are all very welcome.]

April 18, 2010 5:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for posting that link, Ignatiy!
BTW, the gangster who slices the garlic is played by Scorsese's dad, if I remember right.

April 18, 2010 5:44 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Hi, girish; long time no post.

I'd like to refer Maya (hiya Mike!) to a recent favorite film of his, Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974), which he so generously pored over in a recent blog post.

Brocka's not exactly known for his cinematic flair or directorial skill but rather for performances and melodrama. Along the way you'll find lovely little moments, gestures and fleeting expressions that lay bare the characters' thoughts and feelings (moments that if you take the time to buy or rent the DVD you might look at again for yourself).

I'd like to point out the moment early in the film when Berto the Leper (filmmaker Mario O'Hara, who also wrote the screenplay) enters a disco. The camera picks up the look on his face, a rather eager, even hungry expression, before he's rejected by the club's dancers and tossed out by the bouncer.

Later there's Berto standing before Kuala (Lolita Rodriguez), holding out a rattle to her. His stance, feet wide apart, the rattle like a beribboned phallus, ringing and provoking her onwards. His expression--his entire body language, in fact--is almost entirely predatory here, sharing the same hard, pitiless quality of the expressions on the people in the disco.

Then--and this is the moment I really wanted to point out--the talk the young Junior has with Berto while Kuala plays some ways from them. The contrast between his expression now and the earlier ones--avid hunger, predatory pitilessness--is startling, even bewildering; one thinks this isn't even the same man.

But when you think about it, it is; the contrasting expressions are what you see before and after a starving man has satisfied himself; is obsessed, then no longer obsessed with the idea of food, of animal satisfaction. He relaxes, he thinks of other things, he remembers what it's like to be human, a being capable of compassion and love. When the desperation goes, Brocka seems to say, the human remains. The trio of expressions I pointed out describes the arc of a man who has degraded himself, found grace, recovered his humanity.

April 26, 2010 12:29 AM  

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