In his famous essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” French film critic André Bazin lays out a powerful and deeply influential account of what sets film images apart from all previous instances of pictorial representation. “Only a photographic lens,” he writes, “can give us the kind of image of the object that is capable of satisfying the deep need man has to substitute for it something more than a mere approximation … the photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it.” Bazin’s conception of the film image is almost mystical.
Not unlike Roland Barthes’s later notion of the punctum – the moment where the photograph pierces us, beyond mediation – Bazin envisions the power of the cinematic image as somehow impossibly liberated from the director’s framing, as though the lens itself were solely responsible for delivering us to the real. In our current era of blockbuster filmmaking, we’ve grown habituated to being bludgeoned by the gigantism of motion pictures.
Outside a few rare practitioners, like Terence Malick or Steven Soderbergh, the image has shrunk to an impoverished thing. Instead we are assaulted by massive spectacles of destruction, or what Bazin calls elsewhere “the Nero complex” of filmmakers obsessed with visual bombast.
The anti-cinema of CGI is used by most directors to obliterate perception, rather than tutoring the eye in how to see more deeply. But some of the greatest moments in the history of film derive their power from a certain withholding, a discretion of the camera, a holding back, or merely a sly bit of inference. At the same time it must be remembered that all filmmaking, even the most naturalistic (think Ford, Renoir, De Sica) is a form of special effect, and that the greatest special effect ever devised in the movies is still the close up.
Here, in no real order, are moments from a few of my favorite films, movies that I have watched over and over again, each time with a renewed sense of wonder at the possibilities of cinema.
Black Narcissus | Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | 1949
Perhaps the most erotic movie ever made? The vertiginous vistas of the Himalayas, the heavy virginal drop cloth of the nun’s habits against the outrageous, psychotropic palette of a jungle Eden – all these make for one of the most visually sumptuous experiences the movies have to offer. There are many scenes one could point to as singular.
I’ll choose just one: Sister Ruth (the exquisite Kathleen Byron) as she’s becoming unhinged by her lust for Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the local agent and all-round hunk. The scene is sunset: drenched in otherworldly, beatific light. Sister Ruth’s face is a study in brooding madness. An Indian boy has just entered her chambers with a glass of what he calls lemonade, though it looks like milk. Sister Ruth’s disdain chases him from the room. Suddenly she hears voices, and swirling, rushes to the window. Below her, in the courtyard, her superior, Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), and Mr. Dean, are conversing. We cannot hear what they are saying. After a moment, Ruth frantically chases through the halls of the monastery (a former seraglio) to catch further sight of them. Because of the high angle, they assume, in her gaze, a conspiratorial air.
The scene ends with Farrar and Kerr stopped on a terrace above a frightful abyss, with Kerr pouring her heart out, and Byron, blown against the latticework, spying down upon them – an infernal triangle. All this while Kerr stands stiff and straight, her face a play of wry, sad, ironic reflection. As a subdued pastoral score plays over the scene, she tells Dean about her lost love in Ireland, about why she entered the order, about how she found peace – and about how, on coming to the Himalayas, all the old ghosts are stirring up. “I couldn’t stop the wind from blowing and the air from being clear as crystal, and I couldn’t hide the mountain.”
Amazingly, nearly all of “Black Narcissus” was made on a sound stage at Pinewood. Shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff (who rightly won an Oscar for his work), with art direction (or what would now be called production design) by Arthur Junge, it glows with a profane radiance. As a triumph of artifice and the power of color and light, there’s nothing else like it.
The Third Man | Carol Reed | 1949
Graham Greene once remarked that he thought audiences simply wouldn’t sit still for the long closing take in Reed’s masterpiece. When he saw it, though, he changed his mind. The scene is Vienna’s cemetery, where Harry Lime has been laid to rest yet again, this time for good. On the way to the airport, Major Callaway (Trevor Howard) and Joseph Cotton’s fool for love Holly Martins pass Harry’s old lover, Anna (the sublimely aloof AlidaValli) walking the long road back. Martins insists Callaway let him out. “Be sensible, Martins.” “I haven’t got a sensible name, Callaway.”
He hoists his duffle and saunters over to a wagon loaded with wood to wait. Anna is a dark tiny figure dead center in the background, moving ever so slowly toward us. Reed shoots her straight on, at about shoulder height, with Cotton in the left foreground, staring vacantly at nothing. Anton Karas’s somber, melancholy zither score seems to conjure the brittle leaves falling from the nearly denuded trees. It takes about a minute for Anna to approach Holly and when she does, she pays him not so much as a glance. There’s only one cut, near the start of her walk: Callaway’s slightly disgusted over the shoulder look at Martins before he pulls away.
After Anna finally passes him, Martins shakes loose a cigarette, lights it, and disdainfully throws the match to the ground. The audacity of Reed’s decision to hold that shot for so long, defying expectations, stretching out the tension, underlines perfectly Greene’s bitter world view. In the age of disaster, there can be no happy endings. “Poor Crabbin,” Greene closes his short novel. “Poor all of us when you come to think of it.”
Close Encounters of the Third Kind | Steven Spielberg | 1977
In my SF film class, I screen this scene of a pilot’s near collision with a UFO to illustrate how much tension can be generated using the most minimal of means. This short sequence, early on, lasts only 3 and half minutes. You can watch it at the link below.
There are several things going on here. First, the conduct of the air traffic controllers as they try to wrap their heads around the unprecedented. This is Spielberg at his most Hawksian. Even in the face of the impossible, the controller’s professionalism never wavers. The dialogue is mostly technical: questions about the UFO’s appearance (“the brightest anti-collision lights I think I’ve ever seen”) and instructions on what kind of evasive maneuvers to take (“Area 31 maintain flight level, break, Allegheny triple four turn right 30 degrees.”)
Second, the camera almost never moves. There are three or four momentum-building quick pans to the right and back to the left, which allow extra players to converge into the tight frame already established, and a few cuts from the master shot to a close up of the radar screen but that’s it. (Ingeniously, one of these shots gives us the air traffic controller’s face reflected in tight close up in the green abstract geometry of the radar scope tracking each flight. Face to screen – a brilliant image of movie watching itself).
That frame begins with two controllers in it but by the end of the scene contains six or seven men, all crammed into the same visual space. Talk about traffic control. At one point Spielberg takes a page from Robert Altman, using overlapping dialogue: the timing and the sound mix are flawless.
Third, the entire incident is depicted solely through a radio conversation between the tower and the pilots, with only the sharp green lights of the controller’s radar screen indicating action. All the tension of the scene is built on what we don’t see. This tension about the Unseen, a staple of 50s monster movies, is maintained carefully, like a well choreographed striptease. Spielberg’s staging is masterful here. (There are approximately 20 cuts in this scene. Nothing fancy, nothing extraneous or showy). Not long ago, Soderbergh paid homage to his brilliance by setting “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to the soundtrack of “The Social Network” and deleting all the dialogue. Who else would think to do that? You can view it at the link below. The results are astonishing.
Bringing Up Baby | Howard Hawks | 1938
Scripted by the great Dudley Nichols, this may well hold claim as the apogee of screwball comedy. Which is saying a lot, considering Hawks’s other entries, “Ball of Fire” and “His Girl Friday,” or Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Lady Eve,” to name just a few. Cute meet: the hapless paleontologist David (Cary Grant), in full tux and tails, comes to a posh restaurant looking for his wealthy patron, Mr. Peabody, when Susan (Kate Hepburn) dressed in a slinky, shimmering silver outfit, literally trips him up with a martini olive. Comedy ensues.
As the slightly spastic Dr. Lehman advises Susan: “the love impulse in men very frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict.” What follows is not just a classic comedy-of-misunderstanding, but a barely masked sexual frenzy in the form of slapstick. First Hepburn rips Grant’s dinner jacket as he tries to exit up a stairway. “Oh, you’ve torn your coat.” Then Grant steps on Hepburn’s luminous gown, splitting it open up the back and exposing her lacy under garments. Grant frantically tries to cover up her exposed derrière by clapping his phallic top hat over the tear. As symbolic fucks go in the Code era, it doesn’t get better than this.
2001: A Space Odyssey | Stanley Kubrick | 1968
We first see a shot of deep space, without any context. Then a title card: “Jupiter Mission, 18 Months Later.” The slow mournful chords from the adagio of Khachaturian’s “Gayane” come up. Slowly, from the left side of the screen the nose of the Discovery pushes into view (in reality, the camera is tracking backwards along the length of the 18-foot model). The globe of the living quarters is at first cut off at the top, as if it’s too big to fit on the screen. A move that George Lucas would lovingly copy ten years later in the opening scene of “Stars Wars” and that has been emulated by numerous SF films, including James Cameron’s “Aliens.”
(Probably the best homage though is Brian De Palma’s underrated “Mission to Mars,” which features some amazing swirling, inverted zooms through space ship windows along with balletic shots of floating bodies in space, what Annette Michelson calls, in still the best essay on “2001,” “the structural potentialities of haptic disorientation as agent of cognition”).
The ship moves forward, stately, imperturbable. The globe’s volume is echoed in procession by the smaller radio array of the AE-35, a satellite dish mounted on the fuselage. Finally the engines hove into view – and we cut to a reverse angle so the ship is now moving past us from the front still left to right. Then cut again, to a middle distance shot in which the ship, seen from its side, stretches across the screen. In every shot, it fills the screen. Time elapsed: roughly a minute and a half. In that time we are transported by the eerie floating alien grace of interplanetary flight, a new form of the technological sublime.
The Limey | Steven Soderbergh | 1999
“The Limey” is a classic revenge picture and one of the best “sunshine noirs” of recent vintage. Wilson, an English thief fresh from prison, has come to America looking for his daughter, Jenny. Soderbergh has described this film as a combination of “Get Carter” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” And it is. The opening sequences manipulate time brilliantly. Is Wilson just arriving in LA? Or is he on the return flight to London, musing about all that’s occurred? The first lines we hear, while the screen is still black, are Wilson’s, played by a loose, Cockney-slanging but wire-coiled, Terence Stamp: “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me about … Jenny.”
But it’s not until the film’s climax that we realize these are the last lines he speaks to her killer, the sleazy record producer Terry Valentine (the perfectly cast Peter Fonda). Through an intricate series of cuts, past, present, and future fluidly overlap till the difference is erased. Wilson, brooding on the plane (Stamp’s shriven skull – stark, solemn, and hallowed); Wilson smoking on his dingy hotel bed; Wilson buying guns from two teenage gangbangers in a park. Interspersed with these are repeated scenes of Wilson striding determinedly in slow motion along a sundrenched brick wall, dressed all in black.
Soderbergh shoots the scene from a distance, at a low angle, so that Wilson appears small against the industrial background. The classic law of thirds composition is slightly distorted here: the thin strip of asphalt and the concrete base of the building appear as one level; the massive red brick of the windowless wall another; and the washed out blue of the sky, cloudless and remote, as the third. He’s a small figure, almost puny – but utterly determined to wreak his vengeance.
My Darling Clementine | John Ford | 1946
The anecdote has taken on the sheen of myth. When asked who his favorite filmmakers were, Orson Welles replied: “the old masters, by which I mean John Ford, John Ford and John Ford.”
In the mid-1940s, Ford made three of his greatest films, each of them documenting the rituals of isolated and embattled communities trying to survive at the edge of the frontier. Taken together, “Clementine,” “Fort Apache” and “They Were Expendable” evince his devotion to the cultural logic of Manifest Destiny.
In “My Darling Clementine,” his heavily romanticized version of the Wyatt Earp story, civilizing Tombstone involves more than the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It also takes a “dad-blasted good dance,” as Russell Simpson, part of Ford’s stock company, puts it. Ford liked to say that his two favorite things to shoot were horses at full gallop and couples dancing. The dance in “Clementine” begins with a ritualistic walk as Henry Fonda escorts Clementine (Cathy Downs) down the boardwalk to the town church, which is nothing more than a wooden platform and the scaffolding of a belfry. In the distance, the townsfolk can be heard singing “Shall We Gather at the River.”
Ford shoots this scene with great solemnity and circumspection, the camera discretely tracking the pair at a middle distance as they stay framed inside several receding rectangles formed by the boardwalk, the wooden awning, and strips of sunlight and shadow. They could almost be walking down the aisle of a medieval cathedral. The couple pauses at the edge of the crowd. Downs glances over at Fonda expectantly, while Fonda, looking as uncomfortable as a man can when called upon to do the chivalric thing, removes his hat, fidgets with it, then finally tosses it aside. “Oblige me, ma’am?” he almost whispers. As soon as they mount the platform, Simpson calls a halt to the music, crying out, “sashay back, and make room for our new marshal, and his lady fair!” What follows is a moment of pure joy as Downs and Fonda perform a high stepping waltz, surrounded by a clapping crowd. Fonda’s stiff-legged, stork-like dance step would be laughable, were the expression on his face not so radiant. Ford’s orchestration of this seemingly simple scene is flawless: one of the truly great moments in American film.