Movies have been on my mind recently, partially because of the Oscars, although I rarely respect the academy's decisions (i.e. Gladiator won best picture in 2001 -- what an unapologetic piece of shit). New releases usually pass me by; I generally see an average of one per year, because more often than not they disappoint or outright enrage me. Instead, I buy the DVD's of my favorites and watch them over and over, ad nauseum.
I understand that a movie's purpose is entertainment, but every now and then someone tells me they avoid movies that make them think. This is asinine. What's wrong with thinking? And isn't that why we invented television? Thought provoking movies do not have to be about the darker sides of life, as the Monty Python crew proved over three decades ago.
Anyway, my film snobbery aside, I've been thinking about the smaller details in movies, things you may not notice the first time you view them, that make good films great. A fine plot, quality acting and well-written script are of course essential, but the smaller details reveal whether or not the director and his or her vision, is worth a damn.
For example, Inglourious Basterds. I'm a huge Quentin Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction is a cinematic masterpiece and was a major paradigm shift in the industry. I'm honored and amazed to have come of age in the time of Tarantino's body of work (especially considering most of my favorite directors reached the peak of their careers before I was born). His oeuvre contains breakthrough Feminist characters, outstanding dialogue and draws on his encyclopedic knowledge of B movies. QT is a director's director; one can question his taste, but not his mastery of the craft. (I subscribe to a Pynchon listserv where we engage in group readings of his novels, but also discuss pop culture, both as it relates to Pynchon and in general. When the group began bashing QT one day, I had to delete the emails and walk away because there was no polite way to tell these (quite obviously late middle-aged) men, that it was generation gap informing their distaste, not any real understanding, on their part, of cinema. In short: they are too old to get it.)
The moment in Inglourious Basterds that affects me every time I watch it, is the last 10 seconds of the scene where Shosanna/Emmanuelle, the French Jew who miraculously escaped extermination, is coincidentally reunited with Col. Landa, the Nazi who killed her family, in a Parisian strudel-haus. The camera slowly pans away from her to reveal a grey figure looming behind her and we watch as she, horrified, turns her head and slowly drags her gaze upward, taking his figure in and turning a tense situation into a potentially deadly one. (I cheer the academy for giving Christoph Waltz a much-deserved Oscar for this role -- Waltz was a stroke of genuis on QT's part -- he was thoroughly menacing, the epitome of that sort of evil.) The script of Inglorious Basterds states that part of Landa's power is his ability to make his victim believe he knows her secrets and this scene demonstrates that perfectly. Shosanna successfully keeps her wits about her and Landa exits without realizing her true identity. In a close-up we see her wait a few beats to be certain that he is gone, then release a tense sob -- maybe five seconds of action containing a non-verbal expression that communicates the deepest level of terror and loathing one can imagine -- this is cinema doing what it does best.
When I was 15, my favorite movie was The Graduate, the 1967 film starring Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft, about a college grad, Benjamin, who has an affair with Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner. There were several things about this film that appealed to me then (and still do, in a nostalgic kind of way). Benjamin's dialogue is spare but dry and hilarious; his discomfort is legendary as he suffers through ennui, spending his post-college season floating on a raft in his parent's pool between couplings with Mrs. Robinson at a local hotel. Halfway through the movie there is a sequence demonstrating his directionless existence which is just masterfully edited. We see Benjamin dress and undress in a shadowy room, seamlessly cut back and forth between a hotel room and room at his parent's house, explaining to the audience that this is how his time is filled, that one activity bleeds into the next as the days bleed into one another, becoming virtually indistinguishable. Benjamin finally sheds his clothing and opens a door onto a sunny patio. The camera follows him out onto the patio, onto the diving board, into the pool, through the water and onto an inflatable raft. At the last second, just as his body lifts out of the water and his torso begins to make contact with the raft, the scene shifts, ending abruptly, and instead of the raft, Ben is laying face down on top of Mrs. Robinson in a hotel bed. After watching the movie dozens of time between the age of 15 and 18 as I, too, suffered from that sort of ennui, I am still to this day startled by that slight of hand editorial trick. The way Mike Nichols builds up momentum and drops Ben and the audience in a delightfully compromising position will always satisfy me in a gleefully dirty way.
This blog post is running a bit long, so I'll wind it down here. Some other movie moments I cherish for similar reasons include the first mess hall scene in Altman's MASH when from a low camera angle we follow Tom Skerritt's hips as he mashes his hat into his back pocket, turns to pick up a food tray and strolls down the food line. It's an interesting angle for such mundane activity, and fleetingly celebrates his youthful body more than any of his shirtless scenes. (I'm not generally attracted to Tom Skerrit, but have to admit that those 10 seconds of film hit me in a well-below-the-gut kind of way. *Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more, say-no-more*) And, in that vein, there is a stunning moment in Casablanca, during one of the flashback scenes, where Rick and Ilsa are together in Paris, toasting themselves. Ingrid Bergman is draped in a long, shimmering gown, poised on a couch and the gown reveals the mile-long outline of her devastating leg, from hip to heel. Or how about Guido's clownish walk in 8-1/2 down an otherwise forgettable hallway, humming the more familiar bars of the overture to Rossini's Barber of Seville? Or Margot's teasing half-smile as she descends in slow-motion off the Green Line bus to meet her brother Richie at the dock in The Royal Tenenbaums?
Well, now you know my dirty little secret -- I dwell in the small moments, both in life, in poetry, on film. (Okay, it's not so dirty.) Who doesn't love great visual effects and stories that suck you in? These attributes are what keeps Hollywood in business. But the details are what help us separate the wheat from the chaff and builds our legacies or lets them fade away to black.