Mere Moments


“Movies”, or “Film”?

I grew up going to the movies. Later, I sought out films. And movies. For the purpose of this exploration, let’s stick with movies, since we’re pretty much talking popular culture here.

A lot of movies can be really sticky for a lot of reasons. But some moments in particular movies stand out because they encapsulate a character or show the essence of an important relationship or both. I’m not talking about the iconic moments we see over and over in film clips of “Great Moments of Cinema.” You know the ones I mean: “Rosebud,” “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” “Of all the gin joints …” “You shoulda come to me sooner …” “I’d love to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair,” etc. These are fine, wonderful, exciting, and exist as an integral part of our memories of cultural and cinematic zeitgeists. As moments, they’re important. But they’ve been picked up and examined so thoroughly that, for the most part, they provide very little room for further exploration. No, I’m talking about small moments, something almost off to the side, moments when you nudge your friend, or yourself, and say, “Did you see that?” These small moments are the ones that keep us coming back for more… to re-watch the movies they’re in, and to explore movies we don’t know, or don’t yet know, in order to enlarge ourselves and our lives.

Here’s a brief top-of-my-head list, in alphabetical order. Please let me know if you’d like to add anything?

All About Eve: At the award dinner, Bette Davis looks at her rival, and vigorously bites a stalk of celery. It tells you everything you need to know about that relationship.

Best Years of Our Lives: Myrna Loy hears her husband (Frederick March), suddenly back from the war, at the door before she sees him. She can’t believe he’s really, truly, finally there, and is terrified of what she might find, while at the same time longing to see him.

Godfather II: Lee Strasburg, as mobster Hyman Roth, cuts the birthday cake that is shaped like Cuba. 

It Happened One Night: Standing by the side of the road, Claudette Colbert hikes up her skirt to show more leg, and to show Clark Gable how to get a ride from a passing car.

Love, Actually”: It’s Christmas, and Emma Thompson has just discovered her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating. Upstairs, by herself, she pulls herself together for the sake of her family. She stands, not crying, then almost crying, which she staves off by giving her hands a couple of good shakes (“shake it off”) before heading downstairs. 

Midnight Cowboy: Dustin Hoffman pounds on the hood of the car as he crosses the street, and yells the immortal line: “I’m walkin’ here.”

Midnight Run: In the middle of the movie, Robert De Niro has to go to his ex-wife to borrow money. As he leaves, he looks over his shoulder at the daughter he loves but can’t connect with as she stands in the doorway staring straight at him. All the more poignant for being an exceptionally true moment in one of the best buddy-movie comedies of all time.

On Golden Pond: His grown daughter (Jane Fonda) is seated on the sofa, the elderly father (Henry Fonda) is standing behind her; he reaches out, for the first time, to touch her shoulder; she’s unaware of his intention and moves away before the touch. Their entire relationship is made manifest in that single moment. 

Ordinary People: Her “perfect son” has died in an accident, and her surviving son has just refused the “special” French toast she made. Mary Tyler Moore, at the sink, scrapes the French toast into the garbage disposal, and flips the switch.

Thelma & Louise: Before embarking on what she thinks will be a little road trip, Louise (Susan Sarandon), in her nothing-out-of-place kitchen, rinses out her water glass, dries it, and puts it away. Pretty much all you need to know about her character in 5 seconds of film.