Friday, July 2, 2010

The Moment that Makes Greatness

Recently I've been thinking more and more about what makes a film great? It must be more that acting, editing, cinematography, writing, scoring or any other part that when added to the sum makes up more than the whole. If it were quantifiable in technical terms then Gus Van Sant's Psycho would be as equally celebrated as Hitchcock's and it isn't, nor should it be. More than that what makes a film great to one may not make it great to another. After years online, writing about movies and discussing them in comment sections, I'm still surprised sometimes when we don't all agree on the goodness, badness or ugliness of a particular movie, as if somehow we should all know the exact markers of a great or bad film and simply check them off to know with which kind of film we're dealing.

Much of this thinking process was sped along by my friend Bill Ryan's recent post on Mulholland Dr, written and directed by David Lynch and released in 2001. That's a film I know is great but I don't know for sure if I could tell you why. In fact, for much of the film the cinematography is rather pedestrian by these eyes, doing very little of interest with interiors for example. The editing, scoring and writing are all perfectly good in an almost purposely unremarkable way. And yet, I know that this is a great movie. Not just a good one, a great one. How do I know? I don't know. But I do know when I know.

For me, I often have moments when I know a movie is great and for Mulholland Dr it's when Rebekah Del Rio takes the stage at the Club Silencio, a full hour and 49 minutes into the movie, and performs "Crying" ("Llorando") in Spanish. Why does that moment signal the turn for me? I have no idea, I just know that it does. The entire Club Silencio sequence has a quiet beauty for me that very few movies achieve and when Del Rio is on stage I can feel an emotional pull that feels real but seems inexplicable. And how many movies, really, how many, can keep you interested and even deeply involved for almost two hours and then, THEN(!), at the time when most movies would be winding down, ramp everything up to a fever pitch that makes you, the viewer, feel like you've just been given a shot of adrenalin directly into the heart?

That's what Mulholland Dr does to me but there are so many movies that give me that "great" moment. Here are just five from a list of hundreds:

The Bridge on the River Kwai: This moment's a bit obvious and clearly intended to be a "comes the dawn" moment for the viewer but still it ropes me in every time. It's the moment just before the intermission when Colonel Nicholson is informed that the wood they're using has been known to last for 600 years and his eyes widen as he whispers in amazement, "600 years?" He's gone and now you know it. It chills me every time and takes the movie from excellent to great.

Dodsworth: Some movies hold out until the very last second and Dodsworth is one of them. I find the whole movie terrific but it's that moment, that scene on the ocean liner, almost at the very end of the movie that does it for me, that transforms it from good relationship drama to great relationship drama. [SPOILER]In the penultimate scene, as Dodsworth (Walter Huston) is on board, returning to the states with his wife (Ruth Chatterton) even though he's in love with another woman (Mary Astor) and this is 1936 and you know, just know, that this is how the production code dictates it must end, suddenly Dodsworth stands up, essentially says, "To hell with this and you and all your phoniness" and leaves to go to Mary Astor. What an ending. [END SPOILER]

The Earrings of Madame de...: The movie's initial set-up plays like a farce. Earrings are sold, re-bought by the husband, given to mistresses, lost in casinos and so on until our lovely lead, the Comtesse Louise, played by Danielle Darrieux, meets and falls in love with the Baron Fabrizio Donati, played by Vittorio De Sica. And then they dance, and dance, and dance. And when that dance scene happens, that takes us through the opening whispers of their love, as they dance until the band stops playing, that's when it becomes great.

The Third Man: Another obvious moment but still, I can't deny it. It occurs when Holly (Joseph Cotten) is stumbling drunk into the street from Anna's (Alida Valli) apartment and spies none other than Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the doorway across the street. The same Harry Lime that, up to now, was supposed to be dead.

Stroszek: I highlighted this sequence a while back at Unexplained Cinema and it remains for me the greatest moment in the whole movie but, also, the moment that tips the movie over the edge from fascinating and bizarre study to greatness. Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) stands motionless as his home abandons him and exits stage left (house right).

I could keep going and, in fact, so many scenes in movies that are celebrated in movies are celebrated for the very fact that they often are the moment the movie transcends expected standards and moves into the area of greatness ("We're going to need a bigger boat" from Jaws being an easy example) but it's more interesting when, as in Mulholland Dr., you're not really sure why a moment takes you to the next level, it just does and when it happens, it can be exhilirating.


Peter Nellhaus said...

Mulholland Dr. is great because of Naomi Watts and Laura Harring getting hot together. No use beating around the bush, to coin a phrase.

Dean Treadway said...

You're absolutely right. The Del Rio scene is the film's emotional apex, and it's put there quite on purpose, of course (even at 1:49). I think that, besides the crucial placement, the cuts back to our disturbed leading ladies, and Del Rio's performance, there are two deciding factors in the scene propelling the movie into greatness: (1) it's the first protracted extreme close-up in the film, and on an already intense performance, and (2) the sound. Lynch is a master of sound, and when I heard this in the movie theater, I swore then that I had never heard anything like it. The timbre in Del Rio's voice is palpable emotion, almost visual in vividness. These two qualities also give us a subliminal clue that the "dream" is coming to an end. No dream could survive a moment like this; one would simply have to wake up. My review of MULHOLLAND DR. is just the sort of review you or Bill might hate. However, I urge you to read it. I'd be honored.

Ed Howard said...

I think Dean hints at that scene's appeal when he mentions the sound, which is of course crucial to it. In fact, it's what the scene is all about. I think that scene is so stunning because, after so long, Lynch suddenly reveals that all along we've been immersed in a metafiction, and that he's about to start pulling back the curtains to reveal... something else. It's all fake, he reminds us, and yet it still has the power to affect us deeply, as evidenced by the fact that, even after Del Rio's performance is revealed to be taped rather than live, it continues to be nearly overwhelming in its emotional impact. This scene brings me close to tears every time I watch it, and like Betty and Rita watching in the audience, I couldn't quite say why — I just know there's something heartbreaking about Lynch's sheer confidence in the beauty and power of moviemaking's lies and manipulations here.

Greg said...

Peter, when did you start channeling Arbogast? Actually, that is one of the reasons it's great, that being that it isn't afraid to be erotic to get more resonance from the characters with each other. Watts and Harring's scene, as well as the one she "plays" at her audition, are both charged with an energy not seen in most post-seventies movies.

Greg said...

Dean, I read your excellent piece and think that is indeedn the basic story most folks go with. If there is any story at all [SPOILER] it's that Naomi Watts is dreaming until the finish of the Club Silencio scene, then awakens to the reality of being in love with Camilla, a successful actress to Naomi's unknown actress, and not having her love returned, even mocked, until she goes insane, tries to have Camilla killed and finally, after an all night bender and hallucinations, kills herself. [SPOILER] I agree, that's the story but it's a story that still makes so little sense and has so many loose ends (the director catching his girlfriend cheating, the man frightened to death behind Winkies, the dwarf giving phone orders) that to go with it over all else, for me (and I think Bill too) diminishes all the magic to be had from just seeing it instead as everyone's dream (the characters, you, me, David Lynch, etc) and not trying to tie anything up at the end.

I don't deny you can't get something out of that interpretation and I'm glad you have, it's just that I prefer to take pieces of a story rather than a definite full-on tale.

Greg said...

I think that scene is so stunning because, after so long, Lynch suddenly reveals that all along we've been immersed in a metafiction.

Yes, I think that is the best explanation for the scene's impact on me. It is revealing that now, finally, we're going to admit that everything has been a fake, a dream (as Dean points out), a con and yet that doesn't mean any of it has been meaningless, just not necessarily the truth according to a given narrative.

And like you, as I say in my piece, it fills one with emotions that feel absolutely real despite being told it's all fake. Lynch achieves something pretty astounding with that scene.

Ed Howard said...

the director catching his girlfriend cheating

If you go by the "story," then everything that happens to the director can be seen as Naomi Watts' mental revenge on the man who stole her girl from her. The director is subjected to one humiliation after another throughout the first half of the film. But the remarkable thing, and one of many ways in which the film twists away from the straightforward "dream" interpretation, is that far from being an object of contempt as he is for the dreamer, the director becomes such a sympathetic figure, and we feel for his predicaments.

Of course, one guesses that Lynch, as a director, feels for him, too, and uses him to both mock and represent his own position as the director.

Greg said...

Of course, one guesses that Lynch, as a director, feels for him, too, and uses him to both mock and represent his own position as the director.

Justin Theroux is pretty hilarious as the put upon director and I definitely saw him as a sad sack/David Lynch stand-in. And going with the story line, the way he looks at Naomi in both the dream and waking sections suggests that he understands the pain she has which is perhaps why he is sympathetic.

Mike Lippert said...

Greg, when I started reading this I was going to make a comment about that one moment when a movie reaches perfection and for the rest of the running time you no longer become a passive outsider and get wrapped up in the entire experience of the film, giving over to it so to speak. For me, with Mulholland Dr. it's just just the Silencio scene but also the one where the body is found in that house (it's been a while so this is blurry) but it's the moment when their character's switch.

I know what you are saying about knowing a movie is great but not knowing why. It took me two days of thinking about Inglorious Basterds before I realized that it was a great movie. Same happened with No Country for Old Men.

Great post here.

Greg said...

Thanks, Mike. I too love Inglourious Basterds and No Country for Old Men and for me, the moment in Inglourious Basterds that sold it outright to me in an instant was when Shoshanna says to Marcel, after he asks what she's talking about, "Filling the cinema with Nazis, and burning it to the ground." That moment gave me chills, especially knowing that Tarantino, and by extension, Shoshanna, meant it.

Simon said...

Excellent choice for The Third Man.

Agree with Mike on Basterds and No Country for Old Men. Not immediately noticeable how brilliant they are, but it sinks in (also with the Third Man).

Tony Dayoub said...

All kidding aside, I agree with Peter. As I mentioned in Bill's thread, I find I'm always unduly preoccupied with MD's previous incarnation as a TV pilot because of all the tangential subplots which just hang.

The first inkling of the film's true power is the audition scene you mention, Greg. But damn it if having Chad Everett involved still reminds me of TV (stupid MEDICAL CENTER theme runs through my head, now).

It's only when Harring and Watts do something decidedly non-TV in that bedroom that the movie takes a departure from its origins, in my mind.

But funny that you zero in on Del Rio's song as your moment. It reminds me of Dean Stockwell's sublime lip-sync performance of another Orbison song in BLUE VELVET. When he mimes "In Dreams" into the light/microphone, it is not only the moment BV takes off; it is the moment that makes Lynch's greatness.

Greg said...

Simon, I love that moment in The Third Man because it immediately transports it from a drama to a thriller. First, it's a drama and Holly is slowly being made to come to terms with the fact that his friend Harry wasn't all he thought he was and, in fact, did awful things. Then, suddenly, it's a thriller because, well damn, there's Harry! He's still alive, still doing awful things and he's got to stop him! Great, great movie.

Greg said...

Tony, I agree with Roger Ebert's take, which was basically, Lynch used ABC for funding and nothing more. I believe as Ebert does that Lynch never, ever intended this to be a series, he was just getting funding and once it was rejected as a series, he could reshoot some scenes and add in others. Don't sell Lynch's savvy short, he knew what he was doing. I don't think any of the story threads mattered much one way or the other and even if it had been a series, well, look at Twin Peaks. Did anything get resolved there?

And that scene in Blue Velvet is the moment that movie shifts and, I fully agree, Lynch's career as well. He'd gone from film student experimental (Eraserhead) to Hollywood stodgy (The Elephant Man) to Hollywood big budget (Dune) and finally, with Blue Velvet, and specifically, that scene, he became David Lynch!

Arbogast said...

Del Rio's performance is revealed to be taped

But the performance isn't faked, just the vocal. The singer is there in real time, her movements are genuine and her emotional response is (or seems to be) genuine. While it may seem to come down to semantics, there may be no other director for whom semantic hair-splitting is more appropriate. Throughout Lynch's body of work, we're confronted with the tension between the imagined and the actual as a metaphor for the divided mind of man... and this scene really celebrates that motif while furthering both the mystery and the argument.

Too bad Del Rio couldn't work the same magic on Southland Tales.

Greg said...

But the performance isn't faked, just the vocal.

And, to add to the hairsplitting you mention, is the fact that even if it weren't revealed to be recorded it still would be, as a performer always lip synchs along with the playback. Here, Lynch simply has her stop lip synching and collapse so you could say that she is overcome by the emotion of the piece she is lip synching and collapses under its weight. Which would make it more genuine.

Somehow, that all makes sense for a David Lynch movie.

bill r. said...

It's all about the Cowboy. I'm telling you guys.

Greg said...

Well, now, here's a man who wants to get right down to it. Kind of anxious to get to it, are you? Bill, a man's attitude... a man's attitude goes some ways... the way his life will be. Is that something you might agree with?

Now Bill, I want you to back to your blogroll... you were going to reorganize it anyway. And I want you to peruse many blogs but when you get to my blog I want you to say, "This is the blog." The rest of the blogs can stay on your blogroll, that's up to you, but the lead blog, that's not up to you.

Now, you will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad.


Pat said...

Greg -

It's interesting that I have exactly the same feeling about exactly the same scene in "Mulholland Drive" - that's the scene that really blows me away, and I've never been able to articulate why.

Greg said...

The song is sung with such an emotional strength by Del Rio and like someone said earlier, we see the reactions of Betty and Rita but still, it doesn't seem like it should be that impactful and yet it is.

Margaret Benbow said...

"The Moment That Makes Greatness"--yes. And we always recognize it, even though we can't always explain it. I was knocked over the first time this happened to me--watching a scene in Kurosawa's "Drunken Angel." I was an ignorant kid who'd seen very few foreign movies at that point. But the drunken doctor walks alone out into the night--which vibrates with the poisonous slum, and insects, and danger--and suddenly he hears a voice in the blackness singing, in slow formal measures that are somehow terrifying, a Japanese song. It's sinister and beautiful, and mysterious, all at the same time. We're shaken and breathless, with the doctor. Soon we find out the singer is a vicious gangster. It was at that exact moment of the song that Kurosawa's bold genius fired my dim wits with the knowledge of what a film could be.

Greg said...

Margaret, that's a great example. Thanks! I'd like to know more examples from other people about those moments that stood out for them (which is why I provided five of my own) but I guess Mulholland Dr is too tempting a movie to ignore once it's entered the conversation.

Flickhead said...

There are moments of greatness in otherwise tepid or mediocre films... my mind's veering toward Ellen Barkin's trailer park whore in Johnny Handsome, all big hair and leopard-print mini skirt, going down in a hale of bullets, screaming at Mickey Rourke, "OK, freak, let's see whatcha got!"

I'm also thinking of Angelina Jolie with brass knuckles beating the piss out of James McAvoy in Wanted, hissing out "Quit wasting my fucking time!"

How I love women in control!

Tony Dayoub said...

THE BIG COUNTRY, when Charles Bickford decides to ride into Burl Ives' land by himself, after his disillusioned foreman Charlton Heston, and the rest of their posse, refuse to sanction Bickford's obsession with driving Ives out.

Bickford is riding down the desolate pass alone when you see a small dot in the horizon come around the mountain pass. Slowly, as Jerome Moross' addictive musical theme builds, this dot grows into a man riding a horse as we discover it is Heston who catches up to Bickford. Then you see more dots come around the pass, as the score keeps building, the rest of the posse catching up to Bickford and Heston to support their misguided leader.

Marilyn said...

I have moments that confer greatness and moment that make me fall in love with a film. For example, in George Washington, a wonderful film but perhaps not a masterpiece, there is a scene in a bathroom that made me fall in love with the film as a whole, not just a scene I love. It said everything about being young, poor, and wanting to have some control over your life.

Then there are moments that make the film great. In The Passenger, that moment comes at the end of the film, when we know Jack Nicholson is in a room waiting for a rendezvous and then the camera points determinedly out his room window at the street scene outside. We see life go on, the men he is to meet show up, life continue, aimless wandering of his companion - it tells us everything about this man's fate and the idea of life and absence that the film wishes to convey. At that moment, an intriguing film that seems a little slow comes slamming into focus with a force that is truly stunning.

Greg said...

Flickhead, when isn't your mind veering towards trailer park whores?

How I love women in control!

This we definitely share!

Greg said...

Tony, the look of Big Country is pretty amazing. I remember seeing it for the first time primarily because I knew Ives had won an Oscar for it and being very impressed with that very shot you're talking about. It's a movie I've now seen a couple more times and that shot is the best in the movie.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I've never seen George Washington. I remember hearing about it upon its release and then lost track of it. When I do see it, I'll be looking for that shot.

And you're right about The Passenger. It's those last shots that make it all work, though I haven't seen it in years and should see it again. Nevertheless, it's the final scene that sticks out for me.

Flickhead said...

"Flickhead, when isn't your mind veering towards trailer park whores?"

I likes my biotches sleazy an' easy!

Margaret Benbow said...

Yes, that scene of the posse one by one joining Bickford (disagreeing with him, knowing they're riding into an ambush) is remarkable. For me, the jolt came later, in that moment when Burl Ives embraces his dead son's head--and didn't he kill the boy himself?--with grief, and we realize that he has always loved the misbegotten, cowardly, thuggish son he always despised.

Dean Treadway said...

The first 10 titles that flash upon me in this regard are the ones that captured my loyalty the moment they began. Usually, this happens--and it seldom does happen--with music and silence making an immediate interplay:

The orchestra tuning up, and the Broadway lights flashing the short title to Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ, followed by Joe Gideon's speed-and-nicotine-fueled morning routine, set to a rushing Vivaldi, and then it's showtime, folks.

The princess' words echo over old waters, calling for spirits, and then the credits takes us through the cartography of a long trip, with background birdsong--and then a whirling, ever-spiraling-upward Wagner piece accompanies the ships' arrival in Malick's THE NEW WORLD.

A flickery silent movie tells a tale of poverty and injustice on a coffee plantation...and NOW...Alan Price's hands bang out the first keyboard chords to Lindsay Anderson's O LUCKY MAN!

A montage of war violence set to suave jazz and our lead, Giancarlo Giannini, dedicating the film to all those responsible, OH YEAH, in Lina Wertmuller's SEVEN BEAUTIES.

The note-perfect, dinged-up opening previews and policy trailers, plus the ass-grabbing open to Robert Rodriguez's "Planet Terror," all of it part of a greater creature that should be called GRINDHOUSE.

The competition between a fat opera singer's practice and a rabbit's banjo-playing pleasure in Chuck Jones' LONG-HAIRED HARE.

"And when I die, won't ya bury me, in the parking lot of the A&P?" Dennis Quaid's disappointed football star sings from afar as he and his three friends make their way through the quarry brush in Peter Yates' BREAKING AWAY.

"Chapter one. He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved." Gershwin, Gordon Willis, and a great city in black-and-white. Woody Allen's MANHATTAN.

With Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" rocking the speakers, a pretty girl, bored, plays a role behind the wheel in order to get her way. "you gonna let me in? Yeah? Thank you!" The mirror of her ultimate question to the title character in Noah Baumbach's GREENBERG.

The cheers of an invisible audience slowly fade up and a man sets down a boom box. "I have a tape I wanna play for you." And the beat, the chugging guitar, and the bobblehead of David Byrne in Jonathan Demme and Talking Heads' STOP MAKING SENSE.

Greg said...

Dean -

All that Jazz - Love the entire opening through the audition. Fantastic start to a movie.

And interesting that you mention so many other movies released around the same time (within a couple of years at the most): Seven Beauties, Manhattan, Breaking Away and O Lucky Man from the early to mid-seventies. Love them all and love so many of the movies of the seventies. I could do a list just on movies of the seventies that have those moments when a movie gets great and maybe never run out of movies to do.

Dean Treadway said...

1979 remains my favorite year for movies. I was 13 and I think the movies you see when you're 13-15 are the ones you think are the best you've ever seen. Luckily, that would be 79-81 for me, which were undeniably great years.

Here's my article about 1979:

Dean Treadway said...

1979 remains my favorite year for movies. I was 13 and I think the movies you see when you're 13-15 are the ones you think are the best you've ever seen. Luckily, that would be 79-81 for me, which were undeniably great years.

Here's my article about 1979: