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.