Small, striking moments

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 3 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This is the comment I wanted to leave on Girish’s latest blog entry, which has the same title as this one, but there wasn’t enough space in the comment box!

I’ve been working on Hitchcock’s Rope for some time now. It’s a film full of striking moments (like the moment, already discussed by V F Perkins, where a swing door’s movement is synchronised with a character’s actions, perhaps suggesting complicity between the director and the murderous protagonist). There are two great moments that sprang to mind after reading this blog. Perhaps I thought of them because they’re arresting moments, moments of thought, for the characters as well as for the viewer.

The first comes after Brandon (John Dall) has decided he’ll serve party food not from the dining table, but from the chest where he and his accomplice have stowed the body of David Kentley, a supposed ‘inferior’ whom they had a right (a duty?) to dispense of – according, at least to their Nietzsche-inspired worldview. The moment I am thinking of is the one where Brandon lays the tablecloth over the chest. He is already pleased with his latest ‘artistic touch’ of serving food from David’s grave (as Brandon’s ex-house master and teacher, Rupert/James Stewart, will later put it). As he lays the cloth, though, he slows down – both in thought and speech – and these elements of performance signal to us that an additional layer of significance to his act has just this moment occurred to him, during the execution of the act itself: his laying of a table is also a draping of a coffin.
The second is the moment where Rupert’s suspicions are finally confirmed by an object. Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanson), the housekeeper, passes him the wrong hat by mistake – David’s hat, as confirmed by the initials embossed inside. This is a key plot moment, but after watching a few times, I realised that of course there’s a joke, of sorts, in there too: the hat is too small because, as would befit an ‘inferior’, David’s head is smaller than Rupert’s!
Two of the most rewarding parts of studying and teaching film for me are working with film sequences – on the page and in the seminar room. I love discovering new things or refining my understanding/articulation by turning moments over, looking at them in new contexts, or just searching for the right phrase to describe something that is happening in a sequence.
And taking all these great moments and observations about them and turning them into a more sustained overall account is often where the hardest work lies. I would add that, as well as the thinking about individual films in a sustained way often beginning with moments, a key rhetorical device in much writing about film is to do the same. One of the most promising beginnings to a piece of film criticism is ‘There is a moment in X where…’!
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