There are some moments during the watching of a film that you know you will remember long after the details of the film escape recall. There might be different reasons for this: it could be that the narrative has been building up to a particular revelation – as in the turning of the chair in Psycho; it could be the shock of incongruity, as in the slit eyeball in Un Chein Andalou; or it could merely be the second-hand recognition of an iconic image, such as the old man being kicked in the subway, in A Clockwork Orange or the angularity of the steps and what happens on them, in Battleship Potemkin.
But there are other, more idiosyncratic reasons why one remembers one shot or sequence over so many others. My personal list of favourites sometimes has rather peculiar reasons for being memorable. Here goes:
2046: Tony Leung Chiu-wai is writing in his room; next to him, the inevitable cigarette in the ashtray. In close shot, in slow motion, the smoke rises up straight as a pillar. For a few beats, it is almost immobile, then it wavers, breaks and dissolves.
Anyone who has watched a lit cigarette will know that it is next to impossible to have an unbroken, straight line of smoke rising up. On a film set, with even a minimum crew, it must have taken some effort to make the air still enough to get that shot. It falls in the category of shots that don’t have a reason for being in the film except for the pure beauty of the image.
And while on the subject of 2046, I loved the way the whole film was framed. Shot in Cinemascope, the whole film plays with frames within frames. People – usually two or alone – are in one half of the frame, while the remaining half is usually a solid block of colour, or an open doorway, or empty sky. Very occasionally, things might be happening in the half of the frame, but it is out of focus and implied rather than shown.
Sonatine: In Kitano’s gangster film, the gang waits for a big raid the following day. In the evening, on the beach, two sumo wrestlers get ready to fight. Without appearing to move, they make circles in the sand. It is an exuberant moment, one that everyone knows will be short-lived, and therefore more acutely experienced.
Knife In The Water: On the boat, the young man the couple picks up, puts his hand on the table, palms spread and takes out his knife. And without appearing to think or even look at his hand, he stabs the knife in the spaces between his fingers. One space ahead and back; one space further and back. The knife moves viciously and you are hypnotised by the rhythm, fascinated and waiting for it to plunge into skin. In the frame only the palm, the knife and the hand holding it are visible – an already dis-jointed and threatening composition.
This knife act is referenced in A Short Film About Love when the young boy tries to show how grown-up he is.
Mirror: The mother waits, sitting on a fence by a huge field. From nowhere, a slight breeze starts up and waves across the field. It ripples across the frame, and a man is walking towards the woman.
(A lot of Tarkovsky’s films have shots that are there for no apparent reason than that they are poetic and beautiful. In a lot of these beautiful moments, milk is spilt in slow motion, over which, clearly, there is no use crying. But snide remarks aside, a lot of these shots have been much imitated, perhaps indicating the power they have over viewers in general and filmmakers in particular.)
Nizhalkoothu: Once the proclamation has been made that a man will hang and the hangman should get ready, the prisoners prepare the rope. In the prison yard, other condemned men make long trains of yarn and enter and leave the frame across which white threads dance and twist and become the rope the hangman will use. Like in Sonatine, the beauty of the sequence is heightened by the irony in the contrast between what is seen and what is to follow.
Coastguard: The woman who has been forced to abort her baby, comes back to her home torn and bleeding and sits in the fish tank where her brother keeps the fish he sells. In this shot, you see her drawn legs, the water slowly turning red and the fish moving about in a suddenly constricted space.
And talking of fish and feet,
Children of Heaven: The last shot of this film is an understated end to a very dramatic Race For Shoes, which the brother unwittingly wins. In this last shot, after his disappointed sister walks away, the brother puts his tired feet into the water. From inside the water, orange fish dart around his toes and occasionally nibble at his feet.
This was the image on the poster for Children Of Heaven, displayed at Sirifort. On the last day of the festival, I tried to look confident and steal the poster, but I was caught and had to hand it over to the officious cop on duty. Sigh.
And, just for light relief,
Throw Mamma From The Train: Billy Crystal is a writer who is forever traumatised by people who steal his ideas before he’s managed to make a book out of it. When he is on the train from which mamma is to be thrown (the criss-cross idea coming from Strangers On A Train), he is telling her about the trouble he is having with the first line of a story, where is trying to describe a hot and humid night. ‘Humid’ is clearly not adequate, he explains to mamma. Mamma looks characteristically malicious as she hisses out one word: ‘Sultry.’
I guess I ought to have listed directors as well: in order of the films I’ve picked, Wong Kar-wai, Takeshi Kitano, Roman Polanski, Andrei Tarkovsky, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kim Ki-duk, Majid Majidi and I-have-no-idea-and-am-too-lazy-to-check-imdb.
The long list is, naturally, endless.