Moments out of Time 1991

[Originally published in Film Comment Volume 28 Number 1, January/February 1992, reprinted by permission]

• Best shot of the year: A motorcycle tops a rise on a lonely road in sagebrush country, followed (though not, strictly, pursued) a beat later by a police car. The timing of the vehicles’ apparition; the casual left-to-right pan that observes them till the cyclist realizes he should pull over; the way the shot-movement incidentally sums up the roll of the land, its distances and layers and colors … My Own Private Idaho

"La belle noiseuse"
‘La belle noiseuse’

• Most triumphant moment: in the doctor’s office in Rambling Rose, Daddy (Robert Duvall) admitting “I was wrong”; his tears of love and fervent pride for the wife (Diane Ladd) who has set him right…

• World and time shrink down to the limits of a sketch pad, while an artist’s hand consumes sheet after sheet with inked images of an unseen nude; the relentless scratch of his pen like death’s feather on the nerve—La Belle Noiseuse

• Véronique (Irène Jacob), lying on her back on a bed in a hotel room she has just rented impetuously, watches an offscreen something sail down past the window, its shadow brushing her face—The Double Life of Véronique….

Barton Fink: The bellhop—CHET! (Steve Buscemi)—rising through a trap-door behind the Hotel Earle reception desk to ask Fink (John Turturro) whether he’s to be “trans or res”…

• That last, endless shot of The Silence of the Lambs: an emptying street, dimming at the onset of evening, down which Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) has long since disappeared on the scent of “an old friend”…

Bugsy: Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), who entered the film saying she ought to have a line of dialogue, can come up with none during her last, long, agonizing closeup….

Black Robe: The Jesuit missionary waking in the middle of a winter night in a smoky Indian shelter to find that one of the dogs is sleeping on top of him (That dog clearly has been sleeping, and is annoyed that the actor has moved. How did they set up for this shot?)…

• Pan from the foster mother (Jennette Goldstein) talking on the phone, in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, across the kitchen to her husband—spiked to the wall by “her” metallic arm: the shape-changing T-1000 has claimed his first victims….

• The preacher’s son (Samuel L. Jackson) steps out his last shuffle-and-jive, a boneless junkie-jig of contempt and mock-groveling before his father (Ossie Davis) puts him out of his misery once and for all—Jungle Fever….

• A working-class Irishman (Colm Meaney) holding forth at the breakfast table about today’s music; on the wall behind him, framed (and coequal) photos of Elvis and the Pope—The Commitments

• Billy Crystal, Daniel Stern, and Bruno Kirby, City Slickers, scoring their own ride with—”Dum da da dum dum, dum da da dum dum DA DA!!”—the theme from Bonanza

• Geena Davis’s shit-eating grin as she saunters, loose-jointed, into a motel coffeeshop the morning after getting “properly laid”—Thelma & Louise

• The sweet, reliable gravity of Little Man Tate (Adam Hann Byrd), who often knows more than he should have to bear…

• Crispin Glover’s cameo as Andy Warhol in The Doors

• Glenne Headly, in Mortal Thoughts, whistling cheerfully in Joyce’s Clip ‘n’ Dye while she mixes rat poison with her husband’s sugar…

• Detective Gold (Joe Mantegna), come to investigate a report of a gunshot heard by some paranoid Jews who probably have no idea what a gunshot sounds like, doesn’t know whether he just heard a gunshot—Homicide….

• Jane Birkin’s signature on the painting of Emmanuelle Béart: the onetime belle noiseuse, her presence felt everywhere as insistently, invisibly as a cat’s, underlines another muse’s part in the act of creation…

My Own Private Idaho: the pietà of Mike (River Phoenix) lying across Scott’s (Keanu Reeves’s) lap, alongside a spouting fountain under a Portland statue briefly glimpsed as THE COMING OF THE WHITE MAN…

Black Robe: A priest writes down a redman’s confidence that his wife’s mother died last year, then carries the communication across a clearing to an uninformed white colleague who reads it aloud, to his Indian audience’s amaze: a small but killing concatenation of magic and culture shock in the middle of nowhere….

• The second-most miraculous trolley movement in the history of the cinema: Véronique unknowingly snaps a picture of Veronika looking at her—The Double Life of Véronique….

Barton Fink: Lou Breeze (Jon Polito) listens as Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) tells Fink his first Hollywood assignment will be a wrestling picture for Wally Beery. “Excellent pictcha,” Lou puts in. “Have we got a story yet?” asks Lipnick. Lou replies. Unperturbed: “No.”…

• The quality of light in Bugsy‘s interiors: rich gold pools that barely lap the edges of the dark; a mise-en-scène that weights sound, leans heavily toward violence, and presses against heated flesh…

Rush: In casual longshot, Jason Patric flicks water onto a hot iron on his sinktop; it instantly sizzles into steam. An incurious beat later, Patric takes up the iron and presses it onto the needle tracks inside his elbow….

• The premonitory terror of the female traveler (Johanna ter Steege) as, left alone in the car in the tunnel, she feels herself utterly disconnected from the world—The Vanishing

Billy Bathgate: the way the boat, after Billy (Loren Dean) has leapt aboard, is swallowed up by fog: a movement into myth (rather—alas—into protracted anticlimax)…

• In Conagher, pioneer Billy “Green” Bush, lying broken alongside his fallen horse, apologizing to the writhing animal before putting it out of its misery, and himself dying a moment later. No one but the viewer will ever know what happened to this man….

• Sneaky Lukas Haas under the covers with Laura Dern’s Rose, in Rambling Rose, bargaining inch by precious inch for his first touch of breast and nipple and more…

• Gazing at his fanatically Aryan girlfriend’s turtleneck sweater, the circumcised hero of Europa Europa—a concentration-camp candidate ensconced in the ranks of the Hitler Youth—gets an outrageous idea involving some tricky work with needle and thread….

• Lili Taylor’s taming and civilizing, by degrees, of River Phoenix in Dogfight, becoming his compass and only home just when he—on any of several fronts—might be lost for good…

• A curl of smoke appears beneath a door, then darts back out of sight like a startled animal: the demon breath of Backdraft….

• The known world going up in flames around him, Charlie Meadows, aka Madman Mundt (John Goodman), wearily lays his shotgun on the lintel over Barton’s door, and trudges in for a chat—Barton Fink….

• Cathy Moriarty to Robert Downey Jr., Soapdish: “Get rid of her and Mr. Fuzzy is yours.”…

• The happily sinful Patrick Bauchau taunting Mimi Rogers about her new lover—Jesus, as it happens—in The Rapture

• The tenderness of the performance, and casting, of Tom Courtenay as the martyred boy’s father in Let Him Have It

• The strange, chemical, Calvary-marking bright green that creeps into the backgrounds and highlights of Slawomir Idziak’s cinematography in The Double Life of Véronique

• Tubbed in a black-and-white bathroom in a black-and-white universe, we witness a suicide from underwater: bright arterial blood flowing from an opened wrist, the red clouding over our transparent medium—Zentropa….

• Out in the heart of Marlboro Country, a spandex’d Rastaman, high on reggae and ganja, shares his smoke with whoever’s thumping on the lid of that police-car trunk—Thelma & Louise….

• Bill Lee (Peter Weller) walking out of a police station in Naked Lunch, none of the officers notably concerned that he has been talking with—and left crushed behind him—a very large bug…

• Bacon sizzling on Valeria Golino’s tummy—Hot Shots

• Spidery Michael Jeter, wholly at home in his glitzy chorine finery, belting out an Ethel Merman showstopper to a roomful of poleaxed publishing-house nerds—The Fisher King

Mortal Thoughts: Restroom advice to the widow (Demi Moore) at the funeral home: “You have to be optimistic—grieving, but optimistic.”…

• Malene (Brigitte Roüan) dying on a dusty Algerian road in Outremer, as if she had something else on her mind at the time…

• From the back of the car, in The Silence of the Lambs, the deep-down authority in Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster’s) flatly delivered “It matters, sir. It matters,” after her FBI superior (Scott Glenn) has dismissed the impact of his recent sexist ploy…

Cape Fear: The one-take seduction of a luscious Lolita (Juliette Lewis) by a redneck übermensch (Robert DeNiro) who lets her suck on his fingers just long enough to get a taste for it before he pulls out. Later, her father (Nick Nolte) cruelly clamps his hand over her mouth and jaw as though he could reverse by main force that earlier deflowering….

• “Gomez, you were a desperate howling demon last night.” “Yes?” “Do it again.” The steady flow of sensual heat between Anjelica Huston’s Morticia and Raul Julia’s Gomez in The Addams Family—a rare phenomenon these days, when cinematic sexual attraction has to be taken on faith, merely a function of marquee mating of big names…

• Exactly how dangerous is Curly (Jack Palance), in City Slickers?…

• The visual discretion of allowing Jane (Dianne Wiest) simply to appear in and disappear from a doorway—out of focus—in the background of the penultimate moment of Little Man Tate, as Dede (Jodie Foster) and her son get on with their lives…

Year of the Gun: Their transglobal participation in a newstalk TV show ended, Sharon Stone glances uneasily off her monitor as if aware that Andrew McCarthy might be watching her—and he is. Then they walk away in their respective frames. John Frankenheimer makes muddled movies, but great last shots….

• Some Hitchcockian-irreal settings in A Kiss Before Dying

Zentropa: In postwar Germany, an American (Jean-Marc Barr) and a Nazi (Barbara Sukowa), undone by lust, collapse into coitus on a vast and complex model-train tableau: leveling whole towns, tearing up miles of track, wrecking a world in their passion….

• The evolution of the fade-in text in Barton Fink: “It is too early for us to hear traffic; later, perhaps, we will.” The commas are exquisite….

Homicide: The abrupt insert of a chair being pushed back just before the old Jew, who has been so patient and civil, loses his temper with the apolitical Bobby Gold…

• The drops on Veronika’s face as she sings—are they new-fallen rain or tears of joy? The Double Life of Véronique

• Can there be three separate mountain ranges up on that screen? The awe-inspiring flying scenes in At Play in the Fields of the Lord

• A tripper’s night sky wheeling above the lovers on the roof, in The Doors

• Charles Bronson’s nocturnal phone call, The Indian Runner

• The sound of Cyn’s (Demi Moore’s) breathing as she scrubs the van clean of blood in slowmotion, while her little girl looks on from a stroller—Mortal Thoughts

• The Jew hiding out in plain sight in the heart of the Third Reich faces a mirror to practice heel-clicking “Heil Hitler”s … that segue seamlessly into a graceful Fred Astaire softshoe—Europa Europa

• The zany, sweet dance of “Daddy Carroll” (Mickey Cottrell)—without getting up off the couch—as his “Little Dutch Boy” scrubs his immaculate apartment; on the soundtrack, “Deep Night”—My Own Private Idaho

• “Replace that tit.”—Rambling Rose

• Blankly framed on a bank of video monitors, Keanu Reeves enters FBI headquarters carrying a surfboard—Point Break

• The redness of Brian Wimmer’s cheeks, after he’s waked up in a world manifestly not his own, Late for Dinner; his very flesh signaling superannuated boyishness…

The Silence of the Lambs: In the flashback to Clarice’s childhood, the drifting, seeking, desperate yet gentle swing of the camera away from the girl in her father’s arms, to observe the curving passage of a pickup truck, and then … the sky? …

• The very movement of Veronika’s soul: the camera movement over the recital audience at the moment of her ecstatic demise—The Double Life of Véronique

The Prince of Tides: Nick Nolte becoming a little boy again as he resists telling Loewenstein (Barbra Streisand) everything that happened that rainy night: “‘Cause….”

• James Le Gros as the psychobabbling hitchhiker picked up by Mimi Rogers in The Rapture

True Colors indeed: the unimpeachable legitimacy of Richard Widmark during his few minutes among the quiche-eaters…

• A proper showcase, at last, for the deep-banked sensuality of Barbara Williams, in City of Hope

• Drift and accidental intersection in the garden at the end of La Belle Noiseuse: dazed farewells among all the disinherited movers and makers, left to their own devices now that Piccoli’s painting no longer anchors them…

• Outside her father’s house, the Véronique who loves a puppeteer pauses to spread her hand on the bark of a tree, while within the house the man who helped create her handworks a piece of wood … The Double Life of Véronique; final evocative lines from a transparently mysterious cinematic poem about the power of the imagination…

Barton Fink: In answer to Barton’s “Where’s Audrey?,” Charlie delivers the year’s best and most terrifying line: “She’s dead, if that was her name.”…

RTJ/KAM

[reprinted by permission of Film Comment]


One Comments

  • Alexander Dyle

    January 1, 2010

    You’re reading too much into Kieslowski’s films. Veronique likes touching the tree. Full stop. Don’t be too eager to make connections between the wood of the tree and her father with his wooden chairs. Kieslowski once said that if there was a scene that explained something to the audience, he would immediately cut it in the editing room. He had been doing films for some time but the editing room was where Kieslowski excelled… so, caution.

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