Moments out of Time 1999

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 36 Number 1, January/February 2000, reprinted by permission]

• The middle-aged Gerald (Alain Libolt) taking out his glasses to look at a photo of a woman who may become his wife—Eric Rohmer’s golden Autumn Tale

Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek - "The Straight Story"
‘The Straight Story’

• One of those days it’s a minute away from snowing: the dancing bag, American Beauty

The Straight Story: Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) and Rose (Sissy Spacek) watching the lightning storm …

• Slow-motion bullet trajectories and time-lapse clouds, Three Kings

• The first time John Malkovich realizes he is speaking with someone else’s voice—Being John Malkovich

• “You can’t always get what you want”: the far-flung group sing—excruciating and exhilarating—in Magnolia

• The blankness of Rosetta‘s face while she waits for her boyfriend to finish drowning…

• Red balloon sailing up a spiral stairwell, The Sixth Sense

• The queasy roll of a wooden Christ into underwater closeup, In Dreams

• In Boys Don’t Cry, Brandon (Hilary Swank) watching through the windshield as Lana (Chloe Sevigny) walks fluorescent-lit toward the convenience store. The clerk tells her, “Dream on, Lana, I can’t be sellin’ you no beer tonight,” and she replies, “Fine, I’ll browse.”…

• In Besieged, a cleaningwoman (Thandie Newton) hoovers a rug while her enraptured employer (David Thewlis) watches and noodles at the piano: art and love in the making…

The End of the Affair: Sound of door closing on a lower floor. Husband (Stephen Rea) says it’s the maid. Friend of the family (Ralph Fiennes), bent over a whisky glass: “No, it was Sarah’s step.” …

• A postlapsarian pietà—burnt-out ambulance driver Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) cradled in the arms of Mary Burke (Patricia Arquette): all that’s left after Bringing Out the Dead

Eyes Wide Shut: the hotel clerk (Alan Cumming)’s flirtation with, uh, Bill (Tom Cruise)…

• The courtroom shouting duel between the Mississippi prosecutor (Bruce McGill) and the tobacco company lawyer (Wings Hauser), The Insider

• In Topsy-Turvy, the wonderful formality and discretion and play of language of Gilbert’s “notes” after the dress rehearsal of The Mikado…

• Cartman’s Vegas finale to “Kyle’s Mom Is a Bitch,” South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut

• Ichabod Crane’s journey up the Hudson River Valley in Sleepy Hollow: a haunted landscape straight out of Hawthorne and de Tocqueville …

• The bright-red door of the Burnham home, glowing through curtains of pouring rain: American Beauty‘s unreal estate, as seductive as Gatsby’s green light…

• Re: goggles in Three Kings: “Those are for night vision—they don’t work in the daytime.” “Yeah, they kinda work.”…

Beau Travail‘s “Billy Budd” (Grégoire Colin) staggers through a sea of blinding-white salt, all his beauty burning away in the sun…

• The practice duel between Keanu Reeves and his sensei (Laurence Fishburne) in The Matrix

• The ineffable Eugene Levy, American Pie‘s clueless, cardiganed dad, gamely striving for male bonhomie with his pastry-ravishing son…

• Mira Sorvino tasting someone else in her husband’s kiss, Summer of Sam

• “You!” On the stairs, in her husband’s embrace, Sarah (Julianne Moore)’s rapt face at the sight of her descending lover. The End of the Affair

• Sunlight haloing Magali (Béatrice Romand)’s wild thicket of hair: just one of many visual harvests in Autumn Tale

• An ice cream vendor (Isaach de Bankolé) and a samurai assassin (Forest Whitaker) watch a man building a boat on a New York rooftop—Ghost Dog….

• Reading, by campfire light, a terrible diary that was never written: Limbo

• Grainy, greenish home movie footage of Mr. Death in his basement, cheerily describing the 19th-century electric chair he’s restoring: “so small it looks like it was made for a child or a woman”…

Dogma‘s trenchcoated angel with a Cockney twang (Alan Rickman) remembering the pain of telling a carefree little kid he had to grow up to be Jesus…

• The sweet, shriven clarity of Lester Burnham’s/Kevin Spacey’s smile when he hears the news that his daughter lane is in love (“Good for her”) just before he becomes a casualty of American Beauty

The Green Mile: The Pet Sematary creepiness of a scruffy gray mouse asleep in a cigar box, its l00-year-old heart laboring on…

• An elderly retainer greeting tainted P.I. Nicolas Cage at the mansion door—”Mrs. Matthews chose to take her life this afternoon”—his dignity and self-contained grief an oasis in the deeply unclean 8MM

• A couple of broken-backed fingers sticking out of the gravel beside a roofed-over railroad line in The Bone Collector

• On the move in a screen-filling landscape, a car driven by a serial killer threads down a curving highway while a girl from Ireland—potential prey—trudges wearily off in another direction: fate and potentiality in Felicia’s Journey….

• In longshot, Connie (Stephen Rea) sprawls in an easychair, his Lolita (Sarah Polley) lying full-length across his lap, his hand inside her open jeans … a poignantly erotic vignette in Guinevere

• On a California beach, under an unforgiving sun, a fortysomething lady in a bathing suit flirts with a hunky younger guy: Susan Sarandon acts her age with such brave pride you wish she was Anywhere But Here….

• One-o’clock-in-the-morning kitchen chat between pipe-smoking Southern matriarch (Patricia Neal) and her black caretaker and friend (Charles S. Dutton)—Cookie’s Fortune

• Weeping Ed Norton burying himself in Meat Loaf’s great breasts in Fight Club

• “Respect the cock!”—Tom Cruise’s Mick Jagger strut/rant in praise of macho piggery, Magnolia

• In Go, Manny—deep into Xstasy—hallucinates a passionate macarena in a supermarket with a yellow-uniformed cashier….

• Lester and Ricky (Wes Bentley) toking up against the back wall of the country club, American Beauty

• In The Sixth Sense, a kid shrink (Bruce Willis)’s suitable case for treatment (Haley Joel Osment) turns back, sadly, after their first meeting, in a church pew: “I’ll be seeing you again, won’t I?”…

• “That movie has warped my fragile little mind!” Eric Cartman telling it like it is, South Park

• Beach Boys blare—”I Get Around”—as a clutch of U.S. soldiers careen through a sunbaked Iraqi desert, Three Kings

Double Jeopardy: the car sinking below them ‘as federal marshal (Tommy Lee Jones) and escapee (Ashley Judd) swim up toward ‘the surface of Puget Sound…

The Muse: the long trek across the Universal lot by “crawl-on” Albert Brooks, bound for a meeting with the wrong Spielberg (Steven Wright as cousin Stan)…

Mickey Blue Eyes: Sotheby’s-style art auctioneer Hugh Grant is obliged to announce the new offering painted by one of his gangland associates, “Die Piggy Piggy Die Die”….

• The sudden Morricone shriek of “spaghetti Western” music when Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) sights a rival in Election

American Pie: Checking out the Internet action between Jim (Jason Biggs) and the foreign exchange student (Shannon Elizabeth), one of many onlookers remarks, “That guy’s in my trig class.”…

• The beginning of The Straight Story: the camera frames a little white Iowa bungalow, very slowly edges rightward to register a larger setting, then penetrate a zone of shadow beside the house. The movement’s disquieting, mysterious, drawing us into as-yet-unknown narrative territory (Twin Peaks? Lumberton? Bedford Falls?) where Something Is Going to Happen….

• Every conversation in Autumn Tale, but especially one concerning the nature of love, in which a blooming girl accuses her smitten philosophy prof of “thriving on ambiguity”: she might be speaking of the author of this exquisitely civilized conte.

• Cigarette smoke billowing out of the apartment—stuffed with dolls—of a child-abusing mother, in The Third Miracle

• Hair and blood and aquarium water pooling in a hallway, Bringing Out the Dead

• Denis Lavant jazz-dancing up and down a room with black floor and mirrored walls: Beau Travail‘s caterpillar uncocooned…

• An open window framing the abrupt absence of a fallen soul in Dreamlife of Angels

• “Happy anniversary.” The Sixth Sense

Mr. Death‘s face: flat, ordinary, familiar … Dr. Mengele as Mr. Potatohead…

• An exquisite courtesan (Gong Li) horribly blighting her own beauty in The Emperor and the Assassin

• The way Lester walks down the table and picks up the asparagus, American Beauty

• A flood of milk in the desert, Three Kings

• Her newly hacked-off head rolling across the room, a mother’s eyes come to rest over a crack in the floorboards—and stare straight at her son in hiding: a freakish (and forgotten-about) interlude in Sleepy Hollow

Princess Mononoke: a girlchild sucking tainted blood from a great white wolf … her mother …

• A new baby nurses the nub of a young war veteran’s finger, making good use of flesh sundered in battle: a vote for reunion in Ride with the Devil

• Up close and personal in Romance: a newborn’s Yoda-like face thrusting out of its mother’s vagina…

Rosetta eats a hardboiled egg while waiting to die … then interrupts her suicide to trudge matter-of-factly across the trailer park to buy another canister of gas….

• A freckled little girl fashions earrings and “nail polish” from flower petals in The Silence….

• In a crowded restaurant, recognition shatters the face of Three Seasons‘ Vietnam vet (Harvey Keitel) who’s just given up a fruitless search for the daughter he left behind: she’s the whore fawning over a john, just a few patrons away….

• In Three Kings, the, weird rapport between Troy (Mark Wahlberg) and the young Iraqi torturer (Saïd Taghmaoui) who describes how his wife was maimed in an American bomb run: “That’s horrible!” … “Oh my god, buddy, I didn’t even tell you the horrible part yet.”…

The Iron Giant: “I am not a gun.”…

• Apples and high heels, In Dreams

Topsy-Turvy: Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) accosted by a harridan-whore in a claustrophobic passageway outside the Savoy Theatre during the first performance of The Mikado: down-and-dirty reality intrudes upon his world’s relentless artifice….

• In a late-night bar, putting the obligatory moves on a pretty young reporter (Mary McCormack), True Crime‘s aging womanizer (Clint Eastwood) looks as though he’s sleazed through this scene a thousand times….

• “Once at band camp I put my flute in my pussy”—Alyson Hannigan’s American Pie geek gets real….

• “I’m the Shoveler. I shovel well.” William H. Macy, Mystery Men

• “I’m in awe of you … I’d love to sit down with you some time and just pick your brain.” The precisely gauged cadences of Caroline Burnham (Annette Bening)’s sharky shrillness, gushing over the Real Estate King (Peter Gallagher) in .American Beauty

• “You can afford a house like this, you buy a house like this, you know”—Luis Guzman explaining L.A. to Terence Stamp, The Limey

• Samuel L. Jackson’s rah-rah rant cut shockingly (and satisfyingly) short in Deep Blue Sea

• “Smell the veggieburgers!”—Zack and his lover considering how to dispose of a young woman they may have killed, Go

• Perched on bars tools, an Oscar Wilde wannabe (Henry Gibson) and a onetime quizkid at the end of his tether (William H. Macy) zigzag through a conversation of monumentally ironic cross-purposes—Magnolia….

• Rehearsing a love scene for a play in Mansfield Park, two beautiful young women, “sisters” sharper in their ways than any man of their world, begin to edge into sensual rapport…

• An Amazon raises her rifle against a mythic stag in Princess Mononoke: “I will show you how to kill a god”…

Cradle Will Rock: the jackhammered wall, a great scar where Diego Rivera’s mural used to be…

• Maxine (Catherine Keener)’s crisp white blouse, Being John Malkovich

• Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) telling .his shrink (Lorraine Bracco) she has a laugh “like a mandolin,” The Sopranos

• The wallpaper in the hotel room where Wigand (Russell Crowe) goes to ground, The Insider

• Nighttown in Ghost Dog: A black samurai slides through wasteland streets, cocooned by luxury car and Wu Tang Clan…

• A degraded earth mother squatting in her filthy subterranean hole in The Thirteenth Warrior

• The sculpted planes of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s face as she kisses off a lover in Limbo—one of the band members backing her—with a haunting country-blues ballad, “Better off without you in my life”…

• In Guinevere, Jean Smart’s bravura performance as a killer mother who takes aim at her daughter’s happiness, verbally castrating Harper’s aging lover and unsexing her child with surgical precision…

• “When I was your age I lived in a duplex!” For Caroline Burnham, a look back into hell—American Beauty

Holy Smoke!: Back in Australia after her earthshaking Indian epiphany, solemn Ruth (Kate Winslet) takes one look at her best girlfriends and regresses instantly into a squealing teen harboring a bigtime crush .

• Pvt. Vig (Spike Jonze) matter-of-factly pauses, in mid-attack on an Iraqi bunker, to remote-lock the beeping luxury car he’s just parked. Three Kings

• “I just thought that’s what guys do around here”: Brandon Teena explains his happy participation in the risky redneck rite of bumper-skiing, Boys Don’t Cry….

• On the run in snowy. woods, a black devil with sharp teeth (Christopher Walken) ssssshhhhhes two angels in pink organdy—one of whom deliberately snaps

a stick. A Sleepy Hollow flashback…

• Walpurgisnacht, In Dreams: a children’s performance of Snow White in an outdoors thrumming with demonic vibes…

• Bellied up to a Midwestern bar, two old men swap tales of decades-old wartime guilt: The Straight Story….

The Limey: Congratulated by his young companion on having been part of “the Sixties,” Peter Fonda starts (to leave the room, then turns back long enough to emend: “Actually, it was mostly 1966 … and the early part of ’67.”…

• The profound pity that suffuses the face of the “goddamn mute orphan halfwit” (Samantha Morton) in Sweet and Lowdown when she lets Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) know she’s married and a mother…

• Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) hanging out with a couple of “suave motherfuckers”—strangers on a train in Dogma

• A handsome gray cat perches on the back of a couch to stare (into the camera) at one of Go‘s seriously stoned adventurers. Subtitle: “I can hear your thoughts.”…

South Park: Bill Gates summarily executed for Windows 98…

• A golden American übermensch sprawled in artful abandon on a Riviera chaise lounge, The Talented Mr. Ripley‘s Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) proves F. Scott Fitzgerald’s contention that “the rich are very different from us.”…

• “It flows through me like rain”: The late Lester Burnham savors his life, the tenderness of his imagery a perfect measure of the look and feel of American Beauty‘s climactic weather ….

• Closeup of a pulsing vein in Galoup’s/Denis Lavant’s arm, Beau Travail‘s measure of a soul in extremis…

• The sweet nakedness of brown feet on flagstones: Thandie Newton on her way to Thewlis’s bedroom, Besieged

• “I’m ready to communicate with you now” … grownup formality from a little boy who’s been to hell and back, The Sixth Sense

• Troy Barlow phones home in Three Kings….

• W.S. Gilbert’s shuttered face as he sits on the edge of his wife’s bed and listens to her idea for a new comic opera, about a woman’s life with a Topsy-Turvy husband who has no genius for love: “Every time she tries to be born, he strangles her with her umbilical cord.”…

• Dr. Lester (Orson Bean)· insistently apologizing for his incoherent speech even though he sounds perfectly lucid—Being John Malkovich

The Third Miracle: a priest (Ed Harris) and the earthy daughter of a saint (Anne Heche) slow-dancing over her mother’s grave…

• The wind of God exploding through a window—Neil Jordan’s signature in The End of the Affair

Three Kings: From a worm’s-eye view in the foreground, we watch a blue truck, tipped over on its side, its driver staring out the shattered window, plowing inexorably toward us and the spikes of a land mine….

• Dancing with her husband at her daughter’s wedding party, Isabelle (Marie Rivière) turns suddenly grave, mirroring our sense, at the end of Autumn Tale, of lost summers and winters to come…

• “I’m great.”—Lester Burnham/Kevin Spacey, American Beauty. Yes!…

RTJ/KAM