A man is driving in the sun, and a woman is sitting next to him, and we see them from the backseat, so the landscape—in this case, dusty southern French provincial—moves all around us, conjuring an essential and sorcerous cinematic three-dimensionalism, a world (the car) within another world (southern France) within another world (the movie theater, or our living room), all trafficking along at their own pace and with their own agendas. It’s one of my favorite orts of movieness, this composition in transitu, as common as a thick slashing dab of Zinc White to conjure a glassware reflection. Though it is, in fact, rarely celebrated in the discourse that surrounds cinema, it’s as intoxicating as the moments in a pre-alarm-clock dream leading up to coitus with an otherwise unattainable woman, her hair backlit by morning light.
We’ve seen it a thousand times, haven’t we, this view from the backseat, and because films are so routinely constructed from just such stock visual ideas, we pay it little mind. (We know even better its less interesting inverse: the camera-on-the-hood frontal view, often at night with fake headlights passing over the back window.) But in this particular moving image, from Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965), our beloved Anna Karina’s long arm is resting over and across the seat, her hand lazily caressing Jean-Paul Belmondo’s neck as he drives, and they talk. The hand, the long nails on the neck flesh, the entrancing length of her arm, her fine, dark hair in the breeze, the capacious interior of the car (back when cars were made to live in, not just for sitting), the bright daylight around them, the indulgent traveling forward: this may well be my favorite Backseat Driving Shot—less narratively rich, perhaps, than several in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964), or the famous bank robbery in Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950), and similar in its heavenly materials to scores of others. But this is the shot that has lodged in my brain wrinkles, the one that musters love for movies and driving and afternoons and Karina (whom I met, thirty-six years after she sat in that car, and kissed) and other women and the electric promise of youth from the dusty, fraught bowels of my underfunded, understaffed, middle-aged heart of memories.
We think we pay such fleeting visual proteins little attention, but in actuality it might be what we remember most from a movie: the close-up with the unconscious eyelash flutter, the dawn light falling on a wet street, the woman’s hand moving to her mouth in a moment of panic, the fuzzy back-projection image of a city block long forgotten, the naked Technicolor foolishness of a movie star’s open mouth singing a sheer idiocy in a musical, the way an actor’s body might move a touch too beautifully amidst a minor action (like Christopher Walken’s, a dancer’s body impersonating a steel worker’s, as he teasingly grabs for Meryl Streep’s dress as she runs out of the bar in the wedding scene from 1978’s The Deer Hunter), the ubiquitous setup when a man comes home from work, hangs up his hat and places his newspaper on the foyer table, before realizing, as he slows, that something’s terribly wrong.
Once you begin cataloging the particles of movie experience, it’s impossible to stop. I contend that they are not only the most powerful aesthetic bullets firing out of cinema’s arsenal but also the secret, authentic reason we love movies, the almost cellular agents of sensual response and visual contact that provide us with the medium’s unspeakable, unquantifiable thrill. What we usually talk about when we talk about movies is almost entirely given over to narrative (and, in a far smaller percentage, to the allure or entertainment factor associated with actors’ personas and/or impersonative effectiveness). But stories aren’t the primary text of movies, only the framework. They just don’t survive for long enough and in enough detail in the temporal lobe, as the often mysterious individual visions do, whether those images are expressions of an auteur’s art or simply a standardized genre ideogram, used for convenience and expediency (as in noir’s too-notorious femme-holding-a-handgun). I cannot, for instance, give you any clear idea of how the story of Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996) plays out, just ten years after having seen it, but I remember, and will always remember, the slow way Maggie Cheung blinks at a beguiling and confounding customer from behind a McDonald’s counter.
Another example: I’ve always had an ardor for slow dissolves that reveal establishing shots of houses at night, with their lights on. The plot context is irrelevant, as are the scenes we dissolved from and the inevitable dissolutions to the houses’ interiors, where the ostensible “substance” of the sequence begins. The pleasure of these visions, probably born of an unsatisfied childhood need or some such psycho-neurotic itch, feels primal and intuitive, like responding to a chord or a color or a real landscape or a simple turn of phrase in Dickinson (“Dwelt hesitating, half of Dust…”). You can’t argue with it, and it lasts, its sounding finding a singular echo in my wonder cabinet of associations.
But then, establishing shots in general are woefully overlooked as a cultural achievement. In Film Syntax 101, they are merely the montage-fueling shorthand context for the upcoming shot involving actors and dialogue, but establishing shots possess a spectral, awesome beauty, freighted with cosmic significance (as opposed to individualized drama) that has often compelled me to imagine an entire feature film built from them alone. The valley town seen from above, the Gothic mansion, the sleepy farm, Monument Valley, the wine-dark sea with a lonely ship, the matte-painted castle on the hill, Manhatta! “There are eight million stories in the naked city,” the narrator of the eponymous 1948 noir told us. “This has been one of them.” But the film’s establishing shots of the New York skyline promise so much more—all eight million, in fact, a sweeping, omniscient canvas of modern endeavor, symbolized by the skyscrapers’ spectacular clutter and ascension, but of course eventually reduced by the verities of narrative to a handful of individuals, their problems, their points of view. When the establishing shot leaves us, it’s always a letdown. Consider the relative impact of Jordan’s infinite and surreal Wadi Rum desertscape on what comes next: Peter O’Toole riding a camel in mid-close-up.
This passion for this most quintessentially cinematic manifestation—narrative itself is, after all, an inheritance every distinct medium tries on for size—may have arisen first in the loins of the surrealists, who between the wars would enter a film house arbitrarily, in the middle of the movie, and abandon it for another once the story line became clear. The resulting afternoon’s hodgepodge of decontextualized imagery was as personalized and ephemeral as genuine dreams—this was filmgoing as auteurship, to each man his own avant-garde montage. Still, what they were savoring in the moment were the individual integers, the close-ups, the reaction shots (oh, the wan, pitiful reaction shot), the dolly shots alongside running horses, the mid-shots of wealthy people standing in extraordinary rooms. Critic Parker Tyler knew just as well that movies were constructs of impressions and sensations; his deathless riff-books The Hollywood Hallucination (1944) and Magic and Myth of the Movies (1947) dallied lovingly on the timbre of actresses’ voices, the irony inherent in Freudian dream sequences, and the semiotics of Danny Kaye’s vaudeville physicality.
But a handful of modernist and pseudomodernist filmmakers in the postwar era also made the fragmentation of film’s atomic minutiae their bread and butter. Robert Bresson’s famous objectifications and withholding style wholly reinvented the process of watching movie narrative, for those that cared, as a deliberately flowless, refocused-on-the-present stations of the cross. Yasujiro Ozu was equally famous for his “still lifes,” suggesting oceans of meaning simply by returning to rooms now emptied of characters, as if what we saw around them was more vital than what they did. Most epochally, Godard focused on the stock composition, the iconic object, the seductive gesture, the recycled movie moment, and the single image’s meaning (or its duplicitous multiples), all as immediate experience, rather than on storytelling or character or even diegesis.
This is also the first clay and first water of found-footage filmmakers. Every time Bruce Conner or Joseph Cornell or Craig Baldwin recontextualizes a piece of old film, it lugs its initial narrative purpose and meaning as freestanding cultural code, evoking the hundreds or thousands of instances in which that composition or cinematographic hieroglyph has been used before. Conner has waxed rhapsodic in interviews about Hollywood’s “universal movie,” essentially a mass amalgamation of all movies, and how old movies resorted to stock footage “and would use the same images again and again. When there was a scene in New York introduced, you would see the same shot of the Brooklyn Bridge.” I’m with Conner: individual films often seem to be merely advertising and plot algebra, but each one will afford us a glimpse of the real film, the vast and secret universal movie, every time we look down from a window and see a man standing under a streetlight, watch two lovers lock eyes in a crowd, or gaze through a binocular’s lemniscate view across a gray battleground.
I am, in fact, gripped by shots of people looking out windows. Who could choose between the romantic mystery of Maya Deren at the reflecting pane in Meshes of the Afternoon (1943); Raymond Cordy’s pining through his prison cell window for the maiden singing from her veranda in À nous la liberté (1931); the views to the snowy streets, from the children’s candlelit nursery in Fanny & Alexander (1982); Karina, again, staring out onto a rainy futuristic Paris clutching a copy of Eluard’s Capitale de la douleur in Alphaville (1965); the continental train ride in The Conformist (1970), looking past Jean-Louis Trintignant to the compartment window and the lurid sunset movie playing outside, casting its glow on the honeymooners; the dolly out the bedroom window to the night sky, as the bedtime story begins, in Night of the Shooting Stars (1982)? Whereas I cannot tolerate the common close-up shot of a hand descending into a coat pocket and emerging with a handgun (so patronizing!), or Steven Spielberg’s trademarked, hyperbolic dolly-in-and-tilt-up punctuation mark, or the narration-enabling shots of characters lost in thought walking by the waterside (even in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters), I adore la nuit Americaine shots—always set on a dark country road or on the prairie, where the telltale sharp shadows and glowing sky suggest a childlike idea of an unthreatening, well-lit version of night we can only see in movies. I love the cutaway shots to piano-playing hands that obviously belong to a real pianist, playing in his or her own movie subworld. I’m hypnotized by bits of genuine labor: casting a church bell in Andrei Rublev (1969), laying bricks in Mac (1992), making gnocchi in The Godfather: Part III (1990), cleaning shad in Caught (1996), what have you. Like everyone, I’m hypnotized by long traveling shots, but less so by the kind that pass busily like a Disney World ride (see the Dunkirk prowl in 2007’s Atonement), and more so by the roamers that have huge, empty middles filled with time and waiting and commiseration—see virtually anything by Theo Angelopoulos, Tsai Ming-liang, Béla Tarr, or Alexander Sokurov. I’m haunted by what could be called the reestablishing shot, the climactic sum-up breathtaker, epitomized by the last vision in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), soaring over Claudia Cardinale and the nascent railroad and Ennio Morricone’s drunken-angel hosannas.
This may be cinema’s essence, more lyric poetry than novelistic narrative, but what’s easier to sell? We will always, apparently, obey our laziness and not our memories. A last proof: a glowering stock shot of a looming castle on a seaside cliff—could it be a matte?—with the stormy seas crashing and mists lingering. As a kid I saw this shot, Conner-istically, in at least five different movies. I remember only two: Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963), and the ultra-cheapie Return from the Past (1967), both films otherwise memorable only for down-on-their-luck casts. But decades later, with no idea from where Corman had originally stolen the footage, that castle, that cliff, that raging sea is an archetype in my mental vocabulary, a menacing, alluring, earthly location I still long to visit, if only in the movie for which it was originally filmed.