The Long View

An anthology of defining moments looks back—and forward
by Tom Charity  posted June 19, 2008
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When the Lumière brothers unveiled the first seven or eight one-minute subjects shot on their “cinématographe” to a photographers’ convention in June 1895, they called them “views.” The term film wasn’t applied to motion pictures for another couple of years (the American movie appeared in print circa 1912). In as much as “view” implies a fixed vantage point it isn’t surprising that the term did not stay the course. Motion picture (used in print as early as 1891) was a more fittingly dynamic description: while the Lumieres’ camera was static, their subjects weren’t. Nor was that rabbit Georges Mélies pulled out of his hat.

By 1914 and Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, the cinematic spectacle is experienced not as a discrete snapshot, but as an oncoming blitz of successive images, each bearing cumulative layers of meaning, texture, and nuance. Just as many of the most arresting 21st-century filmmakers (Jia Zhangke, Pedro Costa, and Abbas Kiarostami, for starters) have taken a deliberate step back from the sensational overload of the late Hollywood commercial model and toward a more minimalist Lumièresque aesthetic (static camera, long takes, “real time”), the critical anthology Defining Moments in Movies (Cassell Illustrated) attempts to extract singular insights from the flux of cinema history—to take a view, as it were, as all active spectators must.

In his introduction, editor Chris Fujiwara immediately repudiates Cassell’s vainglorious subtitle, The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events That Made Movie Magic (the past tense is particularly regrettable). On the contrary, “This book is in no way intended to represent ‘the greatest’ or ‘most important’ moments in cinema.” Rather, it highlights 1000 aspects of film history (they include specific shots, scenes, entire movies, and industrial, aesthetic, and critical developments) the contributors “regard as profound, essential, illuminating, or significant.” In other words, we plunge into the unending tide of images, and take from it what we may.

The contributors stretch to 62: critics, historians, and academics, many of whom will be familiar to cinephiles (they include my former Time Out London colleague Geoff Andrew, Cahiers du Cinéma's Jean-Michel Frodon, Stuart Klawans, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, David Sterritt, and this site’s editor, Dennis Lim).

Each entry gets half a page, approximately 300 words, juxtaposed with another film or event from the same year. This Eisensteinian layout is interspersed with handsomely reproduced full-page illustrations in a chunky coffee table book the shape of a movie screen (closed, it suggests the 1.37:1 aspect ratio of the Golden Age; open, it approximates CinemaScope). Despite the spare word count and Fujiwara’s timely caution, the commentary scarcely shies from grand assertions, the birth and (especially) death announcements that are so deeply ingrained in our apocalyptic film lore.

The very first entry (the book is otherwise in chronological order) ostentatiously heralds the death of cinema, right above Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s remarks on Workers Leaving the Station. Hard not to be reminded of Kim Novak’s trance-like reverie among the redwoods: “Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you…,” a scene filmgoers of different generations may know from Vertigo, Sans Soleil, or 12 Monkeys (and which is cited here in its original context).

Film may very well be on its last legs, with digital poised to supplant celluloid in the foreseeable future, probably as definitively as color came to dominate black and white. Whether the audience will give a damn—or so much as notice—remains to be seen. Nor is it easy to imagine a landmark moment that would seal the transition—several digital movies are included here but there’s barely a passing reference to the format. (Fujiwara does note the arrival of digital non-linear editing in 1989 and the first sales of the DVD player in Japan seven years later.)

While most of the usual suspects are present and accounted for—the Kanes and the Psychos and the Last Tangos—these entries often betray a sense of duty, not devotion. The real pleasures of the book’s piecemeal, pointillist approach tend to be more tangential to the big picture; observations and aperçus that attest to the hidden treasures and private histories of movie love: the fleeting gestures that accrue uncommon feeling in the eyes of the convert; the split-screen convergences and congruities thrown up by time (Guy Debord’s In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni alongside Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz); or simply the appreciation that there’s so much more cinema out there than the AFI et al. would encourage us to believe.

One of the defining moments in Defining Moments is certainly the entry noting the publication of Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s Unthinking Eurocentrism in 1994, a film studies work that argued for a wider and more honest cultural pluralism. Fujiwara & Co. attempt to put that into practice, dedicating considerable space to films from India, Korea, the Philippines, and Iran and to avant-garde artists like Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage—subjects that would almost certainly have been marginalized in this kind of publication 10 or 15 years ago.

The suspicion that even this represents just the tip of a very large iceberg—Hollywood movies still dominate those sections devoted to the 1930s and '40s—is both daunting and in some ways heartening. There is so much more to be discovered, assuming salvageable prints exist.

It’s doubtful that many of the American movies selected from the past decade will be studied, or indeed watched, in whatever passes for a 22nd-century cinematheque (they include Vanilla Sky, The Core, Down With Love, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns, and Little Miss Sunshine) but films from Argentina, Mali, Turkey, Israel, Taiwan, and Thailand prove that there’s still life in this old dog. The most recent “Key Event” to make the cut is the publication of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail in 2006: “the definitive announcement of the end of blockbuster culture and the arrival of the thriving Internet-enabled trade of niche products.” There’s a palpable degree of wish fulfillment in that summary, to be sure, but what self-respecting cinephile wouldn’t dream of a happy un-ending? 


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Courtesy Sterling Publishing
Defining Moments in Movies


book review  |  film criticism


Tom Charity is a film critic for and, and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound, Cinema Scope, and numerous other publications. His books include John Cassavetes: Lifeworks; The Right Stuff (BFI Modern Classics) and The Rough Guide to Film.

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