by Victoria Grace Walden 

Speculations on a cinema of moments.

Tom Gunning (1995), in his paper An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator, defines the cinema that preceded classical narrative films “the cinema of attractions”. He describes it thus:

The aesthetic of attraction addresses the audience directly, sometimes… exaggerating this confrontation in an experience of assault. Rather than being an involvement with narrative action or empathy with character psychology, the cinema of attractions solicits a highly conscious awareness of the film image engaging the viewer’s curiosity. The spectator does not get lost in a fictional world and its drama, but remains aware of the act of looking, the excitement of curiosity and its fulfilment.

 (Gunning in Williams (ed) 1995: 121)

Gunning’s cinema of attraction is an attack on the senses; a cinema of moments which engages the spectator with the fundamental essence of cinema: the look. He is aware that the cinema of attractions did not completely disappear with the advent of classical narrative cinema. When you watch many films from the classical, new and contemporary eras of Hollywood there are evidently sequences which could be classified under a cinema of moments. These moments are perhaps not “attacks” on the senses, but certainly sensual moments which encourage the spectator to comprehend the cinematic image through the body. These images highlight what Laura U. Marks (2000) calls “haptic visuality” – images which provoke sensations of touch and movement. I argue, it is not just the “act of looking” which audiences are aware of in these moments, but the act of sensing, through all the senses: through the body. These “moments” are asides from the narrative. Through foregrounding the body they encourage the spectator to consider how the body is socialised within the film’s context: issues of gender, power and emotion become the focus rather than narrative storytelling. They could be considered corporeal monologues or asides.

Let me share three brief examples:

The Great Dictator (1940)

Ballet sequence: Slapstick is a genre conventionally characterised by “moments”: comical set pieces. In Charlie Chaplin’s commentary on Nazi Germany, the ballet sequence is a typical example of the cinema of moments. Chaplin signifies his aside by stating “leave me. I want to be alone.” This is followed by a majestic ballet routine in which he bounces a balloon which represents the globe. The dance illuminates the absurdity of man as all-powerful. In the moment in which he holds the whole world in his hand, Chaplin’s dictator loses his power. As he spins the balloon, lies on the desk, flicks the balloon with his buttocks and gazes at it romantically, his gestures feminize the body. He is beautified – an image of performance and theatre; a subject of the gaze, quite contrary to the strong Aryan worker concept of masculinity. The disappearance of the balloon emphasises his bodily gestures and signifies the end of the aside.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Hitchhiking: When Ellie Andrews and Peter are walking down a deserted road, she dictates the start of the aside when she decides to “go sit right down, over here” on a roadside fence. Peter’s carrot munching is reminiscent of Bugs Bunny’s iconic image establishing him as rough and perhaps animalistic. The gag that ensures focuses on gestures. Peter illustrates a variety of hand gestures, each more confident and stronger (and more absurd) than the one before. The certainty of his final gesture mimics the patriarchal mythology of the strong handshake and the importance for a man to perform his dominance through gesture. As Peter fails to hail a car his gestures become less controlled, more frantic and finally plain rude.

In contrast, Ellie’s first attempt is successful. Rather than bothering with firm hand gestures, she simply raises her skirt to expose her thigh. Interestingly, this sequence does not portray the female as object for the male gaze (as Laura Mulvey notes in many films of the time (1975)), rather the female controls it. Ellie gains power over Peter, the driver and the spectator by telling all of us when and where to look at her body. This is a fabulous sequence illustrating how performance of the body emphasises gender difference.

Taxi Driver (1976)

You talkin’ to me: In this scene, most famous for its dialogue, the concentration of medium and medium close-up shots of Travis emphasise it is a sequence about the body. Again, it is established as a narrative aside: Travis is alone in his apartment. Travis begins by pacing and crossing his arms, the latter motion is an attempt to establish a defensive position. Then he begins to flick his gun out rhythmically. As he does so, the gun and the body’s movements become one – a symbol of his body at its prime: his body as war machine. He later turns his back slightly to the spectator signifying he is gaining control over the fictitious conversation. Travis establishes himself as choreographer of the scenario – when he turns away, he stops talking and the interaction ends. After a pause of motionless, Travis turns once more towards the camera flicking the knife with ease and thus establishing his violent intentions. He is a threat. He dominates. He is restoring patriarchal power to his body and to his country. The sequence illustrates the crisis of masculinity imposed by the Vietnam War and Travis’ attempt to restore order.

These are just quick thoughts on a notion and not completely theorised as yet, but to think about a cinema of moments we must think through the body. Haptic moments are not confined to the avant-garde, the most mainstream narrative stories are interrupted by such moments which help us to reflect on the body and its social role.