Film Moments: Reading Cinema in Pieces

This entry is based upon a series of notes that were written for an event that marked the publication of a recent book, Film Moments: Criticism, History, Theory. (A significant portion of the book has been made available as a free ‘sample’). The notes were co-written by Dr. James Walters (University of Birmingham).

One of the motivations for putting the book together was in order to join the concerns of academic film studies with the way cinemagoers talk about films. We were struck by how often, when people talk about films they’ve seen they say, ‘There’s this moment…’ Moments are touchstones for everyday conversations about film and they are often testing grounds for scholarly writing on the medium and on individual films as well. Within the academy, analysing moments closely is often characterised as the preserve of particular strands of film scholarship; in fact, a broader concentration on the ‘moment’ can question the territorialism of much contemporary film study while also contributing to long-standing arguments for the value of close ‘textual’ analysis. In what follows, we shall say more of the film moment as crucial to the way film is appreciated in contemporary film culture and indeed the way cinema itself was formed.

Early cinema as a cinema of moments.

In its earliest form, cinema was a collection moments. Technical restrictions meant that only short scenes, less than a minute in length, could be filmed and projected to audiences. These short moments sometimes had an unexpected effect on the audience

The Lumière brothers’ The arrival of the train at La Ciotat is one of the earliest surviving films, lasting only about 45 seconds and was first shown at the famous screening in the Grande Café, Paris, in December 1895. It is synonymous with one of cinema’s founding myths: audience members ran from the screen in fright at the sight of a training heading towards them. These accounts are highly contestable and the truth of audience reactions will never be fully known. However, the circulation of the myth is an acknowledgement of the immediacy of the film moment and the impact a moment can have on film audiences:  demonstrated most dramatically in an apparent fear of the approaching train. The myth also points to the interpretability and the ambiguity of the film moment: that it is not the same for everyone. Here, it may or may not result in fear – not even the most outlandish accounts suggested all the film’s viewers fled and, indeed, within a few years, it became a joke about a certain kind of naïve viewer, hicks or a ‘rubes’. (See Thomas Elsaesser’s essay is Film Moments for a far more in-depth discussion of the myth.) In any case, our reactions to moments can sometimes puzzle or surprise us. But they linger, stay with us, and demand further thought.

The new culture of ‘moments’

Technological limitations made the first films moments. Ironically, the availability of new technologies has made film culture again more ‘momentary’. As with the clips embedded into blogs such as this one, YouTube and similar video-sharing websites are enabling the preservation and open dissemination of film history, in a very particular way at least.  A few words typed into a search engine may make films and parts of films available that might otherwise be invisible. For example, in my entry for Film Moments, I wrote about a film that might be said to not exist: a Maurice Chevalier vehicle entitled Avec le Sourire/With a Smile (Tourneur, 1936)

It does not exist in the sense that it is the kind of film that hardly anyone ever writes or talks about (the kind of cinéma du samedi soir – ‘Saturday night cinema’ – ignored by most scholars of French film; it is a French musical, something often tacitly considered a contradiction in terms) but also in the simple fact that, like many, many films from cinema’s long history, it is very difficult to see. Unavailable on DVD, before video-sharing websites, you would have to have visited the French National Library or hunted down an obscure VHS copy in order to view it. Thus, perhaps more than a ‘moment’, this online clip is a ‘fragment’ of film history but a fragment that is now available to anyone likely to go looking for it.

The ‘playlist’ function of YouTube and similar sites enables one to receive a relatively structured presentation of film history (see this for example), though experts in film may be concerned at the partiality and unreflective nature of the choices. These playlists are, however, less in keeping with the user experience sites like YouTube seem to encourage ( ‘roving’?). A film moment on YouTube is instantly juxtaposed with as many others as your screen can hold, unmooring moments from their context, fragmenting the films from which they are extracted. (I’m aware that the presentation and consumption of ‘home videos’ is the major aspect of YouTube these points ignore.) Some types of film appear more suited to this process of disassembly than others. For example, horror film moments are particularly prominent amongst compilation clips on YouTube, reminding us that particular genres (action cinema, the musical?) are defined by the particular qualities of their moments as much as by their overarching structures.

On YouTube and elsewhere new and exciting possibilities for exchange between ‘users’ of film have created a new culture of the ‘moment’ online. For example, each week, The Guardian Clip Joint sees the newspaper’s readers/the websites users compile scenes, sequences and moments around a particular theme and/or motif. Rather than an appreciation of the particular qualities of the individual moments themselves, this context tends to treat film moments ‘instrumentally’. For example, if one were to type ‘film moments’ into YouTube, one finds compilations of ‘inspirational moments’ from a variety of films. User comments attest that such moments might be called upon to serve a particular emotional/affective function. For example, in response to ‘Powerful Film Moments’, ‘joecrookes’ comments, ‘I love coming on here and watching this when life gets me down. It makes you want to go out there and get what you want out of life’. The instrumentality of this kind of film moment may be rather alien to traditional cinephilia (it perhaps bears a closer relation to the way people often ‘use’ music) but it can reveal things about films themselves. For example, the ‘Remember The Titans Inspirational Moments’ clips, a compilation of sequences from a film from 2000 about American football and racial segregation in the late 60s/early 70s, illustrates the way some films seem ready made for this process because they appear built almost consciously as an accumulation of moments. We might suggest that Remember the Titans represents a particular brand of ‘middlebrow’ filmmaking; an aesthetic built upon rousing moments of strongly underscored action and/or oration. (Lawrence Napper defines the middlebrow as a mode which seeks to transfer intact the meanings of traditional forms of representation – he cites realism, pictorialism and theatricality; we might add, more specifically, ‘oratory’ – across the process of adaptation into film.)

A climactic moment: Toy Story 3

Film Moments: Criticism, History, Theory does not deny the ‘instrumental’ value of moments. Indeed, the sub-title underlines a concern to reflect upon the various ways moments may be used by film scholars. However, in line with the trend that perhaps dominates that collection, let us shift now, away from talking about some films as arguably the sum of their rousing/affecting/exciting/spectacular moments, towards discussing a key claim we make for moments: that they encapsulate a film’s wider concerns, themes and systems.

This moment from Toy Story 3 (Unkrich 2010) [] has gained notoriety for its emotional impact on followers of the Toy Story series. Recently, in a feature that further underlines the importance of the moment to the way people make sense of contemporary film culture, it was voted the second ‘most powerful cinematic moment’ of all time; the impact of the web on the way such things develop is suggested by this Facebook group entitled ‘The Incinerator Scene in Toy Story 3 Almost (or did) Make Me Cry’.

As a contained moment, it has a number of poignant motifs we will just begin to sketch: the contrasts in scale between the small band of toys and the gigantic furnace; the futile struggle against an inevitable demise; the looks of fear and trepidation, expertly animated by the Pixar team; the quiet resignation of each character as they accept their fate; the linking of hands and the closing of eyes that signals the shared anticipation of a grim death; the finality of events: the overriding sense that this is a real end we are watching.

The moment also represents a culmination of key themes such as friendship, solidarity, loyalty and bravery that have fundamentally characterised the Toy Story series. As the characters join together in the moment they also join the three films together, emphasising the bonds between friends that have been tested and have endured, to the end. The moment encapsulates fears of redundancy and neglect that have been played out in all the films and especially in this third instalment. The characters’ end is a dramatic realisation of those fears as they face being melted down like trash, lost and forgotten forever. The moment has an inherent poignancy but also a wider resonance as it draws together themes that extend across the Toy Story series and intensifies them. The characters are not faced with being replaced, lost, sold or neglected, as they have been before. They are facing obliteration. The motto ‘no toy gets left behind’ has seen them through crises in the past such as moving days or yard sales, but here it gains a new significance: no toy gets left behind, even in death.


  1. Tom, lovely post, and a very enjoyable event it was too. Here’s one question I didn’t think of at the time: What about moments that let a film down (as it were)? Did you consider this when working on the project, and/or do any of the essays in the book explore this? Simone

  2. No there are no chapters on ‘bad’ moments but, in the introduction to the ‘Criticism’ section, there is some brief reflection on this possibility and why, ultimately, contributors did not follow this path – it forms part of a discussion of what V.F. Perkins’ has to say about a moment from Huston’s ‘Moulin Rouge’.

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