The Violable Moment
Burning a Hole on the Screen
There have always been moments that burn the screen, scenes which often give the actor a space beyond the character without quite escaping character. We needn't see this as distanciation even if it occasionally breaks the fourth wall, because while it might seem as if we have left the character behind, what we have instead is the presence of the actor even more strongly. The scene becomes a complicit moment between the director and the actor, in collusion with an audience that the director believes will share his or her fascination with the performance itself, and not only the role the actor is playing.
For our purposes, we can think of half a dozen examples of this type of scene, and see how far away it can be from a moment of conventional stardom without at all undermining stardom itself. It instead gives it a modern (perhaps modernist) spin. We can think of Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie looking at the lens, Robert De Niro talking to himself in the mirror in Taxi Driver, Charlotte Rampling looking directly into the camera in Stardust Memories, the lead actress Jun Jong Seo dancing in the dusk in Burning, Alain Delon looking into the mirror in Purple Noon and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, describing his childhood. All possess the possibility evident in Brando's remark where he said working with Last Tango director Bernardo Bertolucci, "violated his inner self". (The Rumpus)
In our other examples this violation may or may not have been the case, but what is violated first of all is a clear sense of characterisation as diegetic force, to be incorporated by a non-diegetic aspect that has always threatened cinema since it a medium that creates a character and films an actor. Most of the time there needn't be a breach between the two and indeed we might even say the star system was created in part to join together these two elements (the actor and the character) into a well-stitched whole. For example who is it we see when Clark Gable as Rhett Butler says I don't give a damn to Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, when Humphrey Bogart says play it, Sam in Casablanca, or when Audrey Hepburn dances to prove a point in the scene in the basement Parisian club in Funny Face? In thinking of those burning scenes from Rampling, Brando etc we can only enumerate a small number. In thinking of the stardom suturing sequences that include the ones from Gone with the Wind, Casablanca and Funny Face we can think of many, many hundreds. The latter generates a star system; the former subtly violates it, and, taking into account Brando's comment, is in danger of violating the actor performing the scene.
We can call these moments violable, the scene that burns a whole through the screen rather more metaphorically than the literal burning we see at the end of Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop when the celluloid catches fire. The violable scene gives to cinema, in some ways, its ontological base. There are two reasons for this. The first concerns the simple fact that most films are pro-filmic; they see themselves as recordings of reality however tampered they may be. We have actors in the world who are also in the film - John Wayne who will kill numerous Indians as various fictional characters and die himself as John Wayne from cancer. No matter the constant fretting in recent years over the digitisation of the image, no matter if Lev Manovich isn't wrong when he says that "indeed, digital photographs function in an entirely different way from traditional lens and film based photographs", the perception of the image remains similar even if the means of capturing what the camera sees has changed. Manovich might say, "digital photographs function in an entirely different way from traditional photographs." but then he adds: "Or do they? Shall we accept that digital imaging represents a radical rupture with photography? Is an image, mediated by computer and electronic technology, radically different from an image obtained through a photographic lens and embodied in film?" ('Paradoxes of Digital Photography') Manovich looks at the technological shift in the image; what interests us is the consistency of the actor within it. Though D. N. Rodowick (in The Virtual Life of Film) and others have talked about the presence of synthespians actors who would exist in the purely digital realm, that moment has far from come to pass. And often the idea of the synthespian happens to be based on the reality of someone's existence rather a purely digitised creation. When Screen International reported in 1999 that a digitally rendered Marlene Dietrich appeared on screen, Colin Brown wondered whether her synthespian performances would be her most eye-catching yet. But twenty years later Dietrich remains the dead actor who appeared in Morocco, Scarlett Empress and Touch of Evil rather than known for a series of posthumous performances: they never materialised. Peter Cushing may have been brought back to life in Star Wars but it still seems viewers want novelty over technologically generated longevity: living actors over computerised resurrections.
Why this happens to be so and whether this will in time change is for another piece. Our chief concern happens to be with the idea that the nature of cinema has been partly predicated on a situation it only occasionally acknowledges. Obviously, not all films through cinema's history have been based on living actors as numerous animated features testify. But the norm has been to create a weld between a character on screen and the actor playing the role, and in many instances generating personae that will close that gap. When someone says John Wayne would take out numerous Indians or prove his heroism by killing Japs and Germans, few will assume that we are talking about the same John Wayne who died of the big C. It is his screen persona. Yet the point is that the persona is his: that casting James Stewart, Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart would result in a very different film. To put Humphrey Bogart in a John Wayne role might ostensibly work since they are both assertive personalities given to treating others with disdain when the situation demands. But while Bogart was world-weary, Wayne often suggested the arrogantly worldly-wise. You couldn't get one over Bogart but you couldn't get Wayne to budge. Obviously interesting directors like Howard Hawks (who worked with both of them) would offer complexity to the persona but that wouldn't make them interchangeable. Some actors could be used in similar roles (Henry Fonda and Stewart, perhaps), but even then we can notice key differences. Fonda's persona was more haunted than Stewart's and his hesitancy more neurotic. Stewart was more at home in himself and troubled when dragged out of that comfort: hence his collapse in Vertigo.
Yet talking like this about actors makes us aware of just how tense and self are complicated when thinking about stars. Do we use the present or past tense, use the actor or the character's name? Many theorists on film hardly write about actors at all and refer to the text, flattening the performances out as they become part of a diegesis rather than the world. Frequently and understandably the actor is mentioned in brackets and the character then discussed. But central to our point is that we cannot easily do so in the violable moment even if both theorists and indeed filmmakers have, most of the time, allowed us this very particular suspension of disbelief: that we pretend that the actors and characters are one and the same. The violable moment refuses such a suspension, seeing in such instances an opportunity not so much to suspend disbelief but to ask for a different type of belief to become manifest.
When we think of Robert De Niro/Travis Bickle standing in front of the mirror in Taxi Driver, the moment isn't only unnerving because of the character's hint of psychosis as he points a gun at the mirror. It is also unsettling in that we are watching an actor performing a role in front of a reflection of himself. While there are many scenes of characters looking at themselves in the mirror in a manner that we might often find a little disconcerting if we think of how few of us can look in a mirror without performing in front of it, De Niro does so as if seeing through himself altogether, and seeing in some way through the character too. If cinema theory in the late sixties and seventies was preoccupied with the Lacanian idea of the child's misrecognition in front of the mirror resembling the viewer's misrecognition in front of the screen, it was also of course no less interested in suture: in the way the viewer was stitched into the film through various techniques that made for clear viewer identification. As Rob White says, "film theorists have been, and continue to be interested in, pointing out that narrative cinema offers a gratifyingly cogent kind of knowledge (in, for instance, its ordered plotting) but only by distracting attention from the extent to which this cogency is made up of disjointed images..." (The Cinema Book) Theorists were generally not concerned with the stitching that would take place between character and actor; they weren't too interested in the gap between the character on the screen and the character they were playing (even if we shouldn't ignore the fine and important essay by Jean-Louis Comolli 'Historical Fiction: A Body too Much', where he looks at actors playing famous personages). But Bickle's moment in front of the mirror is a very good place in which to incorporate the Lacanian notion of a thespian mirror phase where the viewer realizes the misrecognition that often takes place in film lies in the conflation between actor and character. When De Niro stands in front of the mirror, his pale, wiry body, like a sketching from Schiele, is his own, but it is also the character's. He is both the junk food eating character who can't put on weight as his clothes hang off him, but also the taut and handsome star who assumes the role of someone with no status and education. Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson noted that the film cast "the obviously charismatic De Niro to play a psychotic racist nobody." (Negative Space) Pauline Kael saw how De Niro could look Robert Taylor handsome one moment; ratty and unattractive the next: "as handsome as Robert Taylor one moment and cagey, ferrety, like Cagney, the next..." (When the Lights Go Down) Actors have frequently been far more attractive than the people they have played, and though Taxi Driver was not so completely based on a real person as in, say, Bonnie and Clyde, writer Paul Schrader nevertheless predicated his script loosely on the attempted assassination of Governor George Wallace by Arthur Bremer, a figure that images suggest possessed none of De Niro's properly brooding force. Obviously Taxi Driver not only based itself on an attempted assassination, it would then become a film that was the basis of one: John Hinckley Jnr's shooting of Ronald Reagan. Taxi Driver is an extreme example of a film bleeding into life, but it is also a film we believe that wants in De Niro's performance to indicate that the actor and the acting aren't quite one and the same. In Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn wanted glamorous stars to superimpose themselves upon the plain Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. In Taxi Driver, Scorsese wants De Niro merely to impose himself upon the character he plays so that we have the two working in conjunction rather than one buried under another. The mirror scene, our violable moment, brings this out.
Purple Noon from a certain perspective can seem a combination of the Bonnie and Clyde fascination with glamour and Taxi Driver's interest in questions of identity. It isn't entirely surprising when Bickle turns up two-thirds of the way through the film with a Mohican haircut: the scene in the mirror indicates already a hint of dislocation that suggests Bickle doesn't quite know who is and that he might perform any number of roles, adopt any number of personae. In Purple Noon, Alain Delon is as glamorous as Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde, but director Rene Clement is intrigued narratively by the fragility of Ripley's place in society yet even more by the unequivocal beauty Delon presents to the world. Ripley wants the life of another man even if as he wishes to remain in the beauty of his own body. Greenleaf is rich, Delon's Ripley is poor, and when we see Ripley trying on the wealthy man's clothes in front of the mirror, Clement's diegetic intent seems weak next to the camera's gaze. Though the gaze may be one of the most overused words in cinema, it can be utilised well within the context of a cinematic admiration. In Shane, the film gazes at the titular character but chiefly through the admiring looks of the young boy who worships him. We can think too of Schrader's camera gazing at Richard Gere in American Gigolo, Steven Kloves' gaze at Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys and Hitchcock gazing at Kim Novak in Vertigo one of the key texts of course in Laura Mulvey's formulation of the notion of the gaze in 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. Yet all the gazes offered in the films we have mentioned needn't necessarily break the diegesis and expose the gap between actor and character. The gaze on Novak is kept within strong diegetic limits as we often have the counter shot of Scottie looking on. The film pushes this subjectivity further than perhaps any film before it, but it is a look that Hitchcock determines must remain Scottie's obsession and not quite ours. Even in American Gigolo, Schrader offers a gaze that happens to be the many admiring women Gere's Julian beds as a high-end gigolo. When in the famous scene where he gets dressed to the music of Smoky Robinson this is the narcissist internalising the look of others as the sequence can seem like a precursor to many an eighties Levi advert. The look doesn't quite create a rupture.
But, if in very different ways, the scenes in Taxi Driver and Purple Noon happen to do so. When Delon's Ripley dresses in the other man's clothes, Clement skilfully creates a feeling in the viewer that while Ripley might be a character who shouldn't be rummaging around in another man's wardrobe, Delon as an actor should be dressed in the clothes that bring out best his handsome looks. Casting Maurice Ronet opposite Delon as Greenleaf zeroes in on an aspect of Delon's deserving beauty. Ronet is a fine-looking man, handsome in Lift to the Scaffold and handsome still playing again for Louis Malle in Le feu follet. But he also looks in Purple Noon ever so slightly like a man past his best; Delon in his absolute prime. Who should get to wear the best clothes? Who they belong to is of secondary importance as Clement makes a film that happens to be more about beauty than morality this is an aesthetic imperative not a categorical one. When someone describes a film as amoral, we might wonder what value has been purchased at the price of the moral. Here it is the aesthetic, no matter if it looks like Ripley/Delon has been caught at the end. It is not so much that justice has been done; more that Ripley has been a very handsome prince for a day. A murder seems of little importance next to the need to dress well. Written by Claude Chabrol's regular screenwriter Paul Gegauff, Gegauff was a man who consistently sought the amoral and the aesthetic, evident in Antoine de Baecque's claim that Gegauff was "perfectly capable of showing up at a costume ball dressed as a Nazi officer holding a leash with a friend wearing the striped outfit of a camp inmate on the other end of it." (Camera Historica).
In Plein Soleil Delon isn't so much cast in the role as the role cast in him. If it is often enough said that a role was made for an actor, in the sense that, after the event, we couldn't have imagined another actor in the role, it is something again if we sense that the actor creates in the role a figure that imposes himself upon it. In the former instance the actor dissolves into the character and can seem inextricably associated with it so deeply have they immersed themselves in the part. We often find this in method performances, and indeed De Niro's role as Bickle has a strong dimension of it. But what interest us much more here is the opposite of the Method. If "the Stanislavsky system requires that an actor utilise, among other things, his emotional memory" (i.e., his recall of past experiences and emotions" (Encyclopedia Brittanica), the violable moment indicates that the reflective feeling is replaced by reflexive appearance. The performance is noted rather than buried. If we can see in De Niro's performance in Taxi Driver the Method at work, as we wouldn't deny De Niro immerses himself in a part that matches and perhaps surpasses the earlier work of Brando, Dean and Clift, at the same time we can also note a higher degree of self-consciousness in the space between direction and performance. What we see is Scorsese directing De Niro, a post-new wave aspect that in some ways Delon's performance in Purple Noon, made the same year as Breathless, shares. Clement doesn't cast Delon for the purposes of verisimilitude at all how could the director when he has Delon and Ronet playing a couple of Americans in Europe who speak French like the natives they are? Clement may want the gap less self-reflexively than Godard in Breathless but the gap is surely intentional nevertheless.
But of course, nobody pushed this problem of the gap between performance and performer more than Godard, and surely with no other actor more often than his own wife Anna Karina. When she looks directly at the camera in Vivre sa vie, even when we see her viewing and crying in front of The Passion of Joan of Arc in the cinema, we might wonder whether we are watching Nana or seeing Anna Karina. As Kaja Silverman says in Speaking About Godard, "insofar as the three credit shots represent a documentary of a face, they tilt the film in the direction of Karina rather than of Nana. It is the mystery of the actress rather than the mystery of the character which is being plumbed." Silverman acknowledges that "these images are not purely documentary; they are also elements within a fiction film," as Silverman says: "it would be more appropriate to say that it is the mystery of Nana as the mystery of Anna Karina which is at issue here." Whether it is De Niro, Delon or Karina they are not fascinating in themselves (as documentary subjects), but fascinating as themselves within the characters they are playing. Yet perhaps in a slightly different way from classical actors, even if the rough principle behind performance remains the same. When we think of Bogart or John Wayne, they are not playing Philip Marlowe or Ethan Edwards as the mystery of Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, they are playing characters embodied in the personae of these important cultural icons. There is conjunction rather disjunction, a perpetually indivisible whole even if they are the coming together as an actor and a character. If John Wayne had looked at the camera, if Bogart had dwelled for far too long over a detail that took us out of the diegesis, Hawks and Ford would have taken us into the violable moment, but they do not. It is when we sense the existence or the vulnerability of the actor that the moment takes place. From a classical standpoint, such a moment would be a failure, from the perspective of Godard, Scorsese and others it is a new type of success. When it works it doesn't create a collapse in the suspension of disbelief but expands our notion of what we believe in when we watch a film. When seeing Karina cry while watching Falconetti in Vivre sa vie, are we watching Karina crying at Falconetti, Karina crying at Joan of Arc's death, Nana crying at Falconetti, or Nana crying at Joan of Arc's death? Falconetti herself lived a tragic life, suffering from mental health issues that may have been ideal for the role of Joan of Arc and terrible for the actress's well-being. Godard would seem to want the manifold possibilities available rather than the insistent need to close down the character and actor so that all we would have needed was that Nana cries as she watches The Passion of Joan of Arc onscreen. As Godard breaks the work down into twelve chapters, as he introduces real-life personages into his film (the philosopher Brice Parain playing himself), so we recognise Vivre sa vie as a work that wants us to experience the film rather than follow the story.
There has been a lot of controversy in recent years over Last Tango in Paris. Always a controversial film anyway, Bertolucci gave an interview in 2013 at the Cinematheque in Paris where he said that the famous butter scene was improvised. All the details were in the script except this one thing, and before the scene Bertolucci and Brando decided to add it without telling the actress Maria Schneider. A storm ensued, aided by a Daily Mail interview from 2007 four years before the actress died, saying that she "felt a little raped." Bertolucci had said in the Cinematheque interview: "the sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting...he wanted her (Scheinder's) reaction as a girl, not as an actress." Of the three people involved in the incident, only Bertolucci was still alive and defended himself in 2016 by saying, "we wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies. Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria has not been informed about the violence on her. That is false!" (Guardian). It is not our purpose to become embroiled in a blame game but to provide a bit of contextual and conceptual bolster to the question. Bertolucci may or may not have exploited Schneider, just as he may or may not have in different ways exploited an obviously much more experienced and powerful actor in Brando during the filming. But Bertolucci, like Godard, Scorsese and others, was interested not only in the performance of the actor but the being of the performer. As a Rolling Stone interviewer says, interviewing Brando on the set of The Missouri Breaks, "anyone knew that Paul was really Brando. His audience rapport has, to that effect, almost worked against him. Here, even the biographical details were the same. Grew up on a farm, dug ditches, milked cows, boxed, went to Tahiti, played the congas..." Brando says that he remembers, "bad memories, I guess." My father was a drunk, whorefucker, bar-fighter, super masculine. My mother was very poetic, and also a drunk. My memories of being a kid are of her being arrested nude...I'd come home after school...she'd be gone...in jail, or something." Schneider it would seem happened to be part of an improvised exposure that mainly concerned Brando. It doesn't make what happened okay, yet it does offer a context indicating that a certain type of cinema wanted to move away from the dream factory and the creation of the star, and access an aspect of the individual. It was part of an ever-increasing quest towards not so much realism in cinema (since our notion of realist acting, for example, tends to change with the times), but with exposing the performance to its manifold possibilities.
In a fine article looking at the way films of the fifties had absorbed developments in therapy, Parker Tyler looked at what he called the Psychodrama in film, with the earlier work of Brando, Clift, Dean and others utilising the Method to access feelings more complex and troubling than caught on film hitherto, and to access an aspect of self in the context of performance. "...According to the Method, this abstraction is the actor's normal way of participating in a play. He makes up his own speeches in given situations as though he were playing himself, as though he were living 'life'." ('The Psychodrama') But while the Method expected the actor to access themselves this wasn't quite the same as exposing themselves. Indeed Stanislavski address this question in 'An Actor Prepares', when director Tortsov says "you must be very careful in the use of a mirror. It teaches an actor to watch the outside rather than the inside of his soul, both in himself and in his part." (An Actor Prepares) To access oneself was to find in one's life moments of pain for example that would then be transposed into character, but in the sort of performance we are speaking about, the mirror asks us to view both the inside and the outside (Taxi Driver quite literally), or to focus on the outside rather than the inside (Delon in front of the mirror in Sans soleil) The personal life in the Method remained their own and was only utilised for the purposes of characterization; depth was more important than surfaces. But in the violable moment, such dichotomies can get lost. In Last Tango in Paris, the personal life was the characterization as Brando expressed the sort of thoughts that would go into the creation of character out loud on camera as the character. As Bertolucci films Brando talk, the camera light plays off his face, capturing light and shade, visually tonal shifts that reflect the shiftings tones of the conversation. It is as though Bertolucci wanted to find inside the character of Paul the being of Brando. It isn't that Brando's performance is much more realist than his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, or On the Waterfront, though it might be. But it is more exposed. In a very different way and in a manner that we wouldn't suggest is a violable moment as we are couching it, Schneider was part of that increased exposure on the part of the body as she stands around naked or gets washed down by Brando. It would be unfair to call this the objectification of women; if anything it is the naturalisation of the flesh. While classic Hollywood would rely on metonymy and metaphor to suggest sexual desire, Schneider offers it with her body, and there may as a consequence be less sexuality in it even if there is far more nudity. Classic Hollywood might focus on an anklet to suggest a femme fatale's sexual aspect (metonymy), or cut to burning embers (metaphor) as the couple make love. Modern Hollywood could be much more explicit but still coy: knowing that the (usually female) flesh it does show is part of a lingering tease, evident in Zalman King films like Two Moon Junction and Wild Orchid, where the flesh count would usually steadily increase or the sex scenes become more explicit. King wasn't looking for exposure as Bertolucci was; he was seeking the commodification of the sexual, thus the coy but explicit. If Schneider was exposed in Last Tango in Paris that didn't mean, necessarily, that she was exploited. Bertolucci's film (like in different ways, Taxi Driver, Vivre sa vie, Purple Noon) was part of exposing cinema to forces other than entertainment and the securing of the diegesis.
One may understandably feel that Brando and Bertolucci took advantage of a vulnerable nineteen-year-old making her film debut, but this wasn't a simple question of power being asserted but part of a problematic being explored. Anybody rewatching the film and seeing only Schneider, her nudity, her youthfulness and now, with the information we have, the trick they played on her, would be impoverishing the experience for the catharsis of a contemporaneous outrage. It needn't be letting Brando and Bertolucci off the hook to see more in the film than Schneider as bait for an exploitative audience. The film remains one of the most important attempts to muse over what happens to be the difference between an actor and a character, as well as Brando pushing through into new areas of thespian experience. As Pauline Kael proposed the New Yorker: "...Brando knows how to improvise: it isn't just Brando improvising, it's Brando improvising as Paul...when Brando improvises within Bertolucci's structure his full art is realized." ('Tango') Mailer noted in the New York Review of Books that "with his courage to give himself away, we finally can recognize the tragedy of his [Brando's] expression across these twenty-five years. That expression has been locked into the impossibility of ever communicating such a set of private thoughts through his beggar's art as an actor. Yet he has just done it. He is probably the only actor in the world who could have done it." ('A Transit to Narcissus') Kael was hyperbolising when she said that the film was the equivalent of the shock and dismay that met Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring', but there is irony now to that hyperbole as the shock and dismay would come more than forty years later. Yet Last Tango in Paris indicated that just as eight years later Robert De Niro would push the physical envelope in Raging Bull by putting on sixty pounds to play boxer Jake la Motta and also get himself so into shape that he could plausibly pass for a top middleweight fighter, so Brando had created a new level of psychological thespian focus. The film is itself an ongoing violable moment, but since our purpose is to address chiefly one, we of course rely on the scene thus quoted, where Brando lies on his side next to Schneider and talks about a past that is indistinguishable: the character's and Brando's. It is the scene Mailer mentions when he dicusses Brando's private thoughts meeting acting's possibilities. Brando talks quietly, his voice the opposite of projecting itself outward as though all the world isn't a stage but a psychoanalyst's couch. The Psychodrama was never more evident than in this scene and it remains perhaps the most brilliant of violable moments.
In Stardust Memories, Charlotte Rampling plays central character Sandy's (Woody Allen) perfect woman but plays it insistently with a sense less of imperfection than flawed insistence. Her character Dorrie is constantly questioning her attractiveness, her appeal to Sandy, her fragile psyche. In this film within a film we are shown footage of Rampling as Dorrie playing the character within the film, but what comes through is a notion of 'Rampling'. As she looks directly at the camera and speaks about herself, as the film cuts between various outtakes, so we see 'Rampling' gulp, lick her lips, boasts about a doctor who fancies her at the clinic, start to cry, get angry with herself and pull her hair back from her face. Who are we watching here? It is too easy to say Rampling, especially as Rampling has for years openly admitted that she has often had bouts of depression, and many moments where fear was too central to her life. "Nobody is threatening you but actually everything is threatening you. You need to get to a point where fear is useful: fear is very useful. Fear is a great motor." (Independent)Rampling suggests the fear of everything needs to be turned into the fear of something: "the greatest things are done through a sense of adrenaline-fuelled fear, I think. Ask a racing driver just before he's about to start driving what he feels." (Independent) Yet what makes Rampling so often a very fine actress is that she registers a fear of everything rather than something, as if the things she might concretely name as fears are really only temporary manifestations of a deeper anxiety. In the scene she may be Rampling, may be Dorrie, may be the character within the film that she is appearing in, but what comes through is the Ramplingesque: a person of acute fear and equally astute intelligence. In Stardust Memories she worries about ageing, about her beauty, about other women, about her relationship with her father, and all seem to disappear into the back hole that is a despair which can't quite be named. The sequence where we see Rampling in the series of close ups serves the opposite purpose of the typical reaction shot. The cutaway to a face is frequently a means of registering concrete fear on the face of someone confronting a concrete reality. It might be a shark, a dinosaur, a huge wave or an enraged lion, but the visage registers this fear as a functional fact. There would be no violable moment: the scene is utterly integrated into the story as the fear is not at all an integral aspect of character but an integral part of the situation. In this scene from Stardust Memories, Rampling offers a character within a character who is full of fear and accesses it through both a persona and (taking into account various interviews) a life that acknowledges this abstract fearfulness, we have indeed a viable moment.
Our final example comes from an actress far less well known than Rampling, Brando, Delon, De Niro and Karina: Jeon Jong-seo, who debuts in Burning. In the scene, in the middle of the film, where she starts dancing in the fading summer light, there are similarities with the famous moment in Vivre sa vie that we have chosen not to include as a viable moment though it might be a justifiable contender: the pool room scene where Karina dances round the table. But if Karina is craving for attention, Jong Seo's Shin Hae-mi appears oblivious to it. One of the men, the young delivery man she has known since school and whom she meets again years later in the city, is besotted. Her elegant moneyed slightly older lover is intrigued. She has at this moment no need for their attention and director Lee Chang-dong indicates that she is for a few minutes in her own world. It is a scene where Lee augments the mystery of the character while also registering an aura in this new young actress. Here is a character who proves a mystery to the young man she once knew and who tells him when they first make love (the only time they sleep with each other) that he thought she was very ugly at school. He doesn't recall saying anything of the kind but is she lying or is his memory faulty? Over the course of the first half of the film there are a number of moments where the young man calls into question what she might be saying as Shin Hae-mi's purpose is to generate the maximum amount of mystery around herself. When we see her dance as the sun sets, as she removes her top and as Miles Davies plays on the soundtrack, it is as though this enigma becomes pure form: a self that wants to lose her past and indicate no future as she puts herself properly in the moment: a burning indeed. Chang-dong says the scene is "the core of the film" (Sight and Sound). Shin Hae-mi herself calls it "the dance of the great hunger". Lee has also said, "it is hard to explain in words but for me, this is the most important scene in the film." (Film Comment)
As Shin Hae-mi dances the men talk, but though what they say is important to the film's plot, it is the dance which is important to the film's rhythm. One reason for the dance's importance is paradoxical; it could have been excised from the film as the conversation between the two men couldn't have been. This means no more than that the conversation has consequences while the dance does not. Shin has achieved a moment within the film that would be entirely appropriate to her character and that the director has captured. As a young woman who seems determined to escape cause and consequence while she makes things up as though whatever is said happens to be of equal weight and validity because what matters is the moment of its offering, so in the dance scene Lee gives her a sequence that reflects well her character without being necessary to the very plotting of the film. This isn't the place to go into the plot; all we wish to say is that if the dance scene had been removed nobody would have wondered where it had gone: it isn't integral to the story even if we might feel that without it the film would be missing something. Yet as in many such great sequences the violable moment isn't integrally necessary but extrinsically so. If after watching the film the director recut it removing the scene, it would do terrible damage to the work, but if the scene hadn't been there in the first place nobody could obviously feel its absence. What is cinema for, Lee often asks, and he says, "as a filmmaker, that's the most important question." (Film Comment) It is not how to tell the story but how to find cinema within the story. The violable moment is one such instance of how, modern cinema, manages to answer that question. it is a very useful way of 'undermining' the story and discovering the cinematic within it.
© Tony McKibbin