So much of film criticism, especially film criticism on blogs, seems concerned with what the film is about rather than how it behaves as a film. Characters are discussed, plausibility of plot is analyzed, all the while treating the movie experience more like a book experience. While story and plot are integral parts of most traditional movies (and even most non-traditional movies), the most satisfying discussions, for me at least, are discussions that lead to the reason why the particular film under discussion must be viewed as a film and not as a different art form.
This notion of ‘pure cinema’ exists, but the practice is scattered across more conventional films. Hitchcock worked ‘pure cinema’ components into his movies so seamlessly that we take them for granted. The attacks in The Birds or the shower scene in Psycho are the most famous examples of works of are that are intrinsically and only cinematic.
This is not to imply that ‘impure cinema’, if there could be such a term, is a lesser art form. It is just a different art form. A movie adaptation of a book is a perfectly legitimate evening’s entertainment, as are dopey comedies. It is just that these kinds of movies don’t reach the emotional immediacy that ‘pure cinema’ does. Story often can be an alienating factor, coming between the audience and what the filmmaker has in his or her heart.
A beautiful example of a ‘pure cinema’ moment comes at the climax of Terence Davies’ 1992 The Long Day Closes. The film is an impressionistic portrait of the life of a lonely but much loved young boy in early 1950s Liverpool. The Beatles haven’t come on the scene yet. Popular culture is not yet Rock and Roll culture. In this magnificent montage, Bud, the protagonist, is once more alone, and he starts to swing on a metal pole that crosses the stairs down to the coal cellar. As he swings higher and higher, the camera tracks to the left and the stairs magically dissolve to a thrilling overhead view of an audience in a local cinema. The panning continues and the cinema dissolves into an overhead shot of Mass being celebrated. This gives way to an overhead shot of a boys’ classroom, which brings us back to the stairs down to the coal cellar.
Much has been made of how these three images sum up the life of this lower-class Catholic community: movies, church and school fill the days of these Liverpudlians. What I want to draw your attention to is that it is done without dialogue or narrative. The only words we hear are snatches of dialogue from Kind Hearts and Coronets, a popular Ealing comedy of the day. This excerpt of dialogue is more a seasoning than an integral part of the logic of the scene. What is integral is the song that laces the disparate parts of the scene together. The song is Tammy sung by Debbie Reynolds. Terence Davies, the director, is on record as detesting the Beatles. It seems that to him they mark the break between the popular culture of the 1950s and what came after. This earlier culture seems to be of higher rank to Davies and his choice of this particular song, which is drenched in nostalgia for those of us of a certain age, works beautifully in tying together the visual elements of the scene.
So here we have a magical moment of ‘pure cinema’. We are forever in debt to Criterion for making this and other gems available. Please patronize them.
Enjoy the climactic scene of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes