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Photography & media

Memorable moments at the cinema

— January 2015

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Still from North by Northwest, 1959. Image courtesy MGM/The Cobal Collection at Art Resource, NY

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the cinema…

Moments that Made the Movies by David Thomson

The Italian poet Cesare Pavese wrote that ‘we do not remember days, we remember moments’.  In David Thomson's latest book Moments that Made the Movies the prolific writer and film critic recounts his favourite moments from over 70 films covering the 100-year history of cinema.

This book explores the power of brief moments in films, the special memorable sequences that stay in the mind of a viewer long after the film has finished.  In a recent BBC radio interview David Thomson said that looking at films in this way made him far more aware of how rigorously edited films are and how they are constructed.  The idea of memorable moments is not entirely new, Justin Wyatt proposed a similar theory in his book High Concept; suggesting that a film can be condensed into a few moments that are used to inspire marketing campaigns and lure audiences.  The film Jaws 2 (1978) was famously advertised using the tag line ‘just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water’. Steven Spielberg reasoned that if the idea of a film can be explained in 25 words ‘it's going to make a pretty good movie’.

Memorable moments play an important part in photojournalism as well as filmmaking.  Successful photographs instantly capture a scene that can convey a much bigger story.  The Magnum Picture Agency photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson titled his book of memorable photographs The Decisive Moment.  The book featured over 100 photographs that captured the significance of an event in a fraction of a second. 

After a brief introduction explaining how he looks at film moments, Thomson begins by considering a series of sequential still photographs taken by the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge.  The motion in living things fascinated Muybridge and he pioneered a system of photography using multiple cameras to record living things in motion.  When printed sequentially on a sheet of photographic paper we can interpret them as frames from a movie; but they pre-date film-making by almost 20 years.  Nonetheless, the photographs clearly show the concept of moments in time that Thomson is exploring. 

Sometimes Thomson chooses moments that identify the development of film techniques, such as the use of close-ups in Joan of Arc (1928) or film music scores in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959).  The moments that Thomson chooses from Gone with the Wind (1939) do not relate to the film but to the audience reaction to initial screenings and the historical significance of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar.  Memorable one-line quotes from films feature frequently throughout the book.  Comedy one-liners from Dodsworth (1936) and from When Harry Met Sally (1989). The latter moment is the woman in the Deli saying ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ after Meg Ryan’s memorable performance] and comedy dialogue in Burn After Reading (2008).  David Thomson also describes the intensely emotional moments in films that can make a movie memorable.  The list of films he examines may make you want to watch them to see if you react the same way.

Each section in Moments that Made the Movies can be read in isolation, dipping into the book on an occasional basis.  It may be more enjoyable to read it chronologically, however; this can highlight trends and patterns of development in the sequential list of films.  Still images and illustrations from films are lavishly used throughout the book and the publishers have used frames from the original film stock for these, where possible. 

David Thomson is a lively and entertaining writer and lecturer in film studies.  Moments that Made the Movies is a wonderfully designed book; with stylish page layouts full of witty, chatty but also thought-provoking text. 

David Thomson was born in London and has lived in the US for over 40 years.  He studied at Dulwich College, South London and at the London School of Film Technique.  After several years with Penguin Books, Thomson began his film academic career at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.  His best-known book, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, is essential reading for all film students and researchers.  He has previously written books that have covered the whole of the film industry, the history of Hollywood in The Whole Equation, individual filmmakers  such as The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, specific films such as The Big Sleep and, now, particular scenes in films.

Moments that Made the Movies by David Thomson is published by Thames and Hudson, 304pp. 250 illus. ISBN 9780500516416



Ian Jones
National Army Museum, London.
Head of Photography

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