Sublime Moments: Films To Catch
When watching stories on film. I live for the moments when everything comes together in a sublime meld of imagery, language and sound. Watching God’s Own Country, one of the year’s best British films, it seemed at first to be another BFI-funded test of patience, especially as it began with a monosyllabic farmer putting his arm up a cow.
Although hailed as ‘the British Brokeback Mountain’ it’s less about about sexual politics than the story of a man so emotionally closed-off that his heart may never be unlocked. A woman I know who was raised in that area of Yorkshire told me she grew up surrounded by such isolated people. The film is a slow burn, mostly silent, so that each hard-earned word becomes important. At the end comes a montage of old footage from farming communities on summer afternoons long lost, set to Patrick Wolf’s song ‘The Days’, and the emotional barriers fall away. It’s a scene that feels like a reward for the effort put into the story. A sublime moment.
Looking for other sublime moments, several appear in the bleakly comic I, Tonya (Oscar-nominated for its superb performances and script). Tonya Harding’s life is a car wreck, but when she steps onto the ice the pain falls away and she can be free. These moments are a miracle of CGI movement and camerawork which involved grafting Margot Robbie’s face onto a championship skater .
The creation of emotion is film’s stock in trade, of course, and it so rarely comes off in mainstream films because we’ve sat through all the adrenaline-pumping action we can take. Even the various adventures set in the Marvel universe are wearing thin.
Marvel films specialise in rewarding longtime fans by occasionally pausing scenes so that they exactly resemble the original comic book artwork (a point that passes unnoticed by the multiplex masses). In Dr Strange and the Thor films homages are even paid to individual artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby respectively.
This echoes the habit of recreating old paintings on film and in stereoscopic slides. Dr. Brian May (yes, that Brian May) has published art books of stereo cards in The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery. The cards reconstructed well‐known Victorian paintings using actors and staged scenes.
The advent of a new painting by a great artist was big news, but few could access new works of art so photographers painstakingly rebuilt the scenes, selling cards that featured works by Landseer, Maclise, Wallis, Millais, Calderon, Lane, Frith, Nicol, Hunt and others. In turn, the scenes inspired china figures known as fairings.
How and why we crave these frozen moments has always been a source of mystery and fascination. Albert Camus says we seek to regain the first images that gained access to our souls. Perhaps we are never quite able to recreate that delight, but we never stop trying. The director Paul Thomas Anderson seeks to extend this moment and sustain it across a lengthy film in Phantom Thread, a precision-cut 1950s-set film about a dress designer and the woman who must find a way to gain access to his heart, especially as his sister acts as a protective gatekeeper.
Anderson’s film feels like the kind of dream you drift out of just before waking, and seeks to pinpoint the sensation of being found beautiful. Daniel Day-Lewis has clearly based his character on an amalgam of fifties designers, and there’s a feeling of delicacy and clarity through the entire mood-piece. Nobody speaks without carefully thinking about what they will say, a habit all but forgotten in the modern world.
I suspect it’s harder to catch these moments in books because of the linearity of language that requires us to describe, the risk of description being the snuffing out of hidden grace. In novels the mood is created over pages. In film or music such confluences occur in a split second.
Sublime moments exist at the summit of creativity, and still we attempt to reach them. Perhaps that’s the point.