memento movi(e)

remembering moving moments from the movies

The Third Man (1949)

Movie endings are fertile ground for cinephilia.  The final frames of a film often have a special charge, lingering in our minds long after the rest has faded from memory.  And this is not just true of happy endings; in fact, some of the most powerful endings are not “happy” at all, in the conventional sense.

One of my favorite movie endings is a case in point.  The final moments of Carol Reed’s postwar thriller, The Third Man (1949), are among the most perfect in cinema.

The film tells the story of an American writer of pulp fiction, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who travels to Vienna after the war to visit his old friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  Upon his arrival, however, he is shocked to discover that Harry died a few days earlier in a freak accident.  Martins tries to make sense of what’s happened by talking with Harry’s acquaintances, including his beautiful girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli).  The more he learns, the more he becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Harry’s death—in additional to two known witnesses, there was, it seems, a mysterious “third man” present when his friend died, and no one seems to know who he was.  Was Harry murdered? 

Martins does his best to find out, but his amateur investigation is hampered by his ignorance of the language and his trouble navigating the complex politics of postwar Vienna, which is divided into British, American, French, and Russian zones of government.  It is also complicated by his growing feelings for Anna, who is still in love with Harry.  And then two discoveries turn his world upside down.  First, Martins hears from British officer Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) that Harry is not the man Martins thought he was: he was involved in a black market ring in Vienna that sold adulterated penicillin to hospitals, resulting in the deaths of dozens of children.  Second, Martins himself learns that Harry isn’t dead at all.  He faked his death in order to escape arrest for his crimes; he was the third man at the scene of the staged “accident” that supposedly took his life.  Now Martins faces a dilemma: should he work with the authorities to bring his old friend to justice—and risk losing Anna, who is still loyal to Harry—or should he turn a blind eye to Harry’s misdeeds and win her undying gratitude?  Martins finally follows his conscience, helping the police track Harry down in the sewer system below the city, where they shoot him dead.

In the final scene of the film, Martins attends a second funeral for Harry—this one genuine—hoping to reconcile with Anna, who, of course, is also there.  She won’t look at Martins, however, much less speak to him.  As far as she is concerned, he has betrayed both Harry and her.  She pays her respects to Harry and walks off down the road, alone.  Defeated, Martins hops in a jeep with Calloway to catch a plane back to America.  As they pass Anna, though, Martins turns to look at her.  He asks Calloway to stop.  He’ll make her see reason.  He did what he had to do; Harry was the one who betrayed them.  Suitcase in hand, he waits for her by the side of the road. 

Slowly, in a long take that runs for over a minute, she approaches, walking down the wintry lane toward him—and us—through falling leaves, to the plangent sounds of Anton Karas’s famous zither score.  She’ll stop when she reaches him, we think; they’ll argue, then embrace and walk off, hand in hand, to live happily ever after.  Instead, she walks straight past him—and us—without a glance.  Martins stares after her for a moment, then dejectedly lights a cigarette, flicking the spent match into the road.  Fade to black.

Not a happy ending, but a perfect one.  Perfect not because it gives us what we want, but because it’s true to the story and its characters, making it all the more moving and memorable.

Holly and Anna at the end of The Third Man (1949)

La jetee (1962)

My vote for the best science fiction movie of all time goes to Chris Marker’s haunting meditation on time, memory, love, and loss: La jetee (1962).  A short film of just under thirty minutes—and composed almost entirely of still images rather than moving pictures—it manages to say more with less than just about any other movie I know.  It tells the story of a man, who having survived World War III, is captured by the opposing side and made the subject of brutal experiments designed to send people through time to bring back the food, supplies, and energy desperately needed by post-apocalyptic humanity.  He is selected as an ideal candidate for experimentation because of his powerful attachment to the memory of a woman from his past, whom he saw as a child, standing on the jetee (observation deck) at the Orly airport.

Sound familiar?  It should.  Marker’s film was remade by Terry Gilliam in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys, and its influence can be felt in the Terminator movies, among other examples of contemporary science fiction cinema.  La jetee stands head and shoulders above them all, however, for its beauty, its seriousness, and its moving evocation of our relationship with the past.

The most stunning and memorable moment in La jetee, for me, is the one moment when this movie moves.  As I said, the story is told almost entirely in still images—pictures, fragments, that introduce the man and his story to us, follow him as he is subjected to the time travel experiments, and chronicle his first contacts with the woman from his past (the images are accompanied here by Trevor Duncan’s lovely, poignant musical score).  About half way through the film, however, the man is able, through the power of his memory and sheer force of will, to make these museum-like images come alive for a few fleeting seconds.  We see the woman lying in bed, asleep, frozen in time.  Then, in a series of lap dissolves, she appears to move, tossing and turning, while a cacophony of birdsong grows louder on the soundtrack.  When the birdsong reaches an almost unbearable crescendo, the lap dissolves resolve themselves into moving pictures: the woman notices us, she blinks, she smiles.  Memory becomes cinema, bringing the past to life.  But it cannot last.  Exhausted, the man falls back into the future, opening his eyes to the face of the Nazi-like head scientist, who is eager to debrief his “patient.”

The scene is at once thrilling, terrifying, and almost unbearably sad.  It is, in my view, one of the most potent and indelible moments in film—one that somehow moves us while at the same time illuminating for us the workings of human memory and the essence of cinema itself.

The Woman awakes in La jetee (1962)

what is memento movi(e)?

As a film professor and a life-long lover of cinema, as well as someone who’s fascinated by how the web is changing the way we watch, write, and think about movies, I’ve often toyed with the idea of starting a film blog.  What held me back was the knowledge that there were already so many terrific film blogs (flogs?) out there, being written by talented people (not floggers, surely!) who apparently had much more free time than I for such endeavors.  Also, as someone who really came of age before the whole “web 2.0” phenomenon (OK, before the internet, too), I frankly felt a bit intimidated by the technical side of it.

It recently occurred to me, though, that there may be something missing in the online discourse about film, rich as it is: a consideration of those brief but magical moments in the movies that made most of us fall in love with cinema in the first place—and keep us coming back to it our whole lives.  Most writing about the movies tends to focus on analyzing entire films, summing them up, breaking them down, and showing how all the parts fit together.  When we remember movies, though, it seems to me that we focus on the moments that we found the most moving, the most meaningful to us.  Those moments draw part of their power (and their meaning) from their context, certainly, but in retrospect they somehow transcend the scenes around them.  In our minds, they stand out as emblems of their films, long after the rest has faded from memory.  They are also, I think, key to our love for the movies in general.  These fragments of film feed our cinephilia, more so than whole movies from which we mentally excerpt them.

Thus was born the idea for this micro-blog.  "Memento movi(e)" is, of course, a play on "memento mori, the Latin phrase for objects meant to act as souvenirs of death, as reminders of our mortality.  Memento movi(e) urges remembrance of passion (movi) of a cinematic (movie) kind.  My aim is to collect here some of the movie moments that have moved me over the years.  These reminiscences will necessarily be of a somewhat personal and subjective nature (cinephilia, like all kinds of love, is inevitably, mysteriously personal and subjective), but I hope that in sharing them I can ultimately get at what keeps all of us glued to the screen—and maybe inspire you to watch (or re-watch) some of my favorite movie moments in the bargain.

Micro-blogging strikes me as being the ideal platform to explore these film fragments (the constraints on length appeal to me as a harried professor as well, I must admit).  I plan on posting my movie mementos as regularly as I can, whenever possible accompanied by videos of the moments in question.  I hope that you’ll chime in with your thoughts, and with some of your own cherished movie moments as well.  Start those mental projectors…