Serge Daney — today more known and quoted by serious cinephiles than during his too-short lifetime, as Carlos Losilla's most recent entry in his lively "Interventions" series explains — had a great idea about the intersection of film technique and film commentary.
Good films, Daney proposed, reach strong, unforgettable moments that manage to project a freeze-frame (in French, an arrêt sur image) into the minds and memories of attentive, sympathetic spectators. Daney played a lot with this concept of the freeze, on at least three levels. First, there were the key films that themselves, on the level of their style and technique, incorporated sudden freezes (still, arrested images) into the flow of their movement, like Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1944), Scorsese's crime/gangster movies, or (supremely for Daney) the final moments of Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959).
Then there was a second, more theoretical idea about the general role of images in the mass culture of film, TV, advertising, and so forth: "The more an image is in simultaneous competition with all the others, the less it has to move", and so it becomes petrified in the modern world, the concretisation of a collective death-drive, an image that is 'terminal', self-enclosed, needing no other image in dialogue with itself. This is the arrêt sur l'image (note the slight difference) which Daney specialist Laurent Kretzschmar helpfully translates and annotates as the freeze-image.
Then, third, there is the spectator, or more precisely the mind of the critic who chooses to write or speak about a film. Personally, I relate to Daney's favourite metaphor of the freeze intensely, if eccentrically. One the one hand, and quite naturally, the 'screenshot culture' of contemporary cinephilia is the arrêt in full-on action, day in and day out, as we fixate upon the single, telling frames of a film that speak to us, that sum up some essence of a film or its surrounding culture.
On the other hand, movies are movement, or they are (almost) nothing: what lives in our memory is the mobile architecture of a film as it takes us through a stylised fusion of 'passionate time' (as Pascal Bonitzer once called it, likening film-viewing to the passage through a labyrinth) and the heightened physical properties of space or environment — a lyrical and poetic experience of space-time. As Nicole Brenez once rightly remarked, Guy Debord's On the Passage of a Few People through a Rather Brief Period in Time (1959) is cinema's greatest-ever title.
Yet Daney was right, things leap out of a film and grab us. What kind of things crystallise in our heads? I have my own fixation, and I know it is shared by many cinephiles: the shot/reverse shot figure or 'volley' (as in tennis — another Daney obsession!), as I like to call it.
Last week, I passed — a not uncommon experience — between two vastly different films. At university, I lectured on Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour (1959) — the kind of canonical classic that requires you to put aside all the hundreds of pre-existing books and articles, and really rediscover it for yourself. What an astonishing passage of two people through a brief period in time this film presents! And what stayed with me was a mysterious communion of human and animal creatures, when a cat wanders down into Emmanuelle Riva's home prison-cellar...
In the middle of that intense experience, I watched Mick Garris' telemovie Virtual Obsession (1998) on DVD — co-scripted by Preston Sturges Jr.! This fanciful sci-fi tale includes a scene where aggrieved wife Mimi Rogers hurls into the air the cryogenically frozen head (quite an arrêt there) of the deceased young lady whom her husband (Peter Gallagher) had an affair with. The volley passes again between two realms of Being, the living woman in paroxysm and the severed head in flight... I saw it, stopped the film, grabbed the screenshots and thought: this is cinema! And cinema is wherever you find it.