Guest post by Andrew Urie.
In our current Web 3.0 era (see Andrew Keen’s book Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Disorienting, and Diminishing Us ), an online platform like YouTube has fundamentally altered how many of us watch films by allowing for different viewing practices. Rather than watching a movie from beginning to end in linear fashion or selecting various pre-arranged filmic sequences on a DVD, we can now use YouTube to access a seemingly endless proliferation of cinematic fragments or excerpts that are circulating independent of a cinematic whole. The upshot of this is that cinephiles of all sorts can now better appreciate how there are countless great cinematic fragments out there that emanate from otherwise mediocre, lacklustre, or outright bad films.
As a professionally certified culture vulture who has written on the hidden beauty that can be found in cinematic misfires (see my PopMatters article, “Why Pat O’Connor’s Bomb, The January Man, Is Worth Watching” ), I can personally attest to the existence of the viewing practices that I’m here outlining. After all, I’ve whiled away many hours with cinephile friends discussing various cinematic fragments that we’ve sought out online via YouTube. In general, the gist of many of our discussions can be boiled down to the following: “This is a great scene/sequence, but the film itself is not very good.”
Simply put, this raises the following question: If an otherwise forgettable film contains some great cinematic fragments, then are these given scenes/sequences not worthy of critical and aesthetic study in their own right?
Having not only formally studied cinema but also been associated with the making of an independent film, I can say with absolute conviction that movies are produced by ensembles of passionate creative professionals (e.g., screenwriters, directors, actors, cinematographers, technical personnel, etc.) who collectively put their hearts and souls into what they do. Study the production histories of art films and popular films alike, and this becomes readily apparent, as does the frequently arbitrary division between so-called “avant-garde” and “popular” culture (see David S. Cohen and James Mottram’s book, Die Hard: The Ultimate Visual History ). With this in mind, is there not potential merit in giving serious reconsideration to the overlooked or unappreciated talent and artistry that might define an engaging cinematic fragment from an otherwise undistinguished film?
Although my notion of the cinematic fragment specifically emanates from viewing film clips on YouTube, one can, of course, appreciate a cinematic fragment via other mediums. Recently, for example, I stumbled across an old DVD copy of the 2005 horror film The Skeleton Key (dir. Iain Softley), starring Kate Hudson. Though far from a good film, The Skeleton Key features a short intro sequence that constitutes a terrific cinematic fragment that could conceivably function as a mini-movie in its own right.
The sequence opens with Hudson’s hospice-aide character, Caroline, reading a passage from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island (1883) to the elderly Mr. Talcott (Bill H. McKenzie) in a New Orleans nursing home. When Caroline finishes the passage and puts down the book, she discovers that Mr. Talcott has died.
The film subsequently cuts to Caroline waiting for Mr. Talcott’s family with a box of his possessions, which include old photos of a life richly but perhaps not always wisely led and a guitar keychain that bears the following inscription: “Live Fast Die Young.” Subsequently informed by a co-worker (Deneen Tyler) that she should dispose of Mr. Talcott’s things because his family wants nothing to do with him, Caroline proceeds to take the box to a dumpster, but finds that she’s unable to bring herself to throw it away. We then see Caroline riding a streetcar while listening to music via headphones as she takes in the local scenery and browses through a newspaper, in which she circles a job advertisement for a hospice caretaker in the rural Terrebonne Parish.
In the following scene, set during the evening in the actual New Orleans-based Half Moon Bar & Grill, Caroline is drinking beer with her friend Jill, played by the radiant Joy Bryant, to whom she expresses her disgust with how the nursing home handled Mr. Talcott’s death. The two then proceed to dance the night away. When we next see Caroline, it’s daytime and she’s in her red vintage Volkswagen Beetle, in which Mr. Talcott’s “Live Fast Die Young” keychain dangles from the ignition, as she drives to Terrebonne Parish to interview for the job.
Roughly six minutes in duration, this moving, atmospheric intro sequence is, unfortunately, the lead-up into an underwhelming, racially problematic film (see Ann Hornaday’s Washington Post article “Unlikely Rays of Light Strike the Racial Prism” ). This acknowledged, the sequence itself constitutes a memorable cinematic fragment. From the death of Mr. Talcott, which establishes the fleetingness of existence, to the impassioned dancing of Caroline and Joy, which conveys a sense of Dionysian-inflected Thanatophobic rebellion against such fleetingness, we feel an overall carpe diem-esque spirit established that culminates with Caroline’s journey towards change and new possibilities in Terrebonne Parish. As Dylan Thomas memorably wrote in his poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” (1947), “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Of course, in providing this brief close reading of this intro sequence, my purpose is less to focus on The Skeleton Key itself than it is to highlight how a lacklustre film can contain a great cinematic fragment that is worthy of critical appreciation in its own right. Given the enormous amount of creative talent and effort that goes into making a movie, it seems a shame to think of the countless terrific cinematic fragments that have been forgotten as a result of being embedded in otherwise undistinguished films. In this respect, I urge readers to consider the aesthetic and critical value of seeking out such fragments and engaging with them. After all, though the part may not always be indicative of the quality of the whole, this doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the brief, fleeting moments of beauty in an otherwise failed cinematic endeavour.
You can discover your own cinematic fragments by checking out IU Cinema’s YouTube channel, which has fascinating interviews with past Cinema guests like John Waters, Mira Nair, Werner Herzog, and Ava DuVernay; thought-provoking video essays from regular blog contributor Laura Ivins; recorded discussions and Q&As from our recent virtual events; and more.
Andrew Urie is an independent interdisciplinary scholar and writer who recently completed his PhD in Social and Political Thought at York University. Specializing in American Studies and British Cultural Studies, he has published in Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy; Fast Capitalism; PopMatters; The Bluffs Monitor; Pop Culture and Theology; the quint: an interdisciplinary quarterly from the north; American Studies Blog (forthcoming); Journal of Contemporary Drama in English (forthcoming); and Journal of Integrated Studies (forthcoming).