Ten of my favourite movie moments

star wars alien amadeus

Well, it’s my blog, I can do a ‘my favourite things’ if I want to.  What prompted it was this year’s christmas Radio Times.  For as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed sitting down with it and reading through, picking out all the old films I’d like to watch, you know, ‘Meet Me in St.Louis’ mid-afternoon on BBC2, the Ealing comedies.  Then I never get round to it, that idyll in my head of some plummy old ham saying ‘my dear’ a lot while I’m sipping a Baileys and the christmas tree lights are reflecting back into the room from the window onto the darkening afternoon outside.

This year I turned a page and saw the traditional exhortation to watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ and a tear sprang to the corner of my eye immediately.  It was an almost Pavlovian response to the way this film made me feel.  So I thought about those other moments that blew me away when I first saw them, and I’ve listed nine of them below, in addition to…

It’s A Wonderful Life – the ending

“Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.”

I’m not going to recount the plot in Frank Capra’s paean to the power of community spirit and selflessness.  Suffice to say I watch this film and quietly beat myself up for not doing enough for those around me.  I’m not proud to admit it.  The film shames me and inspires me equally.

They say that socialism springs from empathy.  I would argue that humanity itself springs from empathy, and that only by being there for our friends, just plain damn ‘being good to people’, are we ever going to be happy.  If that sounds cringingly sentimental, I say ‘pah’, any movie that gets you to reflect on the nature of humanity, while casting a searchlight into your soul, has to have a headstart over Iron Man 3, doesn’t it?

It’s also not very easy to do, given Hollywood has specialised in these sentimental films throughout its history, yet failed to deliver anything as sparklingly simple and powerful.

Alien – the chest-bursting scene (not for children)

Buckets of blood
Buckets of blood

Years after my first viewing I came across the militant-feminist analysis of Giger’s masterpiece, man raped and giving birth to the product etc.  These thoughts articulated what was probably being processed subconsciously regarding this particular alien’s lifecycle; parasite and host (the enemy within not without), one’s body being reduced to an egg, used by a more powerful species, but also the sheer bloody spectacle of it.  An early take apparently went overboard on the blood, with the initial splash drenching and shocking the cast.  On the first full take, they also had no clear idea what was going to happen regarding the setup and thus, in a not dissimilar way to Friedkin’s tricks with the Exorcist, their reactions weren’t entirely acted.

Watching it back I see a masterful moment of foreshadowing from Ridley Scott, the comparatively calm Ian Holm as the android Ash watching as John Hurt keels forward over the table, then, after it bursts out, telling the crew to leave it.

For all the above feminist/film student theories, the moment itself was a game-changer at the time, and I was able to watch it without knowing what was coming, which gave it that visceral shock my parents felt when they returned from the cinema, neither able to tell me, aged nine at the time, what had just transpired.  I expected either the facehugger or John Hurt somehow being transformed to be the monsters.  Real surprise is so hard to come by in films.

It’s no surprise, however, that they reprised the original trailer for Prometheus, and it’s still for me the best movie trailer I’ve ever seen.

Star Wars – The trench

Red Five

Six seconds changed everything.  Specifically 5:58 in the above link.  Six seconds that made my stomach churn in the cinema as a seven year old, so much so I nearly fell forward from my seat with vertigo.  Six seconds that would go on to define who I befriended and to some extent who I became.  I can’t really describe it, the fall into the trench, the wobbly recovery into the channel under a hail of lasers.  I’d forgotten that it was the B-Wings that first went in, followed by the X-Wings.  I don’t think I breathed from that moment to the moments after Luke fired the torpedoes, his targeting computer off, guided by the dead Obi-Wan.

John Lennon said that before Elvis there was nothing.  For me it was Star Wars.  Of course, before Star Wars there was nothing like it.  Like Alien it blazed a trail, the first truly spectacular ‘Saturday morning’ action movie.  A different Adrian came out of the cinema to the one that went in.  I can’t imagine there are many movies in anyone’s life that have that effect, and arguably I was lucky to be seven when I saw the film that re-wrote the rules for so many of my generation, and those that followed, that it became a quintessential part of modern western culture.

If there is a God before which I stand when I die, and there is a chance to look down on, and back on my life, I will ask to watch a boy in the Theatre Royal Barry, for just six seconds.

The Sixth Sense – the car scene

"She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance."
“She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance.”

Hardly surprising that I, like anyone, can be moved fiercely by the notion that we might have a chance to say the things to those departed we didn’t think or want to say while they were alive.  This moment works exquisitely to both deliver that emotional piledriver and prove to Toni Collette that her son in the film, played by Haley Joel Osment, really wasn’t the ‘freak’ he was made out to be, and that there was life after death (because he couldn’t have otherwise known what his grandmother had seen).  The line in the above caption was how Shyamalan chose to prove it, of all the devices he and others have had in innumerable films.  Nobody’s done it better for me, and he’s not delivered anything like it since.

Soylent Green – Sol’s death

"I love you Sol."
“I love you Sol.” (sadly, this was the only clip I could find and it was out of sync)

This film could well be the Bible of the anti-capitalist eco-warrior, but at the time I watched it, as an impressionable teenager suffering from depression, its wafer thin message nevertheless moved me to tears, not least because of the acting chops of Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson, who died twelve days after filming this death scene, of a cancer he was fully aware of.  I don’t know if he would have been surrounded by the actual footage of the natural world that was lost in this dystopian future, set beautifully to the light classical he requested (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and Grieg), but if he was, I imagine there would have been very little acting needed when he delivered his poignant, yearning line “Can you see it!”.

I think it’s no accident either that Sol was so named for this moment when seeing what Earth once was undoes Thorn.

The Two Towers – Theoden’s speech

“To whatever end.”

I’m one of those – I finished The Silmarillion and enjoyed it.  This basically means I knew far too much about Lord of the Rings than was and is healthy.

It was obvious after Jurrasic Park that the technology was there to do the books justice, it was a case of whether anyone was crazy enough (in the eyes of us Silmarillion-finishers) to take them on in their entirety, to really do the trilogy.  Peter Jackson stepped up.

Every fan therefore had some part of the book that they were praying would be realised as vividly on screen as it had been in their mind.  The hopelessness of Helm’s Deep, not to mention the grandeur of it, was mine.  Bernard Hill delivers the soliloquy of a doomed king beautifully, and the juxtaposition of the horror on the boys’ faces with the ironclad orcs marching was perfect.  I felt slightly let down by the big squad of elves and Legolas behaving like James Bond, but Hill was as fully Theoden as McKellen was Gandalf.  I left the cinema delighted.

King Creole – Trouble

“A very good friend of Mr.Fields said this boy can really go.”

Walter Matthau may have phoned in his bad guy performance, but against his obvious authority Elvis proved he could act.  In this scene his insouciance is well judged, faced with the quiet threat of the gangster, and he directs the opening verse of ‘Trouble’ at Matthau with a similar understatement, the lyrics doing all the talking.

It was Elvis’s best movie.  We’ve all suffered the technicolour album vehicles that followed, proving the sixties knew as much about marketing as Simon Cowell does now, but I think it’s a good film in its own right.  It coincides with a dixieland sound on the tracks that mixes powerfully with his vocals at their finest.  His voice was athletic, as raw as ground glass, tight as a drum.

Lee Strasberg, considered the father of method acting, reportedly said that Elvis was a great talent going to waste.  Tom Parker, his manager, ensured he got rich, but we’ll never know how much bigger Elvis could have been if he’d had some artistic freedom.

Amadeus – The Voice of God

"..such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me I was hearing the voice of God."
“..such unfulfillable longing. It seemed to me I was hearing the voice of God.”

When you have given everything, tried your hardest to create something beautiful, and then see somebody produce a work so far beyond anything you could achieve, what do you do?  How can you not curse that in the one realm in which you hope you can become great, the one thing you’re actually good at, you are shown you’ll never amount to much at all.

In this artistically enhanced, well, butchered, telling of Mozart’s life through the eyes of the inferior Salieri, we find a jealousy descend into a man pitting himself against God, to take the blessed Mozart’s life as revenge for the cruelty of giving Salieri only enough wit to see how far short of greatness he was.  This was, for me as an atheist, a tremendously audacious clarion call to stand up to the untouchable and ineffable omnipotence of a being fully in control of my fate.  This was a rejection and a challenge, a beautiful script that spoke to me powerfully at the time in my life I was most focused on a search for its meaning.

Of the many fine speeches that F.Murray Abraham gave as the tortured Salieri, I chose the above because it most matches my own experience as a writer.  I find myself regularly exasperated by the work yet to do to improve my own writing, and frequently find myself having no idea or confidence that I will achieve anything laudable.  Thankfully, Salieri has already absolved me.

Saving Private Ryan – Omaha Beach

"What's the rallying point?" "Anywhere but here."
“What’s the rallying point?” “Anywhere but here.”

Another fairly obvious moment in this list, but I’m not going to apologise.

The borderline insanity of the invasion of Normandy was depicted here with a savagery that arguably overshadowed all that followed except perhaps the death of Mellish.

For all the budget and the extras, it works because it’s so focused, no grand camera sweeps across the beach, just individuals dying, going insane or carrying on, all within yards of each other.  Hanks, in shock, is gazing upon hell.  I can’t imagine a more truthful reaction.

Weird Science  – She’s alive

"So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?"
“So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?”

So I went to an all boys comprehensive school.  This meant I, like Gary and Wyatt, knew nothing about girls.  They were objects of fantasy.  At the same time, I obviously shared the excruciating insecurity regarding how I might actually talk to a girl, something that the excellent Inbetweeners recently exploited to similarly hilarious and embarrassing effect.  There were plenty of parallels between the events in the latter, such as the tramp’s filthy shoe and the former’s ‘bra on heads’ moments in the above clip.  I felt social ineptitude keenly, I tried way too hard at parties, mostly where aftershave was concerned before I’d actually started shaving, or I didn’t go to them at all out of fear.

While I might not have tried to hack a government mainframe to create my dream woman, Kelly LeBrock was divinely suited to the fantasy role of eye candy that was self assured and in complete control of the slavering males around her.  At the time I believed all girls were like this, holding all the cards, my emotions at their whim.

Of course, Gary and Wyatt’s main goal was to find a girl that they could find out about girls from, as long as it meant not having to ask a real girl.  No wonder I loved this ridiculous film.

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