Cinematic moments of Zen (unboxed spoilers)

Every once in a while I see a gemlike moment in a film that stays with me for its poignancy and/or perfection, regardless of its importance to the plot. Examples:

In A Clockwork Orange, after the suburban rape/beating scene, Alex and the droogs are back at the moloko-plus bar. Dim says to the effigy of a nude woman who dispenses drugged milk from her nipples: “How are you, Suzy? [or whatever name he gave her] Been busy? We’ve been working hard too. Excuse me.” [pours] The tenderness of the way he speaks to this inanimate object is truly touching – the more so, perhaps, because we know what kind of “work” he’s been at.

In Blue Velvet, the pimp picks up a flashlight and lip-syncs “The Candy-Colored Clown They Call the Sandman.” A moment of Zen, don’t ask my why; but I always flash on that when I think of the movie.

This one’s a bit more obscure: In the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter (, the psychotic preacher man Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) has married and murdered the mother of the children John and Pearl Harper, and now is chasing them up the Ohio River because they have the loot from their late (hanged) father’s bank robbery. He’s always singing the hymn, “Leaning on the Arm.” Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), a formidable farmwife who has already taken in a passel of orphans, shelters the waifs. When Powell appears, she stands guard all night, sitting in her kitchen in a rocking chair, holding a shotgun and looking out the window at the hilltop where Powell is patiently waiting. We see Powell sillhouetted in the moonlight. He is singing the bass part of the hymn: “Leaning, leaning, leaning on the arm / Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arm”. And then Cooper joins in with the alto part: “Lean on Jesus, lean on Jesus . . .” and for just a moment they’re harmonizing perfectly. Description just can’t do the scene justice.

What are your faves?

Rushmore, when Max and Mr. Blume are riding bikes together and they both do a little jump at the same time. It perfectly captures the feeling of reuniting with a friend, putting aside your differences, and just being a happy kid again.

The Life Aquatic, when Zissou takes the sub down to find the Jaguar shark. He turns off the music, there’s silence, then blackness. And then the school of flourescent snapper surrounds the submarine as the opening strings of Staralfur swell. It’s not until after the scene ends that you realize that unlike the rest of the goofy, otherworldly sea life in the movie, these are a harbinger of death and a symbol of the unknown.

Elf, when Zooey Deschanel’s character is singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in the shower, and Will Farrell’s character picks up the other part of the duet.

Mulholland Drive when Naomi Watts’ character is calling the police to get a clue to the other woman’s identity, and as she’s telling the police her fake story, she gives a knowing smile and almost giggles. Part of the reason David Lynch’s creepy stuff is so creepy is that he handles wide-eyed innocent characters so well.

Miller’s Crossing, the scene where the little boy (and his dog) stare at Mink Daniels’ corpse in the alley way and the corpse stares back. The boy hesitantly reaches out, grabs the toupee, and runs off. It was the first Coen Brothers movie I’d seen, and I didn’t know what to expect. That scene was the first sign that it wasn’t just the dialogue that was clever, it was the entire movie.

And in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when Chow Yun Fat’s character and Michelle Yeoh’s character are sitting beside each other in the little room with the window that looks out into the forest. They’re so quiet and chaste, and the silence and the framing of the scene perfectly sums up the passion they’re feeling for each other but repressing.

For some reason two scenes immediately sprung to mind… and they are from movies that really aren’t necessarily that good. And certainly not even in my top 50 movies.
The Last Samurai- Toward the end of the movie, Tom Cruise’s character is confronted by a group of thugs in a street. This is the first time Tom is going to have to use his newly learned samurai skills. He fights the thugs and kills them all swifly. It’s slick and shows that he is a ‘bad ass’. We then immediately see the scene again in slowmotion and see how bloody and brutal a sword fight would be. This was great as it was but it becomes magical because the flashback was done in a sepia tone that previously in the movie had been used for Tom’s traumatic flashbacks to an indian slaughter. Thereby equating violence in general as being traumatic and frightening.

Daredevil- I’ve talked about this scene on the board before. Near the begining of the movie Daredevil returns from a night of heroing and in a montage we see that after only a few months of being a super hero: His body is badly scarred. He removes a tooth that was knocked loose. He downs handfuls of painkillers.
It’s the best representation of what being superhero would be like in the ‘real world’.

Mine is from Lawrence of Arabia, when Dark Lawrence and his Bedouin Army come upon a retreating Turkish Army. They have massacred a village. One warrior comes forward. It was his village they destroyed. He charges the Turkish army knowing he will die.

I don’t know what it is that haunts me about this scene. The warrior knows he will die. The Turks know that they will be massacred. But everyone just seems to accept it.

A couple Coen Brother’s moments that always have stayed with me. . .

In Fargo after Jerry asks his father in law for $700,000 but isn’t going to get it, there’s an overhead shot of him walking across a snowy parking with a grid-like pattern of squares.

Also, in The Big Lebowski, when Donny dies, they show the shot of the bowling alley, and everything fades to black except the big stylized neon stars on the side of the alley. . .and then those too go out. Perfect timing.

Also in Miller’s Crossing there is the moment where it’s clear that Gabriel Byrne’s character comes up with the entire plan in the span of a moment. He’s sitting at a desk talking to Albert Finney’s character and there’s this moment where he looks down and then back up and it’s clear he’s concocted a brillant but dangerous scheme in the span of a blink.

In LOTR Return of the King, I liked the part where Sam reveals to Frodo that he kept the ring safe when Frodo was captured. Frodo asks for it back, and we get a moment or so where Sam, only having had the ring for a short while, still heavily struggles to give it up. I was afraid they might botch this in the movie but they pulled it off perfectly.

Touch of Evil: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” Not just the line – everything about the scene – but especially the look in Marlene Dietrich’s eyes.

The English Patient: That dissolve between the arial shot of sand dunes and the dolly over Almásy’s ruined flesh. A spectacular translation of one of the main themes in the novel into a visual medium.

Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, when the bus goes through the ice.

The Big Sleep ( – Vivan Sternwood (Lauren Bacall) singing a song at a party. (“And her tears flowed like wine . . .She’s a sad, bruised tomato / She’s a busted Valentine . . .”) The performance has nothing to do with the plot (the song is about a man’s abuse of his woman, and Vivian’s marriage to the mysterious Rutledge is never said to have been abusive) but it frames Vivian as a sexy, glamorous character – and, as with the other “moments of Zen” described in the OP, it’s the scene I remember best from the movie.

Two moments in The Color Purple: the moment where they take away Celie’s sister, and the moment where Danny Glover is standing at the top of the hill at the end of the movie watching Celie and family. Powerful, and amazingly acted.

The Last Samurai, in the scene I call “Dressing for Battle”. It’s one of my favorite love scenes of all time, and just a beautiful moment in that film.

Two scenes from A Patch of Blue: When Selena tells Mark about being “done over” as if it were a perfectly normal part of being a human, and the look of absolute horror on his face; and when Mark finds out Selena knows he’s black.

In American Beauty, there is a strange little and wistful interlude in which we watch a paper bag being buffeted by the wind.

I agree, they could have easily gone with a cliched love scene, but instead she just helps him don the armor. And it ended up being infinitely more sensual than a tacked on sex scene would have been.

Also in Lawrence of Arabia: the scene where the Bedouin guide and Lawrence are visiting some wells in the middle of the desert. It’s hot, shimmery, and dead silent - so quiet that when a bucket falls back into a well, the splash startles Lawrence - and us, because of the mounting tension. Then the guide spots something approaching through the distant heat shimmer. Lawrence starts to watch, too, and the guide starts getting very nervous. The object is a dark wobbling blob, getting closer and closer, until it resolves itself into Omar Sharif on a camel - who promptly shoots the panicked Bedouin for drinking in his well.

A masterful scene, very spare and zenlike, without a lot of unnecessary editing or music. David Lean was a genius.

A little on the obvious side is the scene that appears not long after the beach battle in Saving Private Ryan, when one officer says to Tom Hanks’ character, “Quite a sight isn’t it?” as they look upon a now secure beach with blimps flying overhead. “Yes, it sure is”, says Hanks, obviously reviewing in his mind the hell he just went through for the scene to be possible.