the greek root of “cine” implies movement, the setting of motion, something coming alive. its opposite, acinesia, suggests paralysis or death. cinema is thus a medium dedicated to capturing life’s energy. yet, very much like ourselves who become acutely aware of our aliveness only after we have been told we have a life-threatening illness, most films are content showing people doing and saying things. they produce but an ersatz of the real thing.
my first encounter with a vital moment goes back to my days in film school. we were shown an old, silent french film called ménilmontant. the copy of the film was atrocious, full of scratches and bad splices. it was hard to pay attention. but then, out of nowhere, a scene appeared that has stuck in my mind ever since. a young woman is pregnant. her boyfriend has abandoned her. she is alone in paris, destitute, with no place to go. she is thinking of suicide. when the scene begins, we find her sitting on a bench next to an old man eating his lunch. his munching reminds her she hasn’t eaten for quite some time. quietly, he puts some bread on the bench between them. she notices it, picks it up, and eats ravenously. next he hands over a slice of salami. tears flow from her eyes as she bites into it. little by little she is coming back to life. throughout the scene, the old man never looks at her.
it is true that the woman is backlit and her breath is made visible by the cold. although these factors help, they do not appear deliberate. there is also something awkward about the compositions and the editing is rather rough. these shortcomings, far from hurting the scene, help it. in other words, the moment is revealed to us without the aesthetic buffer that permeates most films. consequently, our expectations are destabilized, refracting our attention squarely on the human exchange. the shyness of the old man is touching, the woman’s face deeply moving. the interaction between them is minimal but compelling. something is happening in front of us, in vivo.
it is not a question of how good an actor is. de niro and pacino are great ones, yet nothing much happens in the scene they have together in heat. as for the actress in ménilmontant , she appeared in other movies, including one by renoir, but in these films she is just a pretty face. never again was she able to be as impressive as in this particular scene. so what happened? put simply, what came through is not connected to the idiosyncrasies of the character or the personality of the actress, it aroused rather from basic humanness. to put it in a larger philosophical perspective, what we are encountering here, suddenly, without warning, is the face of the other (levinas), a face stripped of all pretense. somehow, at that moment, the vulnerable being this woman is at core managed to surge forth and we in turn cannot but respond to the disclosure.
this state of being is not easily accessible. it demands from the actor to let go of everything. some directors like fincher, wyler, or mann have experimented with shooting umpteen takes to get their players so exhausted mentally that they stop acting and just simply are. but are the performances in their films more convincing than what we experience in more conventionally produced movies?
this is where digital helps. think about it: the absence of crew, lights, a big camera, all the paraphernalia that turns ordinary moviemaking into an unnatural operation, is absent when shooting digital. your actors are no longer standing on a formal platform. they share the same everyday space you are in. any “acting” in that environment is going to sound instantly over the top. your actors will have to be convincing at the level of life as opposed to what drama usually demands of them. the situation gives you a chance to capture what is missing from most films: the livingness of a single moment of time.