Thursday, December 7, 2006

The Pool Shark - W.C. Fields (1915)

I have a thing for W.C. Fields. How did this bloated, cruel, and drunken man become a star? 60 years after Fields' death, I find his brand of comedy particularly appealing for some reason. More appealing than other comedic giants from the same era, say, Chaplin or the Marx Brothers. Blasphemous, I know. Fields, his red nose and battered hats, his mumbling, sarcastic demeanor, his off-kilter way of dealing with the world. For some reason, Fields' persona seems more real, more easy to identify with than Chaplin or Groucho. I'm not exactly sure why.

But anyway, I want to write on more than Fields. I want to write about a particular moment in one of his films that has nothing to do with Fields. So I'm watching Criterion Collection's W.C. Fields: Six Short Films and I'm in the middle of W.C. Fields screen debut in The Pool Shark. The film is boring. Silent films do not suit Fields well because he is unable to play his persona (which relies so much on his slurring, elongated mumble). Anyway, my attention is on auto-pilot, trying to make it through the 10-minute short for the novelty of it when...

We get a close-up of the girl character. A fish bowl she was tending has been smashed and now the fish are in her hair and her hair is all wet! As she reaches up to her now mop-like hair to take the fish down one by one, she has the most indescribable expression on her face (see above).

But what makes this moment all the more incredible is the shot itself. It looks like it's straight out of a French New Wave film from the '60s. Every other bit of this film is ordinarily shot as far as early silent comedies go: the static long shot giving the characters plenty of room to waddle around and perform their slapstick routines. However, for less than ten seconds we are treated to a rare moment of beauty in the film. The girl is slightly off-center to the right, her long arm draped in white as her luminous hand searches her dark, tangled hair for the fish. Her face, wet and innocent, is lost in the shadow of her hair. She is so beautiful in this moment, so real. The composition is incredibly out of place in the movie, but disregarding that fact, it is the only moment of substance in the film.

Sometimes, all you need out of a movie is a moment like that.

That is the moment described by Andy Horbal in his blog as the "cinephiliac moment." Wonderful concept, though I prefer the term "filmic moment" better, because it lets us refer to film in the ideal sense. At its best, at its most pure, film has transcendent moments like these. "Filmic moment" also sounds better.

Anyway, the funny thing is, as soon as I finished with the film I had to have a still of the close-up for my desktop background on my computer. But once I had one still up, I realized that I wanted a different still, and then another. I was not satisfied with any particular still. One image plucked from a film does not encapsulate what we felt out of the moment, even if the moment lasted only seconds in film-time. This is of course where film is a completely different medium than photography. The filmic moment is a moment that has its effect in relation to the other moments within the film. In the case of the girl close-up, one reason why it is so poignant is that it is like a rose growing out of the dry grass of a long, empty field: I did not expect anything out of this short, and then there was the close-up. Reflecting more, the movement through time in the film made the moment what it was. Using my metaphorical setup, I scanned the field, I walked through it, and I found a rose. Taking the rose home with me, it was beautiful but it was just a rose, and it wilted and fell away. But what I remember is the experience of walking through that field and coming upon the rose.

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