Tuesday, January 12, 2010

strange how the night moves

As the news of the death of Eric Rohmer swept through the interwebs, I encountered several tributes to the legendary filmmaker, most good, some very moving, a handful (to put it delicately) off-message. I felt I could best pay tribute by continuing my advocacy for his films, in my own small, quiet way (including coverage in my ongoing Unexamined Essentials directory). It also happened that I noted, as many did, that one of the unfortunate after-effects of the news of his passing was the bandying-about of a quote from Arthur Penn's Night Moves. You've all heard or read this quote, it goes something like this: "I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."

While I recognize that the line's context may change its impact, I don't agree that it scales back the stupidity of its message. A writer doesn't just invent a line like that without a wee bit of him genuinely feeling it, and, regrettably, a lot of people's feelings about Rohmer - in their brief encounters, no doubt - are reflected accurately by Hackman's dismissal, however it was couched by the script. (Hence the legacy of the line.) As a line of dialogue, its context transforms it from direct commentary to weighted dialogue because that's something screenwriters do. Godard is one of the only filmmakers who issue raw praise or dismissal to filmmakers in spoken dialogue, and even in Godardworld, nothing is un-complex.

But I wasn't incensed by Night Moves so much as annoyed by those who picked up the line and waved it about as their only response to Rohmer's passing.

My response was to try my hand at creating a trend on the social network Twitter, reconfiguring the line to fit different filmmakers and creating a meme with the hash, #nightmoves. I asked three friends/colleagues to take part, and two of them, David Cairns and Michael Sicinski, did so, admirably. (The third, with whom I spoke via private message, declined respectfully, but said he thought the contributions so far were pretty funny.) I intended my own "Tweets" to serve as praise for a few filmmakers I like a lot, saving a jab at Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx, The Skulls) for the finish.

Other friends joined, as did their friends and followers, and the meme turned into an alarming, albeit small-scale, success. The overall quality of meme contributions had about the same good-bad-ugly ratio as the Rohmer tributes. The ones I liked best tackled the formal and stylistic characteristics of various mainstream and experimental filmmakers; the moderately successful tersely summed up a director's themes; the worst usually made lazy references to a single film's content. (My favorite, despite stiff competition from M. Sicinski and M. Cairns, was filmmaker Sky Hirschkron's "It was kind of like watching paint dry. I saw an Alejandro González Iñárritu film once.") I didn't mind a single one, the thing grew and mutated within the social network as these things will, and now it's mostly run its course.

Seattle critic and editor of Roger Ebert's blog, Jim Emerson, took notice of the meme and wrote about it. I was completely flattered - even though he didn't credit me (I didn't think we're supposed to credit Twitter-meme-starters...the papyrus flitters by too quickly) as its author. I have read his piece twice, and I'm still not sure whether Emerson thinks the pre-meme people who responded to the news of Rohmer's passing by citing the Night Moves line and going on about their day were acting out of ignorance (in which case he'd be dead right), or that the people who contributed to my meme missed the point of the line's place in Night Moves (in which case he'd be wrong, at least about me and a few others who appreciate Penn's work, if guardedly). Ebert and Emerson seem to have their hands full, as any bloggers who seek to cover the cinematic and political waterfront will, so if the pair spends more time on Sarah Palin's insanity than on little ol' me, I won't complain.

Emerson's piece contains two items of great value: (1) Rohmer's reaction to the line from the Penn film (which he hadn't seen), and (2) a few words that explained the context of the line within the film. I don't agree that Night Moves is a great film, but I appreciate that Emerson does. Now that I have established the context around why I kickstarted the #nightmoves meme, I hope he understands my intentions as I understand them.

2005 Unexamined Essentials goes live one minute after midnight, tonight.

EDIT: I reached out to Mr. Emerson, who has since acknowledged my trailblazing work in creating a 27-hour Twitter meme. Jokes aside, I think we're on the same page regarding Rohmer. Which is very cool.


jim emerson said...

Thanks for writing this. I thought the meme was quite clever but, like you, felt some people were quoting the line without explaining (or even understanding) how it was originally used. Anyway, I quoted and credited you in an update at the end of my original post here: http://j.mp/7nw9uc

Jaime said...

Thanks Jim--

In case that "tinyurl" isn't extracted by visitor (and I mean singular) software, it's