The Most Beautiful Minute in the History of Cinema

By Steve Light

for Joe Bucholt,
as good, as kind, as lovely
a person as you could ever hope to know,
yes, the best, the most beautiful kind of person

In his book, Profanations, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben includes a little essay, barely a page and a half long, “The Six Most Beautiful Minutes in the History of Cinema.” Agamben speaks of a sequence in a never-completed film of Orson Welles that sought to depict what further adventures Don Quixote and Sancho Panza might encounter if they were to find themselves in the 20th Century. Welles, after a dispute with the studio executives concerning the editing of his film Touch of Evil, simply took off for Mexico, where he began shooting his Quixote film.

In his essay, Agamben describes a six-minute episode among the remaining footage of the film in which Quixote, Sancho Panza (played by Akim Tamiroff), and a 10- or 11-year-old girl named Dulcie are found watching a film in a cinema hall. Quixote, increasingly agitated by the charging horses and sword-wielding riders, attacks the screen and cuts it to pieces with his own sword, whereby he finds that nothing exists behind it. From the balcony of the theater, young children exult and wildly cheer Quixote on, whereas down in the lower levels, indignant and furious adults storm out while Sancho Panza and Dulcie stare sadly and with perplexity at Quixote and the shredded screen (Agamben characterizes Dulcie’s attitude solely as one of disapproval; he also speculates whether Dulcie ― this is the character name listed by Welles ― is Dulcinea). In Quixote’s mind, she is the most beautiful of women, the perfection of feminine beauty, on behalf of whom he engages in his exploits and adventures — but she never actually appears in Cervantes’ novel other than in the thoughts of Quixote.

Agamben concludes:

What are we to do with our imaginations? Love them and believe in them to the point of having to destroy and falsify them (this is perhaps the meaning of Orson Welles’s films). But when, in the end, they reveal themselves to be empty and unfulfilled, when they show the nullity of which they are made, only then can we pay the price for their truth and understand that Dulcinea — whom we have saved — cannot love us.

But Agamben’s ostensible paradoxical reversal does not outwit conventional and complaisant wisdom either in general or in possible interpretations of Cervantes’ book. Agamben simply repeats this conventionality and complaisance in epigrammatic form. What is more, while Agamben’s little aphoristic truth could certainly be derived from any standard reading of Cervantes, it cannot readily be derived from Welles’ footage. Agamben’s transcendental positing and imputation constricts not only the signifying experience but the cinematic one as well. And the adults who flee have been routed neither by Quixote nor by any onto-gnoseological revelations/deceptions, but rather ― and succinctly ― by the exulting children! But then, the Welles’ footage has operated only as a pretext for Agamben.

Yet how much better it would be, contra Agamben, to imagine (!) that Dulcinea, having now finally appeared, whispers to us that we needn’t worry about our imaginations either in arrival or in departure ― and certainly not in price — because the evanescence of things (and love), precisely by being ineluctable, is, thereby, only a secondary and never a primary quality — and deception, disappointment, and destiny too. Dulcinea doesn’t care about the recriminations that obtain in every dialectic of appearance and essence, being and becoming ― and perhaps even better, doesn’t really care about the movies! Yet, beyond this and any other possible philosophical and existential reversals, Agamben’s essay, together with the apothegm which concludes it — positing the most anodyne and banal of paradoxes — does not do justice to, betrays what is in fact and nonetheless the charm of its title, “The Most Beautiful Six Minutes in the History of Cinema,” a title which can give rise to all sorts of reveries about what we might consider to be the most exquisite instants in cinematic history.

But could we ever speak of a moment, an instant, a seeming instantaneity that, being scarcely a sequence, scarcely a passage, indeed, lasting no more than a minute, could be singled out as the privileged instant beyond which no cinematic beauty could go? The superlative here, multiplied in its very positing, would immediately — and by this very fact alone — seem to give the lie to the possibility of any instant being able to occupy such a place. Charm always disdains superlatives and every will-to-hierarchy.

A 2009 film from Sierra Leone (in its U.S. premiere at the 2010 Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival), an eight-minute short feature entitled Family, directed by Tyson Conteh and Arthur Pratt, begins in medias res. A wooden slat window suddenly opens and we see a small carry-bag hurtling out onto the ground. A young woman, played by Fatamata Mansaray, follows and, picking up her bag, dashes into the forest surrounding this rural house. We see only her feet and legs as she runs. Then nighttime descends. The young woman is walking on an empty country road. A young man in a car stops and offers to give her a ride. Anxious, frightened, and reluctant, she gets in the car. Her anxiety continues and the young man, eager to make a pass at her, does so tentatively and without aggression. She demurs and he withdraws. They stop at a little bar-club, ostensibly on the outskirts of a town. Inside it is spare, a few tables and a bar with people dancing between.

The young woman sits down, as does the young man. She isn’t dressed for a club. But the other young women in the club are, although not fancily as would be the case in an urban setting. She is ill at ease, doesn’t know what to do with herself. Then several of the young women in the sparsely filled club see her and approach. They tease and taunt her for her rural look and clothes. But one of the girls finds out that the newcomer has run away from home to avoid being forced into a marriage she does not want. The girl turns to her companions and quiets them down and then says to the runaway, “We’ve all done the same. You’ll be with us! We all take care of each other!”

The next scene opens immediately. It is early morning. From out of a little house/cottage the five women emerge onto a low-set porch-veranda. They sit down at its edge all in a row. They have all bathed or showered and are wearing towels on their drying hair. The greens, whites, pinks, and yellows of their after-bath clothing sparkle in the profusions provided by the morning sun. The camera pans across them and then shifts to close-ups of each. The women do not speak and merely pass a water bowl amongst themselves. The serenity of their ease and languor, of their postures without any pose at all, enhances the silence, which has become the loveliest kind of quiet. Whatever agitations they might feel inwardly given their precarious situations and the impossibilities of resuming past or home are submerged in the splendid stillness of their forms and gaze. The camera pans again, coming to rest for a second or two longer on the newly arrived, Fatamata Mansaray, then on to the other women. In the history of cinema one can find many instances of this meeting of serenity and beauty, of sparkle and quiet. There is more than one such moment in Ozu’s Late Spring — and there is a marvelous moment in Naruse’s The Sound of the Mountain — that one could easily think might not be surpassed. Ozu can be so marvelous. And Naruse even more. But I needn’t point only to the well-known.

Just as Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, Hideko Takamine, disdaining all pretense, sound so well the pianissimo of evocation, so too Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln give us these moments in the film of Michael Roehmer and Robert Young, Nothing But A Man, where the vibrato of serenity and steadfastness sustains the full force of affective expectation and munificence. The unadorned quality Abbey Lincoln gives to her expressions, the half-smile that is seemingly but the patina of a smile, captures that asymptotic movement in which signification, brought forth thereby in an ever greater force and effectivity, carries the full coincidence of complexity and charm.

Doubtless, there are many minutes, passages, fleeting durations in a multitude of films of greater and lesser quality, in which there is suddenly (“… and suddenly it’s summer …” — Salvatore Quasimodo) that kind of concatenation in which we recognize those privileged instances about which Jean Grenier, for example, has spoken in a tone and cadence calibrated perfectly to the just-so which can now so easily give to all things their utmost just weight. Perhaps Family does not constitute in its first seven minutes as noteworthy a filmic expanse as can be found in other great short features like Xelinda Yancy’s Time Out, Julius Amedume’s The Phone Call or Kathryn Busby’s My Purple Fur Coat (all of which have shown at the Los Angeles Pan African Film Festival in the past several years), but the serenity of quiet at the conclusion of Family gives added beauty to the peacefulness exuding from these women, a peacefulness which gives beauty back in turn to the quiet and serenity. And this reciprocity gains a marvelous and privileged hold, indeed, forms and shapes a cinematic vibrato and diction that gives rise at once to an emphatic kind of aesthetic, affective, and cinematic pleasure in all their manifold unities and warmth. There is here a simplicity that surpasses itself without any affectation, adornment, or pretense, a simplicity where life and existence shimmer.

One could try to speak here of the most beautiful minute in the history of cinema, but it would in fact rob this cinematic moment of its wonderful existential resonance, this resonance which carries the desire to put an end to all the hierarchies, rankings, and inequalities that burden life and existence with the unjust. What need of “the most …” or of “the best …” when we already know that this exquisite little moment of solidarity and effortless depiction in that final minute of splendor, quiet, and serene equanimity, tells us that beauty without magnanimity is no beauty at all and that magnanimity in its enactments is always the measureless enrichment of every beautiful existence.

 

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset — and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins — is also a philosopher and poet.

 

Header Image: Naoko Haruta, Life #169: ‘Africa #12’, acrylic on canvas, 43″ x 67″ (110cm x 170cm)

 

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