What is a Cinematic Moment?
By John Miller

In the fall of 1977, I produced my first artist’s book, Cinematic Moments. At the time, I had just begun reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past and was inspired by the epiphanies he narrates, small events which include stepping over uneven cobblestones, seeing church steeples in parallax and, most famously, dunking a madeleine in tea. These modest, sensory experiences supposedly had the potential to bring back a sense of the past more vividly than what could be willed; Proust called this involuntary memory. With my own collection of narrative fragments, I too wanted to capture everyday experiences that I somehow experienced as paradigmatic. Nonetheless, what I was after in my book – even though it wasn’t entirely clear to me at the time – was something a bit different. These moments would have less to do with conjuring the past than they would with recognition or subjective positioning and repositioning within a given context. I rendered them in short paragraphs:

I’m asleep on a mattress. It begins to undulate beneath me, as if a cat were walking around my body. I open my eyes and realize I was dreaming. Although I see no cat, the sensation is so strong that I double-check. After finding nothing, the sensation disappears.

Why call something like this “cinematic?” At the time, I simply picked the title with relatively little consideration as to its specific implications. It was an intuitive choice:

If I feel that what I know is small in proportion to what might be known, does it follow to use this speculation as a point of reference?

When I wrote these entries, I was not yet aware of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills, but when I finally did see them, I felt an immediate affinity. Although Sherman would go on to focus primarily on portraiture as impersonaton, her Untitled Film Stills concern scenarios. They present various versions of femininity not only as stereotypes, but also as identifications that derive from a specific place and from a specific narrative. In short, they are images that triangulate time and space. I’ve come to think that the idea of a cinematic moment concerns a tension between lived experience and its representation. In other words, just as certain experiences can become iconic so too can certain representations be lived. The observations – propositions? – that I wrote for my booklet do not involve a camera, a projector or a theater. Their cinematic claims are instead rooted in perception and signification. The spectator comprises subjective consciousness in the act of self-observation, a somewhat tautological state. The moment of realization is predicated on redundancy. Moreover, to qualify as “cinematic,” an experience need not echo an actual film. Rather, it only would need to be representable and repeatable. These qualities suggest a narrative kernel. They pertain to both scenario, namely a setting that might engender a narrative arc no matter how minimal, and script, namely an anticipated sequence. A scenario need not be a literal place and a script need not be written. According to these terms, the “cinematic” could be a distillation.

A recent “Better Living” article in The New York Times advised “How to Build Resilience in Midlife.” Not surprisingly, it promoted flexibility, noting that those who deal with crises and life changes best are those who can rewrite their story. It cited a certain Dr. Southwick: “It’s about learning to recognize the explanatory story you tend to use in your life. Observe what you are saying to yourself and question it. It’s not easy and it takes practice.” (1) Southwick’s approach, of course, presumes that people generally tell themselves such stories – which we might also call “scripts.” The term “story” is probably meant to seem gentler than “script,” since story implies a variable fiction where a script would be imperative. Yet, if acted upon, a story is no longer imaginary and, if ignored, a script is no longer a mandate.

Rather than spectacle, cinematic moments entail recognizing parts of everyday life that otherwise pass unnoticed. Their sense of familiarity can be tied to tacit codes of behavior, which at times can function as a script. This may be why seemingly open-ended experiences can carry a sense of déjà vu. In an attempt to analyze the prospect of supposed “free time,” art historian Meyer Schapiro noted how even one’s sense of leisure may arise from distinct social practices whose aggregate is public space:

…there are many unregistered practices which seem to involve no official institutions, yet depend on recently acquired social interests and on definite stages of material development. A promenade, for example (as distinguished from a religious procession or a parade), would be impossible without a particular growth of urban life and secular forms of recreation. The necessary means – the streets and the roads – are also social and economic in origin, beyond or prior to any individual; yet each man enjoys his walk by himself without any sense of constraint or institutional purpose. (2)

Perhaps what delimits the range of activity suggested by, say, a promenade would be a script. Here such a script would be the reading into and reading out of public space. Henri Lefebvre further developed analyses of how spatial codes, namely the sense of what a particular place means, how it is organized, how to behave there, etc., derive from foregoing spatial practices. Ordinarily, the range of possibilities attached to a particular place seems natural, or innate, yet the spatial code also plays a part in reproducing its condition as social space. Under the rubric of “performativity,” then, what possibly can be done on a 3.5 x 8 meter floor, stage or wall? Does their relationship to a body in space suggest some things while precluding others? Can these blank planes be seen as social spaces in their own right or will various actions transpose other social spaces upon them?

Taken together, the life story and the spatial code are hardly exhaustive, but they both point to scripts that are implicit rather than explicit because they are intuited conditions. While the first concerns a lifetime, the second concerns the here and now. Many other forms of scripting may be pertinent. Perhaps the most salient would be modelling one’s own behavior on that of others. This might be called inscription, imprinting or interpolation. Yet, if you had to knowingly construct all these conditions at every stage, nothing would ever get done. If you were to film everything you do and to replay it frame by frame, much more might become evident. Would that then correspond to unveiling the optical unconscious?

What in the end is a cinematic moment? Nothing really. Or maybe not. It’s a suggestive phrase that I concocted for poetic affect. It would be wrong to think that its potentialities can ultimately be realized.

1. Tara Parker-Pope, “How to Build Resilience in Midlife,” The New York Times, July 25, 2017.
2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Social Bases of Art” (1936), http://theoria.art-zoo.com/the-social-bases-of-art-meyer-schapiro/ (accessed August 7, 2017).