Sep 292011


From last week’s collision in an intersection to this week’s collection of small caught moments in Jane Campion’s series of shorts, Passionless Moments (1983). The series is made up of ten short films co-written by Campion’s then boyfriend Gerard Lee and is narrated by a BBC-type narrator giving the films a scientific or sociological flair (further emphasizing in a perhaps misleading or ironic fashion the importance of these moments). There is, in these shorts, a fetishization of minutiae. Each is smaller and less dramatic than the collision in And the Red Man Went Green. And these are “real” people, flawed and vulnerable; they do not anticipate the camera’s gaze. We catch them at their most vulnerable and unawares.

Taken individually, I feel these are moments that read you back: what small details of our lives have escaped film’s classical three-act structure and drive for catharsis? As Geraldine Bloustien points out in her essay “Jane Campion:Memory, Motif, and Music,” “Classical Hollywood cinema concerns itself with the heightened moments of passion of individuals with whom we identify in some way because of their bravery, humour, innocence, heroic qualities and so on. In traditional feature films and documentaries we are usually introduced to the characters’ backgrounds, motives and problems. However, in Passionless Moments the characters serve only to illustrate some quirky aspect of human nature and relationships.”

These moments cumulatively tempt me to universalize: that it might be the minutiae and /or our “quirky” aspects that connect us to one another, a humanity found in the small, quiet, sometimes embarrassing moments. Though in the actions of Campion’s characters it is difficult not to see something vaguely heroic. I am embarrassed for the boy named Lyndsay Aldridge, his explosive string beans, and his manic running, but I admire his commitment too. I recognize myself in him and don’t want to at the same time. Campion’s oevre is made up of such characters, from her exploration of the author Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, to the complicated relationship at the core of Holy Smoke.

I have to confess that the title of the series confuses me. Are these moments truly passionless? Or is the title ironic? Passionless as in lacking suffering? Or passionless as in suggesting disengagement? In a sense it reminds me of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, an at time dispassionate analysis of desire and passion. These films contain a similar tension / contradiction and perhaps the title participates in that. And I think there’s a similar undecidability to the shorts: what significance do they amount to? To whom do these moments matter?

I heard the writer filmmaker Miranda July introduce a screening of these shorts at the IFC in New York this summer. She said that when she first saw Campion’s shorts she saw a type of filmmaking she could do (my summary). I took this to mean that July felt the films provoked and read her back too. That to watch these “passionless” moments is an invitation to reflect on one’s own moments. I see further evidence in the several “Passionless Moments” shorts on youtube that pay homage. Explore at your own risk. And maybe dare to ponder your own.


  5 Responses to “Numéro Cinq at the Movies: Jane Campion’s “Passionless Moments,” introduced by R. W. Gray”

  1. I love these! And agree that they don’t feel passionless except in the sense that they avoid high drama. Interesting how these small moments seem more memorable and less generic than larger ones might. The little girl folding sheets of paper on the back of a Scotties box, and imagining the Scotties execs doing the same–unforgettable!

  2. The techniques used in the Passionless Moments shorts remind me of the David Jauss’ essay “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance & Point of View in Fiction Writing.” The way Campion telescopes way in on the back hair, open lips, dropped money on the sidewalk, is masterful. She creates a sensory stillness. A pause for us to soak in, just like in good literary fiction. Then she pans out to the to the larger context, speeding up again, and moving on.

    David Jauss discusses how to use these techniques in fiction for purpose. Check out his essay at: The AWP Writer’s Chronicle:

  3. I like that connection. In film it’s often dissociative (grounds but confuses the audience) or over imbues the moment or object, like in mysteries or thrillers–everything becomes a clue. Thanks for the link.

  4. These are brilliant shorts. I like to think that these are the kind of moments that make us human rather than dog (for better or worse). It’s also a great reminder for technique in story-writing. Specifically, Campion’s (and Campion-inspired) “passionless moments” remind me of the difference between conflict and drama in that a well-crafted conflict lessens the need for drama. This is not to dismiss drama in literature whatsoever—I fancy myself some high drama from time to time. But sometimes the moment can be enough—especially in circumstances such as these films where they’re crafted well enough to render “passionless moments” a completely ironic title. Again, I can’t wait until next week.

  5. “..[I]it might be the minutiae and /or our ‘quirky’ aspects that connect us to one another, a humanity found in the small, quiet, sometimes embarrassing moments.” I think that’s true. Just now, as I watched the woman in the film eating a piece of ham and pondering her uncle’s pig, I was eating bacon and pondering how it’s one of the things that keeps me from embracing vegetarianism. It was a meat-product meta-moment of some sort.

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