The Five Words Challenge

Don’t mistake this for another one of those Favorite Whatever exercises. There’s no room for such fluffy diversions on Negative Space! Instead, let’s get right down to the heart and soul of it: What, I ask you, are your cinematic erogenous zones?

In order to adequately answer this seemingly abstract question, I challenge you all to name five specific words that bind the movies that move you. Not the most influential ones, not the culturally correct examples, but the movies you keep coming back to, however flawed they may be. The kind of movies that remind you (and you alone) of why you love the medium in the first place.

A film that cannot be described by these five words might still be good – an indisputable classic even – but it wouldn’t shake you to the core. The question is: what does? What tickles your fancy? What makes your movie-loving heart throb? Now’s the time to show the world where you’re really coming from…

To give an indication of what I’m getting at, here are my Five Words, in no particular order:

    I confess: I’m a romantic and an unflagging aesthete. I love the sense of being transcended by lyricism, beauty and the sublime.
  2. GLOOM
    Rapture only becomes truly heartbreaking for me when it’s wallowed in gloom. The celebration of tragedy that forms the climax of Blow Out is probably my favorite cinematic moment. Call me a romantic nihilist.
    Just because cinema is too sensuous a medium to NOT have sex in the equation. Which probably makes me a sexist romantic nihilist.
    Fiction is my religion. As a proud subscriber to the Manifesto for the Imagination, I hold the power of poetic truth, myth, metaphor, magic realism and the speculative in high regard.
    I have a special fondness for elements that are unlike anything I’ve seen/heard/felt before. True originality is hard to find, of course, but I’m always looking for a certain frisson (be it a camera angle, a line delivery, a facial or gestural expression, a visual effect, art direction, sound design, montage or narrative structure) that evokes a genuine sense of wonder in me.

Sure, that looks easy enough, doesn’t it? Just wait until you start your own list!

Rapture, gloom, sensuality, imagination, wonder:
Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Your turn now. Mind you: Just five words. Not six, not fifty. I won’t be flexible about this! Avoid easy ways out (scratch VISUAL–every movie is visual!) or open doors (fundamental dramatic ingredients like CONFLICT). Give me something personal and precise that offers a good taste of your sensibilities, however unfashionable or bizarre. I assure you that, if you decide to have a go at it, the Five Words Challenge will make your next video rental choice a lot easier!

21 Responses to The Five Words Challenge

  1. jim emerson says:

    OK, Peet. You got me thinking and this is what came out:

    UNCANNY — as in the kind of frisson you get from experiencing something beyond the normal range of the senses. I mean it almost as a synonym for “surreal” — a direct pipeline to the (collective?) unconscious. It doesn’t have to be eerie (another synonym) — it can be beautiful, even (to borrow Peet’s #1 word) rapturous. A little mystery, something withheld, is enticing, rather than having everything right on the surface. The uncanny may originate in a gesture, an expression, composition, a camera movement, a tone of voice, a pronunciation. Like the way Steve Carrell pronounces “Nietzche” (“Neet-chah”) in “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s funny, and I can’t quite explain why it delights me so much. I’d even say it’s uncannily funny.

    UNSETTLING — as in not settling, not comfortable, the opposite of complacent. I know this can be another synonym for “uncanny,” but here I mean it more like “unpredictable” or “surprising.” I don’t like to feel like I know where the movie or the characters are going, or what the next shot will be, but most movies settle for the routine and the banal on every level, from dialogue to plot to cutting and composition: “Here’s what’s about to happen. Here’s what’s happening. Here’s what just happened.” Zzzzzzzzz.

    INTENT — as in focused, observant. A good movie doesn’t waste an image. Even something as utilitarian as an establishing shot doesn’t have to be dull or perfunctory. Every moment counts — even (no, especially when there’s nothing “happening.”

    BREATHABLE — as in giving the viewer some air, some space to explore, a chance to get in synch with the movie’s rhythms, whether rapid or leisurely. Again, it’s intricately related to the previous words in some respects. Basically what I’m saying is that I like a movie that actually lets you watch it, without stuffing every image down your throat (so you can’t breathe!). I like a movie that captures little revealing (or uncanny!) things for you to notice around the edges or in the background, rather than dictatorially telling your eye precisely where it should be looking in every shot. In general, the less that “happens” (in the plot and dialogue sense) in a movie, the happier I am. Plot is just a cheap gimmick for filmmakers who don’t know how to tell a story with images. Peet mentioned “Blow Out.” The scene on the bridge, with Travolta recording the sounds of the night, and all that wonderful, mysterious dark space, pregnant with possibility, is a good example. The plot does not require anything but that he record the sound of the car crash, but that’s just the climax of De Palma’s gorgeous piece of Nachtmusik.

    MUSICAL — as in having to do with tone, rhythm, structure, movement, tempo, color, momentum, flow… I’ve always thought movies were more like music than any other medium. With this word I want to encompass qualities such as “rapture” and “sensuality.” Music and movies have the ability to transport you, emotionally and imaginatively, beyond anything that can be pinpointed in the score or on the screen.

  2. Peet says:

    Oooh, wonderful post, Jim. (And lightning fast, too!) Very fine choice of words that makes me doubt my own…

    “Plot is just a cheap gimmick for filmmakers who don’t know how to tell a story with images.”
    That line is going to be a classic, at least in my book!

    Thanks for posting!

  3. max404 says:

    Jim & Peet, wonderful posts!

    I’m not that good with words (hey – I make music, that’s my mode of expression) but I have a favourite quote that says ALL there needs to be said about what I look for in any form of art (or entertainment):

    “Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.” – Jorge Luis Borges

  4. Keith Uhlich says:

    Brevity is the soul of wit. My five words are the title of a Roland Barthes book that I’ll leave without explanation, but which – joined together (and maybe even on their own) – are but one expression for me of cinema’s beauty and bliss:


  5. Bob Cumbow says:

    INTEGRITY – It all has to connect. Nothing arbitrary or gratuitous, nothing that doesn’t serve some purpose to the whole. Every shot, scene, line, cut has something to do with the underlying idea of the film and where it is headed.

    ADVENTURE – Not necessarily high physical action; but the thrill of discovery and daring. The human heart is filled with adventure.

    SURPRISE – Show me something I don’t expect. Better still, show me something I’ve never seen before. And not just in the realms of sex and violence (though certainly those) but also in the arenas of wit, vision, insight, and ideas.

    GRACE – What happens, the way it happens, the way it’s shot, and the way it’s put together all have a certain rightness that speaks truth. Not documentary truth, but the timeless truth of nature, of myth, of human behavior and human feeling.

    UNDERSTANDING – No stark oversimplifications, no one-sided approach to complex issues, no knocking down straw men. Understand the characters as characters, both good and bad. Find something of value in each of them and in each act. Redeem them where possible. If you have to damn them, have good reasons. Don’t take easy ways out. Earn your outcome.

  6. Peet says:

    Max: OK, you’re disqualified! But thanks anyway for that inspiring Borges quote… The first two words that pop into my mind when I consider your taste in film is UNCOMPROMISING and OBSCURE. If you take those words and lend a few of Borges’s, you’ll have your five words in no time. There’s a chance that I’ll reconsider my harsh judgment as soon as you do.

    Keith: You clever boy. But I will only allow that once!

    Bob: That’s as thoughtful a reply as a humble blogger like me could possibly wish for. And those words are so very YOU!

  7. tlrhb says:

    1. FLUIDITY. More than anything I love the visual and emotional stimulus of a tracking shot, of a smooth, gliding camera slowly but surely zeroing in on its prey from any angle.

    2. EDITING. And when the camera gets to its prey, nothing thrills me more than a masterful series of edits, be they a leisurely paced back and forth between two people, or rapid montages of varying images. I like the sense of a director’s eye behind the camera and an editor’s touch in the editing room coming together to create a feeling I couldn’t have anticipated.

    3. STURGES. Let’s just use that as a catchall phrase for witty and/or clever writing. Zingers, one-liners, soliloquies of soul and humor that make your ears perk up and let you know that you’re in the hands of somebody who values the melodicism of language. I agree that film is a visual medium, but a great line of dialogue can excuse a lot. Plus, it tends to live in your head for a lifetime. Just ask your friends who are truly tired of your ability to quote THE BIG LEBOWSKI in any situation.

    4. INTIMACY. It goes along with sensuality, rapture. In any film I truly, truly love, there is some form of romantic gesture at its heart, and often it’s a love story defined not by words, but by glances and movements and the magic acting that occurs at eye level. Not that I have any objection to a little thigh and torso action, either.

    5. CONCLUSION. The best films, in my opinion, must have a strong conclusion, even if it’s no conclusion at all. Think of that feeling you get when the end credits come up and a story has been successfully put across and you say to yourself, “That was a good movie!” Or you walk out thinking about its intent. Nine times out of 10, you won’t feel that way unless you felt satisfied or intrigued at the conclusion. Even if, as in CACHE, you’re not sure what the conclusion is until you go on the Internet and discover that you have to look very carefully at the bottom left portion of the frame.

  8. Peet says:

    Aah, Little Round-Headed Boy… I knew I could count on you! You’re so right about STURGES. I adore the poetic verbal abuse in Glengarry Glen Ross, for example, but I think I got that covered under GLOOM / SENSUALITY.

    “What’s your name?”
    “Fuck you. That’s my name.”

  9. David Lowery says:

    1. WONDER – I have to steal this one from Peet. A sense of wonder is one of the things cinema can create like no other art. I love it when my jaw is left hanging open by all the possibilities, the questions, the portents of things to come and things that have already past, that a single image, properly placed, can suggest. Of all five of the words I’ll be choosing, I think this is the only one that, for me, truly fulfills Peet’s request – it’s the only word that describes an aspect of cinema that will bind a filmic experience to me. The remaining four words describe things that are important to me, but this one, rare though it may be, is vital.

    2. VERISIIMILITUDE – I appreciate realism. Or, in the cases of many directors I admire, artistically attenuated realism. I could use Kubrick as an example, or Van Sant – their films aren’t necessarily realistic, but they create a sort of of explcitly staged realism within their misce-en-scene which creates and undeniable sense of verisimilitude without approximating the look and feel of a documentary.

    3. LENGTH – I love filmmakers who know how to let things last as long as they need to. Again, Van Sant and Kubrick – but moreso, Tsai Ming Liang, Hou Hsiao Hsien and many of their Asian contemporaries. These are filmmakers understand the temporal properties of cinema – they know how a seemingly unextraordinary act or image or scene can be transformed, simply by being sustained. The final shot of Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn is one of my favorite examples. Actually, every shot in that film might qualify as an excellent example. On the flip side, however, I need to mention that ‘length’ does not necessarily refer to running time.

    4. RHYTHMIC – As an editor, this is impotant to me. Rhythm is related to the length of shots and takes and the manner in which they’re cut, certainly, but it is far more inclusive than that. It includes the speed of a dolly shot, an actor’s gait, the dialogue — pretty much everything. A good sense of the rhythm of a film will be instilled by the director on the set, and it will inform the editing process, and be amplified (although not to any overt level, necessarily) by it. It will be, in a sense, the backbone of a film.

    5. QUIET – I put this hear with the intention that its sibling, ‘loud,’ be included so inference. I”m speaking here of the dynamics of sound, one of the most important and most underrated aspects of cinema. There’s nothing quite like a sustained and enveloping cinematic silence – except perhaps for a crescendo of cacophony to wake you from your reverie. One of the best uses of sound ever is Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (Gary Rydstrom did the honors) – if you haven’t ever noticed it, pop the DVD in and turn the volume up.

  10. Peet says:

    One of the things I like about this Five Words exercise, is that it forces you to put your frame of reference into words. Thank you, David, for adding your particularly fine frame! I sure love PUNCH DRUNK LOVE.

  11. Peet: So sorry it’s taken me so long to post these, but here are five words that are key for me when I see a movie.

    AWARENESS: I love films that are alive to different angles on the world, even if those angles might not necessarily be sewn directly into the fabric of the film’s main themes. There are many kinds of awareness you could conceivably encounter in any one film– cinematic, political, social, storytelling, religious, awareness of environment, awareness of the frame, etc. One or more of these levels of awareness are often present in any given film by Robert Altman, which is probably why he ranks so high for me, but I appreciate movies by, say, the Farrelly Brothers, Walter Hill, Richard Linklater, Brian De Palma and Anthony Mann for the some of the same reasons.

    FEARLESS: No fear of failure, or the unknown, or the untested, or the ambiguous. I played a little game of word association with myself just now with “fearless”, and the movie that came to mind first was David Cronenberg’s The Brood. But I also think of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County U.S.A., the documentaries of Werner Herzog, and Jackie Chan’s Project A Part 2.

    COMMUNITY: A sensibility that exists within the story, and one that encourages community or a sense of fellowship with the audience. Obviously, Nashville is the template here, but A Prairie Home Companion, Magnolia or Only Angels Have Wings are also superb examples for me.

    HUMOR: Wicked, jolly, absurd, reflective, humor that comments on the action, grotesque, black comedy. I love a good laugh: The Lady Eve, Nacho Libre, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Big Lebowski, Stuck on You, Blazing Saddles, jackass: the movie, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, The Abominable Dr. Phibes— I could go on, but I won’t. I won’t. The hell I won’t! John Wayne in McLintock!, or what about Ruggles of Red Gap, To Be or Not To Be, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Okay, I’ll stop now.)

    PATIENCE: Particularly in editing, but also in how the exposition of important information is encoded in and imparted by the visuals, writing and performances. Implied in this directorial/editorial patience is the assumption that the film will find an audience that is equally patient and will respond to and with the film on its own terms. My renewed appreciation, over the past 10-15 years, for movies made before 1980, particularly from the 1930s through the 1960s, certainly reflects this aspect of my taste. But I’ve also come to love the new Asian cinema (those elements of it that I’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to, anyway) that is characterized by this patience and quality of observation that I really respond to. Favorites include Three Times, Flowers of Shanghai, Tropical Malady and, perhaps my favorite of all so far, Goodbye, Dragon Inn.

  12. Peet says:

    Thank you, Dennis. Those were worth the wait!

    I’m just wondering if a movie like Todd Haynes’ SAFE would be less interesting to you personally, because it goes against any possible concept of “COMMUNITY.” The same question could be applied to Altman’s IMAGES.

  13. Actually, I thought SAFE was a very interesting movie, and one of the main reasons for it being so is exactly what you state– the exclusion of the possibility of community. It’s a kind of engagement with my subject word or concept in reverse. I’m sure I could think of lots of movies I like that don’t fit some of my five words, in whole or in part, but that’s because I imagine there’s a whole set of criteria beyond those five words that turn me on just as much that I wasn’t able to think of off the top of my head. (And besides, it was a strict five-word limit!!! :)) That’s one of the things that make movies great– the possibilities seem endless!

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