The Horse Who Drank the SkyWALDO PEPPER [Robert Redford]: Do you like movies?
MARY BETH [Susan Sarandon]: Mmm-hmmm.
The Great Waldo Pepper (George Roy Hill, 1975)

… perhaps one must become the films one loves.
– Murray Pomerance (1)

A moment in Psycho (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s dark and grisly comedy about the dangers of being too close to your mother, never fails to satisfy. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is missing, along with $40,000 of her employer’s money; her sister Lila (Vera Miles) is beside herself with worry and Marion’s boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), is trying to figure it all out. He tells an employee in his hardware store in Fairvale, California, that he needs a little privacy.

LILA: I’m Marion’s sister.
SAM: Oh sure – Lila.
LILA: Is Marion here?
SAM: Why, of course not. Is something wrong?
LILA: She left home on Friday. I was in Tucson over the weekend and I haven’t heard from her since – not even a phone call. Look, if you two are in this thing together I don’t care – it’s none of my business – but I want to talk to Marion and I want her to tell me it’s none of my business! And then I’ll go –
SAM: Bob, run out and get yourself some lunch, will you?
BOB [Frank Killmond]: Oh, that’s OK, Sam. I brought it with me.
SAM: Run out and eat it! (To Lila) Now – what thing could we be in together?

This is not just any moment in an otherwise gripping thriller. It is a moment of rest, a chance to breathe. Hitchcock keeps turning the crank on our emotions and we need a release. A moment, please, to enjoy this moment a little longer. And it is in such moments that we sometimes wish we could linger, just for a second or two, before the filmmaker points his camera elsewhere or drills it deeper into the moment we’re trying to savour. Close-ups of Sam’s frustrated look, his barking at Bob and Bob’s innocence turned to embarrassment that he missed his cue – all are inhaled by the camera and pass too quickly. That’s the wonderful trouble with movies. They’re brimming with moments we wish we could carry with us forever. If only we could remember them all.

At long last, someone has told us what to make of such moments, in a galvanising and revelatory book that is no less than a primer on how to watch a movie. In prose thick with examples of favourite filmic moments, Murray Pomerance has written the most entertaining book in a long time on movie watching, if not on movies themselves and what we should expect from them. But The Horse Who Drank the Sky is not just a guided tour of what to look at but what to listen to when we tuck into a movie, whether for the first or the 25th time. It is also a cri de coeur about the status quo of film criticism and scholarship. His book appears at the right moment. Pomerance writes: the plague of “pleasure or romance” (p. 5) that comes after watching a film has been evacuated and we “focus instead upon the structural armature that subtends and supports the screen action. We have, therefore, devoted ourselves to dismantling the image and have forgotten, it would seem, the charged effect an image in its wholeness has when we see it in the dark.” (p. 5) We rely too heavily on narrative instead of action as anchoring devices in our appreciation of film:

…cinema’s “crisis” lies in the failure of the viewing experience, in the casualness with which so many of us treat the films we watch. And this is due, more than to any other cause, I believe, to our addiction to verbal literacy as the only mode of philosophy, or the only important mode, our belief that the story is what counts, that anything vital is told as such, that the sequentiality of events is what we should be paying attention to. (p. 34)

Pomerance urges those of us “who love cinema, or want to love it” to “look longer, harder, more exhaustingly, more confoundingly, and more openly at the screen” (p. 34). Pomerance savours the cinematic moment the way Vladimir Nabokov savoured the literary moment. In his lecture on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), Nabokov says,

Kafka himself was extremely critical of Freudian ideas. He considered psychoanalysis (I quote) “a helpless error,” and he regarded [Sigmund] Freud’s theories as very approximate, very rough pictures, which did not do justice to details or, what is more, to the essence of the matter. This is another reason why I should like to dismiss the Freudian approach and concentrate, instead, upon the artistic moment. (2)

Pomerance, who teaches sociology at Ryerson University in Toronto and is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, aims his unrelenting and enveloping curiosity at dozens of his favourite film moments, from the puzzling sound the submariners hear onshore in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959) to a graceful edit in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and from the voice of the great Oz in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) to a dazzling shot in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

The moment … is what rouses our emotion and memory. It may be coextensive with a shot, or occupy only part of a shot, or occupy several shots, contiguous or noncontiguous. The moment, inevitably, is what we remember and retain, what we possess of the screen and incorporate into ourselves and our worlds. (p. 6)

In nine chapters, each of whose descriptions in his table of contents begins slyly with the words “Thinking about…”, Pomerance displays his encyclopedic knowledge of, and passion for, cinema. He also considers precisely what it is we’re looking at, what is on the screen, the images before us – far beyond what the film is about that “theory has only begun to detect”:

…because cinema is art, it remains true that the most assiduous and earnest commitment to looking at its historical, social, psychological, compositional, authorial, and political aspects finally brings any serious viewer to a consideration of love: love of the screen, love of the cinematic image, love of the peculiar kind of light that is to be glimpsed in the dark theater coming from this magical world, that holds us fast to our fixation upon film – love of life, because just as it includes people life includes cinema. The most important thing about cinema, indeed, is that we are alive with it. (p. 8)

Pomerance wants us to get closer to the screen, physically as well as metaphysically.

As taken as he is by the images on the screen in front of him, Pomerance is also enraptured by the sound that envelops us in a darkened movie house. Invoking the French critic and theorist Michel Chion, Pomerance introduces the acousmatic moment, which stems from a “sound that is heard without its cause or source being seen.” (p. 112) One such moment occurs in On the Beach, an early Cold War horror story that turns the blood to ice because of the silent, barren world it portrays so vividly. The silence is broken by the mysterious tapping of a cord from a window blind wrapped around a partly filled Coke bottle that rests intermittently on an open telegraph key, “which begins as an acousmetre that by the end of the sequence is brutally rationalized as a simple diagetic prop.” (p. 113) What is also broken is the mystery of the sound that represents some of the last survivors of a nuclear war, which is briefly the driving force of the submarine crew. When the mystery is solved – when a common symbol of a once-vibrant society of smiling consumers is found to be the cause of a sound the submariners thought was a signal of life – the action grinds to a momentary halt and the apocalypse becomes knowingly, brutally real.

Pomerance’s joy in celebrating the cinematic moment, whether visual or sonic, does not obscure his knack for sophisticated film analysis. He lavishes attention on three films: Fritz Lang’s M (1931), 23 pages; George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), 16 pages, and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), 23 pages. In each instance, Pomerance launches intersecting philosophical, sociological, cinematic and political discussions that broaden our understanding of these classics. With Pomerance at the helm, we can always learn something new about even the most familiar films. He devotes an entire chapter to Lang’s crime drama, pointing out that the smoke that hovers above the puzzled, frazzled police and that surrounds the criminals meeting to discuss the difficulties the killer, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) has brought because the police are focusing on them – is the same smoke. It unifies these two disparate elements of Berlin society, a society bursting with the elements of the next great war: “…the state in its immaculate purity hears the harmonic music of a profound inner brutality.” (p. 106)

In Dinner at Eight, which Pomerance describes as a film about “erosion, decay and loss” (p. 190), “a waltz with death” (p. 201), he devotes many pages to Marie Dressler’s performance as the ageing actress Carlotta Vance. When she declares, “That’s the unfortunate thing about death, it’s so terribly final, even the young can’t do anything about it” (p. 200), elements of the film “merge in an instant to produce a moment in which a character’s voice seems to emerge entirely from its bindings in a character’s body within a narrative and address us personally, truthfully, beautifully in the night.” (p. 202) Even in his long analyses, Pomerance reveres the moment.

Pomerance once described Hitchcock’s films as “meditations on knowing, believing, doubting, remembering, being.” (3). North by Northwest, equipped with more than its share of all five, also gets its own chapter, entitled “A Great Face.” It is a deep study of the Mount Rushmore scene at the end of the picture. Pomerance describes it as a story element “capable of rounding out a certain pictorial and philosophical expression, then devotedly plotted and, finally, very intentionally directed so that in finished form it would fit into the film in a particular way.” (p. 73) Pomerance connects the faces of Cary Grant, the four presidents on Mount Rushmore (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) and even George W. Bush in a rigorous essay about Americans’ infatuation with their president: “If the English monarch is stamped upon the coin, the American leader is stamped upon the transmogrifying coinage of the American imagination.” (p. 77) Even Roger Thornhill, the primary – or “real” – character Grant plays, “is no less a great personality, no less an inflation, than the figures on Mount Rushmore, and when he scrambles down their faces, he is glossing the surface of himself.” (p. 83)

Pomerance seems to be wryly ambiguous here, when elsewhere he often uses a string of words to be as specific as only lawyers can be. In this chapter, he both makes his meaning clear and amplifies it when he writes that we possess “capacities for reflection, for making impression, for influencing, for modeling, for standing to utterance.” (p. 76) The father in Rebel Without a Cause is “overweight, pudgy, feminized, receptive, not athletic and expressive.” (p. 51) And in a reverent nod to cinema and the image of the face itself – and another knock on the limitations of theory – he writes that

there is something more to those images … the immensity of them, for example, especially in close-ups; the brilliance and saturation of the color that floods over them or the uncanny variations in their luminosity if they are in black and white; the musical grace with which they move; the piquancy of what they say, if they speak; the structure of their faces; the fact that we are presented over and over again with those faces (faces, not people); the way we move into contact with them, or recede, through flash pans, dissolves, cutaways, zooms, jump cuts, wipes, and so on. (p. 180)

We lose all of this when we pay too much attention to the story. “What just happened?” we might ask our companion. The audience shushes us. Does it matter? Just watch the screen.

“Criticism, by and large, seems blind to film itself, to what is inherently visual about it, critics glazing over their subjects with plot rehash, unformed opinion, star publicity and open-ended theorization borrowed wholesale from the press kit.” (p. 19) What critics – and the rest of us – must do, Pomerance writes, is learn or relearn how to gaze lovingly at the movies we watch, and not merely watch them go by like a train that goes on too long, waiting for something to happen (when it is happening all the time right before our eyes).

One writer who seems to be on the right track is Manohla Dargis, co-chief film critic for The New York Times. Here are two excerpts from her review of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Le voyage du ballon rouge (Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007):

The puppet play and the video are in a sense shadows of Mr. Hou’s film, which itself has a diaphanous, hypnotically ethereal quality. Part of this is due to Mr. Hou’s approach to narrative, which replaces the rigid linearity of the three-act model with complex, impressionistic forms; isolated gestures; fugitive moments; saturated moods; and visual harmony.
In one magnificent scene the camera floats from one character to the next for roughly eight minutes without a single cut, tracing invisible lines between Simon [Simon Iteanu], Suzanne [Juliette Binoche], Song [Fang Song], an intrusive neighbor and a piano tuner who is working on the family’s old upright. Out of this chaos — Simon playing, Suzanne yelling, the piano tuner tuning, and Song simply moving among them — Mr. Hou creates the world. (4)

It might be easy to appreciate what a filmmaker is trying to do, especially when he cuts the narrative umbilical cord as Hou does. The Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai; even the Coen brothers have been known to turn narrative on its head. Writing about these filmmakers (and others) without relying on narrative is an enjoyably manageable task. But we moviegoers have to try to follow Pomeramce’s lead and wean ourselves from the Earth Mother of narrative and come back to the image. Throughout Pomerance’s ecstatic and mesmerising gallop of a book, he reminds us of the worlds created by our best filmmakers – Hitchcock, Cukor, Lang, Kramer, Ray, Lean, and many more – and how closely (or sometimes, how distantly) they resemble ours. The connective tissue, sinew, tendons, cartilage and muscle fibre that bind their films together (and us to their films) are made up of moments that we choose to see. Or maybe they choose us.

In his final chapter, Pomerance launches a rhapsodic skein of descriptive phrases in a return to his thesis, that our attention to narrative ensures that we are no longer engaged with the film as we watch it because we ignore “the inherent subjectivity and personality of the received moment” which “remains the substance and flesh of our experience of watching films, the reason we wish to watch them again and again, the substrate of their melody, the envelope of their pathos and glory.” (pp. 7-8)

[We] deny cinema its poetry and its haunting effect, its indeterminacy as an evanescent image, its strange realism, its cultural resonance, its visual magic, its ability to confront us with a phantom that, however false and constructed we may recognize it to be, intrigues and enflames us nevertheless, ceaselessly, beneficially. (p. 214)

Pomerance’s use of the moment to illustrate larger themes and ideas is a formally daring, welcome act of defiance. One such moment occurs in Lawrence of Arabia, in a memorable sound overlap that begins with the simple act of blowing out a match. The sound of Lawrence’s breath transports us to a shot of the sun rising majestically over the desert.

Here the metaphor suggests that the breath of this individual man upon this tiny fire is also capable of becoming the cosmic wind of the universe upon the great fire of the sun, a force that spins planets; and since Lawrence’s intention is to move whole nations into a new and hitherto unimagined alignment with one another, it is indeed a personal force of vast, universal dimension that is required of him – just such as is here suggested. (pp. 141-142)

Pomerance successfully, magically, elegantly guides us across a similar divide, from little moment to broad understanding of what it is to lose oneself in a film by watching it, being transported by it and forgetting everything else, lovingly, totally, blissfully.

The Horse Who Drank the Sky: Film Experience Beyond Narrative and Theory, by Murray Pomerance, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick and London, 2008.


  1. Murray Pomerance, An Eye for Hitchcock, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, and London, 2004, p. 7.
  2. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, Harcourt, San Diego and New York, 1980, p. 256.
  3. Pomerance, An Eye for Hitchcock, p. 11.
  4. Manohla Dargis, “Another Balloon Over Paris, With Lives Adrift Below”, The New York Times, 4 April 2008.