By Ezra Haber Glenn
Years from now, I’m sure I will have forgotten nearly everything about Infinite Storm, but this one scene will still stick with me.
Infinite Storm, directed by Małgorzata Szumowska. Streaming on-demand.
Most reviews on this site feature detailed accounts of one or more films, with overall assessments of all their major elements (acting, script, direction, sound design, and so on), together with thoughtful speculation about how a given story or character might fit into the larger cultural moment. Here, I’d like to deviate from this format to focus on a single scene, without a lot of discussion of the rest of the film.
Scene analysis — or even scene appreciation — is an overlooked and unexplored element of film criticism. When reviewers do pay attention to a single scene, it’s most often either to break down the craft of filmmaking (the NYT‘s “Anatomy of a Scene” series, for example), or to shine a light on the standout “Oscar clip” moments in a film (which, unfortunately, are often the worst: rather than blending into the tapestry of character and story, these scenes tend to stand out as different, special, significant — exactly what a great scene shouldn’t do).
Far better are those small moments of real life and true dramatic craft, captured on celluloid, that slip past and only reveal their brilliance when we stop, pause, and meditate on them. A classic example — originally noted by Charles Burnett in his commentary on Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves — is the touching moment when Antonio’s wife Maria, the true backbone of the struggling family, takes her sheets to the pawnshop to trade for their previously hocked bicycle. As she waits nervously for the broker’s assessment, she’s seen through the grate of the shop’s bank cage, looking left and right, then with a downward cast, biting absentmindedly at the corners of her fingernails. It’s a perfect gesture — and of course, as Charles Burnett notes, can hardly be truly absentminded for Lianella Carell, the actress: but she so perfectly inhabits — and channels — the pathos of this character through the smallest of movements and touches.
Of course, Bicycle Thieves is a nearly perfect movie, the definition of a classic, so we are not surprised to see dozens of scenes and moments like this. (Bruno carefully closing the window before heading out, to protect his baby brother lying alone on the bed; Antonio nervously leaving his bike outside the fortune teller’s home, as if he somehow knows he’s in a movie called “Bicycle Thieves”; the father-son pair waiting out the rain as they listen to the silly chatter of passing monks; the list goes on.) But to find a perfect throwaway scene in an otherwise imperfect film is a real treat. Such is the case with this year’s Infinite Storm, directed by Malgorzata Szumowska.
For the most part, this true-life tale of a day-trip to Mount Washington turned rescue/survival epic is unremarkable. The story, based on a Reader’s Digest article “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue,” is a bit plodding and predictable, the overall plot arc is awkward, and even the title is generic and vague. The film does feature some great wordless acting from Billy Howle (“John,” the clueless hiker), and at times the visuals are as good as any IMAX nature documentary. Otherwise the film fits squarely into the “take-it-or-leave-it” category. Until this one scene, that is.
Four-fifths of the way through the film, after a chilling disaster (a snowstorm rolls in on an otherwise clear day), thrilling rescue (our hero, an experienced mountaineer, saves a zonked-out, frost-bitten, and half-dead lost soul), and bewildering twist (spoiler for those who haven’t read the piece — just as they make it back to the parking lot, John bolts for his car and races away, frostbite and all), our heroine Pam Bales (Naomi Watts) stumbles back home, confused and exhausted. She is the very definition of “spent.”
Striping down to her tank top and crawling to the kitchen, she opens the fridge and props herself up against the open door, rummaging around for whatever tidbits of normalcy she can find inside to revive her tired body and broken spirit. Finding nothing but old pizza and cold beer, she sets to work, and the next 60 seconds of hand-held intimate footage rank up there with the highest grade cinematic gold. Acted in two long takes, we taste every stale bite as she wolfs down the leftovers, marveling like a stoner at the stiff slice of food in her stiff sore hand; we hear the luxurious guttural sounds of the beer “glushing” down her gullet, the chewing, burping, panting; we cringe at the slick drool sluicing down her chin. It’s humanity, pure and simple: welcome back to earth, Pam.
There are other diamonds in the rough like this out there, scattered about good and bad films alike: mini-masterpieces and great performances in a single scene, perfectly framed shots, subtle moves or moments that simply “work.” Years from now, I’m sure I will have forgotten nearly everything about Infinite Storm, but this one scene will still stick with me. No wide-angle vista, explosive special effect, or tearful heart-rending speech could more perfectly capture why we continue to go to movies and love live theater.
Ezra Haber Glenn is a Lecturer in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches a special subject on “The City in Film.” His essays, criticism, and reviews have been published in The Arts Fuse, CityLab, the Journal of the American Planning Association, Bright Lights Film Journal, WBUR’s The ARTery, Experience Magazine, the New York Observer, and Next City. He is the regular film reviewer for Planning magazine, and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. Follow him on https://www.urbanfilm.org and https://twitter.com/UrbanFilmOrg.