That obscure object of desire

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The Independent Online

Watching Takeshi Kitano's new film Zatoichi the other day I encountered one of those moments that remind you how arbitrary and hairsbreadth taste can be. The film itself is fine if you like that kind of thing - quite a bit of solemn martial arts, complete with lovingly digitised blood-sprays and odd moments of rather broad comedy (the Japanese, sadly, haven't escaped the curse of commedia dell'arte, even if it goes by a different name there). And since I don't really like that kind of thing the final verdict - at very best - looked likely to be "not proven".

But then - for no particular reason that I could see - Kitano includes a 15-second sequence filmed from directly overhead. It shows the edge of a thatched roof and a vertical line of rain-splashed gutter and, after a few seconds, a tattered red paper umbrella emerging sideways from beneath the eaves like a horizontal sunrise. It is so gratuitously, pointlessly beautiful that it takes your breath away and, in my case at least, it made me revise my feelings about the whole enterprise.

What immediately followed - a kind of Oriental version of Gene Kelly's puddle tap-dance from Singing in the Rain - no longer looked inscrutable but eminently scrutinisable. In blunter terms, you could say I'd fallen in love with the film and though it had taken some time (the umbrella shot occurs about an hour in), everything that had gone before was retrospectively upgraded by infatuation.

It reminded me, too, how often a small detail can change our feelings about an art work, even if it seems perverse for our passion to focus on something apparently so tangential to its main purpose. Mention Howard Hawks's Red River to me, for example, and I automatically think of a scene in which the cowboys are burying one of their colleagues at the foot of some bluffs. As they mutter a few terse words over the interment, a passing cloud shadows the hills behind them and it's as if the landscape itself has felt the need to adopt a sombre mood. I assume that this was a happy accident - unless Hawks spotted the cloud on its way and lined up the shot accordingly - but it still serves as an emblem of that film's taciturn emotions.

Similarly, one of my favourite Hitchcock films, Notorious, has that status not because of its silly spies-and-uranium plot, but because of a five-second shot when Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant are flying in to Rio to pursue the bad guys. Both of them lean simultaneously to look out of the window at the statue of Christ the Redeemer and other landmarks (clumsily back-projected with Hitchcock's usual indifference to spectacular realism), but Grant breaks away from the view first, with the result that he suddenly finds himself intimately close to Bergman's face.

Again it's hard to know how artful this moment is. It could just be an example of the opportunism of talent - it happened by accident but Hitchcock immediately saw how well it served a story that depends on unacknowledged sexual attraction. Whatever the case, there's something about the collision between panoramic artifice and close-up truth that gives the moment an unusual force.

It is, for me at least, a kind of movie equivalent to the "little patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's View of Delft, which a critic rhapsodises over in Proust's A La Recherche as an example of a work of art within a work of art - "of a beauty that was sufficient in itself". In fact, I actually have watched Notorious just for the sake of that one scene (though it's true that it's no real hardship to watch everything on either side of it). And if that sounds absurdly precious, I can only hold my hands up to the crime and make a plea in mitigation, since it is a feature of these aesthetic fetishes that you can't help sounding as if you've got completely carried away when you make a case for them.

It doesn't help really, either, that it's often difficult to separate cause and effect when you try and work out exactly what is going on. Is Notorious a great movie because it contains that scene, or do I react to that scene the way I do because Notorious is a great movie? I'm not sure I can tell in that case.

As for Zatoichi, I'm pretty sure that it isn't a great movie, even if it is a lovable one - and can lay claim to the best tap-dancing spectacular finale of any martial arts movie. But it does contain a great cinema moment, an image that casts a glow all around it and that will not quickly fade. There are a lot of better films that can't claim as much. Which just goes to show that sometimes the part can be greater than the whole.