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"I saw a Rohmer film once...": The truth behind the Night Moves meme

Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975) is one of the great movies of the '70s. As a detective picture about a private eye with flawed vision -- in this case, a small-time independent dick and former football player named Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), who'd like to think he's Sam Spade -- it would make a great double bill with "Chinatown," released the previous year. Yesterday, when the news came of French director Eric Rohmer's death, a lot of people who apparently hadn't even seen "Night Moves" (or, perhaps, a Rohmer movie) were freely quoting Moseby's famous wisecrack in pieces about Rohmer without providing any context for it:

"I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."

It wasn't long before it even became a Twitter meme: #nightmoves. (See examples below, after jump.)

What some (not all) of the quoters didn't seem to realize or remember is that Harry's remark, as scripted by Alan Sharp, is a brittle homophobic jab at a gay friend of his wife's. (Watch the clip above.) Ellen (Susan Clark) invites Harry to join her and Charles (Ben Archibek -- that's him at the end of the clip) for a movie: Eric Rohmer's classic "My Night at Maud's" (1970), about an engaged man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends a long, memorable night in conversation with a divorcee (Françoise Fabian). Moseby is asserting his macho credentials, and ends the scene by teasing Charles about going bowling again sometime. "You seem to get some weird kind of satisfaction from this sort of thing, don't you?" Charles replies. Later that night, Harry drives by the theater as the movie is letting out and sees something indicating that his wife may be having an affair.

The edge in this earlier scene suggests that his discovery may not have been entirely inadvertent. He's accused of staking her out, as he would have done for any of his sleazy infidelity cases. ("Night Moves" also stars Jennifer Warren, James Woods, Melanie Griffith, Max Gail, Kenneth Mars and Harris Yulin who, as I have pointed out many times before, should be in every movie ever made.)

It does "Night Moves" and Rohmer a great disservice when that line is quoted as if it's simply a swipe at the French director's movies, which are light on action and heavy on conversation. As Andrew Sarris famously wrote about "My Night at Maud"'s, there's nothing more cinematic than the spectacle of a man and a woman saying up all night talking.

Rohmer was asked about the Moseby line -- and the significance of American cinema -- in this 1977 interview:

(tip: NYT's The Lede)

Below are some of the 01/11/01 wittier Twitter variations on Harry Moseby's line (and some of them are pretty damn clever), submitted with the hash tag #nightmoves:

"I saw a Sirk film once. It was kind of like watching paint cry." #nightmoves

"I saw a Preminger film once. It was kind of like watching a spacious 'Scope frame articulate the divisions between people." #nightmoves

"I saw a Ruiz film once. It was kind of like watching a dry oil painting becoming wet again." #nightmoves

"I saw a Tom Laughlin movie once. It was kind of like punching Jesus in the face." #nightmoves

"I saw a Bruce LaBruce film once. It was kind of like watching dudes fuck." #nightmoves

"I saw a John Carney movie. Once." #nightmoves

"I saw a Bela Tarr film once. It was kinda like following the painter while he goes to get more paint." #nightmoves

"I saw a Penn film once. It was kind of like watching Melanie Griffith dry." #nightmoves

"I saw a Dusan Makavejev film once. It was kind of like watching Grad students make porn." #nightmoves

"I saw a Stan Brakhage movie once; it was kinda like Paint watching me dry." #nightmoves

"I saw a Preston Sturges film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry...with a little sex in it!" #nightmoves

I watched a Gaspar Noe film once. It was like having my nose rubbed in shit and then being called a sissy for wanting a towel. #nightmoves

"I saw a Fritz Lang film once. It was kind of like watching the lines of a deadly trap being drawn from everyday settings." #nightmoves

"I saw an Ingmar Bergman film once. It was kind of like quietly willing oneself to grow a tumor." #nightmoves

I saw a Bay film once. It was kind of like watching CGI dry. #nightmoves

"I saw a David Lynch film once. It was like a midget soaking my eyes in gasoline and setting them on fire." #nightmoves

"I saw a Derek Jarman movie once. It was exactly like watching paint die." #nightmoves

"I saw a Rob Cohen film once. It was AWFUL!" #nightmoves

"I saw an Aki Kaurimäki film once. It was like watching humor dry." #nightmoves

I saw a Penn film once. It was kind of like watching Melanie Griffith dry. #nightmoves (This person HAS seen the movie!)

"I saw a Sokurov film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry...I liked it!" #nightmoves

Side note: The late critic Robin Wood published his monograph on Arthur Penn five years before "Night Moves" -- arguably, with "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967), his greatest film.

UPDATE (01/12/10): Jaime N. Christley (@j_christley) informs me that he was the one who started the #nightmoves meme. (I didn't know how to determine where it began, so I'm glad he told me.) At his blog Out, damned spot! he writes:

While I recognize that the line's context may change its impact, I don't agree that it scales back the stupidity of its message. A writer doesn't just invent a line like that without a wee bit of him genuinely feeling it, and partly because so many people do feel that way. As a line of dialogue, its context transforms it from direct commentary to weighted dialogue because that's something screenwriters do. Godard is one of the only filmmakers who issue raw praise or dismissal to filmmakers in spoken dialogue, and even in Godardworld, nothing is un-complex.

But I wasn't incensed by "Night Moves" so much as annoyed by those who picked up the line and waved it about as their only response to Rohmer's passing.

That's the way I felt, too, JC, and thanks for weighing in. Writers were actually quoting the Harry Moseby line in obituaries without explaining where it came from, who wrote it, and how the character used it. As for the meme itself, as you can see above, it resulted in some pretty funny responses -- that had nothing to do, of course, with Eric Rohmer. (BTW, I came up with my first Twitter meme last week -- less successful, but RT'd and compiled in various circles: #sammendesbondtitles. I guess you can still look it up...)

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