Water, water everywhere . . .

A couple of years ago I was speaking at a screening of Christine Jeffs's Sylvia and someone asked me why there was so much water in the movie. At least, that's what I thought she asked. I started to talk about Jeffs's first film, Rain, and the possibility that the setting of both films on islands (New Zealand and England) and blah blah blah. My interlocutor interrupted me and said, "No, why is there so much water in the movies in general?"

Good question.

In fact, it was something I have thought about occasionally and, happily, I had an answer. A surprisingly simple answer, at that.

Filmmakers like water because it looks so good on film. Really. Rain combined with light is visually fascinating and adds texture to any sequence. And bodies of water are a unique visual phenomenon, at once solid and mobile, both deep space and flat. I don't know how you could ever get a chance to see it, since it's not on disk or tape (to the best of my knowledge), but the first few minutes of Manoel da Oliveira's Doomed Love is nothing more than a long take of the surface of the ocean, undulating slowly, an image that is at once both shallow and deep space, and that dichotomy introduces all the dialectical tensions that run through the next four hours of the film, both visually and thematically.

What made me think of this? I don't remember the initial trigger -- Ira Hozinsky and I were talking about this after a screening at the New Directors series (on which more later this week) -- but I just received a press release that brought it back to the forefront of my consciousness. The Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMCinemathek (link on the right) is doing a quick mini-tribute to the late Shelley Winters called "Shelley Winters vs. The Water," April 5-25. Very funny, of course, since the first thing that jumped into many minds when she died last month was The Poseidon Adventure. But ol' Shelley ended up in the drink frequently in her film career, and BAM is also showing A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter and Lolita as well, on consecutive Tuesdays. Anyone who has seen Hunter will carry in the darkest recesses of their subconscious the terrifying/beautiful image of Winters in the car at the bottom of the lake. That image is a perfect example of what water can do for a filmmaker.

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