Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Clip joint: rain

This week swanstep brings us faces and scenes that launched a thousand drips.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961).

Big rain scenes may have been all right once, so the story goes, but lately they've been overdone and overused, and are now utterly dead to us. Hollywood has drowned, devalued, and Oscar-baited with the climactic deluge for at least the past decade, and the on-going transfiguration of film into post-produced mush spiked with graphic-novel cliché has white rain against a black background (go 2 mins 20 secs in) as its calling card. Recent rom-coms' puddles too overflow: John Cusack has starred in The Rain for the last 20 years, and 'Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed.' (go 1 min in) remains a contender for 'Line most likely to make a date eat his or her own head.'

And yet, and yet, rain scenes aren't going anywhere. Rain is an unrivalled, naturally justified diffuser of light and sound. It shortens visual and aural focus alike, so that rain, like darkness, intensifies and excites by subtraction (only multi-modally). And whereas darkness evokes the vulnerabilities that attach to our sleep cycle, rain speaks romantically to our origins. In the rain we're kids, maybe even momentarily embryonic: slippery, open to pleasure, but also unformed and exposed to danger. Rain even tweaks some people's sense of themselves as creatures whose distant ancestors emerged from the sea (which is how poet Don Patterson explains his weakness for films that start with rain).

Which rain scenes have floated your boat (and might make for a better, wet movie future), and why? Are you a sucker for the first drops, the gentle drizzle, or the hard blast? Streaming down an upturned face or beating against a window-pane? Establisher of metaphysical mood or action element? Kurosawa's ink or Donen & Kelly's milk? H
2O, data, or frog? Just don't tell us you hadn't noticed.

1) Kurosawa's breakthrough film, Rashomon (1950), uses characters sheltering from a storm as a framing device. The inky rain itself establishes metaphysical mood: everything is dark, nothing is settled. The characters tell stories to each other to pass the time, and by the time they finish, the rain will have stopped, and the framing device will be in play.

2) In Gold Diggers of 1933 (go 5 mins in if you must), Busby Berkeley uses pettin' in the park (bad boy!) in the rain, America's girl next door, Ruby Keeler, now dewily gorgeous (bad girl!), and a demented 'baby' to lift spirits at the rock-bottom of the Great Depression.

3) Attn: Richard Curtis. You need to write a musical, not just a rom-com, if you want to get away with weather-contravening hyperbole. A drenched Gene Kelly goo-goos 'From where I stand, the Sun is shining all over the place' then nails one of the greatest, most purely pleasurable sequences in film history in Singin' in the Rain (1952).

4) In Foreign Correspondent (1940) (go 1 min 55 secs in), Hitchcock synthesizes the modern, rain-soaked action sequence out of the materials Eisenstein and Murnau bequeathed to him. Craned, moving cameras wittily cover the unfolding action, and their shots are cut together with closeups of guns, faces, and ultra-violence. Not obviously improved upon until:

5) The chase scene in Se7en (1995). It begins with Somerset and Mills in a hallway, hearing rain fall - as though the city's so dismal, it's pouring inside -, and knocking on what is in fact John Doe's door. We hit the rain proper at 3 mins 40 secs, and achieve maximally gluey torrent-hood at 5 mins 30 secs.


Anonymous said...


This is a inquiry for the webmaster/admin here at plaguehouse.blogspot.com.

Can I use part of the information from your post right above if I provide a link back to your website?


plague said...

@Daniel. Yes it's fine by me if you use some of the post if you link back to me. One thing though: this piece was a draft of a column I wrote for the Guardian, here. The Guardian version was edited down for length (quite brilliantly, but still...) so I thought it worthwhile to keep the longer version available, but the newspaper web-site version is the official one and should be referred back to too (or even principally where there's overlap).