|| Print ||
|Written by Joe Lipsett|
|Wednesday, 11 August 2010 00:00|
One of my favourite responses I get when I tell people I study films or I'm asked to do a reading of a particular work is, "Aren't you reading into it a bit too much?" It's a question that always brings a smile to my face because most often the answer is no.Films are constructed works of art that employ a small army of individuals to create every miniscule detail. The painting on the wall, the way a shadow hits a face, the hairstyles of the protagonist, and the distance and length of a shot are all integral factors to the construction of meaning and mood. I've discussed one element before (white costuming), but I thought for (Cult)ure's Water Issue, I would tackle the role of one of the four elements.
As a plot device, water holds its own set of connotations. The most obvious is cleansing; oftentimes water is involved in shower or bath scenes - a luminal transition between two states that results in a rebirth of sorts. New days begin, old days washed away. This is especially evident in scenes that follow moments of crisis or violence when characters symbolically erase violence by shedding their war torn clothes and wash away blood, dirt, and grime. The Superbowl episodes of Grey's Anatomy, "It's the End of the World /As We Know It" (2.15/2.16), are excellent examples of this phenomenon. The two-part episode opens with a lurid male fantasy of the principle actresses' engaging in faux-lesbian foreplay in the shower. The episode concerns a bomb threat in the Seattle Grace hospital, which culminates with the show's protagonist, Meredith Grey, performing a risky surgery that could result in detonation. Ultimately a red shirt character is blown up in her place, and Meredith is showered with remains. The episode concludes with a recreation of the opening scene - this time in reality -- with the same women washing a shell shocked Meredith in the shower, a startling emotional inversion of the sexual scenario presented earlier.
Water can also, however, suggest a sense of danger because characters are most often naked or vulnerable (or both) in this situations. The most famous example that comes to mind is the shower sequence in Psycho when Janet Leigh's character, Marion Crane, is brutally murdered. One of Hitchcock's most inspired flourishes is the images of blood mixing with water slowly spinning down the drain (a movement which is then echoed by a slow revolving pull back from Marion's lifeless eye where she lays strewn across the tub). The scene is so effective because it is so routine: people take showers every day, and the film exposed the fact that with the water pouring down on your face, you are effectively helpless to attack. A similar pervasive feeling of dread infuses swimming scenes in Jaws, especially those shots below the surface in which disembodied legs kick in open space. The contrast between the mirrored surface of the lake or ocean and the expansive, unseen world below is striking. This summer there will be a new version of this contrast when Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D premieres.
When I think of films that strategically employ water in their narratives, the film that comes to mind is What Lies Beneath, the 2000 psychological horror/thriller starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. In the film, Pfeiffer plays Claire Spencer, who begins to suspect her neighbour of murdering his wife. The film is reminiscent of Hitchcock and eighties De Palma films with its numerous red herrings and insinuation of malice lurking beneath the surface of everyday life. This contrast is no more evident than in the infamous scene in which Claire is injected with a paralyzing drug and placed in a bathtub slowly filling with water. The scene is preceded by earlier scenes connoting water with both truth and danger (ghostly images of a mystery woman are seen in both the bathtub and the lake behind the Spencer's country home). Watching Claire attempt to pull the bathtub plug out with her toe as the water slowly rises above her face is arguably the film's most thrilling setpiece. It also anticipates the stage for the conclusion of the film when Claire and the villain drive into the lake and become trapped in the submerged vehicle. It is only after the villain is consumed (by water and the return of the ghostly woman) that Claire can swim to the surface and begin her life anew without fear of the water.
Of course, these are only a few examples of how water can be used to effectively in a film. What are some of your favourite water scenes in cinema?
Metroland Bath Scene
I love the scene in Metroland where Christian Bale and Emily Watson, playing husband and wife, are having a bath together and talking about infidelity.