Cinema loves rainby Mark Cousins / September 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Name a great painting about rain. Scan the history of classical, renaissance, or modern art and you’ll find very few important examples. Wind, yes. Sunshine, of course. And fog (Oscar Wilde’s quip: London was not foggy until Whistler), but not rain. We get its aftermath, wet streets and biblical floods, but seldom have painters looked at rain in the present tense, as a visual moment. In painting, rain is very hard to do. In cinema, rain is another matter. The title scene of the MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain, where Gene Kelly dances in a downpour shot on a studio set, is one of the most kinetic in movie history. The camera swoops, the dancer runs, jumps and spins, and the image itself flickers with the reflections of the studio lights in the pools of dappled water. It’s absurd in a Hollywood way because getting drenched is seldom much fun, but classical cinema has always structured its feelings in a utopian way, stripping out the unpleasant parts of real life and building in safety and forgetfulness. This applies even more to mainstream Hindi cinema. Seldom in Bollywood is a good soaking anything other than exhilarating or symbolically erotic. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding climaxed with a cathartic cloudburst in New Delhi. Dil, the biggest Hindi film of 1990, a kind of Grease remake, had a splendid one too, as did 1983’s Betaab, where the lovers duet in a glass cabin during a shower. The rain song, as it came to be known in the biggest film industry in the world, has become a narrative structural device, like the action sequence in Hollywood. The optimism and manageability of mainstream movie rain is thanks in part to the cinematographer’s best friend, the rain machine. For years in American musicals, a shower would be turned on like a tap and would soak the stars fetchingly, while the rest of the street stayed dry. The shower that soaks John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) was a rugged spin on this; it made her hair straggly and sexy and showed his physique beneath his shirt. But rain-machine rain started to look very false by the late 1950s, when more films were shot on location. It took the British director Terence Davies to turn things exquisitely full circle in his Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), where, as the doors of a cinema opened and the audience flooded out, an instantaneous downpour started with the perfect timing and effect of the movie those who were entering it had just watched. We were to notice it and regret how realism had swept away the phoney rain. In American film noirs of the late 1940s, night-time city streets were the sleek visual analogue of their detectives and femme fatales. As Brylcreem was to John Garfield’s hair and satin to Gene Tierney’s costumes, so rain was to the studio sets of Chicago and New York. The reflections on the road always glowed as if it had just finished pouring. The Seven Samurai (1954) tells the legend of the end of the samurai era of the sword. Director Akira Kurosawa wanted the climactic scene where the Samurai is shot by a bandit, and the musket triumphs over the sword, to be both pathetic and heroic. He drenched the action in rain. Everything was tonally mid-grey, the opposite to the colour enhancement of rain in Hollywood or Bollywood. The samurai is shot, he curses through sludge, and he falls as the incessant rain turns everything into monotone. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), as Janet Leigh drives, she thinks about the money she has just stolen. As she becomes more worried about the consequences, it gets dark and starts to rain. The camera looks through the wet windscreen at her as her eyes widen with fear. As the wipers swish we see her clearly, then not, clearly, then not. The rain is like a judgement. Famously, the next downpour of water, in the pristine white bathroom, comes after she has decided to return the money. She is happy and begins to cleanse herself- until she is interrupted. The rain and the shower bookend her moral choice. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s Russian films, it sometimes rains inside rooms. In Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), rain clears the air. In Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), rain on a puddle in England is used as texture throughout. In The African Queen (1951), it raises the level of the water so that Humphrey Bogart can get his boat out of the reeds. Rain moves, and cinema is drawn to anything that moves. By rolling over and around things, it describes the shape of objects and people. It renders clothing translucent. It throws melodramatic shadows into an unlit room, heightens colour and reflection. There is something rainy, flickering and silvery in the medium itself. Still, whereas the rain in Indian and British films is understandable because both those countries have so much of it, the preponderance of rain in Hollywood films is more surprising. The very reason for making films there was its lack of rain. The earliest directors used only natural light; the early moguls set up shop where light was everywhere. Nevertheless, rain machines became one of a film-maker’s favourite toys. While rain in India and Britain is just a fact-as this summer has made clear-in California, it is a longing.