Saturday, February 5, 2011

Snow Stories - I

I haven't stepped out since the day of the blizzard, and that was a couple of days back. I convinced the boyfriend that it was a good idea to rent a car and drive about 30 minutes to get gourmet hot dogs. The snow had just started to come down, and the wind was still just stirring. So with all the arrogance that spending five winters in Chicago had given me, I decided that a snow day just wasn't enough to keep me from gourmet hot dogs. (As to why the boyfriend went along with this foolish enterprise is beyond me.) So out we went, in a rented car, driving an hour an forty minutes to get to the hot dog place, only to find that it was closed. Snow-day holiday, hallelujah. Of course, by this time, it was no longer just "snow-day," and bitterly, grudgingly, I had to admit that in my five midwestern winters, I had never seen anything like this. I do not have a count of the number of cars we saw on the way back, stuck in the snow. Why, there was a bus too, one of the longer ones, with a vestibule in the middle - bent at a right angle at the vestibule, its wheels buried almost completely in the snow. There was an eerie quality to that bus, standing bent at the side of the road, with its lights switched off and no one inside. The suggestion of emptiness - even death - in the deep blackness of its interiors, and the stillness of its submission to the snow that was creeping up its tires and clenching its fingers over its exterior, was cinematic.

"The Shining," I said, as we drove past this bus. I said it without stopping to ponder why the film had come to my mind. But I think it was because the scene made me think of films where the snow is so important to the narrative. Important, not just in generating the right mood, or providing the cue for symbolism, but in a way that goes far beyond that. Citizen Kane (1941, and no, I will not add a link to "Citizen Kane," because if you really need to look it up, why, fie upon you!) uses snow to great dramatic effect. That scene right at the beginning - one that has generated a frenzy of academic research - where Kane's mother signs him off to his future benefactor, is a great example. The little boy Kane's sled, Rosebud (yes, I just gave it away. Like I said, if you don't already know Citizen Kane...) is a theme that follows us right to the end, and the presence of snow globes constantly take us back to the moment in his childhood, the moment when he loses everything. Even so, snow, in Citizen Kane, is merely an element of mise-en-scene that catalyzes narrative events. When I thought of The Shining, I was actually thinking of films where the snow is more than just a catalyst. Some films manage to elevate an element of the mise-en-scene to a point where it is no longer just the background for the story, but a living, growing, evolving part of the narrative. Snow, in these films, is more than just setting: it is a character. An active participant who drives the narrative; a character who, like all the other characters, starts out as flat, but grows into a well-rounded, capricious, malicious, willful and scheming character who can actually cause things to happen. Few films manage to do this, and starting today, I will present a list of some of my favourites among them, in no particular order. Here's the first for this week:

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980, USA)
But obviously. The Shining isn't The Shining without the crazy twin girls, Shelley Duvall's stunning face that suggests helplessness and a mad will to survive - both at the same time - and Danny Torrance's finger-friend, Tony, saying "Red Rum" in a voice that still gives me the chills. But The Shining would also never be The Shining without the cold, white winter tightening its grip on Jack Torrance's being. The winter is a metaphor for Jack - as it silently creeps deeper and deeper into the tiny, invisible cracks in the walls of the Overlook Hotel, the insanity creeps into the recesses of Jack's brain, eventually taking over completely. It is the snow that causes the phone lines to be disconnected, leaving Wendy, Danny and Jack completely isolated in the hotel. And if the winter is a metaphor for Jack, the maze in the final sequence of the film is a veritable metaphor for his brain. As Wendy tries her best to reach the snowcat in time to rescue her son, it is really up to Danny to outsmart his father, who is chasing him through the maze in the snow. No matter how fast or far Danny runs, Jack will catch up with him, because of Danny's telltale footprints in the snow. If Danny is to outsmart Jack, he has to outsmart the snow - for it isn't just Jack, but also the snow, who is out to get Danny. It is as cruel as Jack himself, but more evil, in its lack of madness. In running backwards in the snow, Danny manages not only to outsmart his murderous father, but also the snow itself.
The penultimate scene, where we see Jack Torrance's head above the snow within which his body is buried, is such a testament to the grip the snow has on the narrative. We are soon to find out that Jack Torrance has been at the Overlook Hotel before. Like a season, he returned, and may return again. Just like the snow, which shows up every year, cold, cruel and relentless.

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