“A thing that has unquestionably influenced my development as a creator of films is water. I cannot conceive of cinema without water. There is an inescapable quality in the movement of a film which relates it to the ripple of streams and the flow of rivers. That is a clumsy way of describing a feeling. The truth is that the affinity between film and the river is the more strong and subtle because it cannot be explained.”
Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films (1974)
1869 saw the premier of Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold, the first piece of the nearly three decades of writing which would eventually constitute the composer’s 16-hour epic Ring Cycle. The opera begins with a four minute prelude – a lumbering, then glistening orchestral crescendo which conjures its magic within the musical confines of a single chord. Before theatre darkness can give way to stage spectacle, the audience is enveloped in the churning currents of a mythical river Rhine, the vein of water which originates in the Swiss Alps, winds through European borders, and finds its end at the North Sea. The river, in life as in Wagner’s magnum opus, becomes the staging ground for the adventures of gods and goddesses, and of slaves and their masters. It is the backdrop of countless loves and destructions – as much a symbol of beauty as it is of uncontrollable forces.
Years after the prelude to Das Rheingold was first heard by a theatre audiences, the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir met Richard Wagner on a trip to Italy, where he captured the ailing composer in oil. Wagner would die in Italy in 1883, only one year after their meeting. His remains were traversed across the Venetian canals, eventually to be repatriated in his ancestral homeland of Germany.
By the time he had painted Wagner’s portrait, Pierre-Auguste Renoir had begun to abandon the impressionistic techniques which had made him and his contemporary Monet both famous and, for a time, reviled. The impressionists had, over a twenty year period, pushed outside the boundaries laid out by the Académie, rebelliously brushing their paint outside the clean lines of their predecessors. With Renoir’s stylistic evolution, a generation of painters had begun to take their oils and easels outside, into nature. The fingerprint of the brush no longer had to be hidden and, instead, could be a valuable tool in the creation of a cohesive, expressive image. The discovery that colours closely juxtaposed could look, at a distance, richer and true-to-life allowed for the rendering of unmistakable shadows and flowing water in art. Water had come to life.
Renoir would often paint his scenes from the banks of the Seine; his catalogue of landscape painting is filled with dozens of river scenes, each rippling with movement and colour. It is near this river, in Montmartre, that Pierre-Auguste’s son Jean would be born in 1894. At the time of Jean’s birth, his father was already suffering the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis which would slow his hands until his death in 1919. Jean would be there to fill the artistic void left in Pierre-Auguste’s absence and, over a lifetime of creativity, would become one of cinema’s most intelligent and enduring directors.
Studio executives were reluctant to finance Jean Renoir’s excursion to India to film his adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel “The River.” As he mentions in an introduction featured on the Criterion release of the film, his source material was presumed to be unsuitable for the big screen as it contained “…no elephants, no Bengal lancers, or tigers.” Financial redemption for the hindered project came in the form of Kenneth McEldowney, a Hollywood florist making his first foray into the world of producing. Renoir made the film on the condition that it could indeed be shot on location in India (without the aforementioned Bengal lancers), and, one imagines, under the hopes that McEldowney would remain out of the way.
Shot in picturesque Technicolor by Jean’s nephew Claude, The River (1951) achieves a vibrant, impressionistic vision of India as seen through the eyes of Harriet (Patricia Walters), the daughter of the English overseer of a local jute press. Her family and their other colonial neighbours are beholden to the lucrative resources of the Ganges River, just as the locals are bound to the river for their livelihood, their cleanliness, and their spirituality. The film introduces us to the Ganges with the soundtrack of a chant – the humming thrum of human voices, accompanied by the synchronicity of the paddle-splashes of fishing boats. The narrator (a grown-up Harriet) assures us that while the details of her story may be unique, this river could be a river anywhere else in the world. Its metaphor is universal.
Harriet is the kind of young girl that most girls can relate to. Her youthful dreams are ensconced in the secret cupboard under the stairs which she uses to collect her most prized items – poetry she has written, and a drawing of Cleopatra, whom she hopes to emulate someday. It is a quiet hiding place, away from the prying eyes of her parents and younger siblings. Her life is full of childlike curiosity and play until, one day, a river steamer brings the war-wounded Captain John to town. It is for his attentions that Harriet must vie, and a competitive teenaged bid for love begins between Harriet, her impulsive and beautiful friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and Melanie (Radha Burnier), the half-Indian neighbour who feel she belongs nowhere in this colonial world.
The girls’ desperate and fruitless bid for affection is an affirmation of life, with all its entanglements, pains and joy. Harriet and Valerie are too young to know hesitation in their pursuits, while Melanie, the child of a society which cannot fully embrace her, knows better the pains of longing for acceptance. While Valerie and Harriet spin tales of heroics for the leg which Captain John lost in the war, Melanie knows better the fine line which is drawn between what is heroic and what is tragic. “When war is ended,” the narrator reminds us, “yesterday’s hero is only a man with one leg.”
In one scene we see Captain John take a walk by the Ganges. He observes, unable and unwilling to participate in the centuries-old rituals of bathing and meditating on its shores. The cyclical renewal of life – of eternal destruction and creation as embodied by the Hindu god Kali – is of no interest to him. He is determined to exclude himself from this unavoidable fact of living, resisting the currents of the river and struggling to stay in one place.
Harriet, wise for her young years, wishes to tell Captain John of the beauty and the renewal she sees in her river. One afternoon, she tells Captain John and Valerie a story about the lord Krishna. Valerie is perturbed to find the story has no satisfactory ending. “It isn’t the end! It’s endless. It begins all over again with a new baby!” she cries. The story is an invalidation of Valerie’s own specialness. Without a finite conclusion, Valerie cannot feel that she has a place in this world of endless beginnings.
“The river runs, the round world spins,” declares Harriet in one of her poems. The river carries on in the background of most of Renoir’s film – through parties, through work, through childbirth. It flows through love and through death. A funeral procession is seen carrying a coffin in one direction while, behind it, ships travel down the Ganges in another direction. Life carries on. Melanie and Captain John learn that they cannot be strangers to this life if they are ever going to move forward:
Captain John: Melanie, what do we do?
Captain John: To what?
Melanie: To everything.
The film ends as it began – with the humming chant of the Ganges and the promise of renewal. It is a promise that this story will be told again and again. The brushstrokes may be different, but the impression will remain the same.
For Jean Renoir, the river is no mere obstacle to cross. It is life itself. To consent to life requires total immersion in its currents, and a recognition that what the river takes from us, it may give back in due course. The river is not a threat, but neither is it a guarantor of happiness. Life flows on, indifferently and swiftly, unconcerned about what we might think of it or how we might wish to control it. “It gave me a certain understanding of life,” says Renoir in his introduction to the film, “…perhaps India taught me to be a little more patient in life.”
Jean Renoir is not the only director whose films are fascinated with rivers. John Huston’s The African Queen (1951) and Howard Hawks Red River (1948) both feature rivers as magnificent set-pieces – an element of nature which man must overcome and survive. German director Werner Herzog incorporates the adventurous scope of Huston’s film with the allegory of Renoir in 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Herzog’s river, like Renoir’s, is inescapable and connected irrevocably to the human psyche. Resisted and controlled, the river will drive us to madness.
For the latter half of Aguirre, we follow a group of Spanish conquistadors as they venture further and further into the jungles surrounding the Amazon River, led by their unhinged leader Aguirre (Klaus Kinski). A raft, their only insulation against the unforgiving river, becomes the fetid breeding ground for senseless insanity. The effort to conquer and survive in a land that is not theirs, and to fight the forces of the river which pulls them deeper into the rainforest, is futile. Even Aguirre, exhibiting the unrestricted and forceful desires of a man who wishes to plant his flag on another man’s land, cannot control what nature has pre-ordained.
To the bitter and deranged end for Aguirre, there is no consenting to nature. Each passing shoreline strengthens his resolve to herald his domination over the land, even as nature becomes the only remaining dispassionate witness to his decaying mind. Herzog also explores this mental decay in Nosfertu the Vampyre (1979), his rendering of the Dracula story as seen through the lens of F.W. Murnau’s iconic 1922 horror silent Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens.
Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) journeys into the heart of Transylvania, seeking out Count Dracula with whom he hopes to finalize some real estate dealings. Harker’s journey is an isolated one, and Herzog is in no rush to bring us to the doors of the infamous Count. The lonely traveler follows the mountain paths and rivers, while Wagner’s prelude to Das Rheingold overlays his journey away from his normal life and into a world where superstitions and monsters are real. Water connects these two worlds, creating a horrifying canal in which a nightmarish life can intermingle with a conventional one.
Herzog’s rivers are passageways to madness and alienation. Reliance on rivers as routes to glory or proof of mastery over nature will always be proven foolish. Control – over one’s environment or one’s mind – is an illusion best left untouched, lest we open some portal to evil for which we have no method of control. Francis Ford Coppola’s river journey film, Apocalypse Now (1979), also explores this artery into our capacity for insanity. So too does Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), where the shores of stunning South Pacific islands are the site of first, overwhelming peace and then, overwhelming violence in the bloodbath of Guadalcanal.
Malick’s films are deeply embedded in nature. Scenes of beauty and scenes of violence are each surrounded by the same lush, living environment which exists outside of our triumphs and our wars. As in the paintings of the impressionists, Malick’s characters are fully integrated into their scenery, with neither human figures nor their surroundings taking precedence. His images are deeply concerned with connections – connections between humans and nature, between our thoughts and the universe, between music and image, and between what we whisper to ourselves and what we then portray to the world.
Like the impressionists, Malick works with natural light. In The Thin Red Line, he doesn’t use the common cinematic visual shorthand which shows the horror of war in muted browns and greys. Instead he shows us how green the grass was at Guadalcanal. How clear the water of the South Pacific was, even as horror raged within it. In Claude Lanzmann’s Holocaust documentary Shoah (1985), Lanzmann stands at the former site of the Sobibor extermination camp with Jan Piwonski, a traffic controller at the camp train station which marked the final destination in the lives of hundreds of thousands. “I suppose there were fine days like today,” muses Lanzmann, situated between the waving green grass and a perfectly blue sky. “Unfortunately, some were even finer,” replies Piwonski.
Terrence Malick’s cinematic impressionism is utilized fully in The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), where again he explores no less than what it is to be a human in communication with nature. In the case of The Tree of Life, this communication is not limited to what we can directly interact with on earth; his cinematic vision expands outward and into the universe. Malick’s legendary detachment from the commercial and conversational obligations of a typical Hollywood life means that we can view his work as it stands, without being bogged down by any stated intentions. His films don’t tell us what to think as much as they provide us with an impression, perhaps, of how he sees the world. Juxtaposing ideas are laid against each other, as with the contrasting colours of impressionist painting, in a way that deepens our thoughts and feelings. We are taken to a place that does not exist in reality – the imprint of a memory.
The Tree of Life, like Renoir’s The River, beckons us to make a choice about which path to follow in life. For Malick, this choice is between the altruistic way of grace, as embodied by the Mother (Jessica Chastain), or the self-serving way of nature, as embodied by the Father (Brad Pitt). In hushed voice-over, Malick’s characters query the universe, God, and themselves as to why they have been chosen to suffer, and how they can escape this cycle. The death of a child elicits the painful and unanswerable question: why? Malick’s reflection on this question is first to acknowledge our tiny place in the universe by showing us the massive, violent void from which we arrived. And yet, he seems to believe there is meaning in all of this chaos. Whether that meaning is external to us in the form of a god, or created by our consciousness and our choice between “the way of nature and the way of grace,” is for us to decide.
It is hard to say whether Malick believes the world is finely tuned or if he instead, like Herzog, believes that the universe is an uncaring and sometimes malevolent force. All humans must face the river of life and, in times of sorrow, our losses feel so important that they encompass the expanse of all that we know. Our experiences are brain-wide and we feel at the centre of it all. Our wrestling with the pains of our childhood and the memories that haunt us is a largely internal process, which only expresses itself externally in the form of counterproductive behaviour. What we see happening is only a small portion of what is happening underneath the surface.
Malick expresses this internal stream of thought with the careful editing together of images, dialogue, monologues and music. My child, whispers the mourning mother over Malick’s image of an expansive and distant Jupiter. Early in the film, Bedrich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” the Czech composer’s musical rendering of the Vlatava river, begins to play. We see grasshoppers, Halloween costumes, storybooks, bunnies, gardens, children paying under the water hose, the holding of a brother’s hand, sparklers, jumping on the bed, being tickled, and children napping. This is the river of growing up.
At the end of the The Tree of Life, we see the image of a candle, which ends Jack’s (Sean Penn) meditation on his childhood. We follow Jack back to the elevator inside the angular and modern buildings of commerce where he works. We then see a river-worn canyon where millions of years of erosion have created a snaking chasm. A whisper – the word brother. A wooden door-frame in the desert, which Jack hesitates to walk through. We see the roiling fires of creation. A whisper again: keep us, guide us, to the end of time. A galaxy. Sunset over a planet. The sharing of candlelight in the dark. Berlioz’s “Agnus Dei” plays – grant the dead eternal rest. Jack and his family meet on a figmental shore – it is a meeting of the past and the present that can only happen in our minds.
The Tree of Life is not interested in offering a documentarian’s rendering of life as it appears to a camera. It avoids Jean Renoir’s fears of an “artless cinema” as he outlines in an interview with Jacques Rivette. Renoir says:
Technical perfection can only create boredom, because it only reproduces nature. Imagine we are able to perfectly recreate a forest with cinema. We can see the thickness of the bark on the trees. The screen is even larger. It surrounds the audience. We’re really in the middle of the forest. We can touch the trees and smell the scent of the forest. There will be machines to emit the subtle odor of moss. What will happen? People will ride a scooter to a real forest and not to the movies. Why the hell would anyone go to a movie when they could have the real thing? So imitating nature can only lead to the death of an art form.
In the age of high definition cameras, Malick avoids this artlessness by creating an impression of nature, rather than a documentation of it. His films are known for their lingering images of trees, flowing water, and birds, but it is how he incorporates these images – repeatedly, sometimes in the middle of a scene which takes place in the heart of a city – which creates art. Malick’s camera moves constantly. It is alive and will follow where the scene takes it. It will follow if a bird flies by. It will follow the fingers of a young boy scratching his leg. Characters have an effect on their environment in Malick’s films, rather than the environment existing as a backdrop for human action. Hands run through the grass. His images have been painstakingly arranged and rearranged so that the most potent version of his rumination is on the screen. With a topic as broad, and yet personal, as the battle between the way of grace and the way of nature, Malick approaches his subjects indirectly, sacrificing complicated plot for moods and abstracted ideas.
Malick’s interest in opposing forces is evident in The New World (2005), his reflection on the heavily mythologized Pocahontas story and the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia. Just as Herzog begins Harker’s journey in Nosferatu the Vampyre, Malick has his English colonialists arriving on the shores of the new world to the ascending strains of Richard Wagner’s prelude from Das Rheingold. Malick uses the historically apocryphal version of the story, in which Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) saves the explorer John Smith (Colin Farrell) from death, and also falls in love with him. The Powhatan, deeply enmeshed in the resources and spiritual significance of their land, live a life quite different from that of their English colonizers, who finding they cannot tame their surroundings, begin to starve. Smith is for a time hypnotized by the connected life the Powhatan can offer, until eventually he is tempted by an offer of further adventure and rejects the lifestyle of “the naturals” in favour of potential glory as an explorer.
What follows is the painful reconciliation between a life chosen and a life rejected – the foundations of early America. Pocahontas, like The River‘s Melanie, is a woman at the forefront of a new reality. As is the burden of the colonized, she must decide for herself where she belongs and reconcile the longing for her past life with the new world of her marriage to John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Her fractured disconnect from the nurturing surroundings of her youth is made more obvious by her journey to England, a country of carefully styled gardens and echoing cathedrals.
But in Malick’s vision, new worlds can be made new again and again. For Pocahontas, this eventual renewal marks both a new beginning, and the end, of her life. Even in an unfamiliar land, she appears to realize that the water of a country garden is the same as the water of the Virginia shoreline. Malick seems to be saying to us that the deep connections we feel to our homelands and to nature are internal and that they can be carried through the generations. This pattern of regeneration will transcend the specific details of an individual life, and will carry on without us, just as the rivers carved their way to seas for millions of years before we arrived.
For Malick, I think, this is a comforting and profound thought for all of humanity. It gives us redemption from our circumstances and asserts that the connections we wish to feel can be built in almost any environment. In The New World, this final revelation for Pocahontas is accompanied by the same Wagner prelude which at the beginning had heralded the arrival of English settlers to a foreign land. “The day ends. The end begins,” says Harriet in The River. And so it will continue.