In the distance of this grand picture, there are two waves which entirely depart from the principle observed by all the rest, and spring high into the air. They have a message for us which it is important that we should understand. Their leap is not a preparation for breaking, neither is it caused by their meeting with a rock. It is caused by their encounter with the recoil of the preceding wave.
-John Ruskin, 'The general character of sea on a rocky coast given by Turner in the Land's End' (1843), in Modern Painters Volume I (of V), New York: Knopf, 1988, p. 107.
When the famous nineteenth-century critic, John Ruskin, attempted to describe the representation of the sea in Turner's paintings, he very rightly reminded his readers that certain waves have a message to tell us. If you ever sit down and watch the sea for a while, you'll notice the same propulsion of movement he describes: the waves that spring in the air move forward by the preceding backward movement of another wave. This contradictory system of movement, which also makes perfect sense, is one of the many examples Ruskin uses to illustrate that it's impossible, but certainly very desirable, to try to depict the sea and water flow.
What I always take away from Ruskin's exploration of the sea and water in paintings is the sense that one of the reasons that compels artists and authors to return to the sea and to images of water is our inability to move beyond their surfaces. We can see tantalising glimpses of depth and movement, yet we cannot entirely reflect them through static representation. We can only outwardly observe the surface of things as they suggest something beyond our reach and our logic. This is the same feeling I got watching Anthony Minghella's film adaptation of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain.
Unlike the novel, which moved me due to its intricate plot structure and careful composition of words, the film impacted my senses through the surface of images that suggest something beyond my grasp. The entire film ebbs and flows in my mind like a series of constantly moving waves. At first, I thought my reaction to the film was entirely superficial - after all, I was moved only by the surface of images, not the depth of the storyline behind them. But the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that something else is at play here. After all, I appreciate many other films for their beautiful imagery, but I don't necessarily feel compelled to examine them.
There is one image in particular that highlights what I mean: Ada, leaning backward toward the bottom of a well, holding a mirror in her hand that faces the water. This is a superstitious game that is supposed to foretell the future through the images the water in the well reflects into her mirror. She glimpses her future in shadowy, watery images, and is startled. The mirror's soaked images not only foreshadow death, but also move with the same instability of water: ebb and flow.
I wonder if I responded to the surface of this film more than its storyline because the film itself is set out like the images in Ada's mirror: it ebbs and flows. It's like a watery lullaby, in a sense, rocking the viewer to an understanding of the cycles of love, death, birth, family and seasons, through the repetitious movement of images. Maybe that's the whole point of the film. I got the feeling, as I was watching it, that it was trying to embrace the idea of life as an unexplainable cycle. After the film was over, I sat on my bed and felt like I had watched a visual depiction of life and death as a kind of rocking boat on water; and the body as encased by movement, at times violent, at times gentle, at times moving forward, at times recoiling backward.
It's bizarre that I responded to this film in such a way because I'm not even sure I actually like it, or whether I thought it was any good. But it did have a distinct impact on me. Has anyone seen Cold Mountain? If you have, please do share your thoughts - I expect they will make much more sense than my own strange thoughts on the film.