Cold Mountain

Monday, 27 June 2011

cold mountain

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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.


c said...

beautiful, reminds me of the song by crooked still 'cold mountain'... just beautiful

toks visoks said...

I saw Cold Mountain way back when it came out. I loved it. After reading your reaction, i have to say i loved it exactly for the surface of it. Did not get into more analysis back then, but your thoughts give me more perspective now. Music was an important reason this movie stuck with me. The relationship between music and the picture, i think, adds great emotional value. And it was a set of just beautiful music!

etre-soi said...

Yes, I've watched it several times because I think at least once a year they pass it on tv, and I always like to watch it just to chill down.
Until this wonderful thought-provoking post about the movie I have to say that I hadn't thought about it this way. For me it was just a cute movie with a very, Very romantic story in it played by 3 very bankable actors (that are really not my favorite at all), I mean I always thought of it like a very commercial movie but not at least cute or may I say good.
But now that you wrote about the cycles I kind of can relate to that too.
I think I always watched it superficially, but thanks for giving me this other point of view.

Next year I'll watch it differentely :)

Janae said...

I saw the movie a very long time ago, long enough that I don't remember many of the details, but I remember that I really enjoyed it. I currently have the book on my nightstand, waiting for me to finish what I'm reading now before I begin, and I plan to re-watch the movie after I read - I can't wait. This post got me even more excited. I am anxious to watch it with what you wrote in mind, and see what I take away from it, too.

kitty said...

wonderful stills, i'll have to put this on my watch list!

andrea despot said...

i'm not going to read this but i'm going to bookmark it, just like i did with the post you wrote about the book, until i read and see them.

this is probably an obvious question, but would you recommend reading the book before watching the movie?

Luigi said...

Hello…your blog is really nice!

Molly said...

I look at your film stills featuring hands with a new perspective now : )

Beautiful images, and my goodness… I felt that even your description of the film had a steady rocking rhythm to it. It's enthralling to see your written word have such movement! I need to re-watch Cold Mountain as well, it has been way too long. I'll be keeping this post in mind as I do!

Olga said...

I really get your thought that you can dislike a book or a movie, but still be captivated by it. I have come to the conclusion that it's often useful to return to it at some point. I have really enjoyed this post, because, for me, it wasn't the easiest movie to watch. I can even say I didn't understand it.

Rambling Tart said...

I understand your reaction, for I had a similar one. I wanted to keep watching, not to listen or even find out what happened, but simply to look and feel what the looking brought about. This movie has haunted me for a long time, not in a horrid way though. It simply lingers. The feel of it. And seeing these pictures today brought it all back.

naomemandeflores said...

I remember watching Cold Mountain when it came out in 2003, but I wasn't very impressed. I thought it was a bit too comercial (plus the two leading ladies were not my ideal of great acting). But after this post I gain a new perspective and I'm looking forward to watching it again.

Camila Faria

tywo said...

I have never heard of it.
You speak of it in such a beautiful, yet haunting way. I want to see it. Thanks for sharing.


Tana said...

Ruskin`s descriptions are always so interesting to discover and rethink, i enjoyed the way you connected his exploration of the sea and your response to the film.

thea said...

hmmmm, i must confess that i did see cold mountain and it slipped through and out of my consciousness almost immediately so i wasn't receptive in the way you were to it clearly :) BUT, when you mentioned writing about water and the sea, I was reminded of an AMAZING scrp of writing i found printed in a cafe in jerusalem...i will go and find it and email it to you.



CloudyKim said...

I've never seen "Cold Mountain," but looking at these pictures and hearing your thoughts about it makes me want to check it out :D

Sasha said...

Cold Mountain has been one of those movies that I've been wanting to watch ever since it came out but have never quite gotten around to. These screen-caps make the desire a bit stronger. Might watch it very soon.

SJ said...

i remember this movie getting terrible reviews despite the 'star power' and perhaps for that reason, it's why I haven't seen it.

I do love Rushkin's thoughts on Turners paintings. Even as a kid, I remember standing transfixed at a Turner exhibition, amazed by the scale and complexity of his works. there's someting so raw and emotional about them that you can't help but notice straight away.
I love your line 'This contradictory system of movement, which also makes perfect sense' sums up his work really well i think.

I always love your perspectives on these things!

See Hear Say said...

i watched this back then when the movie first came out and i have to say i liked it then! having said that, i might change my mind when i see it again now because the way i think now aesthetically have changed a lot compared to 8 years ago.

i haven't read the book either, i found a lot of times i have been put off by watching movies that are based on a book if i have read the book before i watch the movie.

Tracey said...

I'm yet to either read or watch Cold Mountain ... but your words (and the still images you select) always intrigue me, and have me wanting to explore them myself.

Though perhaps I will start with the book first ...

hila said...

c: I've never heard of this song, it sounds interesting, thanks.

toks visoks: I have to agree, the music was probably the strongest aspect of the film.

sofia/etre soi: yeah, that's what I think too - a nice commercial movie. Which is why I'm baffled by my reaction, but hey, there's nothing wrong with it :)

janae: oh thanks, I hope you enjoy re-watching it :)

kitty and luigi: thanks!

andrea: yeah, I would read the book before watching the film, I always like to start with a reference point.

molly: thanks, you're a sweetie. And I've been paying extra attention to my hand-images as well :)

olga: yes, that's just it, I'm not sure I liked it, some aspects I didn't like at all, but something connected with me, hmm.

rambling tart/krista: yes, it does linger, I glad I'm not the only one who felt this way :)

camila: it was incredibly commercial, no doubt about that. I'm not really sure why I had the reaction I did.

tywo: my pleasure.

tana: thank you :) and yes, poor Ruskin, I think of him as a terribly confused, but incredibly expressive, man.

thea: oh you are so lovely, thank you yet again for that wonderful email :) xx

sasha and cloudykim: hope you guys get to see it, and let me know what you think.

sj: thank you! I think my perspective may be off-base sometimes, not really sure if I even made sense here.

laura/see hear say: yeah, I saw it in the cinemas when it was released and had a totally different response. I sometimes confuse myself!

tracey: yes, try the book first, and see what you think ... :)