It’s been a busy week in Movieland. Stephen Colbert, His Royal Truthiness, has just ended his long run on Comedy Central. Sony Pictures’ controversial new comedy, The Interview, is being held hostage by North Korea. But me – I’m thinking about rain.
We had rain last week, and the week before. It’s raining as I write this. For people in most parts of the country, dampness in December wouldn’t be such a big deal. But this is Southern California, where we’ve lived through three years of drought. While people in colder climes are now California-dreamin’ about our mild temperatures and cloudless days, we L.A. folk find wet weather something to cheer about.
All of which has made me ponder the symbolic use of rain in movies. Many a romantic comedy ends with reconciled lovers kissing in the rain, oblivious to the downpour because their passion for one another is keeping them warm and dry. Take Andie MacDowell’s character in Four Weddings and a Funeral. Looking like a drowned rat while listening to Hugh Grant’s sudden declaration of love, she asks, “Is it still raining? I hadn't noticed.” Then of course there’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) at the conclusion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. On a stormy day, jumping out of a taxi in search of her missing cat, she ends up in the arms of Paul (George Peppard), the good man who’s been waiting for her all along. As “Moon River” soars on the soundtrack, we see them locked in an ecstatic though soggy embrace, firmly committed to happily ever after.
And let’s not forget Singin’ in the Rain, perhaps my favorite movie about the making of movies. Many of the scenes of that great film highlight the manipulation of reality on a movie soundstage. Like, for instance, Gene Kelly’s character turning on klieg lights so he can serenade Debbie Reynolds in an artificial moonlight. But the famous moment in which he dances down a sodden city street with umbrella in hand is meant – in the world of the film – to be taken as real, not movie magic. It’s not real, of course, but rather the product of studio sfx artists, adept at producing cloudbursts on cue.
In movies, rain doesn’t always signal happy endings. Its disruption of normal life makes it an effectively visual way to pump up a dramatic situation. In Network, we all remember how Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves,” urges his fans to open their windows and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” What I’d forgotten until recently is that Beale (Peter Finch), whose newscaster job is on the line, wakes up on a stormy night, throws a raincoat over his pajamas, and heads for the studio. By the time he’s on air, he’s soaking wet, and his thundering sturm-und-drang oration matches the portentous weather outside.
Most of The Graduate focuses on Southern California as a land of swimming pools and endless sunshine. But the crucial scene in which Elaine Robinson discovers what’s been going on between Benjamin and her mother is played against a rare SoCal summer rainstorm. So when Elaine stares at Mrs. Robinson and guesses the truth, she’s seeing a woman (normally elegantly dressed and coiffed) who’s now bedraggled and soaked to the skin. Symbolically, at least, lightning strikes.
Which leads me to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It’s hard to summarize all the complex goings-on in this fascinating 1999 film about odd-ball coincidences, set in L.A.’s workaday San Fernando Valley. But its conclusion is apocalyptic. Would you believe it’s raining frogs?