Friday, September 1, 2017

Cryin’ in the Rain

Anyone who’s paid any attention to the news knows that Houston and other parts of Texas have been tragically inundated by the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey. Lives have been lost, and property damage is said to be in the billions. Louisiana has not escaped unscathed, and as I write this another tropical storm – Irma – is gathering off the U.S.’s eastern seaboard. Here in California, after five years of drought, we’ve all learned to pray for rain. When it came, this past winter, we rejoiced, though the rain’s impact on dry-as-dust terrain led to rapid new plant growth that has encouraged forest fires. So rain, like most things, can have both positive and negative consequences. Gene Kelly, happily in love, kicked up his heels in the middle of a downpour in the perennially charming Singin’ in the Rain. But most movies I know of use rain to send an ominous message. 

There are an awful lot of movies that have the word “rain” in their titles. One of the most famous of the oldies, called simply Rain, is a 1932 dramatization of a short story by British writer Somerset Maugham. It was a 1922 play and then a silent movie before Joan Crawford took on the role of Sadie Thompson, opposite Walter Huston. He’s a stuffy missionary; she’s a classic bad girl. Stuck in steamy Pago Pago with a boatload of others, he wants to save her soul, but ends up coveting her body. Needless to say, it does not end happily.

I can’t pretend to have seen anywhere near all the rain movies helpfully listed in IMDB. But here are some titles: Hard Rain (1998), Black Rain (1989), Purple Rain (1984), A Hatful of Rain (1967), The Rain People (1969), The Rains Came (1939), After the Rain (1999 and 2016), Raining Hell (2015), Tears in the Rain (2017). Not a lot of laughs in that bunch. 

Filmmakers know that rain can add drama to any scene. It’s been years since I saw the great Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali¸ but I still have mental images of the rain pelting that little Indian village. That was a happy downpour, but such moments are rare.  In Japan, Akira Kurosawa was a poet of rain and mist. What could be wetter and more morose than the opening of Rashomon?

And then of course there’s Jacques Demy’s 1964 Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, an artfully designed all-singing film set in and around a small-town shop where Catherine Deneuve sells umbrellas. The film begins with the pitter-patter of rain on cobblestones, and the opening credits are almost an umbrella ballet. It’s French and very romantic, and you just know that the ending will be triste. 

It’s axiomatic among filmmakers that when you’re on location it rains only when you DON’T need it to. Hollywood is very good indeed at simulating the look of rain with contraptions called Rainbirds.  Director Ron Howard once sat down with a reporter from the New York Times to rewatch The Graduate, which he calls “the movie I went to school on.” Midway through, he spotted how Mike Nichols shot the scene in which Mrs. Robinson threatens Benjamin, who has arrived in his Alfa Romeo to take Elaine for a drive. The scene is played out entirely inside the car, with rain pelting the windshield. Howard praised the smartness of Nichols’ staging: “First, it’s a very effective way to make it more claustrophobic, which is the way Benjamin feels. . . . But it’s also by far the cheapest way to shoot this. All you need is one Rainbird.”  

Heartbelt good wishes to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey. 

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