More on Themes and Memes: “Ice and Isolation” by David Gilmour

Fascinating sub textual connections emerge in the June 2007 Tacoma Film Club choices of films for discussion: Away from Her (Sarah Polley, 2007), Dersu Uzula (Akira Kurosawa, 1975), and Cold Fever (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, 1997). The Tacoma Film Club Producers made sophisticated choices that sharpened my awareness of metaphorical distances in these filmic travelogues. Once before I wrote about the emergence of thematic similarities that seemed to arise from a memetic infection, so again I see remarkable currents of discourse in three stories, quite unrelated in setting, narrative, and directorial source.

Though I could not join the discussion that month at King’s Books, I heard the evening was enjoyable, full of laughter, and easy going. One participant related to me over coffee that surprisingly the group did not have to dig deep for topics of discussion. Perhaps the memes and themes naturally percolated to the surface. From my perspective, these films sank deeper into my psyche than most of our combined selections. On one level, they are all about departures; the element of loss or separation. On another they are travelogues, comings and goings: Away from Her is odd in that it is about psychic travel or wandering; whereas the other two are more logically geographical journeys, with psychological dimensions, both spiritual and cultural.

For June’s offerings, no one of the Producers, as I understand it, had any idea of the frost, snow and ice that would chill us in the brand new film, Away from Her. Sarah Polley, protégé actress under Atom Egoyen’s wing a decade ago, has chosen a very similar Ontario setting, both in season and landscape, to that in the Egoyan film of Russell Banks’ story, This Sweet Hereafter (1994). Likewise, her debut into directing and screenwriting, recreates a similar austere, moribund, yet essentially humane moodiness that typifies the stories of family problems and dilemmas of Egoyen’s works (Egoyen being co-producer of Polley’s film). Fellow Canadian Alice Munro’s story, entitled “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” has proved itself full of meaningful content in both character and plot to allow adaptation to a full length film, depicting the waning of Fiona’s mind (Julie Christie) and the way an aging husband Grant (Gordon Pinsent) copes with his wife’s psychic distancing and departure. The bleak, wintry setting worked perfectly to suggest the dying of a couple’s emotional connectedness. Marital love’s intimacy and vivacity fade with loss of memory, though it seems the errors of love remain alive somewhere in the sinuses of heart or mind.

In Away from Her, faraway Iceland symbolically emerges in the form of a book. Fiona and Grant once vacationed there together; she had loved the island and was delighted by the book her husband gave her as a gift. As her memory fades, Grant hopes she’ll at least think back fondly of their vacation. Sadly, though, the snowy landscapes and frozen lake his wife once loved to ski have become unrecognizable, just as she had forgotten the way home after she absent-mindedly undertook a walkabout for no ritual purpose other than going forth into a deeper fog. The theme may have been the ways human beings journey apart side by side without knowing it. In the actual psychic fading away, there dawns an unwanted isolation, resulting in the pathetic effects on him who had once been the close partner. How does one suffer and recover from the psychic loss of a spouse who’s physically alive, yet mentally gone? Sarah Polly details the sad attempts of two abandoned spouses, Fiona’s Grant and Aubrey’s Marian (Michael Murphy, Olympia Dukakis), to find quasi-marital connections and sensual vitality after their own loved ones’ personalities have disappeared into the no-man’s-land of Alzheimer’s disease. Away from Her presents a study of human loneliness in characters with active consciousness and memory, who are losing their life companions. Ironically the vaguer, less-conscious souls’ find one another as they lose mind’s grasp of their former selves, their partners, their daily life and life’s meaning. What a difficult feat for a young director! Atom Egoyen must have been very happy with Polley’s effort. For modern society everywhere I think she has presented a learning experience. Much can be learned from her film. Dersu Uzula, an amazing, unusual non-Japanese Kurosawa film of anthropological significance, also treats us to characters lost in wildernesses, more geographical and yet strong in psychological metaphor. Like the characters in Away from Her, the Russian surveyor Arsiniev (Yuri Solomin) and the nomadic trapper Dersu (Maksim Munzuk) must deal with one another as strangers, in a world symbolically isolated and chill. Dersu lives in a world where trees, winds, and animals are “people.” The animistic tribesman living by his intuitive wit meets and befriends the urban rationalist cartographer in the spaces where heart and mind intersect. The landscape in the reaches of south-eastern Siberia is dystopian and apocalyptic, too barren one would imagine for human habitation. Gnome-like Dersu is at home here; the Russians are at their wits’ end. The bewildered Russian survey team wanders into a haunted woods, makes a campfire and prepares for an uneasy stay; then Dersu Uzula ambles into their camp, intruding like a fairy-tale dwarf, a Rumpelstiltskin. The amiable stranger sits at ease, smokes a pipe, making the foreigners feel alive, needed and wanted. Critical of the Russians mindless wasting of fuel, the irascible little hermit expresses wisdom of nature’s ways. For him nothing in nature is really strange or foreign. Later, on an expedition together into treacherous frozen wastes, far away from earshot of the team, Dersu and Arsiniev lose their way at dusk on a vast, open marsh of melting ice. As fierce winds threaten their night’s survival, Derzu acts quickly just in advance of dire emergency, pulling the two together to make a survival stack of brush and grass in which they imbed themselves. Later, Dersu is saved by Arsiniev and the soldiers from a raging river into which he fell. As lost from one another’s real understanding as the characters in Away from Her, Arsiniev and Dersu, through joint life-saving feats, have an inextricable bond, a sense of one another’s importance and connectedness, an intimate humanity. Eternal friendship is struck between the city dweller and the man of the woods. Nevertheless, insurmountable differences exist between them: Dersu is a nomad, a
hunter/gatherer from an extinct tribe; Arsiniev lives as a wage-earning citizen, a cartologist engineer of an imperialistic government. After Dersu accepts Arsiniev’s invitation to stay with him in Vladivastok (or some such city), the distance between the tribesman and the citizen, the cultured man and the natural man, shows up. Even though Dersu must go forth into the dangerous, icy wilds to forage for his survival, he still prefers that to the stiflingly hot, boxed-in housing and overprotected artificiality that city life provides his urbane friend. Sadly, Dersu must go away from him. To me, the lonely life of the hunter is vibrant and admirable and the closeted civility of the Russian seems narrow and pathetic when looked at in Kurosawa’s study of nature and culture. Years later in life, after hearing of Dersu’s death, Arsiniev wanders far and wide in search of Dersu’s grave, to pay homage to the dear man who saved his life.

Just so, in Away from Her, it is the husband who seems the more pathetic character, left out in the cold of cultural normalcy. Grant, never a capable house-husband, a selfish man, a philanderer, who had suffered a scandal in his university position because of adultery with a student, is forlorn without his wife. Having thought himself a lady’s man, Grant was an over-bearing in his marriage, never playful and hardly trustworthy. He was quite reluctant to have Fiona leave, to be away from her. In the rest-home, Fiona’s active companionship with impassive, stroke-paralyzed Aubrey helps her cope because there are no conditions she must fulfill to receive the man’s attention. Her care for Aubrey is on a less conditional level of existence; the relationship is simple, playful and comforting to her. She tells Grant in a lucid moment that life is better for her, less complicated. Calling him “insistent,” she actually wishes Grant to go sooner than he wants. On a visit in her room, Grant sees where he stands. Regarding his gift book of their once most- favorite vacation spot, Fiona tells her husband: “Someone left me a book about Iceland –of all places. Really, who needs it?” With this forgetfulness, at last, unknowingly, she stands up to her husband and tells him he’s not important to her any longer. Finally, out of love and respect for Fiona’s well-being, Grant works to have Aubrey brought from Marian’s home where he is a burden. Grant has been replaced. In Cold Fever, the urbane, self-absorbed JapaneseYuppie, Hirata, (Masatoshi Nagase) is coerced by his grandfather and family tradition to abandon his corporate golfing vacation to Hawaii, and instead to journey to Iceland to finalize the Shinto rites for his parents who had moved there and were killed in a car crash. Icy Iceland, the land of volcanoes and cool souls, a no-where land or a now-here land, which is it? Hirata’s journey takes him on a road less traveled, through forbidding landscapes, where civilization is everywhere on the edge or close to it. The natives are extraordinary types, unfathomable to him in their openness, their instant intimacy, their helpfulness, their hospitality. On the other hand, the American foreigners Hirata meets are grotesque in their abusive, thievish, murderous ways. Surviving the vicissitudes of danger and refuge, the young man must venture further into the icy wilderness alone, across a bridge even the indigenous Icelander would not himself test, and there by a stream he floats the candles and rice-filled soul boats of his parents to allow them release from this-here world. While his colleagues are golfing in sunny Hawaii, the young man is connecting with his parents’ absence in the snow, by an icy stream, where they lost their lives. Culture comforts, Nature necessities—which satisfy the soul, bring the heart to life? Just as with Dersu Uzula and Away from Her, so in Cold Fever nature and culture, loneliness and civility are revealed in sharp contrast. It is important for our humanity that we strive to understand the fire and the ice, the comfortable and the strange, ourselves and the others no matter
whether the landscapes are friendly familiar or newly exotic.

It is amazing how the memetic mind can find the thematic clues. The TFC Producers must be working thoughtfully to connect these ….


One thought on “More on Themes and Memes: “Ice and Isolation” by David Gilmour

  1. David:

    I loved your very thoughtful and insightful piece of work, your magnificent writing. I had forgotten that you did not attend that discussion night. COLD FEVER was brought to the table by Susan, still remembering how much you and she had enjoyed it months before. I brought DERSU UZALA to the table, feeling it was just time to have that unique Kurosawa brought to discussion and viewing. I love that film. I was prepped to do a long review on it, and I did the research, including reading DERSU THE TRAPPER, but time got away from me. So the research sits in a folder, waiting for me to find the time to do it justice. Likewise I have 50 pages of notes on the review unwritten on both old and new versions of ALL THE KING’S MEN. AWAY FROM HER was the best choice of picks at the Grand that month, a complete crap shoot actually. The fact that we found winter, snow and ice, and emotional desolation in it, as well as the book on Iceland was just a wonderful and delicious synchronicity. I love how you brought in the infleunces of Atom Egoyan and THE SWEET HEREAFTER for Sarah Polley’s adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story. You are like a rooster in a snow bank, picking and picking until he finds those kernels of corn. I wish COLD FEVER was out on DVD, and not just PAL. My VHS copy of it just was not clear, not crisp, just a muddied experience. I will have to revisit that film some day. Ice and Snow, love and lack of it, the death of seasons and relationships, the soaring and diving of human emotional tides –you found these themes in in three films, and you strung them together marvelously. Perhaps the solitude of your Idahoan paradise is good for your focus and verve as a writer. This is one of your best, tightest, pieces of work. To have held all three films in your mind for four months, ruminating and postulating –really quite a feat actually, finding those thematic similarities and meaningful memes. I wonder what Sarah Polley will present us with next? What does the universe of celluloid have in store for us?


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