HISTORY OF WATER - Review by Cinephile & Critic Jit Phokaew
"HISTORY OF WATER is a kind of films I feel reluctant to write about, because it is extremely poetic and obviously beyond my ability to describe it. To describe this film makes me feel as if I dare to describe the painting SNOWSTORM (1842) by J.M.W. Turner. How can one describe things like that or the exact feelings caused by things like that? The more I write about this kind of poetic films, the more I feel what I write stray too far from the films. So readers should beware that what I write cannot fully represent the feelings I have for this film. What I wrote may not be exactly about the film, but about my re-imagination of the film. This kind of films always makes me feel something strong, powerful, and indescribable... History of Water is one of the most poetic films I have ever seen."
Full review HERE
HISTORY OF WATER (2012, Dean Kavanagh, Ireland, 61min, A+30) by Jit Phokaew
HISTORY OF WATER is a kind of films I feel reluctant to write about, because it is extremely poetic and obviously beyond my ability to describe it. To describe this film makes me feel as if I dare to describe the painting SNOWSTORM (1842) by J.M.W. Turner. How can one describe things like that or the exact feelings caused by things like that? The more I write about this kind of poetic films, the more I feel what I write stray too far from the films. So readers should beware that what I write cannot fully represent the feelings I have for this film. What I wrote may not be exactly about the film, but about my re-imagination of the film. This kind of films always makes me feel something strong, powerful, and indescribable.
Fortunately, Maximilian Le Cain wrote an article about Dean Kavanagh's short films in the link below. This article is very useful, and many things in this article can be used to describe HISTORY OF WATER, too. So I'm gonna borrow some phrases from Le Cain's article when I wrote about this film.
Moreover, I also want to borrow some phrases from Chris Auty's review of the film THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN (1977, Peter Handke, A+30) in Time Out Film Guide to describe HISTORY OF WATER, too. These phrases are "silence, an edge of solemnity, an overwhelming painterly grace" and "a moving, deceptively fragile contemplation of a world almost beyond words". I find these phrases for THE LEFT-HANDED WOMAN fit very well with HISTORY OF WATER.
First of all, I want to say that I don't understand this film at all. I don't understand what this film means. I don't understand what each scene means. I guess there might be "an elusive, lucid and disturbingly alien organizing principle at work that refuses to explain itself" like what Le Cain wrote. The first time I watched it, I felt like decoding the film. I wanted to find out how the water motif works in this film. I asked myself, "Is there anything hidden in the film?" Then, I gave up searching for the answers. I watched it again, and let my mind journey into the empire of this film, this unknown empire, full of strange sound and interesting images.
Is this film telling a story? I don't know. Maybe. According to what I feel, the film presents daily rituals of a family. The protagonist is a boy who likes to use a video camera. First he attempts to record things around his house, then videotaping his own little sister, and at the end he takes his camera into the streets. He doesn't talk much with his own family members, including his big brother, his mother, and his father who likes to take still photos.
I feel as if the protagonist is the substitute for Dean Kavanagh himself. What the boy does seems to reflect what Dean does in this film--recording things around the house, using family members as actors/actresses, and then taking the camera into the streets. It is an interesting self-reflexivity.
However, the film is not merely a record of the daily rituals of a family, because there are many strange things in this film, which help make the film extraordinary and sublime. These strange things include:
1. The sound
There are various kinds of sound in this film, for example:
1.1 The radio sound or something like that. At the beginning of the film, I think I hear something which sounds like a radio broadcasting from the past. It fits very well with the images which look a little bit like a 16mm film made 30-50 years ago, because there are scratches in the film.
1.2 The TV sound. There is an interesting scene near the end of the film in which we see cars moving by in the dark with some piles of soil in the foreground of the image. And we hear a voice saying something about the Academy Award. I guess this voice comes from a TV. I don't know what this scene means. The sound I hear in this scene makes me think about a Western film. The images I see in this scene remind me of film noirs.
1.3 The sound of the pouring rain. This is the main motif in this film, I guess. We hear the sound of a heavy rain or rainstorm in many scenes in this film. It partly reminds me of the cycle of water and the natural cycle, because after the heavy downpour, we see bright sunlight and clear sky. Then there comes a downpour again. It continues in a loop like that throughout our life.
What is interesting in this film is that I don't know if the sound of the downpour is meant to be surreal in some scenes or not. There is an early scene in which we hear a downpour, but we see a drizzle and the brother and sister outside of the house. They don't look like they are soaking wet in a downpour. Is this scene realistic or surreal? I'm not sure.
Another thing which I like very much is that this film (unintentionally) makes me realize the beauty of the sound of the rain. No, I don't mean the sound of thunder and a heavy downpour. But I mean the sound of some raindrops. I think I used to enjoy listening to the sound of raindrops when I was a little kid. Then when I grew up, I forgot to listen to it. There are too many things to worry about in life. When it is raining, I am always busy doing something, such as using Facebook, and never really listen to the sound of the rain any more. Maybe the last time I enjoyed listening to the sound of the rain is in 1989. This film, like many other great films, intentionally or unintentionally makes us aware of beauty around us which we have overlooked.
1.4 The sound of the mobile phone. There is the sound of the mobile phone in the first scene of this film, which shows a beautiful woman in what looks like an old 16mm film. At first I thought the sound of the mobile phone came from the old film, but the woman does not respond to the sound. So I guess the sound of the mobile phone may come from the boy who may be watching this old film.
1.5 The sound of a phonograph turntable or something like that. We hear this sound many times in the film. I don't know what it means, but I think it is interesting.
1.6 The sound of something growling. We hear this sound many times in the film, but I don't know what it means. The first time I hear it is in the scene showing the mother and the boy having breakfast. At that time I thought an invisible alien from outer space might be hiding in the house and observing the daily rituals of human beings on planet Earth. Hahaha. But later I discarded this theory. I don't know what this sound means. It sounds like it comes from a monster, or from a monster hiding in the mind of a character. But there is no character who seems to be possessing this monster inside. So I discarded this theory, too. Now I think of this sound as one of the "unexplainable" things in the film.
1.7 The sound of the sea
2.The beautiful woman. Who is she? In the first scene, she seems to be someone whom the boy fondly remembers. She seems to exist in the past. Then we see her in the present time on the beach. Then we see her reflection on a puddle of water on the street. (That scene is truly great!) And then we see some surreal images of her.
3.The focus on water. We see various forms of water in this film. First we see water flowing down an old bathtub. We see rain, the sea, water from a hose, steam on glass doors and mirrors, and snow.
4. The scene showing Dean doing something in a studio or something like that. This scene is not shown to us directly, but via a TV, or a CCTV. Why?
There are many other things and scenes I love in this film, including:
1.The old woman. I totally agree with Le Cain that there is something in Dean Kavanagh's films which remind us of Philippe Garrel. I think the old woman in this film reminds me of Garrel's films in the scene in which she looks out of a window at night. Her face in that scene is Garrelian. Moreover, her face also reminds me of the painting AN OLD WOMAN OF ARLES (1888, Vincent van Gogh).
2.The old woman is not only Garrelian, but also Tarkovsky-like. The scene in which we see her holding a candle or something like that in the dark reminds me of the spiritual power in some films by Tarkovsky, or the candlelight scene in ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (2011, Nuri Bilge Ceylan).
Moreover, that scene also makes me feel as if the old woman is a very powerful witch, because when she turns to the camera, we can hear a very strange sound effect. This is one of the scenes in the film which reminds me of the psychological-fantastic realm found in the films of Nina Menkes.
3. I like the moment when Dean slides from the rooftop very much. I don't know what this scene means. I don't think it is a tribute to VERTIGO. Hahaha. But I like it very much.
4. HISTORY OF WATER reminds me a little bit of the trend of contemplative cinema, especially in Southeast Asia. This kind of arthouse cinema likes to show little or no story, silence, brooding protagonists, etc/ However, I think HISTORY OF WATER differs a little bit from some contemplative films in Southeast Asia, because it doesn't look "intellectual" to me. HISTORY OF WATER looks more like an Impressionist painting to me than an intellectual film.
If I have to compare HISTORY OF WATER with films by Rouzbeh Rashidi, I think HISTORY OF WATER doesn't experiment with "forms" as much as Rashidi's films. HISTORY OF WATER seems like a film which is born from "the inside" of the director. HISTORY OF WATER seems to focus more on feelings and memory than on forms and meanings.
There are also many other things I like in this film, many things which may look simple at first, but when they are put together in this film, they create some indescribable feelings in me. In conclusion, you have to see this film so that you can understand its power by yourself. HISTORY OF WATER is one of the most poetic films I have ever seen.