A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Greta Ai-Yu Niu

Aside from the material conditions of processing celluloid strips of film (which requires some water), the main reason to think about the relationship between water and film is the abundance of water imagery in films. This introduction will briefly examine the historical use of and the symbolic use of water in moving images.

Filmmakers have been capturing images of water for the past century -- from the beginning of movie history. Works by some of the earliest practitioners include water. For example the first theatrical screening of film took place in Paris on December 28, 1895 and was presented by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. This very first public screening included a comical short piece where a boy steps on a garden hose and causes a gardener to peer into the hose, only to be squirted in the face when the water resumes its course ("The Waterer Watered," or "Arroseur arrosé"). On January 14, 1896, Birt Acres presented a few of his works to the Royal Photographic Society in England. At this viewing, one of the more popular films was "Rough Sea at Dover", a film which represented huge waves crashing and curling against a jetty. "Rough Sea at Dover" went on to become one of the best known of the early films for audiences in England and the United States. In "Trip to the Moon" (1902) George Méliès, a magician turned filmmaker who created fantastical pieces, sent a spaceship fleeing from the moon and landed it in the earth's ocean.

The novelty and importance of film as an artistic medium lay in its ability to reproduce movement (the first sound films were not widely distributed until 1927). Depicting the movement of water was clearly a popular choice. Filmmakers continued and continue to focus on water because of its symbolic importance. Think for a minute on the many forms in which water appears in films. Pick a film or two and you're bound to come up with several key images and scenes in which water plays a crucial role.

Artists working in different time periods and genres use water. The director François Truffaut, whose work participates in the French New Wave (or Nouvelle Vague) uses water to symbolize effervescent life in one scene and death in another in "Jules et Jim" (1962). A spirited woman, Catherine jumps into the river Seine and jolts the male protagonists. Later, Catherine kills herself and her lover Jim by driving a car into a body of water, while the third in the love triangle -- Jules -- watches helplessly.

As another example, in the final moments of the confrontation between police officer Dexter (Harrison Ford) and cyborg replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in "Bladerunner," Roy saves Dexter's life in the pouring rain. Roy's last words are "I've seen things you people would not believe -- attack ships off the shoulder of Orion. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain." As the cyborg Roy hangs his head and dies, the film cuts to an extreme close-up of Dex, blinking away water droplets. The scene is run in slow motion so that the streaming rain on Dexter's face appears as tears.

Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle use water in several of their projects. The main piece we will examine in class is "Happy Together" (1997) set in three postcolonial cities -- Buenos Aires, Argentina, Taipei, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

WATER in the FILMS of

Professor Lee Piepho

Water imagery plays an important role in films made throughout Hitchcock's career. Sometimes, as in The Thirty-Nine Steps, it is the means by which characters are saved from death. Far more often, however, it is threatening, the agency by which a character can be annihilated. Hitchcock's first film, The Lodger, begins with a drowned victim, and the image recurs prominently at the beginning of Frenzy, his last major work. Max considers jumping into the sea at the beginning of Rebecca, and Bruno pursues his victim across the lake to murder her on the Enchanted Isle in Strangers on a Train.

Perhaps the most famous sequence is the so-called Shower Scene where Marion Crane is murdered in Psycho.

The Shower Scene
(mpeg movie, no sound)

More complex is Madeleine's attempt to kill herself by jumping into San Francisco Bay in Vertigo, an act linked with the various images of falling in that famous film.


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College