Rain (1929)

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*. Film is the most fluid of art forms: the image you see on the screen is never fixed, as your eye is always being drawn through the ribbon of celluloid.
*. That’s a pretty banal observation, but in 1929 the movies were still new, and this one is an essay on movement.
*. Rain is defined almost as much by the street as it is by the rain. It’s another ode to the city, part of an early documentary movement that included films like Moscow Clad in Snow, Berlin: Symphony of a City, and Manhatta. This time we’re in Amsterdam, the Venice of the North, hustling through its crowded, rain-slick streets.

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*. The street itself is another riverine image, a sort of paved canal that traffic flows through. When wet, it turns into a mirror.
*. As with most city films, the citizens remain anonymous drudges. The only face we see is the man in the hat who feels a falling drop and looks up at the sky. And if you blink you’ll miss even that.
*. The film tells a story. Joris Ivens shot it over a period of several months but through terrific editing he gives the illusion of a single shower. We first see the wind picking up, registered in blowing tree tops, laundry, and awnings turning into sails. Then the umbrellas start to come out like fields of mushrooms.
*. One of Ivens’s recurring themes has been described as the search for certainty in a chaotic world. That’s certainly the impression we get here. At least since Leonardo water has been associated by artists with chaos, flux, and mutability. That’s what the people are fleeing from in Rain, hiding under umbrellas shaped like helmets, or taking shelter onboard buses.

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*. The rain changes the world by changing our perception of it, turning windows into watery slides, creating melting, running patterns in our field of vision out of its rubbery tracery.
*. And we’re made to feel as though there is a pattern: a seemingly random one like that shifting flock of birds in flight. This pattern doesn’t contrast with the order and pattern of the street so much as complement it, the two blending together as in that eloquent shot of the water surging in a sheet like a camera wipe across the screen.
*. This movie came out the same year as Ralph Steiner’s H20, and comparisons are often made. What strikes me is that in Steiner’s film you’re looking at water and seeing more in it. In Rain we’re looking through water, reality being distorted either through the effect of the rain on windows or by the way puddles and other wet surfaces reflect the light.
*. Photography created anxiety among the avant-garde in the visual arts. How were they to compete with the new technology of film? After all, the camera was more accurate at capturing external reality, and it didn’t lie.
*. But it does, as Steiner and Ivens both demonstrate. It plays tricks on our perceptions, shapes our ways of seeing. And there’s nothing really natural about even the most natural, most essential element of life. Even water can be the stuff of art because when we look into it or through it we are always seeing portions of ourselves.

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