Doug Cummings on Jean Renoir’s "The River"

Doug Cummings on Jean Renoir’s "The River" March 18, 2005

Peter Greenaway once said that cinema as an “art form” has yet to be established.

He meant that, so far, movies aren’t much more than illustrated narratives: books with moving pictures to bring the manuscripts to life.

That comment has stuck with me, as I’ve begun to appreciate, more and more, how film can communicate through methods other than storytelling. Like the animals who respond to the beauty of the music in The Story of the Weeping Camel, I think human beings respond to imagery, to light, to color, and cinema can give us uniquely powerful experiences regardless of the story that the film does (or doesn’t) tell.

Now here’s Doug Cummings talking about Jean Renoir’s The River (1951).

He refers to Andre Bazin’s praise of the film, saying,

Bazin writes at length on the film’s atmosphere (“its majestic dimensions, its sense of grandeur, its universal spirituality”) and its refreshing simplicity: “Some are surprised by the slightness of the content of The River. . . . I think they are blinded by their literary frame of reference. They judge the film on the basis of the novel it could be turned into.”

Those words immediately reminded me of Greenaway, and now I’m sitting here thinking about the films that have moved me in ways entirely removed from their PLOT.

I keep going back to Kieslowski–I think his storytelling is wonderful, but in his later years, he began to repeat himself as a storyteller. He wasn’t merely redundant; he refined and refined certain ideas. But when I think of why I love Three Colors: Blue, I don’t think about the story much. I think about the light. I think about the way the music comes bursting through, like unexpected visitations of an imploring spirit. I think about subtle changes in Juliette Binoche’s face, which is often in close-up. I think about long, patient shots that develop in the viewer emotions that few films are brave enough, and smart enough, to provoke.

I think of Wim Wenders, who seemed to be resisting the inevitable tyranny of Narrative in Wings of Desire for as long as he could, using his angels as excuses to just drift and see.

A film’s rhythm and method affects our state of mind as we leave the theatre. After a cocky action-hero film, I often find myself overcome by the urge to swagger … for instance. (Did I just admit that?) But great artists influence the way I *look* at things. I begin putting frames around things in front of me, to look for whatever meaning God might be waiting for me to discern.

While I do not mean to discredit narrative–I love big screen narrative in all its myriad forms–I’m grateful for those artist who are more interested in helping us learn HOW to see, rather than just insisting on our attention for two hours.

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  • Anonymous

    Sorry, Jeff. It was not Sean Gaffney at the movies. But thanks for the fun plug! :)

  • jasdye

    Ok, Jeffrey. That was one headline that I did NOT ever want to see. Now I can’t get the angry, jealous, lesbian Rosie O’Donnell image out of my head (wow! Who’da thunk those words would come together as descriptors for the popular talk show host?)

    By the way, Cruise doesn’t need a p.r. mission. He is a living, breathing p.r. mission. Did you see the insipid (but revealing) sidebar poll? “Would you change religions to marry Tom Cruise?” I don’t think we’re dealing with ‘Presidential Satisfaction’ type ratings here. Much more off-scale than that.

  • Anonymous

    I thought of Malick’s films when I read your post. I’ve heard that during filming he cleaves to the actions in the script and only in the editing room takes liberties with breaking up the narrative.

  • Anonymous


  • Denny Wayman


    I agree that film can reach us in a whole deeper way than language.
    A good example of the use of visual and musical cinematic art is HERO.

    In my review I wrote:
    The visual mythology of Yimou Zhang transcends the language barriers in his Chinese film, “Ying Xiong” or “Hero.” Inviting us to enter the magical world he has created, we experience his tale with our entire souls and not just our eyes and ears. Entering into the myth that is being told, the visual arts and musical scores make each moment a feast that we don’t want to end as they support the fluid movement of the dancing fighters. Similar in style to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” we are now taken to another level of art.