Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Five Film Favorites: Films that play in the snow (and my complaints about snow days)

by Todd Starkweather

As we march into the sweltering summer months in central Virginia, I harken back to the month of March and previous colder months when the threat of a bit of snowfall would cripple school districts. Such occurrences have become bothersome to anyone who works in an educational institution and/or has children. To be clear, there is little about the snow or precipitation that is bothersome. Most capable adults and pre-teens should be able to handle some uncomfortable, wet weather. No, what is bothersome is the insistence of school districts closing up shop at the first hint of weather that might require or jacket, sweater, or cap. Actually, having to dress in long pants rather than shorts is probably too much for some.

Truly, though, the most infuriating thing about snow in central Virginia is the litany of complaints from parents and students. If you ever want to feel depressed about humanity and the cluelessness of your fellow RVA residents, read through a Facebook thread when school doesn’t close. Remember, it doesn’t take much to close down a school district. A stiff breeze and a patch of frost will take care of that. Yet any change in the environment that might slightly increase the risk of any accident throws individuals into delirious fits of panic.

The notion that 100% safety for every child must be guaranteed is nauseating. If you actually fear for your or your child’s safety, you will never exit your home and walk outside. Do know what lives outside? Bobcats. Bobcats are essentially large feral cats on steroids, and their teeth and claws can rip flesh from bone. Really, you are safer driving in sleet than going outside and risking a bobcat attack. People freak out over a little cold precipitation, but not over the possibility that bobcats will rip flesh from their bones. If you are willing to walk outside your door and face the possibility of being devoured by a bobcat, then you and your children can go to school in some inclement weather. Remember, once they are on the boss or in school, they are encased in bobcat-free enclosures.

So, yes, central Virginians are wimps when it comes to dealing with the snow. (And rather na├»ve about the dangers posed by bobcats.) But there are some who can put on a brave face and deal with weather much nastier than that experienced around Richmond. And those people are all in my five favorite films that play in the snow. These people didn’t stay inside because a thin layer of sleet fell to the ground. No, for the sake of cinema, they ventured outside. And if you cannot venture outside when the temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then I recommend that you watch these films when you are cocooned in your hovel next winter.
This is a groundbreaking film for many reasons. And I was fortunate enough to see it with live organ music while a grad student in Chicago. The fact that individuals filmed the life of an Inuit man and his family in the 1920s is remarkable from a simple technological standpoint. The directors needed cameras and equipment that operated in those conditions, and he had to live there, in the cold, while filming.

And he did not live in the 31 degree Fahrenheit cold that frightened Chesterfield County parents and students. He lived in the -75 degree cold of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Nanook hunted walrus in that cold. Women gave birth in that cold. What Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) refers to as cold, Nanook and his clan refer to as summer.
Death Hunt is an underrated action film starring Lee Marvin, Billy Dee Williams, and Charles Bronson. Marvin and Williams are cast as Canadian Mounties in the Yukon. (Re-read that previous sentence again, and let it sink in. Really, give it a minute or two.) They must chase down Bronson, an out of town loner who has angered too many people even though he has done nothing wrong. Marvin vows to find Bronson before the vicious mob locates him and the bounty money attached to him.

And if you had told Lee Marvin that searching for Charles Bronson in snow or sleet might be too dangerous, he would probably have punched you in the liver. Heck, he might have punched you in the liver even if you didn’t question his manliness. Lee Marvin looked mean.
I have seen this film once, back when video rental stores were in vogue. I found it on the shelf, thought it was interesting, and took it home. Pathfinder demonstrates its quality by remaining etched in my memory after twenty years. The film follows a young Laplander who must avenge the murder of his family by a marauding clan. In essence, the film is a smart, taught action film. Nothing fancy or overwrought, just solid direction and editing.

Of course, if this young man had listened to the advice dispensed by many Chesterfield County parents and students, he would have stayed home, allowed the villains to escape, and then lived a life wracked with guilt over the failure to avenge his family’s murder. The CCPS inclement weather policy currently has no means of addressing the concerns of 11th century Laplanders who must avenge their family’s murders. Contact your school board rep if you want the school board take up this issue.
  • Fargo (1996) – directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
I know that a lot of people feel that this film is overrated and that the comic tone of the film deadens the serious material with which it deals. The more I have viewed it, the less comic it becomes. Let the film’s gravity work on you, and the comedy and satire dissipate. And beyond the plot and characters, I love watching this film, particularly because of the snow. If the Coens can do anything, they can make landscapes look gorgeous. From the snowscapes from rural Minnesotan roads to deserted Minneapolis parking lots, the Coens make snow cinematically beautiful. The opening sequence of the film, with the truck rumbling along a snowy highway toward Fargo accompanied by the ominous and screeching music is one of my all-time favorite openings. 

By the way, notice how a complete asshole like William H. Macy’s Gunderson was able to navigate a roadway with some snow. If he can do it, so can bus drivers in Chesterfield County. Hopefully, though, Chesterfield County bus drivers are not scheming to have criminals abduct their spouses. But even if they are, they should still be able to drive in the snow. Being a horrible husband and father doesn’t disable one’s ability to drive.
Similar to Fargo, Away from Her does a wonderful job putting snow beautifully in the scene. Polley (of whom I am an enormous admirer), balances the composition of the snow and landscapes with the plot of a woman slowly deteriorating from dementia. The snow and the winter function as an allegory of the relationship between name and name. They are at the end, and when the snow does thaw, they will not be the same. The snow is a touching reminder of how much they have lost, and how much more they will lose once it melts.