What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movements in a beautiful flowing of the blossoms in the trees.
This is an essay about the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. Sort of. It’s more a prose poem about light and memory. Kind of. It started as the former and ended somewhere near the latter. There’s a scene in Signs I never see anyone talk about, the end of the end. It is my favorite shot in modern film. We move from Rory Culkin’s return from the dead, his Lazarus moment, into the house, and we are months later, in winter, time evaded with a pan. Mel Gibson puts on, for the first time since his wife died, his reverend’s collar. What struck me as a child and what strikes me still now is the light in the room, that perfect winter light, that clean morning light that sings a certain kind of song. Here, I suppose, is my attempt at singing it back to you:
There’s a kind of quality to light that differs from place to place, from time to time, that you can see, but hardly begin to explain. It’s only clear, in fact, when it seems to line up with some other place, some other time, some perfect match in the nature of the air that pulls it out of the background and into your conscious thoughts. When I lived in Washington, sometimes the light looked like Wyoming, and I tried but couldn’t explain to someone what I meant when I said that. It wasn’t just the colors, the texture, the timing, the season, it was something ineffable in the light itself that made these two places for a moment collapse into a liminal singularity, going into a wormhole in Tacoma and coming out in Laramie if you just drove down this certain highway on this certain day. Last week, the light in downtown Longmont looked like Mundelein—it looked like school just let out for the year. It looked like sitting in the Fremont Public Library at 2 pm, Saturday, in the upstairs, where the grown-up books were, looking into the artificial pond that signaled suburbia, nature in delicate chains. It looked like how sauerkraut smells coming into the kitchen. It looked like a long driveway, like overgrown grass, like the cloud covering over the sun for a moment, like taking the dogs outside. It’s a quality of memory, not of any material aspect, and its power is its inability to be reproduced. It sounds like the seedpods on the tree clacking together like quiet muted wind chimes.
There are images that communicate touch, that taste like something, that sound like a bark, or a hiss, or a rattling cage. The space between senses, so often academically separate, isolated, alone, melds into a roiling wave, or a coil of snakes, or the wind in the trees. What it is to be a full person, in a place, someone with a history and a past, with associations and sadness and joy and death, is that, and only that. There are moments of spiritual ecstasy to be found in a cup placed on the table in just the right way, a screen door opening and closing, the green haze of the sky just before a tornado hits somewhere in Wisconsin, pulling your car over to the side of the road and being prepared to run into the ditch. The mote of dust hanging in the beam of light, like time suspended to make room for the too small, the undefined, the insignificant—each moment contains the adoration of so many motes of dust, collected on us through years of being, like a shawl or a shroud.
And on TV, there’s a small and average gospel for the hurt and afraid. The light is color-graded like a setting sun or an afternoon, even in the home, even in the morning, the ochre ache of the late Midwest, the sun shining through the stained glass of a small church with a smaller staff. He has stretched golden hour into taffy and set it on every frame, and we wade through it, as thick as mud, as thick as algae on a man-made lake, as thick as grief. In the pocket world of the family farm, everything is stuck in time, waiting for that last moment to pass, for a wife to return, for children to stop, for just a moment, and wait to grow until their mother gets back. It’s the color we remember, the color she wore first, and the color she wore last. It is a skein so massed that its violation ripples like the wind on a bubble, suspended in air, iridescent and comely and there. The threat is of time moving on, of instability, of the stale air rushing out of the vacuum and something else even more awful coming in. The light is companion to their sadness, and as much a friend as the water in the family’s lungs, like so many half-drunk glasses pooling on so many uncleaned tables and rugs.
But after the bubble has popped, in the final moments we will have with them, when God’s impossible grace holds them for a moment in His palm, we see what it looks like without that tint in the air. Time comes back, flowing in like a river un-dammed, and carried with it is clean, natural light, the smell of bread, the sound of cracking ice. The house and the life inside it move again, and each breath is unlabored and free. Some kind of wind lays itself at the feet of the family. A gentle kindness runs through everything, the dissipated pressure of reckoning catching in your throat before the exhale, the memory of drowning in such old heat. The light sings a song of clarity, of shivering happily in a t-shirt, of echoing voices filling its space, lit up by warmth and soft linen—the light that only comes from snow, its radiance reflected through the window into something uncontrollably vast. It sounds quiet as kept in its falling, each spiraling flake the size of a world, a world falling into the ground and becoming like every other world, communal and ancient as a staircase, as a garage, as eating dinner at 5 pm two days before Christmas actually happens. It smells like the bark of a birch tree. We are shown the dream of another, brought to us on a gentle breeze.
If art is to capture anything, it must be the inimitable, the unspeakable. What gets lost in words and language gets said in image and color. The moment of unshakable beauty in modern film is that light change, not just in grade but in entire, indescribable quality, that speaks past everything else, that says without saying. The beauty is a lesson of faith, both in something beyond, and in something here, in the Will’s manifest into the image as a burning bush, a gasp of air, or the thud of a chair on the kitchen floor. It is a prayer, offered up in so many tiny moments that it feels like it’s always been there. It breathes, in and out, to the rhythm of someone in Ohio, or Texas, or Ys, humming plaintively about love. It is the feeling of us, frozen in frame forever, where, in the infinite second it sits, there is nothing else we could ever need, and everything that could ever exist.
Above us, on the highest limb, a dangerous piece
of fruit dangles. A teenage
girl is stepping
all over the sunshine in her tennis shoes. Perhaps
that piece of fruit will simply
drift into her hands.
It did, for me. Swiftly,
but with wings.
And the caterpillar
is a word, a soft bit of star. Oblivious, our hearts.
Could that word be faith, or trust, or is it
some other word which means
to let go in ignorance, or to hold one’s breath and hope?
And would that word be love?
It doesn’t matter because
we’re helpless in the hands of what does.
-”Small Boys Petting Caterpillar” by Laura Kasischke