Nature as Mythic Storyteller
Films that last often have a mythic quality. Like great children's stories, we consume these films as we do ageless fables. Unlike lesser stories, the lessons learned in these films carry a universal authority that seems to transcend man.
Biblical stories naturally achieve this mythic stature by virtue of the role played by a larger spiritual authority. Children's fables often have magic sorcerers or speaking animals. Films like Star Wars or ET achieve this predominantly through story content and character creation. Putting characters in contact with other worlds or assigning aliens as mentors introduces the idea of a spiritual wisdom greater than our own. Lucas' famous line "May the Force be with you" names the source of this wisdom and makes The Force an active spiritual guide in the story.
Attempting to achieve this mythic quality or "largeness" in smaller, earthbound movies is more difficult.
In order to achieve this, writers turn to elements they can exploit that are organic to their stories. One element that is often used is nature.
Use of Nature
In Jane Campion's film, The Piano, the protagonist lets the ocean itself decide her fate. Ada (Holly Hunter) steps into a loop of rope she knows will hurl her into the ocean. When the ocean throws her back up, Ada accepts nature's decision that she must live. Ada simply assumes that nature is active in the world and that it is more knowing than she. She now has its blessing.
In an entirely different genre, nature is enlisted by the afterlife in producing "tiny clouds of cold air" in The Sixth Sense. Nature uses these to signal to the audience when a ghost is present, in this way actively participating in the storyline. These tiny clouds lend credibility to our growing suspicion that afterlife forces are at work.
Both examples lend a mythic quality to the story.
In many films however, nature is used simply as a backdrop to add visual interest. This may evoke a certain beauty, or physical grandeur, but unless nature is actively advancing the plot, announcing events like a herald, or morally commenting on actions, the same mythic quality does not emerge.
Principle: What elevates these scenes to mythic is the active participation of nature.
One of the most exquisite examples of this is seen in Dolores Claiborne, directed by Taylor Hackford, based on the novel by Stephen King.
Use of Nature in Dolores Claiborne
Dolores Claiborne is a film about a woman who kills her husband. From the start of the film, the upcoming eclipse is planted as organic to the story landscape. When Dolores finally decides to go through with the murder, it is nature that lends a hand.
In fact nature is used in two important ways. First, the event of the eclipse, and the darkness that follows, facilitates the murder. The moment her husband falls to his death, the moon passes across the sun, leaving the sun in darkness. In this way, nature becomes an accessory to the crime: it has shielded the murderer by hiding her action from view.
Secondly, once the murder is committed, nature interprets the action morally: The sun returns and floods Dolores in a beautiful, yellow light. It is as though she is purified and appears almost childlike as she looks up to the sun. In bathing Dolores with light, nature interprets the deed for both Dolores and the audience.
Nature's participation in Dolores Claiborne gives a grandness to the scenes. It lends a moral authority that goes beyond the confines of Dolores' time or society. When the local police try to arrest her, they seem out of touch with the larger truth represented by nature. This makes the story feel transcendent, the characters iconic and the lessons universal.
There are many genres in which the participation of nature is expected. Consider how many westerns have a windstorm blow in just before the last shoot out. The tumbleweed blows across the main street, wooden shutters are locked down and, well, you know the rest. What is intriguing is how immediately we understand the meaning: nature is clearing the set for the showdown. In a similar way any three-year old devotee of The Smurfs can tell you that when a dark cloud moves overhead, it means big trouble lies ahead. Children seem to be able to intuitively decode visual heralds especially when they come from nature. They also accept as Ada did in The Piano, that nature actively participates in the world of stories and it is more knowing than we are.
Meet the Author: Jennifer Van Sijll
Jennifer van Sijll, who has an MFA from USC's Department of Cinema-Television, teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State and consults on film and television projects in San Francisco and Los Angeles.