Wednesday, April 03, 2024

A Tale of the Wind

Mentioning Bert Haanstra, a Dutch documentary maker, in my last post reminded me of the great Joris Ivens. I referred to him back in 2008 when I wrote about the city symphony films being made in the late 1920s. Rain (Regen, 1929) displayed an interest in the elements that persisted all his life. The image above of Ivens on a mountain in China is from A Tale of the Wind, which was released sixty years later, three months before he died. Derek Jarman was an admirer and mentions it three times in Modern Nature:

  • 'Before we turned in: a ravishing film by Joris Ivens, at 90 chasing the elusive wind in China. The most refined work, it made the Hitchcock season look dreadful.'
  • 'So late at night. I weep for the garden so lonely in the shingle desert. Dear Jean [Cocteau], am I the only one who, besides you, has funded a film on his name? Joris Ivens' perfect film of the wind? So few escape to tread this path. Hedges of money, fixed stars.'
  • 'Joris Ivens walking breathless into the desert to find the wind. Asthmatic.'  

Like Jarman and Ivens I have always had asthma and love the idea of the aged director setting off to discover the secret of breathing in the rhythm of the autumn wind. Ivens was born in 1898, so was almost as old as cinema itself and A Tale of the Wind includes a fantasy sequence based on Georges Méliès’A Trip to the Moon (1902), as well as clips from a couple of his own films made in the thirties. When Jarman saw it he was forty-seven, almost half as young as Ivens, HIV positive and starting to suffer from the respiratory illnesses that would restrict his film making. In Modern Nature he describes listening to the wind at Dungeness and storms rattling the old walls of his cottage: 'a wild wind roared through the night, chasing sleep to the edge of dawn.' That morning he woke to 'crystalline sunlight, all the dark humours blown away by the wind. The crocuses open quickly, bright yellow petals spread wide open at noon. The purple and white in the shadows. The snowdrops are out; and before the sun disappears round the house the first daffodil has opened.'

There is an excellent article on A Tale of the Wind by Jonathan Rosenbaum, written in 1992. He concludes by describing its final scene. 

Still later, trekking across mountains and desert with his camera and sound crew in search of the elusive wind, he is told by a Chinese peasant woman, perhaps a witch, that she can draw a magic figure in the sand that will beckon the wind out of hiding. She needs, however, two electric fans, and these are promptly sent for and delivered to the site by a camel, leading to the ecstatic miracle that forms the film’s climax. Like the Mélièsian warrior sequence, it is yet another instance of folklore and technology, archaeology and fantasy being brought into a sublime proximity, even a communication with each another. It is Joris Ivens’s message to — or is it from? — the 21st century, if only we are brave and alert enough to listen.

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