A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Magic, music, and mildew on 'Cold Mountain'.....

I did enjoy the new Anthony Minghella/Miramax film, 'Cold Mountain', seen yesterday evening. It is a minor masterpiece. The horrors of civil war are engraved on the mind as powerfully as in a Goya print; the two central romantic roles, Ada (Nicole Kidman) and Inman (Jude Law), are played in classic Hollywood style; and, if Renée Zellweger (Ruby) doesn't receive an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, then there ain't no justice in them thar hills. She is superb. Of course, Ms Kidman and Mr. Law are too beautiful by half, and have much too perfect a set of gnashers for the 1860s, but one should not let these silver-screen conceits distract from the fact that both are serious actors who turn in performances of translucent quality.

The film has many magical moments. The landcapes are as beguiling as any Southern beauty, from the crab-teeming coastal swamps to the emerald green/snow grey ridges and valleys of Cold Mountain itself. The first kiss is in the great Hollywood tradition (so much more powerful than sex!). And there are some subtle intertextualities too, like the vision of Ms Kidman, as a Southern belle, with her hands in the dirt, recalling that most famous of all Southern belles, Vivian Leigh, when Scarlett O'Hara holds up the sacred earth of Tara, while Inman's epic American journey (it is, of course, also Homer's 'The Odyssey') across swamp, wide river, and jagged ridge takes on a distinctly Huckleberry Finn-Mark Twain character.

Particularly striking, however, is the episode showing the vigorous sacred singing of the period in the simple, pure white, wooden, pioneer church. This is spine-tingling in its authenticity, and it is based on a tradition that was born in Colonial New England and then transferred to the rural South of Ada and Inman. The congregation sing praises from what is called the 'Sacred Harp' hymnal, keeping time to the rousing a cappella tune by slicing the air rythmically with their rigid right hands. It is immensely moving to watch. The specific hymn is "I'm Going Home", and, though joyful in itself, in the context of the film, it carries a heavy poignancy as the young men leave enthusiastically for "their war" - "I'm glad that I am born to die/From grief and woe my soul shall fly/And I don't care to stay here long."

According to an outstanding article on this scene in The Chicago Tribune, "'Cold Mountain' shows off sacred singing" (The Chicago Tribune, January 4), Ms Kidman and Mr. Law were specifically taught how to sing 'Sacred Harp' music by Tim Eriksen, a specialist on the subject. By 1850, there were apparently hundreds of such songbooks for remote, rural congregations, relying on what were called 'shape-notes' (triangles, circles, squares and diamonds). The 'Sacred Harp' hymnal itself contains over 500 three- and four-part fugues, hymns and marches.

So this is a film of magic and music that you must see. But why comment on it on EnviroSpin? First, because I think the film tells us much about the psychological history of America, and we Europeans desperately need to learn more about this, and to respect it. But secondly, there is, surprisingly, one terrible flaw, right at the end. How could the cutting room have missed it? The final rising shot from the family table, where Ada and Ruby, now with their children, are celebrating their hard-won lives, lingers long on an oak tree - a dreadfully mildewed oak, with white-powdered, curling, ruined leaves - it looks like it has been taken straight out of a diseased Mordor! I winced - perhaps Ada's and Ruby's lives will be forever blighted after all? A botanical blip of the first order!

But do not miss this masterpiece. The magic and music outweigh the mildew manyfold.

Philip, wiping the tears and the popcorn from his cheeks.

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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