The second instalment of COLLECTIONS, a monthly series in which Daniel & Clara gather together thematically connected materials as they map their own path through the history of cinema and moving image art.
We lived in Portugal for a few years, in a small seaside town just south of Porto. Anyone who has spent any time in the north of the country will have experienced the regular and dramatic transformation that occurs when the mist rolls in from the sea. One moment the view will be clear and bright but within a matter of minutes you can find yourself enveloped in fuzzy damp air only able to see a few meters in any direction.
The coast where we lived had a wide sandy beach that felt as if it expanded as visibility receded, the denser the white haze became the more one sensed the sand extended forever. An exhilarating disorientation occurs, similar to the feeling of waking on a winter’s morning to discover the landscape transformed by snow. Similar but not quite the same, the surprise of snow is one of joy but the mist in its limiting of vision comes with a sense of anxiety, a small but sharp notion that some terror may lay just out of sight.
In 2017 we created a series of short films shot on VHS which focus on the recording of landscapes and the natural world. Weather and landscapes feature prominently throughout all of our work but in this series we removed many of our usual narrative elements, performance and scenes to focus simply on how the recording device reacts to the subject. In one particular film, EXT. SEA MIST, we attempt to capture the experience described above.
Recently when sorting through some older work for release we re-watched this film and wondered at some other uses of mist in the history of filmmaking. The first film that came to mind was Larry Gottheim’s mesmerising Fog line (1970).
Fog line gives us a silent, single static shot of a landscape enshrouded in thick fog. At first one can barely discern a tree through the mist, but as the shot progresses over its 10 minute duration the fog moves through the landscape, its density varies and a rolling landscape scene is revealed. Crossing the frame horizontally, three electrical cables nearer the camera remain the only constantly visible element.
What is fascinating in this film is the way the fog both obscures and reveals the landscape throughout its duration, we become aware of the act of looking, of how the seeming stillness is in fact movement and as the view becomes clearer we read the shapes in the landscape, the shape of the fields, the outlines of the trees against the straight lines, indicating distance and scale. To film the weather is always an unpredictable game, but in a film such as this it feels that the filmmaker has surrendered all expectations in order to see what this atmospheric phenomenon will reveal, as Gottheim himself has said: “When everything was right I just looked through the viewfinder to see moving images unfold ‘by themselves’. Always surprising things happened. Each was an epiphany, coming at me and from me at the same time.”
Unlike the above, fog or mist in films is often created artificially with the use of fog machines, haze machines or dry ice, which produce different thicknesses of mist by using various mixtures of water and chemicals. Haze machines are the most commonly used and produce the thinnest of mists, the kind that you might not even notice in a scene, it is just enough to create a soft diffusion of light, a dusty appearance that makes light beams visible. Fog machines create a thicker substance by heating a mixture of water and glycol until the fluid vaporises and comes out in a translucent cloud. This is the fog that can spread dramatically over a room, but to achieve those thickest billows of mist that stay close to the ground and are most characteristic of classic horror movies one needs dry ice, or solid carbon dioxide, melting in a pan of boiling water.
But not all effects rely on chemicals and technology, for example in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death, the director Michael Powell was looking for a particular kind of fade in for an exterior shot in the opening sequence which reveals the foggy British coast, he asked cinematographer Jack Cardiff for something different, something like a clearing of mist, Cardiff responded “Wait a minute, look through the camera” at which moment Cardiff went to the lens and breathed on it, creating a mistiness with his breath that faded slowly as the condensation evaporated from the lens.
The ocean fog familiar from sea-faring adventure movies or WWII movies is usually accompanied by the pinging of a ship’s bell or the deep drone of a fog horn, nervous lookouts standing upon the deck staring out to sea and listening hard as the enemy or possibly a supernatural threat could be approaching just out of sight.
Then there is also the dirty steam of the city, where the smog and smoke of the factory create a murky shroud behind which shady deals and violent crimes can take place. The industrial smog coats the city in a filth, a filth that permeates all that breathe in its toxic fumes and live under its shadow. Perhaps the ultimate presentation of this is in film noir, the fog machines diffuse light, increase the contrast of light and dark and transform the lonely characters into shadowy figures adrift in a black and white world.
In horror films, fog functions much like darkness, it hides a threat within itself, it is a veil that both obscures and manifests unknown natural forces but, more frighteningly than darkness, it has a sense of movement and it cannot be stopped or contained, and unlike darkness it cannot be eradicated by the turning on of a light. It is often also a carrier of things past that have come back to haunt us, like in John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), in which the long-dead victims of the town’s founders return to take their revenge.
There are many wonderful cinematic moments when the use of fog machines becomes excessive, when naturalism is cast out in favour of theatrical expression. Artificiality in these cases rarely seems to diminish the sense of eeriness, if there is one thing that is true of horror films it’s that it isn’t realism that creates the scares.
John Moxey’s City of The Dead (1960) is a wonderful example of how artifice amplifies the sense of being cut off from the outside world. A dream state hangs over the town depicted in the film and, similarly to The Fog, the crimes of the past haunt the present but this time in the form of reincarnated witches. The ground fog is so thick it looks almost as if it could be scooped up in your hands!
Moving to another zone altogether is Apotheosis, a beautiful short film by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, filmed one winter’s day in 1969 in the village of Lavenham in Suffolk. With cameras fixed to a hot air balloon, the film opens on John and Yoko wrapped in black robes as the camera rises slowly above them over the village square, revealing a snow covered landscape. Created almost entirely from a single shot, the camera drifts higher and higher over the countryside while on the soundtrack we hear the soft deep roar of the propane burner and the creaking of the wicker basket. Throughout, other sounds paint a picture of rural life: a dog barks, geese honk flying by unseen, and distant rifle shots echo over the snow dusted vista.
After some moments of drifting the view moves higher and into the thickening white of the clouds. For a good 5 minutes our vision consists only of dense mauve/grey-white clouds. Watching this copy of the film, originally shot on celluloid but here transferred to VHS then digitised and compressed for the internet, we become aware of the mutations that have happened to the footage, very much unintended by the artists. The occasional scratches and dust flecks from the film are there but also the glitches of the video tape, along the top of the frame coloured lines flicker and there are visible stretches in the tape. As you look on you can see the blocky pixels of the high compression, here in these moments we can see the traces of several generations of copies, three ages of moving image tools made present in this journey up through the clouds. A brief hidden cut occurs just before the camera passes up to the bright sky above the clouds, which now stretch out beneath us like a frozen sea, echoing the earlier images of the whitened world below.
Also exploring the higher atmospheric regions is Tacita Dean’s A Bag of Air (1993), which in a 1996 lecture she described as starting from a childhood desire to reach out of an airplane window to catch clouds. Years later in an attempt to fulfil this fantasy she traveled to a small valley in the French Alps which is famous for its heavy morning mist. But as luck would have it, her time there coincided with some of the clearest mornings in years and she waited in vain for the cloud fall; after several mornings and feeling rather disappointed, she went up in a hot air balloon and filmed as she collected the clear morning air.
Later her research led her to some alchemical texts detailing the act of collecting morning dew to create an elixir capable of treating all disharmonies in the body and soul.
“…as you rise at dawn to the upper ether and lean out to catch the bag of air, they say you are trapping the ascending dew on its voyage from earth to heaven. And if you repeat this process each clear dawn for a thousand mornings you will gather enough essence to fill a sealed flask to begin your manufacture and in your flask will be a delicacy of substance that is both celestial and terrestrial…”
Marguerite Duras is a filmmaker whose films often take place over night and whose central characters are wandering in somnambulist states awaiting the dawn. In her films early mornings are not woken to but experienced at the end of a long dark night of longing, an emotional ordeal, with the pain of love lost brimming over every frame. The morning mist comes with the night’s end, the darkness and blackness turns to grey, then turns to white before eventually the mist recedes and reveals a world in colour, oblivious to the turmoil of her characters. In her most famous film, India Song (1975), it is not mist or fog but humidity that surrounds these night people, even though filmed in France the Indian setting becomes palpable, so real that you can almost smell the muggy moisture as the camera glides from room to room of the richly decorated house.
Her short film Cesaree (1979) shows a city just before waking up, just before the traffic fills the streets and people spill out onto the pavements. The camera moves but the world shown is static: statues, bridges and buildings stand solid and unmoving behind a veil of grey mist.
Ben Rivers’ Ghost Strata (2019) is a film in 12 parts, each part corresponding to a month of the year. The opening chapter of this diary/scrapbook film begins with a tarot reader who suggests to the director that maybe the subject of his film is Time. This is followed by a shot of swallows flying over a misty lake backed by lush green mountains. While we watch the birds swirl in and out of the mist, the shore dips in and out of visibility, over plays a recording of composer John Cage responding to an unheard question, he says:
“Well I would advise… a clear observation of what the environment seems to be and what you are, realising that these things are not separate… but observe, observe as much as you can what is going on here and then let your mind leap in imaginative ways and turns of what the future may hold…”
We finish now not with a film but with the evocative soundscape ‘Lantern Marsh’, a track from Brian Eno’s album Ambient 4: On Land. Inspired by the expansive East Anglian coastline near where he grew up, Eno offers us a mysterious haunted landscape in which distant cries could be either lonely seabirds, wandering phantoms or maybe other souls who unwisely ventured from the path. So put on your headphones, sit back, close your eyes and let yourself get lost as you wander across mist-shrouded marshland.