Snowbound cinema


A satellite view of snow across Great Britain on January 7, 2010.

Walking the snow-laden streets this week felt like a considerable novelty when we rarely have snowfalls of any depth here and what there is never lasts much longer than a day. The current low temperatures which began just before Christmas may be inducing a national trauma but the genuinely wintery weather makes a change from the dreary weeks of rain and cold which usually prevail until April.

Whilst trudging through the crusted ice I found myself remembering favourite films which make the most of winter landscapes. Here’s a short list to follow the earlier winter-themed posts.

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Several Westerns before this one had featured winter scenes but I think Robert Altman’s was the first to be set at the height of winter in a snowbound town. Memorable for Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography, Leonard Cohen’s lugubrious songs, Warren Beatty’s doomed businessman stomping around wrapped in furs muttering “Pain, pain, pain!”, and the finale when he’s hunted down by a trio of assassins.

The Shining (1980)
Has anyone not seen this film? Despite the artificial snow, Kubrick’s direction and John Alcott’s photography communicate authentic chills, both meteorological and metaphysical.


Yes, it’s a genuine Christmas postcard from Oregon’s Timberline Lodge which became the model for Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Writer Tom Veitch sent me this some years ago.

The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s grisly Antarctic horror is the film I still find to be his best. Like his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, this is another siege situation borrowed from Howard Hawks only this time the enemy is within. Until someone films At the Mountains of Madness, this is the closest you’ll get to Lovecraft’s polar nightmares.

Runaway Train (1985)
Few people know this: escaped convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts find themselves on the titular train with rail worker Rebecca De Mornay, and it’s a long ride through frozen landscapes as they try to escape the law and the train itself before it crashes. Andrei Konchalovsky directs a story by Akira Kurosawa rewritten by Edward Bunker (who has a cameo) and others. The result is a strange blend of hardboiled drama and existential symbolism with a great score by Trevor Jones.

Fargo (1996)
One of the Coen Brothers’ best. Watching this again over Christmas along with many of their other films, it was amusing to see Steve Buscemi transform from Fargo‘s vicious and splenetic kidnapper to the mild-mannered character he plays in The Big Lebowski. Despite the statement at the beginning of the film, Fargo isn’t a true story but its existence became tangled with some curious real-life events.?

Update: I was reminded on Twitter about Altman’s bizarre future Ice Age drama, Quintet, which I should have mentioned above. Not as successful as the earlier film but its setting certainly suits the weather.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bruegel in winter
Winter panoramas
Winter music
Winter light
Kubrick shirts
At the Mountains of Madness
Images by Robert Altman

Bruegel in winter


The Hunters in the Snow (1565).

Most of the snow here in Manchester melted over Christmas but it’s likely there’ll be more on the way given the unusually low temperatures. Whatever the complaints about the weather, the empty-handed hunters painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525–1569) had it worse. Of the two paintings, Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap is the lesser composition but seems slightly more optimistic.


Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap (1565).

I upgraded WordPress a few hours ago with the result that the latest version of the software no longer works with a couple of the plug-ins I was using. I try to keep WP plug-ins to a minimum but fell foul on this occasion so there’s now no tag cloud at the foot of the page until I work out a way to restore it by other means. If anything here seems awry or broken over the next couple of days, that’s the explanation.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Winter panoramas
Winter music
Winter light
La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters

La Tour by Schuiten & Peeters


La Tour (1987) by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is the third story in the Cités Obscures series, although it’s the fourth volume if you want to be strictly canon about things, L’archivist, a guide to places in the Obscure World, having preceded it.


Carcere Oscura by Piranesi (1750).

This is another book where Schuiten and Peeters’ interests tick a list of my own obsessions, being a tale which seems to originate in the question “What would it be like if you crossed Piranesi‘s Prisons etchings with Bruegel’s Tower of Babel?” The protagonist of La Tour, Giovanni Battista, has his name borrowed from Piranesi’s forenames and his appearance taken from Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. The story owes something to Kafka, although it lacks Kafka’s drift towards paradox, concerning a colossal building referred to throughout as The Tower, a structure we only ever see in close-up—and then mostly from the inside—but whose height must reach several thousand feet.


Battista (above) is one of the Keepers, a group of men charged with maintaining small sections of the Tower whose structure suffers continual decay and collapse. Tired of years spent in complete isolation, and concerned that other Keepers aren’t doing their job, Battista goes in search of the Tower’s feared Inspectors, only to discover that the lack of maintenance is endemic and few of the Tower’s scattered residents have any idea of the origin or purpose of the vast building where they’ve spent their lives, never mind a concern for its upkeep. There are no Inspectors, and while Battista is worried at the beginning about vines in the stonework, we later see small forests growing among the ruins. Kafka resonances come with the mention of the mysterious Base, and the equally mysterious Pioneers, those builders and engineers who went ahead years or even centuries before, climbing skyward.

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