The visual qualities of Vincent Ward's Vigil (1985) are arguably its most striking aspect. Outline Ward's use of mise-en-scene.
©Gaylene Barnes 1996
Vincent Ward began his career as a filmmaker at Ilam Art School and his films reflect the strong artistic education he has had. His familiarity with the emotive power of visual language is aptly demonstrated in Vigil where the mise-en-scene plays an important role in developing the discourse. This essay will outline several techniques Ward uses in the visual design that contribute to the thematic content of the film.
The most recurring motif in Vigil is the image of the knarled dead tree. Dead tree motifs have been widely used as an ongoing source of stimulus in regional New Zealand landscape painting. Ward is deliberately drawing inferences from this phenomenon, particularly the group now known of satirically as the "Dead Tree Club." This 'club' particularly refers to various painters in the 1920's and 1930's who depicted the bare trunks of native trees for its symbolic potential. Associated with the burning off of native vegetation in order to make productive farmland, many knarled trunks were left as reminders of what had once been. Christopher Perkins' Frozen Flames (1931) is perhaps the most famous of these iconic works, where the writhing trunk and limbs of his trees 'become a visual metaphor for the passage of fire and the destruction it has wrought.' Eric-Lee Johnson has a more romantic approach to the popular motif as seen in his painting The Slain Tree (1945). His dead tree is anthropomorphised to the point of evoking an association with the sacrificial image of Christ on the cross. The convulsing tree is represented as a spiritual force in the midst of a struggle, protesting the human destruction of the forest and attempts to tame the country.
Ward uses the image of the dead tree for similar romantic evocations as Lee-Johnson. The location Ward chose to use had authentic "dead trees" within it, as 'the farmer who owned the land had used farming loans to cut down and burn the trees.' This had resulted in the valley walls crumbling away as the trees no longer held them up. The "dead trees" have enacted their revenge on the farmer - both within the film and without it - with an anthropomorphic spirituality, the trees have resisted all attempts to tame the land they control. They have caused the cliffs to crumble, and could ultimately be held responsible for the death of Justin Peers, the sheep farmer, as he attempts to rescue a sheep fallen down the crumbling cliffs. Ward states that the valley location was 'the perfect environment in which to convey how the harsh pragmatism of the farmer, killing and maiming everything that moves, except his beloved sheep, sets him forever against nature - and how nature has its revenge.'
In the case of Vigil, the ominous vengeful dead trees have even demanded that humanity be recreated in their own image. After the death of her father, the mise-en-scene increasingly represents Toss as a graphic element, part of the forest of dead stoical trees. She wears a long brown jacket that reaches to the earth like a trunk; she carries with her a long stick made of twisted branches; and she is positioned amongst the knarled trunks in poses that stylistically include her as part of the dead forest. Just as the trees have faithfully remained to keep a vigil over their dying land, so has Toss begun to keep vigil over her land - the only world she knows - which has been menaced with death and threatened by an intruder. When the young green tree Toss had planted for her father is mercilessly blown away, she realises that her vigil is failing. Just as the native forest trees had failed to protect themselves and the land from human destruction - Toss is failing to protect the image of her father, the integrity of her childhood, and the possibility of departure from the menace of death, puberty, and intrusion.
The human inability to control the forces of nature is one of the major themes in Vigil. The rain-sodden environment surrounded by the claustrophobic walls of the valley dominate and oppress the characters who are dwarfed into insignificance. The isolated figure surrounded by an overpowering environment is a feature of 'NZ Genre films', as identified by Dermody and Jacka. The Australian films Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and My Brilliant Career (1979) also place great emphasis on the effect of an overpowering landscape on characters. Climate also plays a significant role in defining the shape of the characters. Birdie's claim right at the beginning of the film that 'we're heading for the South pole' belies the characters sense of instability. Their destiny is totally dependent on the climate and the land - Birdie is merely admitting that they are pawns to these greater forces. They are helpless in the face of the elements, unable to tame the land or control the weather (ie. Birdie's attempt to drain the valley), and unable to master their lives or deaths.
Ward's film establishes a sense of the claustrophobic isolation of the characters by limiting the cast to only four people present in the valley at any one time, except for the funeral sequence where the extra characters remain completely nebulous. The four main characters are very rarely seen all together in the same shot, except in wide shots that expose the distances between them. The claustrophobic feeling in Vigil is also created by foreshortening the depth cues. The background planes of space are usually filled with walls of rain soaked hills or craggy cliffs, and the instances where there might possibly be perspective diminution is usually obstructed by a thick layer of fog or rain. The only time we see any great amount of sky or horizon is when it is reflected in the foreground window-panes within which Ethan and Liz gaze out. The characters in Toss's world are certainly presented as trapped in isolation within the space of this valley.
The nightmarish quality of the film is contrived through motifs of Hell and death which pervade the mise-en-scene. Dead sheep litter the ground, hawks circle the sky, new-born lambs are thrown into a funeral pyre, sulphuric mud putrefies clothes and hair, dead trees permeate the landscape, and fire consumes Toss's hideaway. But the use of Blood is perhaps the most interesting symbolic motif which support the morbid themes of Vigil. Toss is learning to come to terms with both the death of her father and also the death of her childhood as she approaches adolescence. Her belief that she is dying, as she experiences her first menstrual blood flow, displays her confusion surrounding issues of death. In an inversion of Christian orthodoxy, she comes to believe that blood brings death, and not life. Initially she had thought, in an orthodox manner, that blood should bring life. Her attempts to reanimate her father by burying a sacrificial plate of blood at the site of his death have failed. Thus she no longer has a clear and innocent faith in the power of 'magic' or the redeeming power of blood - but her loss of faith in the light of her dying childhood merely strengthens her vigil against Ethan. When Toss is symbolically splattered by the blood of the 'sacrificial lamb' as she helps Ethan with the tailing, it appears to impress upon the audience the force Ethan has as a devilish threat to Toss, exemplifying her fear of him with a decisive gesture. But later on in the same sequence, the blood takes on a more powerful symbolic significance when she smears it over her face with a ceremony that mocks her mothers feminine rite of lipstick application. The lamb's blood becomes prophetically associated with the menstrual blood Toss experiences later. The parallelism of Toss and Liz's lipstick ceremony sets up the strange sexual dynamic between them in relation to Ethan, as Ethan becomes more of a sexual threat to them both.
Ward does not only rely on secondary symbolism to create meaning, but also on the actions and dynamics of human action. The characters become dynamic graphical elements in compositions that are reminiscent of those found in Christian art. The manner in which Ethan carries Toss's father towards Liz is reminiscent of many familiar images of the Deposition and the Pieta, including Michaelangelo's famous sculpture of Pieta and Roger van der Weyden's The Escorial Deposition. These works are filled with deep religiosity and powerful emotions that move the observer who contemplates the sufferings of Christ. Ward knew the power of this composition and so relied on it in the scenes following Justin's death; but the full emotional effect of it is denied due to the indifference and apparent insolence of the hunter Ethan who carries him. Thus the accustomed audience reaction of simple sorrow to the display of a 'pieta' is complicated, and mixed with feelings of apprehension. This enables the audience to understand Toss's reaction to the event of her father's death, which is primarily motivated by fear of the Hunter rather than grief for her father.
The simplicity of Toss's faith and her desire to believe in magic is laid bare during the sequence of Ethans light show. The audience is aware that this is merely a demonstration of a scientific principle, but Ward has re-enchanted the facts into a visual spectacle using the idiom of magic. The manner in which he has achieved this is similar to the techniques used by Joseph Wright of Derby in paintings such as An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump (1767-8). The spectacular nature of this scientific demonstration - the death of a bird by removal of air - is rendered powerfully with a highly Romantic chiaroscuro in candlelight. Mood, magic, terror and wonder are all foregrounded in Derby's painting and in Ward's light show sequence, testifying to their conviction that 'Science ... both releases the Romantic power of nature and testifies to its own power over nature.' Ward, through the character of Toss, is reacting to the modernist reduction of the world to scientific facts based on the rules of vision; because 'Modernity chases magic from the world' he instead spectacularises and romantices the scientific phenomena. But this also serves to give Ethan the appearance of a shamanistic power over nature which he doesn't deserve, Toss is therefore placed in the role of dupe. But because she refuses to be disenchanted, her spellbound innocent wonder in Ethan's light show reaffirms her previously lost belief in magic - she lets down her vigil and mistakenly makes friends with the fraudulent enemy.
Ward chooses to appropriate artistic genres that work contrary to modernity's rationalist program. By creating obvious allusions to anti-modern aesthetic models such as Medievalism and Expressionism in the mise-en-scene, he can merge the mythical and emotional values of these aesthetic programs more successfully with a subjective discourse such as Vigil. Ward set out to design Vigil with a 'medieval feel, as if we were seeing it through Toss's eyes after she had been influenced by Grimms' Fairy Tales.' Medievalism has an obvious appeal to Ward, as he set his next film The Navigator A Medieval Oddessy (1988) within the context of a plague-ridden Cumbria of 1348. Ward has a rather mythical and apocalyptic view of the Middle Ages, which the setting, props, and costume affirm. The most medieval aspect to the setting is its primitiveness and complete lack of modern technology. The buildings are old, evocative of the white settlers 'dark ages' in the New Zealand colonial era; the machinery is also antiquated and usually doesn't work; and the house is bare of modern appliances and even of furniture. Mud, rust, decay, and dampness also play a major role in presenting a world with a romanticised medieval feel. When Ward thought that the sets were looking to neat he took an adze and a crowbar to them, destroying their interior in order to authenticate it. Toss's dream sequence of her father and Ethan duelling like Medieval knights shows just how absorbed Toss's imagination is in the fantastical world of Grimms Medievalism, and explains the medieval look of the film as issuing from Toss's subjective reality.
Props, such as the metallic hawk Birdie built, are also evocative of the armoured knights of the Dark Ages. This prop, being one of very few items which glisten, stand out in the dusty dirty world of Vigil. Another item which stands out because of its difference is the shiny green apple, the lush healthy green of this apple is at a complete variance to the cool dirty colours of the films chosen palette. This green is seen once again in the leaves of the tree which Toss plants at her father's death site. These objects represent small moments of health and growth, which are completely missing from the rest of the film's mise-en-scene. They are imbued with a spiritual life of their own, with a fetishism comparable to primitive Medieval religion. Toss's costume almost assumes the manner of a fetish as well, after her father's death as she takes to wearing his clothes. This is counterbalanced by her mother who places her fetish within the ballet tutu which Toss wears simultaneously. The tutu began as a sparkling clean white item, but eventually it putrefied after encountering the muddy environment, becoming synonymous with the rest of the mise-en-scene. The damaged tutu is a metaphor for the frustration Liz has with the oppressive valley, her desire to be refined is constantly thwarted by the demands of the harsh environment.
The lighting and compositional structures in Vigil originate from Ward's interest with Expressionism. Expressionism as a movement is associated with the representation of the dark side of elemental natural forces through the subjective lens of the artist. Vigil is a subjective reality, it's dark mood is motivated by the confusion and darkness of Toss's reality. Toss is often framed in canted or askewed shots that resonate her tortured state of mind in much the same way as the Expressionist Dreyer framed Joan of Arc in The Passion of Jeanne d'Arc. Ward's exaggerated use of light and shape echo early German Expressionistic films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari by Weine, The Student of Prague by Galeen and Destiny by Fritz Lang. Primarily in black and white, Vigil's harsh chiaroscuro tends to abstract the compositions. The abstracted shape of the knarled tree is common to all these early films, and a good example of how Vigil has appropriated their stylistic qualities.
Apart from strange echoes in the valley and scanty dialogue, Vigil could almost be a silent film. The story of Vigil is primarily told through a striking use of mise-en-scene. Even the knarled trees play their part in developing the simple narrative in Toss's world. Vincent Ward conveys the overpowering forces of nature and the isolation of the characters in Toss's valley with a striking command of visual vocabulary. He presents to us a mythical and apocalyptic subjective story of a small child's vigil over her land, her realm, and her childhood with a primitive medievalism that allows full flight of Toss's extraordinary imagination.
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