#5 Film in Light and Motion : The Inclusion or the Absence of an Umbrella in film (and other rainy matters)
In Film, an umbrella is most commonly used at a time of deep reflection and can often represent a shift: a passing or a change. You can’t a have a scene for a funeral without having both rain and black umbrellas scattered across the screen.
In John Wick umbrellas are used to hide principle characters from the elements, but also, a rainy funeral enables John Wick, played by Keanu Reaves, to have a conversation with Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, in relative privacy. These men are tough. Under other circumstances, a little bit of rain wouldn’t bother them, but in the event of a funeral, it provides the cover they need to be out in the open, and yet concealed. There’s an ill conceived idea of safety to be had too as the umbrella being held in hand usually means that foul play is neither anticipated nor expected. There will be no gun fu here. You know they are only going to talk. This is not so much a cliché, more a stylistic choice for a chance meet-up that is in no ways misunderstood as threatening. Sometimes, umbrellas in the rain show a disarming compromise between would-be enemies, and it gives a chance for exposition to flow.
The one problem I see: we are led to believe that neither character can be identified and what they say can’t be heard, but is this the most effective way or are they, in reality, sitting ducks? Can what they say be read through the art of lip reading? Can they be easily followed from this location? Why choose this chance venue to be inconspicuous?
The answer is simple. It’s stylistic. Umbrellas are rarely present for the purpose of rain. There is always a meaning behind their prominence.
Umbrellas aren’t tied to the past or the present. in Bladerunner, we can’t ignore the fact that it still rains in the future, and even in a dystopian future at that, the umbrellas are the only things that force the people to stand out from the darkness. Here they give a sense of movement; a kinetic, ambient aesthetic as well as a device to let us know that even though this is the future, it goes to show that some products and habits just don’t change.
In The Shawshank Redemption, rain with the absence of the umbrella is freeing, as it was for Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, who has just escaped from prison, finds the rain welcoming and victorious. He doesn’t seem to care if anybody sees him however — the one thing we note that the prison isn’t very far away, and that to celebrate here is a very brave and perhaps unwise move. But who gives a crap! He is at one with the elements and himself. Together they are unbreakable. True romance!
We can hope he has thought about that when he emerges from his tunnel and storm drain, strips himself of his prison shirt and embraces the rain: a thank you to mother nature who made it possible for him to escape. Andy isn’t looking for an umbrella to conceal himself here. It’s as if it is the force that is holding him up after all he had been through, and protecting him like no umbrella could.
Standing in the rain has its place, romantically, and we’re used to seeing characters that are so in love that they share this moment, and don’t even care if they get wet like in the Notebook or Four Weddings and a Funeral. Being rained on without the aid of an umbrella might appear to be dramatic in its romance, but it really has become a waterlogged cliché. To say that you love somebody so much that you are willing to stand in the pouring rain is as overused as flowers and chocolates; only rain is much cheaper. Look at what Andy Dufresne had to get through in The Shawshank Redemption to earn standing in the pouring rain? It makes the romantic super soakers look like a couple of wet towels left out on the line, pinned there for cinematic effect. It’s for the audience’s emotions, and that is all. Without the rain, it would just be two people kissing, and for the romantics who go to the movies, that’s never enough. An umbrella could ruin it for they are useful only if you plan to kiss at the doorstep and go dancing down the rain drenched street.
Romance can also be hard, and sometimes the umbrella becomes a coveted bargain between the couple who aren’t really experiencing the forever sweeping romance.
In Adventureland, we have the setting of a rain soaked New York street. The situation sees James, Jesse Eisenberg, waiting for Em to come home. Having just arrived in New York, he’s already soaked to the skin. Em, Kristen Stewart, is accustomed to New York weather and has an umbrella, and this umbrella is doing exactly what umbrellas are designed to do.
Keep Em dry. Self absorbed.
James looks pathetic enough to take away any sense of romantic glamour to what is commonplace when two characters come together near the end of a movie, in reconciliation, and in the rain. This could have become one massive romantic cushion clincher of a cliche, but none of that is here. James begins by wishing he had an umbrella. He acknowledges verbally that he is without: As with his love, he is reaching out, wanting to share… To which Em takes no hint. The umbrella is hers and hers alone… Both literally, and figuratively.
It is awkward… Prolonged… Drenching…
We can wonder how this scene would have played out if they both had umbrellas, on equal footing… It wouldn’t have felt the same. James had to look and feel not only out of place, but also grovelling pathetically.
What finally get to her is that he us most definitely a hard luck case, and she needs him in her life. After all, he is willing to stand out in the rain, for her and her alone.
And what if he had an umbrella but it was broken… But then would that lead to the more comedic scene. The out of luck loser is a common comedy trope. The scene in Adventureland is not meant to be comedic, nor is there equal footing… A simple touch of not having the umbrella ensures the tone, the emotion, and overall, the full intent of the scene. It is to us, the viewer who would in our own minds think, “she has the umbrella, and he’s finding it hard to get through a conversation because of the rain.”
Perhaps we hate to see people getting rained on, unless they are Tim Robbins, Hugh Grant or Andie MacDowell. We know Em makes the right decision — even though she could have come to the conclusion that she was in love with him a little sooner, for hypothermia sake.
Astonishingly, audiences are used to seeing the umbrella being used at both extremes, from the downpour of a funeral, to the heights and flights of a musical. Everybody knows Gene Kelly playing the idealistic version of the gentleman. In a musical, if you see a character with an umbrella, rain or no rain, you know a song and dance number will shortly follow. Moulin rouge, The Producers, Funny Face, and Singing in the Rain all give audiences what is familiar and recognisable.
But there are those of us who feast on the unexpected subversive approach to characters and their more complicated skewed visions of the world, — think the Penguin in Batman Returns who’s fixation with umbrellas aids his eccentricity, or just fascination by its potential for ending a life, as noted in Silent Night Deadly Night; not that it always makes sense in the real world, but at least this direct approach to prop to weapon misuse is very much on point.
In The Kingsman, the Umbrella is an extension of the characters body, and a stylistic tool, an arm, a shield and weapon all in one.
Umbrellas are there to add a level of detail that is purely at the whim of a character. In Withnail and I, it was used as punctuation as Richard E. Grant takes his Hamlet Soliloquy home, with a final charge of drunken angst.
Even with the Umbrella present in his hand, he still ends up getting soaking wet. The umbrella wasn’t there to be an umbrella, which we’ve already explored can mean many other things. Here, it was a lightening rod without the lightening. Here it was a sword, a glass raised in celebration, albeit only in the character of hamlet. The umbrella might always be characteristically connected to rain, but it seems, in the movies, the only way to face the natural elements is to be without an umbrella. To show our “sail of greatness”.
If we hide behind an umbrella, in the rain, how are we meant to grow?
- Stephen Radford
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch, 2014)
Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994)
BladeRunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)
Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009)
Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)
Singing in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952)
Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957)
Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
Silent Night Deadly Night (Charles E. Sellier Jr., 1984)
The Kingsman, The Secret Service (Matthew Vaughn, 2014)
Withnail and I (Bruce Robinson, 1987)