Walter Pater, the late Victorian art theorist, famously said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” He was speaking of the condition where form and meaning are the same. Movies are a Frankenstein of forms — the drama of theatre, the visuals of photography, the poetics of metaphor — all sown together. In the best of films, the stitches are invisible, and the movie overpowers you. In the worst of films, the creature is coming unraveled and falls apart before your very eyes.
Then there are those films, or moments within given films, when true alchemy takes place, when the movie achieves the condition of music. In Victor Kossakovsky’s documentary, Aquarela those moments are many.
With antecedents that include the Star Gate sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, much of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi film trilogy, and the evolution sequence in Malick’s Tree of Life, Kossakovsky’s film utilizes breathtaking visuals and evocative music and sound effects to create an experience that is both riveting and transporting. The violent and sublime calving of glaciers, the roaring and crashing of massive waves, as well as the haunting quiet of ice caves and beading air bubbles, are what we see and hear on the screen, but as much as the movie is about these things, we are constantly being lifted above the particular and invited to surrender to something larger and more encompassing: Water.
I know that sounds anti-climatic. In the developed world, the ubiquity of water makes it feel tamed and domesticated, but Aquarela reclaims the wildness of water; whether in its frozen state or flowing freely, water in this film dominates the screen to the point of nearly overwhelming it.
This concept, of a element being the star of a film, is gently introduced in the opening sequence on Russia’s Lake Baikal (please note that any geographical references are the result of online promotional material; never in the film are locations identified, let along commented on). On this thawing lake, a group of officials ingeniously salvage a car that has sunk beneath the ice. However, no sooner is this car raised then across the lake another witless driver plunges his car into the freezing water. Here the officials are not successful in saving all the occupants’ lives.
This sequence is the closest the film comes to traditional drama and being a traditional documentary. As a result, it stands as the most direct metaphor for global warming, both our inept recklessness and our pathetic attempts to save ourselves.
Thereafter, Kossakovsky surrenders the safe familiarity of the documentary form and aspires to music. The overwhelming percentage of imagery is natural, but like a musical phrase that keeps being inserted, a repeating motif for perspective, people (or the works of people) periodically appear —a sailboat passing before calving glaciers, a couple sailing a ship in treacherous seas, the empty, hurricane ravished streets of Miami, cave explorers in South America. Likewise, the perspective always returns to the eye view, though much of the time the camera flies above or penetrates, dives in dangerously close, or studies details with a near microscopic intensity. The overall effect is truly symphonic.
With such a purpose, and with the visuals dominating, the soundtrack of Aquarela plays a supportive role. With nearly no dialogue, no voiceover, no talking heads, the majority of the audio are the sounds of the subject—ice cracking, icebergs toppling and rolling, waves crashing, waterfalls hurling into the air and thundering onto the rocks below. But what music there is, it is audacious and magnificent. Not the mountainous roar of a Sibelius or Bruckner symphony, but the blast and growl of the Finnish symphonic metal band, Apocalyptica. These four classically trained cellists create a sound that is as aggressive, massive and sublime as the ice and water on the screen. One of those surprising choices a filmmaker makes that seems both inspired and inevitable.
The collective result, the movement from the form of a movie to music, is a film that, like rushing water, breaks boundaries and dissolves borders.