The word “blue” can evoke a serene image of peace or the inner turmoil of despair. Both a color and a feeling, blue is the centerpiece for multimedia artist Jennifer Reeves’ When It Was Blue, a film that the artist showed at Cornell Cinema Friday night. Blue, which deals with the dangerous situation of our global environment, successfully creates a piece of art that simultaneously dazzles the eyes and rattles the brain with its images of a world at war with itself.
Reeves, who has been to Cornell on three occasions, is known in the art world for her experimental filmmaking. She has been called “disrespectful” and “angry” (terms she displays proudly on her website) by leading critics in her field. Her last trip to Cornell was in October 2006 for a screening of her film The Time We Killed, which was much more of a straight-ahead feature film then her latest work.
The process of filming, editing and finalizing Blue has taken Reeves over five years. Dealing with the decrepit state of our global environment, Reeves has created a performance featuring duel 16mm projectors that show film that has been hand-painted by the artist to mimic land, water and trees. This “performance of a film,” although slightly oxymoronic, makes for a unique experience that is subject to change with every performance, as the two films can line up different ways and the hand drawn images can bring out new elements with each showing.
Blue is broken up into four parts, mirroring both the seasons and the points on a compass. The film starts during late summer and moves chronologically through fall, winter, spring and back to summer by using various images. Using the seasons, Reeves effectively links the process of planetary renewal with a personal drive for expression and meaning. She draws the audience into the cyclical nature of our world by following a constant image: water. Blue opens with the ocean, and follows rivers to the icy glaciers and then back again to the serenity of the beach. According to Reeves, this trip represents a move from civilization and pollution to a more natural state of being.
The compass meanwhile highlights the global breadth of the project. With no travel budget, Reeves shot where her life took her, from her honeymoon in Costa Rica to a film festival in Vancouver. Cornell students “might recognize some trees or some water,” as Reeves filmed on campus during her trip here in 2005. The diversity of the geography not only highlights the natural beauty of the world, which Reeves employs skillfully and gorgeously, but also demonstrates the universality of the images.
One of the most interesting elements of Reeves’ project is her use of colors. This is apparent from the opening shots of the ocean, which display the title of the piece, When It Was Blue. This makes the claim that the ocean, like many other parts of the world, is no longer blue, a theme that follows throughout the film. Today the world is ablaze with artificial reds, browns and purples, which dominate the screen and create an uncomfortable sensation as they mar the recognizable wonders of our world from outside and within.
The film is most successful, however, when dealing with purely natural images. Reeves’ crisp shots of the enviornment, unadorned by her hand-drawn additions, remind the audience what we as a planet have at stake. There are few images in this film more powerful than a single tree falling in the forest or ripples moving out to the edge of a pond. This is very clearly a film about nature, and, when Reeves allows that to come through, the results are extraordinary.
The film is accompanied by music from Icelandic composer and bassist Skúli Sverrisson, who contributes acoustic wind and string instruments to the project. A previous recipient of an Icelandic Music Award for Best Album of the Year, Sverrisson might be better known to Cornell audiences through his work with experimental musician Laurie Anderson and alternative rock sweethearts Blonde Redhead. The soundtrack that appears throughout the film, while pleasant, does little more than remind the audience that this is in fact a film and not a collection of shots of trees accompanied by birdcalls.
Maneuvering through glaciers, mountains, volcanoes and forests, Blue infuses new life into a tired and played-out cause. True to its mission, Reeves’ film spotlights the power of nature through its beautiful and personal images, alongside jarring juxtapositions of our natural world falling apart. Thankfully, the film ends with a message of hope: The final pan of a garden in rural New Zealand, which represents Reeves’ ideal of paradise, proves that true beauty still exists, and that we can still save the world.