Film: Red Knot
Director: Scott Cohen
“But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living, side-by-side, can grow up for them if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Writer, Peter, and artist, Chloe, haven’t been married long and are giddily in love. They’re taking an Antarctic cruise together and both have high hopes for the experience?Chloe because it seems like a wonderfully romantic escapade and Peter because he’ll hopefully get to interview some important scientists and environmentalists.
The filming was done on an actual Antarctic cruise: in 2010 artist Gregory Colbert chartered a large research boat to travel for three weeks from Argentina to Antarctica and back. For reasons unknown, Colbert had decided that in addition to providing a spectacular experience to a boatload of passengers he would create a kind of intellectual incubation chamber within the ship itself, and he brought this about by extending invitations to some really smart folks, scientists and creatives both.
Among those present on the boat and also appearing in the film were iconic novelist Cormac McCarthy, film star Juliette Binoche, and famed whale-song environmentalist Roger Payne. Colbert also offered a spot to artist Scott Cohen, who quickly leaped at the chance to put together his first feature film under circumstances that might never be repeated.
The Antarctic landscape itself is a vast metaphor for angst. The shots of the claustrophobic interior ship spaces, intermittent with views of the terrifying vastness of the Antarctic water sky and ice, are a microcosm of the human dilemma. Francesco Casetti’s dictum that film negotiates reality?especially the reality of the conflict between technology and nature?is clearly spelled out in the scenes where mountains and glaciers dwarf the 385-foot research vessel.
The film, as a whole and in many of its details, is profoundly symbolic, and the two poles, north and south, are key to what the film aims to represent. The meticulous and patient crafting that Cohen put into this project make repeated contemplations a rewarding experience. (I predict that it will be discussed ad nauseum in university lecture halls for decades).
At the start of the voyage Chloe and Peter are emotionally fused. When one wishes to change, the other resists. As often happens in couples, both of them wish to change at the same time, but in different ways. They seem to hardly know each other. Even a brief discussion about having children looks like a hot potato?as if they’ve never discussed it before.
The comportment of this couple at first looks contrived, but it’s not bad acting; rather, it’s exactly the way newlyweds might act together on their honeymoon while still feeling slightly self-conscious, as if, yes, they’re in their own movie. Olivia Thirlby’s face changes from achingly lovely to bordering on homely, and her cutesy-pie mannerisms can be annoying, rendering the relationship emotionally intense, but weak and superficial. (Some of the early romantic scenes are quite moving, but others look like commercials for a Ralph Lauren fragrance.) Vincent Kartheiser is amazing as the writer Peter, who means well but often comes off looking like an ego-driven poseur, so lost in his own trees that he misses the forest.
Against their expectations this cruise has handed them a heap of stress; they’re only really alone together in their cabin, whose cramped space, shared bathroom, and bunk beds tend to put the kibosh on intimacy. What’s more, Peter has had the good (or bad?) luck of having stumbled onto a goldmine of writing opportunities related to one of his lifelong obsessions?Antarctic exploration. This leaves Chloe in the dust. When he becomes so immersed in his work that he makes a significant life decision without consulting her, the enraged Chloe decides to leave him. But she can’t quit the ship, so instead she decides to take another cabin.
Then, something interesting happens. The young woman who was just a bit too clingy and acquiescent, who went ballistic when her husband forgot about her, suddenly starts finding herself again. In her new cabin she creates the romantic, feminine cocoon that she hadn’t been comfortable creating in the cabin with her man, and hunkers down to reflect, read, and draw as she could never have done when her focus was always on Peter.
She starts reaching out to the other passengers for meaningful encounters. She expresses herself more often through her art and becomes more playful, optimistic, charming, and friendly, while Peter’s wonderful writing opportunity looks more and more like a dull academic exercise.
Chloe also becomes wiser and more self-possessed. When Peter interrupts a checker game to tell her he wants to talk to her, she affirms the break in their emotional fusion by calmly replying, “I’m in the middle of something right now. I want to talk to you, too, but we’ll have to do it later.”
Later the boat’s handsome captain sits for her as she draws his portrait. The focussed gazing required to copy his features is precisely the kind of intimate connection she needs.
Finally Peter lowers his head and joins Chloe in her sacred bower. His need surpasses hers because she has achieved individuation and he hasn’t (quite). His error had been only a moment of unconsciousness and had in no way erased their bond.
Red Knot is like a couple’s version of the Narcissus myth: only in knowing yourself can you help your partner to transcend the limits of time, body, and space. Negotiating couplehood requires a balance of solitude and intimacy?an achievement only possible through mindfulness.
Red Knot manifests seven of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It provides respite from a sick world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.
Many thanks to the research assistance of Bill Waterman.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.