The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the sea from the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
—opening lines of Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931
The film begins hazily, the black screen fading to a still shot of the sun setting over the sea. The camera is an eye and it opens just in time to witness the sun’s rapid descent into the waves. The eye does not waver. Once open, the camera’s eye stares only at this scene for the film’s duration of two and a half minutes. I stare with it, never having seen a sun depart from a sky with such haste, a lone lemon drop sinking in a glass of golden milk. When the sun hits the horizon, the descent appears to hasten, and my focus deepens. Have I ever felt this anxious when watching a sunset? I stop thinking, worried I may miss it, but to my relief I don’t; just shy of its final exit into the sea, a golden sun flashes green. Then the camera blinks.
The artist Tacita Dean filmed this phenomenon—known as “the green ray” or “the green flash”—during a lengthy trip to a small village on the western coast of Madagascar, where every evening she’d record the sun setting over the Mozambique Channel on a single roll of 16mm film. In these seaside moments she’d wait, focusing on the unfeigned act of looking, unsure of what exactly she was waiting for. Dean writes of this experience, “For years I have sought out the green ray, peering at horizons for that last fractional second of greenness, not knowing or daring to imagine how extravagant a green splash it might be, but never have I seen it."1
As with most things worth experiencing, a description of the green ray’s extravagance pales in comparison to the event itself. The effect of the green ray is deceptively simple: when the sun rises or sets, its yellow rays refracting on a clear horizon, a green ray appears just before the sun passes beyond the horizon. Yet seeing it is rare. On a university website that functions like a devotional labyrinth to green rays, professor and astronomer Andrew T. Young attempts a comprehensive study of the phenomena to ensure his visitors with emphasis, they are real. Among scientific jargon, he goes on to categorize the green ray as a by-product of a mirage, which he offers as “an inverted image produced by atmospheric refraction.”2 I lose hours to the astronomer’s links and animations, comprehending most of his patient explanations, simply choosing to trust the rest. I stop reading when the green ray no longer feels rare, when I can imagine it clearly in my head. The green ray is a mirage, which is both real and illusion.
On the night Dean finally witnessed the green ray, confident she had captured its likeness on film, a couple watching nearby rejected her excitement. They too were monitoring the sun but missed it, and insisted the playback on their digital camera corroborated their insistence. But she believed in what she’d seen, having felt it, and took her film back to England to process the flash.
Dean is an artist whose films read like tales spun of coincidence, and her account of filming The Green Ray (2001) is no exception. In a conversation with the novelist Jeffrey Eugenides published in BOMB Magazine, she recounts witnessing the green ray for a second time in the same month she left Madagascar, in a plane over the coast of Ireland. I imagine an airplane is the perfect place to catch a green ray, soaring high between oceans, where all one can do is wait. Dean recalls this flash—“a second of emerald before the sun rose”—as extraordinarily vibrant, and that it lingered.3 She found herself alone for this bonus viewing, an intent believer among sleeping bodies, the quiet flash rewarding her pursuit.
While Dean’s film asks the viewer to look closely, Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert (1986) expects her, first, to wait. Released in the United States with the title Summer, Rohmer’s film follows the emotionally tantalized Delphine through her anxious desire to find meaningful interactions during her vacation. At the start of the film, when a trip with a friend is cancelled, Delphine makes despairing attempts to find a suitable companion in languor, hopping from Cherbourg to the Alps and back to Paris with inordinate, irrepressible restlessness. The filmmaker collaborated with actress Marie Rivière to develop the character of Delphine, whose resigned sighs, coy gestures, and constant weeping form a portrait of one of cinema’s most complex heroines. It’s no coincidence Rohmer’s best films are set in the summer, when time is abundant but vapid, when change is not too near, but the nearness is felt. In these films, Rohmer writes his characters into modes of waiting, where they’re tasked to meander through the in-betweenness of life’s defining moments: rereading books; taking daily swims; falling out of love at breakfast then back in it again. A character’s essence forms in this period of waiting, in the quiet spaces where coincidence stirs. The characters emerge on the other side, but we don’t get to see them there. When summer is over, the film always ends.
Lengthy bouts of dialogue between his characters fill the transitional summer spaces, and are characteristically Rohmer. While some dialogue is written, conversations dawdle and shift between characters, as real conversations tend to do, improvised by the actors who inspired their likeness. Witnessing the dynamic in larger gatherings is particularly affecting, where a communal pause is felt as much as it is heard. During her travels with a friend’s family to Cherbourg, Delphine demonstrates her idiosyncrasies through such weighted conversations. When she lectures the dinner table about her vegetarianism over her company’s chops of meat, unwilling to hear anything to the contrary, she’s silenced by a curt retort: “You’re a plant.” This comment, meant as an insult, is pure reaction, and it succeeds in isolating Delphine. But it’s silly, too. Our plant takes a long walk in the nearby woods, and she cries. Delphine’s tears, always explosive and ill-timed, never feel like the effect of a particular moment. They erupt off tempo and linger. When she leaves the hostile city, she attempts a trip to the mountains, only to leave a few hours after her arrival. She cries there, too, the tears dumping from her pale green eyes. She heads to the beach instead.
The titular ray goes unmentioned in the first hour of Rohmer’s film, but its symbols and desires follow Delphine, hanging heavy in each frame. Amid the fraught conversations and solitary strolls, she begins to welcome chance encounters, and coincidences become way-stations that swell with meaning. She reluctantly heeds a fortuneteller’s recommendation to follow green signs and, strolling down the beach alone, she collects a stray emerald-backed card on the sand, which reveals itself as the Queen of Hearts. As she continues down the shore she passes an informal book club, overhearing their discussion of Jules Verne’s 1882 novel Le Rayon Vert. They define the plot as a “romantic fairy-tale,” of the characters who are searching for something. Delphine lingers at a distance as the ensemble shares accounts of witnessing the phenomenon, quoting Verne. “When you see the green ray,” one woman recites, “you can read your own feelings, and others too.”
We witness Delphine slowing down after this encounter, alert to her green signs, as her demeanor adjusts to this newfound pursuit. At the Biarritz train station she meets a young man and, after discovering their shared love of Dostoyevsky, she invites herself to join him in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. They talk endlessly with ease, only to pause when Delphine’s eye catches a cliffside shop—RAYON VERT. Delphine laughs, then insists they follow the sun. When the young man asks the meaning of the green ray, Delphine replies, “It helps you to know.” “Know what?” “I’ll tell you later.” Once again, for good measure, Delphine cries.
When Dean developed her celluloid from Madagascar, the very faint green ray was revealed. By grading the film warm to underscore the flash’s tone, the scene appears otherworldly—not quite as if through rose-tinted glasses, but lenses steeped in tea—where the universal experience of awaiting a sunset is at once toxic and mystical. The indefinite appearance of Dean’s green ray requires attuned perception of its viewers, and activates the film’s purpose, achieving new life in every viewing. The artist explains that the green ray, captured at 24 frames per second, cannot be isolated in one single frame, that it is only visible when the film runs. If you aren’t looking closely enough, you’ll miss it, but it is there. We might consider that the green ray can only be seen between images, a sensational equivalent of one’s heart skipping a beat. Dean writes that, “looking for the green ray became about the act of looking itself, about faith and belief in what you see.”4
As with Dean’s film, Rohmer’s ends with the sun as it sinks beneath the horizon. A dramatic fugue accompanies the film as it oscillates between an image of the setting sun and Delphine’s tear-stained face. As the sun makes its final descent into the sea, Delphine’s despair falls from her face and she is overcome with sublimity. This is the last image we see.
Rohmer was never able to film the green ray. His cameraman spent two months in the Canary Islands filming the sunset every night before he gave up. Using an early form of digitization, Rohmer faked the electric flash of green. Learning about his farce shocked me, but not because of the lie, for isn’t cinema, like the green ray, a kind of mirage? It shocked me because I never imagined Rohmer on a beach, filming the sky, searching, not once. Tacita Dean exists between the images of her film, and it is always Marie Rivière’s face I see in that instance, ignited by the post-produced flash, which might last a beat too long, irreverent and ill-timed, like her tears.
Éric Rohmer’s Le rayon vert (1986) is screening at the Metrograph August 25 – 29, 2017.