I got up at quarter to four in the morning. This year’s Winter Solstice came due at 4:44 am, so I was outside to take it all in.
I didn’t specifically get up because of the solstice. It’s just that I am one with nature. Nature being the dog and the dog had to go out. So we went and we ran and we were part of that weird pre-morning cityscape. Between the worlds of a city night and day.
Outside, bathed in the ever-present glow of city light, it didn’t feel like the longest night of the year. The solstice, that moment when the Northern Hemisphere is tilted the most from the sun (not distance from the sun), passed without any real break in the rhythm of the city.
The construction crew for the new storm drainage tunnel was already in action. The physical therapy place at the hospital was open. Traffic was yawning and rolling out of bed sluggishly, but with purpose.
The temperature was slightly above 30 degrees Fahrenheit with wind, but little to no wind chill factor. It felt pretty good. Less than a week ago it was below zero with negative 20 wind chills. That is crisp air. Your breath is stolen in gasps and you can see the cloaked ghost clouds swarming over the river.
Which brings me to the movie I watched last night, The Last Winter (2006). I wanted to watch something wintry and bleak in honor of the solstice.
The movie was bleak, but mainly for its lack of substance. A decent cast (Ron Perlman, James Le Gros, Connie Britton, Zach Gilford) and a not terrible story, if overly familiar, did nothing to save a horrible, lazy ending.
Watching the trailer is a more satisfying version of the story than the full movie.
Sure, the movie was clichéd, but I can excuse that. Movies set in the arctic tend to behave the same way. We meet the team, see who is going to clash in the close living quarters (family tension, romantic tension, corporate vs environment tension), notice a Native in the background who will serve next to no purpose other than to interject a bit of ancient wisdom in one scene, then team building. After that we’re off to find danger, not subtly hinted at during the intro about the drilling of a test well that was capped without further explanation and never reopened…until now. DUN DUN DUN
I don’t need the usual dangers spelled out. I make a habit out of reading accounts of arctic exploration. The one thing the movie did decently was visually exhibit the whiteness. How the horizon is wiped away and the white snow is indistinguishable from the sky. I’m sure it was also a cheap film technique, but I liked it. This was the bleak and lonely factor I wanted. It was only in evidence fleetingly.
The movie quickly (for my sake) barreled through the warming issues, the corporate greed element and hints of mental issues cropping up through the typical heavily scribbled out notebook and fractured dream sequences. We get the idea of an isolation that will compound every problem, and every problem did occur. The story was thorough in that at least.
A brief look at a phantom herd and we know things are going wrong. As if we didn’t pick it up before from the crazy journal rantings and the appearance of ravens. Because we all know there is some mystical shit behind ravens, not that the movie bothered to pick any particular mystical shit. But ravens eating eyeballs, man. Something is up! Or they’re just hungry.
The movie doesn’t bother with explanations, overt or subtle. We know the weather is wrong and the prolonged high temperatures are bad for the stability of the arctic environment the crew inhabits. What we don’t know is how that translates into a herd of mammoth-sized ghosts with elk-like skull heads and grasping claws instead of hooves.
The movie couldn’t decide if environmental disasters were enough of a scare, but didn’t bother to introduce the ghost herd other than visually. Nobody watching will care to ponder too deeply about the phantoms because it’s just not worth the effort.
I guess the oil was angry. You know how oil gets.
Anyway, nearly everyone dies. Everyone but the Lone Survivor, who wakes up alone in a hospital a la Walking Dead or 28 Days Later to discover that Alaska is 71 degrees Fahrenheit. The horror of it all made a doctor hang himself.
I was just glad the movie was finally over.
The sounds the Lone Survivor heard were no different from my solstice morning. Wind sounding like Nazgûl screams, buffeting trees and street signs. The never-ending sound of sirens and far-off, indistinct yelling (in my case, waterfowl).
I saw the tracks of animals among the trees. A cat drunkenly trotting down a slushy alley. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see spectral, antlered beasts pawing through the overflowing garbage bins.
Four AM wakeups make for a long day even if the sunlight is in short supply. The night only gets shorter from here until the next solstice. I don’t mind, but I’m not cheering for it. I kind of like the darkness.