FILM / All white on the night: In the first of a short series on seasonal themes, Sheila Johnston considers snow in the movies, and offers a how-to guide

Nobody ever said that there's no business like snow business. In Christopher Guest's Hollywood spoof The Big Picture, the bright young film-maker played by Kevin Bacon arrives in Hollywood with a sombre emotional drama set in a snow-locked country cabin. But, as compromise closes in on him, it becomes clear that his idea stands . . . well, a snowflake's chance in hell. The studio's D- boys and girls hone the script into something more commercially acceptable, and his concept melts away into Beach Nuts, a bikini- clad comedy.

Many of the greatest snow movies come from well outside Hollywood - David Lean's Dr Zhivago (Spain) or Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (Elstree). John Huston went to Ireland to make The Dead. Maybe it's because, in the world capital of cinema, the only snow lines you're likely to see are those on pocket mirrors (although there are plenty of flakes).

Perhaps, even if you feel inclined to travel snow-ward to shoot your movie, it's the inconvenience of filming on location - keeping the camera from freezing up, or the crew from tramping over your pristine snowscape in their hobnail boots. Or of waiting anxiously for months for the heavens to open, as Lean did on Zhivago or Zhang Yimou did on Raise the Red Lantern; or of facing unexpected meltdown and having to chase the stuff half-way across America (a significant culprit in Die Hard 2's spiralling budget); or of trying for some more or (often) less satisfactory substitute (see box, right).

Snow has chilly, unwelcoming overtones. Think snow, and you think of dark Scandinavian dramas where the long Nordic winters bring poverty and hardship (Pelle the Conquerer; Sven Nykvist's forthcoming The Ox) and frosted emotion (Best Intentions). You think of dreadful ordeals - Die Hard 2, Black Robe, Journey of Hope; mountain-climbing dramas like K2 and Werner Herzog's Scream of Stone; and Jack London movies passim. You think of death by exposure. You tend not to think of torrid sex or sizzling comedy (classic snow comedies are thin on the ground - for every Gold Rush, there are a dozen Ski Patrols). Here is a brief snow report to guide you over this difficult terrain:

WINTER WONDERLANDS

In sentimental Christmas-card art, snow performs a deceitful cosmetic function (a snow job, in fact): it beautifies and softens the landscape, instantly hiding dog poop and discarded condoms. And so it is with Christmas movies, which are often the honourable exception to the black-snow rule: see White Christmas and - the quintessential snow movie - It's a Wonderful Life. Near the end of that film, at the precise moment when James Stewart is granted his wish to see his hometown as it would have been had he never lived, the snow suddenly stops falling. In that parallel universe, the town is no longer idyllic; it has been polluted and turned by property speculation into a neon jungle. And when the 'real', magical Bedford Falls is restored, the snow immediately starts up again.

You will see that pretty little icing-sugar townscape quoted (or ironically parodied) in Gremlins or Home Alone. Snow may appear near the beginning of a film to signal that we are in the realm of the past (no Christmas Carol would be complete without the snows of yesteryear) and / or fantasy. It lightly dusts the apple-cheeked singers at the beginning of The Addams Family (soon to be rudely doused with a cauldron-load of something very hot and nasty). And Tim Burton, that consummate modern fairytale teller, uses it to set the scene in both Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns.

TABULAE RASAE

Snow stands for the blank screen (or page) - an empty expanse awaiting your personal trace. It is another reason why, when James Stewart's imprint is erased from Bedford Falls, so is the snow on which he left his mark. Snow blankets the womb-like Ice Palace where Dr Zhivago writes love poetry to his Lara. Conversely it's also a central character in one of the severest recent cases of writer's block, The Shining, where Jack Nicholson goes to ground for the winter to pen his magnum opus - the snowy wastelands around him are a mocking visual metaphor for the pages he's desperately trying to fill. (Perhaps this is a Stephen King phobia, for snow also figures prominently in another of his stories of writer's angst, Misery.)

IN COLD BLOOD

Snow stands for intellectual frostiness - My Night with Maud, set in wintry Clermont-Ferrand, shows a smug, doctrinaire Catholic beginning to melt before Maud's liberal ideas and tantalising physical charms. Snow connotes emotional (and perhaps also erotic) frigidity. It's falling when little Charles Foster Kane is taken away from his parents - a formative experience of childhood loss which presides over the whole of Citizen Kane via the two visual motifs of the snowstorm paperweight and the famous toboggan.

It's falling at the beginning of Batman Returns as the baby Penguin's parents cast him out into the storm, and becomes an indispensible feature of the subterranean Arctic World inhabited by the frozen-hearted adult Penguin. In a spectacular extended sequence at the end of Women in Love - novel and film - it shrouds the sterile, unloving Gerald, when, rejected by Gudrun, he crawls off into the mountains to die.

THE DEAD

Death scenes, in fact, are a staple of the genre: so effective, the red on white, as when the man is mashed up in the jaws of a snow- plough in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. More commonly, snow is linked to a spiritual dying. In Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller, Warren Beatty is gunned down in it, as his lover, Julie Christie, drifts, indifferent, into an opium trance and Leonard Cohen drones out an elegy to stymied love on the soundtrack: 'I lived with a child of snow . . . I'm just a station on your way, I know I'm not your lover'.

One of the most poignant death scenes in cinema occurs at the climax of Yilmaz Guney's Yol, which shows the internal ties that bind the Turkish mind. A man leads his wife, whom he has rescued from prostitution, home through miles of heavy snow; as she succumbs to the cold, he flogs her viciously in a desperate attempt to keep her alive. It's a bitterly poignant image for a culture whose feudal-patriarchal codes allow tenderness to find expression only in extreme brutality.

And one of the greatest examples, in literature and in film, comes in James Joyce's / John Huston's The Dead, in which, in the course of a long winter's night in Dublin, Gabriel comes to realise the imminence of death, and the fact that he has never known, and will never know, true passion, as he contemplates the snow 'faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'

(Photograph omitted)

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