At Flavorwire, we often pay attention to the new, but we make sure to do so not at the expense of what’s come before it. In “Seminal,” a bi-weekly column, we examine earlier, under-acknowledged exemplars of dramatic mastery from revered actors’ careers — moments that should be described as, dare I say, seminal. This week, it’s the estimable, elusive, devoted character actor Daniel Day Lewis’ commercial for Japanese bottled water, whose environmentalist message runs deeper than even the fluid at the bottom of a proverbial extra large bottle.
2016 is likely to be the hottest year ever on record, with temperatures reaching 1.3ºC over pre-industrial averages, glaciers calving, the Great Barrier Reef bleaching, and sea levels rising at alarming rates. None of this would have come as a surprise if, three decades ago, you’d seen this prophetic Japanese water commercial starring Daniel Day Lewis:
The commercial — which, I think it’s fair to just call a fraught environmentalist melodrama — sees the venerable method actor taking on one of his most deglamorized and vanity-free roles yet: the 10-second cautionary tale features 0.75 seconds in which we only see Lewis’ cupped hand, 2.25 seconds devoted to a falling glacier, and four seconds devoted to the Japanese water bottles, leaving only three seconds for audiences to gaze upon that sculpted (yet chameleonic!) visage as it utters one bittersweet truth about the state of our planet. “It’s pure,” quoth DD-L, and his pronouncement reads almost as the opening of a eulogy. But guess why he and his visage were okay with giving over so much of the screen-time to ice mounds, bottles and cupping hands? Because Lewis knew this story was about something bigger than him, and knew he could channel his notorious method acting skills to provide a platform for an underrepresented thespian — a little lady named Mother Nature.
Of course, just because his screen-time isn’t long doesn’t mean it’s any less complex than any of his other roles. After this epic of poignant brevity was released, it was rumored that in the lead-up to the shoot, Lewis had spent three months doing nothing whatsoever except cupping, refusing to see his at-the-time girlfriend Isabelle Adjani unless she appeared to him in cuppable miniature and/or liquid form, which ultimately put strain on the relationship. His two greatest inspirations for the cupping gesture, he’d said, were “the standard coupe cocktail glass, which cupples [sic] rotundity and grace” and “people near streams in movies having pensive moments.” He’d also noted the “danger of pensive moments near streams dwindling” because of climate change’s potential to dry the streams near which people could have pensive moments, and lamented the dearth of pensive moments for method actors playing characters near streams in the future.
He’d travelled the globe cupping various waters, from the moist majesties of Poland Spring in Poland, Maine to the wet wonders of Nałęczowianka in Nałęczów, Poland, to waters that had nothing whatsoever to do with Poland. He’d said he’d wanted to feel “the splashing succulence of Earth’s virginal offering” so that he could understand the contrast between pure water and anthropocenically compromised mucks; he spent the following months cupping the sludges of Gowanus, fondling the leaden waters of Flint, pinching used condoms from the Great Pacific garbage patch, the latter of which he’s said to have been personifying as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood.
On top of that, his co-stars in the 10-second fraught environmentalist melodrama were astounded by his on-set method antics. The Glacier, already in a vulnerable state after having had to do three calving takes for a director whose Lars Von Trier-esque ruthlessness and mind games would ultimately lead it towards a nod from Cannes, said of Lewis:
I thought I had it rough, but Dan, despite only having that one line, he really gets into the bodily specificity of it in a really strenuous way. I can’t even imagine — here I am getting massages everyday after shoots, and Dan just refuses to pamper himself. Beyond his freakishly focused study of how to bend his hands to make the most exquisite cupping gesture, Dan, I think, has been trying to also channel the scorching pain of the entire globe through tanning, which is just — wow. Would I act with him again? Absolutely, if I have the time before melting. [Addressing whether or not it’d continue acting after being reduced to a few nanometers of heightened sea level, the Glacier said, “I think the best thing for older actresses is to get out of their comfort zone. I’m not going to fight age.” “Yas, Ice Kween,” replied Lewis.]
Meanwhile, Lewis’ other co-star, a member of the water bottle ensemble who Lewis had told, “there are no small parts, only small actors,” gave a slightly more extreme account of Lewis’ method tendencies:
I’m so blessed to have gotten to perform with him, but at the same time I could never do what he does. It wasn’t just the tanning. Watching him put himself in a large microwave oven and have his assistant cook him on “Baked Potato” every other day was really harrowing for us all. He also insisted that we call him his character name — White Man Drinking Water.
And Mother Nature said in a statement released by her publicist:
Dan’s a mensch!
Regardless of how he to the places he goes in the fraught environmentalist melodrama, what’s ultimately important is what we get from the delivery of those words: “It’s pure.” And what we get is, like everything this magnificent and enigmatic man does, multitudinous. Looking back, one can see the purity of what was and the scum and grime of what was to come. Is this a commercial? No, it’s a memorial. Are those water bottles? No, they’re translucent caskets, barefacedly displaying what we’d soon destroy. They may not have mentioned this fraught environmentalist melodrama at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, but as 176 countries joined to set a series of important goals they’d obviously fulfill immediately, it’s hard to imagine that the words “It’s pure,” spoken with those soothingly elongated vowels, weren’t resonating through leaders’ heads.