Fragmentary impressions of a silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), directed by Carl Th. Dreyer, and starring Reneé Falconetti as Joan:
- The film is unique in my experience in the way that it refracts the point of view we experience through the constantly shifting angles deployed on the screen for brief moments before another equally striking image replaces it.
- The kaleidoscopic effect, rather than abstracting and distancing me, drew me into the heart of the emotion, and the spiritual nature of the simple narrative.
- Director Carl Th. Dreyer employs a rapid pace of editing that at times anticipates the style of a latter day music video.
- The pace is combined with the bewildering variety of camera angles, in almost exclusively medium to extreme close-up shots. The few instances of zooms or tracking shots are used with memorable specificity to emphasize the mood of the judges.
- Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Voices of Light” serves as one of the finest silent film scores I have ever experienced.
- For a fully realized essay about this film, I recommend you to this post by Matthew Dessem on his Criterion Contraption blog.
- I couldn’t help but think that many contemporary viewers surely will view this story of a young woman interrogated, tortured, and condemned by a gang of old men as a proto-feminist parable.
- To me, however, the story of faith does not condemn the institutional church as a whole, for all time. We are expected to bring an extra-textual context to our viewing. (That is, since Joan was canonized as a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.)
- Joan is interrogated with ruthless cruelty by a panel of churchmen, but her answers are often given with the wide-eyed and tearful nod or mouthed “oui.” The details of her replies are sometimes left to our conjecture—the simplicity of her pure faith is clear however.
- Despite the basic dearth of wider or establishing shots, the film really has to be seen in motion to appreciate the effect of the compositions. So much depends on the montage, and the subtle arrangements of faces and furniture from shot to shot.
Looking down at the saint…
…who lies abed, appearing small and frail.
- The film being shot in chronological sequence apparently gave Falconetti, in her only screen role, a chance to experience the trial and suffering of Joan in a very striking fashion, which is completely visible on the screen in her face.
- The final scenes of Joan’s martyrdom are as harrowing as anything I have witnessed in film. They are cut against visions of the English soldiers brutalizing and killing the French peasants. Joan’s victory, and that of the peasants, is not ultimately through arms, but through embracing the way of the Cross.
“I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life.”
—Carl Th. Dreyer
This post is part of the Blind Spot 2017 series, hosted by Ryan McNeil at The Matinee.
I’m sure everyone is as excited as Tippi.
Well, I just missed noting the 2 year anniversary of the blog on June 9. It’s been a fun experience sharing discussions of new and classic films with you all this past year.
Here’s some of my favorite things I’ve written since the last birthday celebration, in case you missed them:
- I visited the filming sites of the Coen Brothers’ True Grit and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.
- I wrote about all of Winsor McCay’s short cartoons, which was apparently picked up on by a university animation class in Australia.
- I discussed the links between Au hasard Balthasar and Paris, Texas in an essay.
- I looked at Peter Bogdanovich’s lesser-known first film, Targets.
- I shared a very personal reflection on the meaning of Scorsese’s latest film, Silence.
- And I made my first (and so far only) appearance on a podcast, making the case for A Shot in the Dark to Lady P. and Martin Kessler of the Flixwise podcast.
Thanks to everyone who has read and commented this year. I really appreciate anyone who takes the time to read my blog.
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A crane shot, perhaps, of a crane shot.
It is probably not best to view a parody before you see the original work that is its subject. But in this case, I think no harm was done. I laughed out loud the moment I recognized the music that underscored the crane shot in the opening sequence of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), having first heard it in this silly gem of an American Express commercial by Wes Anderson. Anderson, noted for his admiration of Truffaut along with other filmmakers, has no shame in pilfering shots, music, or other elements from films he admires. You can also hear the same music cue in the trailer for Day for Night (pardon the unfortunate English dub). Anderson even riffs on the scene where Truffaut’s character has to choose from a tray of guns needed for a later scene, as he gives us his tongue-in-cheek homage to Truffaut’s behind the scenes look at filmmaking.
One for the deceased gentleman, and one for his hearse.
Jacques Tati’s second major film as a director, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (M. Hulot’s Holiday), was released in 1953. This was the first to feature the character of Monsuier Hulot, a quirky everyman, who jauntily bumbles his way through a series of humorous episodes. Usually, the humor comes from Hulot’s unselfconscious way of disrupting the order of his environment, merely by being himself.
The obvious comparison for Tati, from my experience, is Chaplin. Just as in the films of the famous silent comic, Jacques Tati is the total filmmaker: a writer-director-actor who controls all the elements of his production. He has also created a comic persona in Monsieur Hulot, that—like Chaplin’s little tramp—is one of the great and iconic contributions to cinema. I have heard so much about the work of Tati, and now that I have finally seen the first of his films featuring M. Hulot, I know that the consensus is right—Tati is among the greatest filmmakers in world cinema history, and I am very excitedly looking forward to experiencing his other films. Continue reading
What lingers in the mind is the color. A reddish-pinkish hue, the hue of dying embers. And the glow of the fireflies who rise up with a dreamy slowness like sparks floating upwards. The fireflies die quickly—their lifespan may be a season—and they are easily crushed even by a small child, which is a giant to them. Children, like the fireflies, are also the victims of forces much larger than them—war, hunger, the banality of bureaucracy, the general indifference of the adult world.
“Watch the road, dear!”
In Frank Nugent’s original 1939 New York Times review of John Ford’s Drums along the Mohawk, he observed, “The Revolutionary period, oddly enough, has been one of the least exploited epochs in our national history—by the screen, that is…” If we are discussing war movies, I would add World War I to the list under-served by the cinema. While we seem to get a new movie about World War II almost every year, these pivotal eras are rarely charted by filmmakers. So it is with great interest that I took a look at Ford’s film, which stars Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert as a pair of newlyweds trying to make a life in the frontier when war against the British breaks out around them.
It’s not really a war movie properly speaking, but like most of Ford’s best loved pictures, a story of a family and a community. There are some battles, but most of them are off screen, or only spoken about. Ford is more concerned with the aftermath of the battles, and even the preparation for them, than on rousing footage of the actual skirmishes. The focus remains on the ways that the encroaching realities of war shapes and transforms a community. As one of the few wars fought on our own soil, this sort of story is very different than the ones where soldiers bleed and die across the ocean. Homes are burned by Indians allied with the British. The women and children of the frontier are forced to retreat to the relative safety of the nearby fort, abandoning their homes and lands. The militia is formed from the able bodied of the area, and drilled in preparation to defend the territory.
Dystopias never really go out of style. Since at least the early 20th century, every generation produces its fair share of dystopian literature and films. It seems that regardless of the political climate we live in, it is possible to detect the seeds of what might grow into a future where society is a frightening place. Artists seem to feel the need to express their discontent with contemporary trends through these futuristic nightmares, and readers and audiences continue to show an appetite to experience these brave new worlds. One of the earliest epic science fiction dramas was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a dystopic silent film that has influenced countless films since. Two of the best known novels in this mode, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World, have served as models and inspirations for many of the dystopias which followed, up to the recent Hunger Games series.