Ben and Dan examine the majesty of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer)
This film makes Andrei Rublev look like Herbie: The Love Bug.
But seriously - Jesus Christ!
It really comes down to that, to Him. When she finally calls out for/to/with/as Him at the end... Lord have mercy... on her... on us...
Where to begin? Keith Richards - yes, of the Rolling Stones - may serve me now. I read an interview with him about 20 years ago, just when some of the computer-based musical technologies were coming into the recording studio. The interviewer asked the old rock dog how he was adapting, how he decided what to do given all the new toys. He answered: "It's not how many choices you have. It's can you make one." For a theoretically inclined guy like me who can't actually DO much of anything, I am impressed by Richard's wisdom for the practitioner. It seems to me to be especially sage for the artistic practitioner, working with established tools, in long-standing traditions, while simultaneously striving for something new, unique, truly creative. Being able to make a choice and sticking to it. I guess it's called commitment.
Dreyer is so committed, Jesus Christ, he should be committed! It's almost insane the single-mindedness of the film. No wonder they found the original print in a lunatic asylum. (Nevermind the questionable sanity of the subject herself.) His committment to his interpretation of a legend and the cinematic techniques he employs to communicate this interpretation, it's almost obsessive. Almost. And for me, it is dialectically the final act of the film, it's "other," that completes and confirms the genuis of JOA. After all those interior close-ups, again and again, and many of them from disturbingly ambiguous spatial perspectives, disturbing unto themselves and even more so in edited sequential relation to each other - after all this, the explosion of exterior action, with its smashing of images, one after the other, of violent mass chaos... when all hell breaks loose it is mind blowing. This world is over for Joan and it's over for us too, at least until she ascends to eternity and the house lights come up on us. Fuck me.
And this, after Falconetti's performance! At least since Brando, it has been understood that compared to live theatre, acting in film has to be "small." Or did that principle only come in with talking pictures? Certainly the need to project to the back row is made obsolete by the boom mike, the voice must be smaller in film than in theatre. But what of the silent period? Previously, on the topic of Chaplin, I celebrated mugging. Usually the term is an insult. Silent or sound, no doubt, mugging is allowed greater licence in comedy, action, and so forth rather than in so-called serious material. As I see it, the issue comes down to masks. They're cool for clowns but not tragic heros. At least in the Western cultural paridigm. It seems to be a different kettle of fish in Eastern cultures. Think of Noh, for example. This brings me back (finally) to Falconetti. And to Dreyer ultimately because to a certain extent I am making my case for all the acting in the film, not just Falconetti's. It is mask work. I mean this in the deepest and most complimentary sense. It is - conventionally speaking - "too big" for film. But in conjunction with both the subject matter and the close-up focus, this exaggerated, theatrically stylized, larger-than-life, in-your-face face-work works. How it works. She is absolutely marvelous. Jesus Christ!
But of course, He is the true star of the show. You and I haven't got religion. (Correct me if I'm wrong. You definitely don't got Jesus specifically though, right?) But the full weight of the Judeo-Christian civilization comes down on any sad soul looking at JOC and the force of this simply cannot be denied. And unlike Tarkovsky's Andrei who was plagued by doubt, at least until the end, however you read the Joan of history - she is nothing if not a symbol of certainty, a fire of pure faith, a saint. Dreyer flies stright into the sun. She was a French patriot. Who cares? She was a military general. Whatever. She was a thorn in the side of the corrupt clergy. Uh-huh. She was a feminist before her time. Sigh. Somebody else can make a movie about all of this, says Dreyer, because heaven is my destination and we are flying directly to the Godhead. Whether or not the film-maker himself was a believer is irrelevant, by the way. Just like it's irrelevant that Dan Jardine and Ben Livant are definitely not believers. It's just too much. The film is awe-full and we are awestruck by it. The symbolism of The Cross alone, it's awesome, beyone heavy-handed, it's really heavy. It's just too much, too much... and THEN they burn her. And here's the secular hook for us godless heathens, she really was and they really did. As I said, she's a legend, not a myth. There is history up in this art. So shut up and tremble at the thought of it.
I can't believe I watched this on a school night. It took me quite a while to decide if I wanted to see it silent or with the soundtrack, which is very good. Clearly, I sucked out and went with the latter. The first time. That's correct, I watched it twice. Got to bed at 1:30, took me an hour to fall asleep. Kept seeing the figure on the gallows in the distant background. Just a smidgen easier to take than the flaming stake in the foreground.
And Dan responds:
You are correct in ascribing to me the title of Non-Believer. But I'm also a Non-Non-Believer, insomuch as I find the whole notion of belief and non-belief far beyond my ken. I'm your standard fence-sitting agnostic, who doesn't have the faith to be an non-believer. Atheism and Theism are opposite sides of the same coin; both require a level of certainly that ain't in me. If there IS a God, well I've no direct evidence. But then again if there were a God, wouldn't it be a force of such complexity and magnitude that a puny-brained creature like yers truly would be unable to appreciate the evidence if it were mind-melded into me. Anyways, I'm pretty much uninterested in the whole question of the existence of God, or the divinity of His Son.
Which makes my reverence for TPOJOA all the more curious, I suppose. There is no doubt that Dreyer's film is one of The Great films, but there are plenty of those to go around (okay, there's always room for more, but you get my drift, no?). Yet, there is only ONE JOA; it is not only the most powerful and visceral silent movie experience of my life, it is simply one of the most profoundly affecting filmgoing experiences I have ever had. Right up there with my theatrical viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at a ten year-old in 1968.
Why is the film so goddamned good? Well, as you pointed out, technically speaking this is a remarkable piece. The intense use of close-up I think was pretty much unrivalled in its time. Nobody but nobody spent this much time so intensely focused on the nuances of expression in the human face. Combined with the stark lighting, which cast everyone in high relief, and contrasted the hideous bestiality of the inquisitors with Joan's angelic suffering makes the trial nearly unbearable to watch. But Dreyer's just getting warmed up. When Joan is brutally shorn, and we are given a tour of the torture chamber, well damned if our suffering doesn't get closer and closer to Joan's own. Dreyer does such a good job of editing here--Eisenstein would have been most proud of Dreyer's mastery of montage--that it is impossible, even for a milquetoast agnostic, not to enter into a condition of empathic horror. Even at my most sceptical, I couldn't deny that Joan's resolve had my curling up into a fetal position at times. It's almost as if the light is shining out from within her, rather than reflecting off of her. I don't know if I've ever seen the effect matched.
And then we have the burning at the stake. As you noted, it is the final straw that breaks the viewer's back. Doesn't matter if you are one of the faithful, or you believe she was delusional or schizophrenic; this is the ultimate horror show, the obliteration of a human life in the most gruesome fashion possible. And it is this act of inhumanity--holy shit, watching her body shrivel up in the flames is a singularly shocking event--that shreds the ties that bind the community. Aren't we as a society supposed to protect our most vulnerable from such cruelty? Even without the crushing metaphysical elements to weigh down upon us, the judgement upon us all is dreadful. I repeat: Holy shit.
I saw this with a couple of friends at Cinecenta, one of whom has her master's in French literature. But she also prefers escapist cinema--she finds serious movies too damned depressing--so imagine my surprise that she, this well-educated woman, was surprised by the film's outcome. She had hoped that the title indicated that the film might be a little bit more about Joan's actual passions. Heh. That's what happens when you let rom-com fans into the screenings of Important Films. We dropped her off at home, and the two us went out to a pub to have a drink or five and our way around the film so we could decompress. Somehow the thought of returning to our "regular" lives without honouring this film with some serious discussion seemed absurd.
And I'm so glad that now we're the ones talking about TPOJOA. Even just reminiscing about this film really messes me up.
What does rom-com mean?
You ask why this film is such a big deal for you. Of course, this takes us into my trip about when a work of art comes into your life, under what personal circumstances, blah blah blah, innumerable factors and mysterious processes. Yet, I feel compelled to repeat that the full weight of Judeo-Christian civilization comes down in JOA and I maintain that your agnosticism does not get you out from under this. For agnosticism does not escape the cognitive framework, conceptual gestalt, mental construct, ideational problematic - call it what you will - according to that civilization. To make the point using your own term, sitting on the fence does not remove the fence. This side of the fence, that side of the fence, on the fence - these are not trivial differences, but in any case, you are being defined and in turn defining yourself in relation to that fence. And what a long historical fence it is. And how deeply its posts run into our consciousness and unconsciousness too. Why, I might argue that your ethical concern for the most vulnerable in society is ultimately derivative of the theological principle that the meek are blessed. It's not that I believe secular humanist morality is impossible, that we are all closet religionists, far from it. I am merely suggesting that we have entered the domain not of analytical philosophy but throbbing art and when that crucifix flashes by in this film - in this fucking film! - there is no place for us to hide. And I'm a Marxist.
Sidebar: You equate ''non-believer'' and ''atheist.'' I use the former term loosely and as such it can easily apply to the agnostic who simply abstains from adopting a belief either way. At the same time, I use the latter term precisely and as such it exactly applies to the believer in no divinity or God-negator. Dan, I know you can't be bothered to excert yourself so, hell man, you're into junk sports. Teasing aside though, in classical Christian theology, agnosticism was not about the existence or non-existence of God but was about the way in which God might be manifested and revealed in this world; monad, duality, trinity yadda yadda. This may seem academic and out of focus here but in fact leads directly to my challenge to you. For it's the problem of how we might know God in this world that pushes fence-sitters - if not entirely off the fence, over the edge and hanging on for dear life. The problem remains abstract but is no longer purely theoretical, which is to say it takes on a practical dimension which can quickly become involved with politics, economics and all the rest of it. This is to say that if we're just sitting around the faculty lounge at Cambridge, I'm just as agnostic as you are. But once we hit the street, it becomes necessary to tolerate certain versions of God and deny some others. Even if we're trying to mind our own business. My mother had been opening Christmas presents for ten years when Hitler told her that she was a Jew. Chick had never set foot in a synagogue. True, she wasn't a Christian either. She was a German. But he wasn't buying it. And it wouldn't have been any different for her if she had told him that she was an agnostic. Tell me you hear me Mr. Milquetoast.
But I don't want to end on that mistreatment of you. For none of it matters does it? It sounds corny but this film changed your life. You can sing the line from that Gershwin song, "they can't take that away from me." Just be sure not to take it away from yourself. Don't give it too much cinephile concentration. Don't watch it too often. Cherish it.
Rom-com= romantic comedy
Thanks for reminding me of the puny-ness of my miserable agnosticism. I feel about three inches tall. Which is to say, you've only partially accomplished your goal of making me feel two inches tall.
I remember reading the Gnostic Gospels way back when, and learning about this mystic branch of Christianity that endorsed a direct and personal experience of God that could be induced through a form of self-hypnosis, and that they were drummed out of the Church pretty early on, so they were driven underground, and that I believe William Blake is one of the most famour proponents thereof, so I get what you are talking about vis a vis God's manifestation on this Earth.
And as for cherishing the movie, that's a given. Though I have tried once or twice, even going so far as to hit the play button on the DVD, I haven't been able to watch it since that day at Cinecenta.