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Monthly Archives: December 2012

Blu “Passion” Flowers

Newly released on Blu-ray from the good folks at Eureka!/Masters of Cinema is a superb edition of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a masterpiece of world cinema that recently made the much-hyped 2012 Sight and Sound Critics’ Poll of the ten best films of all time. It was also the movie I chose to inaugurate a new Global Cinema class I taught at Oakton Community College earlier in the year. Below are thoughts on both the enduring film itself as well as Masters of Cinema’s terrific new hi-def transfer.

If the motion picture, with its primarily visual vocabulary and ability for ubiquitous worldwide exhibition, is the most international of art forms, then the most international decade it has ever known may well have been the 1920s. This was when the movies had reached a state of full artistic maturity but had not yet been segregated by nationality according to the dictates of spoken language. (In the memorable phrase of Roger Ebert, “Talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations.”) The late silent era was a time when film stars crossed national borders with regularity. “Foreign” accents and even the inability to speak the language of a given country were not yet a hindrance: Swedish actress Greta Garbo came to Hollywood around the same time that American actress Louis Brooks decided to try her luck in Germany. Directors too traveled far and wide: Alfred Hitchcock made his first two movies in Germany, Sergei Eisenstein directed an experimental short in France, while Ernst Lubitsch brought his famous “touch” to Hollywood and stayed for good. As a result of this cross-pollination of talent, the late silent era saw the release of a number of films that functioned as grand summations of what had come before, movies that integrated the innovations of filmmakers working in different countries over the decades. Chief among these is the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, a production of the French studio Gaumont that was written and directed by the Danish Carl Theodor Dreyer.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most unusual, modern-looking and best movies of the entire silent era. Unlike most Joan of Arc biopics, including Luc Besson’s The Messenger and virtually all of the ones produced in Hollywood, it eschews battle scenes and externally dramatic heroic deeds in favor of the more interior, spiritual journey undertaken by the revered saint in her final days on earth. Dreyer focuses only on Joan’s imprisonment, trial and execution, which is unusual in itself but his recreation of the period is so authentic, his style of filmmaking so pure and refined and the lead performance of Renee Falconetti so naturalistic that the first time I screened it in class, several students told me they felt like they were watching a “documentary” that had somehow been made in the 15th century. Abetting this sense of realism is the fact that virtually all of the film’s dialogue (represented, of course, by intertitles) is taken verbatim from the actual transcripts of Joan’s trial, as a handy prologue makes clear. Interestingly, Robert Bresson virtually remade Dreyer’s movie as The Trial of Joan of Arc in 1962 by also focusing on Joan’s final days (though Bresson misguidedly attempted to “correct” the earlier film by removing all traces of acting). In the 1990s, Jacques Rivette split the difference by making two companion piece features: one about Joan in battle and another focusing only on her trial.

The Passion of Joan of Arc prominently features techniques associated with the Soviet Montage, French Impressionist and German Expressionist movements but Dreyer has combined them with other techniques and in such unorthodox ways that the end result feels entirely fresh and new. The most prominent visual trope in Joan is its famous and relentless use of extreme close-ups, a technique that looks as radical today as it must have in 1928. In the early stages of the film especially, Dreyer uses extremely tight framing of both Joan and her trial judges to capture every emotional nuance of Falconetti’s performance and every wrinkle on the faces of her interrogators, as well as to convey an overall atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression. Dreyer notoriously had large and expensive sets built for the movie and then for the most part refused to show them. The almost perverse lack of wide shots leads to a feeling of unbearable intensity; Dreyer repeatedly denies viewers the relief, the sheer breathing room, that a more distanced view of the action would have provided.

The influence of German Expressionism can be felt in the glimpses of the sets that we are occasionally able to see behind the actors. The windows that appear on the wall behind and above the judges are crooked and mismatched, featuring bizarre, diamond-shaped window panes. They look almost like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which is unsurprising considering that the legendary German art director Herman Warmm designed the sets for both films. This aspect of the set, though rarely glimpsed, combines with the ugly, leering faces of the old judges to convey the impression of a twisted, abusive authority. (Significantly, the only character to show Joan sympathy is a handsome young priest played by the Surrealist writer Antonin Artaud.) The pacing of Joan is relatively slow in these early trial scenes, reflecting Dreyer’s belief that “Rhythm and milieu go together.” Later, the action dramatically breaks into rapidly edited sequences when Joan is faced with the torture-chamber and when French peasants begin rioting outside of the prison compound. The former scene reflects the influence of French Impressionism, where editing is used to show how a character experiences time subjectively (i.e., time seems to accelerate for the terrified Joan); the latter scene uses fast editing in a Soviet-style montage to compress time, space and action. Both scenes have a shocking force precisely because they follow the slow, steady rhythm that Dreyer has carefully built up beforehand.

A year ago, I reviewed the new blu-ray of Citizen Kane and analyzed that film as a kind of self-conscious “synthesis” of all the major historical movements in cinema that had preceded it. I believe The Passion of Joan of Arc fulfills this same function for the silent era; as with Kane, Dreyer’s synthesis is not a dry, academic exercise but rather a means for the director to use all of the cinematic tools available to him to execute his story in the most effective way possible. The end result is, after all, emotionally involving to the point of being occasionally gut-wrenching. Dreyer blends his disparate aesthetic approaches together and ultimately subsumes them into what might be termed the great Dane’s singular “ascetic style” – one that draws us into Joan’s inner world and conveys a sense of her soul. This is a style that Dreyer would continually refine and improve over the course of his next four features (Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud). Yet there is no better place to first acquaint oneself with the filmography of one of the best directors of all time than with this passionate, enrapturing portrait of the beloved Maid of Orleans.

Notes on the Blu-ray: The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of The Passion of Joan of Arc deviates from previous home video releases in several key ways. First, the bad news: Richard Einhorn’s oratorio “Visions of Light,” included on Criterion’s 1999 DVD release, is not included among the soundtrack options. This is cause for regret because “Visions of Light” is a masterpiece in its own right and is as close to “definitive” as a non-original score for a silent film can be (like most silents, Joan had no official original score). Instead, MoC has provided two newly commissioned musical soundtrack options, a traditional piano score by silent film specialist Mie Yanashita and a more modern one by avant-garde composer Loren Connors. Both scores are serviceable but, in the absence of “Voices of Light,” one might consider watching the movie with the sound turned off completely. Dreyer’s film has a very unique rhythm, the integrity of which might come across most powerfully if experienced in total silence. Now the good news: the image quality is astonishing and Eureka/MoC, as with nearly all of their releases, have taken painstaking care to get it right. The film is presented at two different speeds – 20fps and 24fps – in much the same way that the same company’s release of Touch of Evil was presented in two different aspect ratios. (The Criterion DVD runs at 24fps and appears to my eyes to run slightly too fast. Kudos to MoC for giving the viewer multiple options.) Also of great interest is the fact that Joan is presented here for the first time on home video with its original Danish intertitles, written by Dreyer himself, with optional English subtitles. This is an improvement over the Criterion DVD, which only offered Gaumont’s original French intertitles. Finally, the Blu-ray image quality itself trumps that of the Criterion DVD in every possible area, including contrast, clarity, and fine object detail. This is, in short, the version of this movie one needs to own. Hopefully, Criterion, who presumably still hold the rights to the Einhorn score, will release their own Blu-ray at some point in the future and offer the option of multiple musical scores – including not only the Einhorn but also this intriguing-sounding one written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp).

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Odds and Ends

Matthew McConnaughey in Bernie – DVD.

Berniemm

I was happy to that see the New York Film Critics Circle awarded Matthew McConaughey their Best Supporting Actor award of 2012 not just for Steven Soderbergh’s surprise hit Magic Mike but also for Richard Linklater’s less commercially successful — and criminally underrated — Bernie. Ever since I saw it (and capsule reviewed it) last summer, Bernie has only grown in my esteem; it’s the American film I’ve thought about the most this year and it will be the highest rated American movie on my forthcoming Top Ten Films of 2012 list. It wasn’t until I recently revisited Bernie on DVD, however, that I came to truly appreciate the slyness and subtlety of McConaughey’s crucial supporting turn. When viewers are first introduced to McConaughey’s character, small town District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, it seems as though McConaughey is hamming it up unmercifully with his use of “air quotations” and his whispering of the phrase “closet homosexuals.” As the film progresses though, we start to see that it is Danny Buck (whose modus operandi includes outrageous P.R. stunts in order to capture wanted criminals) who is the ham. Notice the difference between Danny Buck’s demeanor in the faux-documentary scenes where he is directly addressing the camera versus the more objective scenes where he is interacting with the citizens of Carthage, Texas, to see how carefully modulated McConaughey’s performance is. The real highpoint of the performance comes later though; once the film shifts from a black comedy about a small town murder into an electrifying courtroom drama, McConaughey, like Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, suggests that his character’s folksy persona is something of a put-on in order to successfully manipulate the jury. Danny Buck intentionally mispronounces “Les Miserables” and then goads Jack Black’s title murderer into acknowledging that white wine pairs well with fish. Bernie ends up coming off as a pretentious aesthete in front of a jury of hicks and we, the audience, realize that this yokel D.A. is, well, really kind of brilliant, after all. Just like the movie.

The Color Wheel (Perry, USA) – On Demand / Rating: 8.0

This character-driven road trip/comedy, about a pair of constantly bickering siblings, has more genuine laughs than any American indie I’ve seen in years. J.R. (Carlen Altman) is an aspiring television news anchor who convinces her estranged younger brother Colin (director Alex Ross Perry) to accompany her on a short road trip to help her retrieve some belongings after she is dumped by her college professor/boyfriend. The humor in the witty and verbose script (co-written by Altman and Perry) consistently hinges on social awkwardness and embarrassment, featuring behavior that ranges from the unpleasant to the downright nasty. The chemistry between the leads is consistently amusing — think golden age of Hollywood screwball comedy by way of Perry’s acknowledged hero Phillip Roth — even as the tone radically shifts from the broadly farcical to the more subtle and naturalistic. In a lean 83 minutes, Perry proves to not only be a smart filmmaker but also one of uncommon ambition; this was shot on good old-fashioned, grainy, black-and-white 16mm film stock and the nearly 10-minute long-take climax struck me as both unexpectedly devastating and, in its emotional violence, worthy of John Cassavetes. I cracked up throughout the film and then the end somehow made me feel like crying. My hat is off to you, Mr. Perry and Ms. Altman. If there were any justice, The Color Wheel would be nominated not just for Independent Spirit Awards but Oscars. But there isn’t and so it won’t be.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Dancer in the Dark (Von Trier)
2. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda)
3. Kriemhild’s Revenge (Lang)
4. Ravenous (Bird)
5. Siegfried (Lang)
6. Bernie (Linklater)
7. The Host (Bong)
8. Weekend (Godard)
9. Needing You (To)
10. Chungking Express (Wong)


A Scandinavian Cinema Primer

For most international movie aficionados, including me, the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman has long been seen as the dominant “commercial face” of Scandinavian cinema, with the more austere Dane Carl Theodore Dreyer lurking in the shadows just behind him. Creating today’s post was a great excuse for me to delve much deeper into Scandinavia’s rich cinematic heritage, especially for the chance to see many more classic films from Norway and Finland. Enjoy.

The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)

My favorite Swedish movie ever is this silent classic by Victor Sjostrom that masterfully combines melodramatic conventions with gothic horror overtones and proved a major influence on both Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick (the latter of whom clearly took his climax for The Shining from here). The irresistible premise is that the last sinner to die on New Year’s Eve must drive the “phantom carriage” that collects the souls of the dead for the next calendar year. A masterpiece of moody atmospherics with special effects that still impress today. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, featuring an intense experimental score by the band KTL, is a wonder.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Christensen, Denmark, 1922)

Benjamin Christensen’s fascinating documentary/narrative hybrid begins by alternating static shots of paintings and drawings with intertitles that provide a historical overview of witchcraft and devil worship in medieval Europe. This is followed by a lengthy section dramatizing the practice of witchcraft as well as the witch hunts they inspired. The final section cleverly denounces the witch hunts by comparing the behavior of medieval “witches” with women suffering from “hysteria” and other mental illnesses in the present day of 1922. Essential viewing for anyone interested in horror and the occult.

The Saga of Gosta Berling (Stiller, Sweden, 1924)

Mauritz Stiller’s terrific romantic drama charts the picaresque adventures of the title character, a disgraced former minister who becomes a tutor at the home of a wealthy countess. Gosta ends up romancing both the countess’ stepdaughter and daughter-in-law, sewing tragedy in the lives of the individual family members and spelling disaster for their large estate as a whole. Director Stiller executes many impressive set pieces, the most prominent of which is the climactic inferno, over the film’s epic three-hour running time. Lars Hanson as Gosta Berling and Greta Garbo as the daughter-in-law are both magnetic performers who would unsurprisingly soon wind up in Hollywood.

Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to Gosta Berling-style tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” however but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

Cross of Love (Tulio, Finland, 1946)

Teuvo Tulio was a master of the Finnish melodrama (he apparently had the same influence on the Kaurismaki brothers that Douglas Sirk had on R.W. Fassbinder) and Cross of Love is considered in Finland to be his finest hour. Here Tulio loosely adapts a Pushkin story in this chronicle of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who runs away to the big city with a shipwrecked businessman who has ignoble intentions. Seduced and abandoned, she soon finds herself walking the streets as a prostitute but can she find redemption in the love of a naive young artist? Of course not. This is a more extreme and sexually frank variation on the kinds of melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the time. Blonde Bombshell Regina Linnanheimo justifiably won a Jussi (or “Finnish Oscar”) for her lead performance. Has Guy Maddin seen this? If not, he should.

Kon-Tiki (Heyerdahl, Norway/Sweden, 1950)

Thor Heyerdahl was a Norwegian scientist who believed that the Polynesian Islands had been settled by South American natives (not Asian explorers as had been assumed for hundreds of years previously). To prove his theory, he travelled to Peru with a team of five other men, constructed a primitive raft of Balsa wood (the only kind that pre-Columbian Indians could have used) and sailed across the Pacific Ocean to Polynesia in a trip lasting 101 grueling days. He also brought along a motion picture camera and recorded the extraordinary expedition for posterity. The end result, which the beloved Heyerdahl (he was voted “Norwegian of the century” in a poll of his countrymen) not only directed but wrote, shot, edited and narrated, is simply one of the best and most awe-inspring documentaries I’ve ever seen.

The White Reindeer (Blomberg, Finland, 1952)

Now here’s something different: a Finnish horror film based on a folk tale about a woman who transforms herself into a white reindeer-vampire and feeds on the male members of a tribe in remote Lapland. What’s most interesting about the scenario, aside from the stark photography of the bleak and frozen landscapes, is how the reindeer woman is treated as both monster and object of pity: the transformation occurs after the lonely woman visits a shaman and asks him to cast a spell that will bring her frequently traveling husband back home to her. Credit for this refreshingly sympathetic take on the “other” probably belongs to the stunning actress Mirjami Kuosmanen who also co-wrote the script with her husband, director/cinematographer Erik Blomberg.

Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love in many forms, and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even – or perhaps especially – be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

The Unknown Soldier (Laine, Finland, 1955)

This incredible Finnish war movie should prove a real eye-opener to North American viewers. It chronicles the “Continuation War” of 1941-1944, which took place concurrently with WWII and involved Finland attacking the Soviet Union to try and regain territory that the Russians had occupied for the previous several years. In adapting a novel by Väinö Linna, director Edvin Laine has created a realistic war film centered on a machine gun crew that features a terrific ensemble cast, a healthy dose of black comedy and a powerful musical score. In short, The Unknown Soldier trumps most contemporary war movies – even those with much higher budgets and gore quotients.

Nine Lives (Skouen, Norway, 1957)

The amazing true story of Jan Baalsrud, the lone survivor of a Nazi attack while on a sabotage mission with other Finnish soldiers during WWII. Fleeing his Nazi pursuers on foot, Baalsrud traveled for weeks through the snowy mountain terrain of northern Norway to reach neutral Sweden. Along the way, he went snowblind, cut off his own frostbitten toes and relied on the kindness of random strangers for food and lodging. Through it all, as Baalsrud puts it in a memorable line of dialogue, nothing seems capable of killing this old fox. Nine Lives was impressively shot on real locations that make one feel cold just watching it. In 1991, Norwegian television viewers voted this the best Norwegian movie of all time.

The Seventh Seal (Bergman, Sweden, 1957)

Everyone has personal tastes that are idiosyncratic and subjective and that is as it should be. In spite of the fact that Ingmar Bergman is almost unanimously critically acclaimed as one of the greatest directors of all time, I’ve never been able to warm up to his work (in spite of trying repeatedly). His films strike me as too self-consciously serious and their merits more theatrical and literary than cinematic. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of his movies on this list. I’m choosing The Seventh Seal not only because it has more humor than most of Bergman’s dramas but also because it has been so massively influential on an international scale: the image of Max Von Sydow as a knight during the crusades literally playing chess with the Grim Reaper conjures up the notion of a foreign language “art film” more succinctly than any other. Everyone with an interest in movies, whether I like it or not, should see The Seventh Seal.

Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique combination of stillness, slowness and whiteness is perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.

Hunger (Carlsen, Norway, 1966)

Henning Carlsen’s adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s famous autobiographical novel of the same title tells the story of a starving writer’s attempts to find love, food and a publisher for his novel. Although it lacks the ferocious intensity of its first person literary source, this is still crucial viewing, especially for Per Oscarsson’s tremendous lead performance as the writer Pontus whose mental state increasingly collapses as he wanders the streets of Christiana (soon to become Oslo), living the credo of an absurdly idealistic artist and vainly refusing all charity. A fresh and compelling take on the stereotype of the tortured artist.


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