Stronger Loving World

A Cultural Criticism WeblogE-Mail Murdervision

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Forever Woman

I watched La Passion De Jeanne d'Arc" Thursday night, at Artist's Television Access in the Mission District. (Artists's Television Access is a wonderful resource that I highly reccomend; it's conveniently accessible on Valencia and 21st, and the interior design is visually charged with the same toxic glow that much of the Mission District communicates. The theatre is very small, with a capacity of maybe 25. There were only 12 people in the theatre attending the film.)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a silent film, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Danish filmmaker who only made a handful of films. This was his first feature film, and this original master cut was lost for over fifty years (presumed lost by the director himself) before being discovered in a janitor's closet in a mental institution in Oslo in 1981. (A version of the film is watched by a character in Godard's Vivre sa Vie (1962), but I guess this is the bastardized, edited version.)
Image hosting by Photobucket

The film was originally released as a silent, although the version that was circulated for years included a soundtrack. The version I saw had live accompaniment: an amazing new score by one Lester Raww, an electronic/improvisational guitar guy who's been in bands called Pine Box Boys and The Zag Men.

The core of the film is the actress Maria Falconetti's performance. As the story goes, Dreyer had the script for his meticulously realistic portrayal of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc ready when he spotted Falconetti performing a small play and instantly decided she was "the one" for the roll, because her face communicated an unending depth and heartbreak. "There is a soul behind the face", he said, or something like that. This was her first and only feature film; aparently Dreyer's draining, emotionally intense direction drove her away from the cinema for life. Supposedly, he made her kneel on stone slabs for hours on an end to get the perfect emotional state.

Image hosting by Photobucket

I was interested in watching this film because I read it described as an intense psychological character study focusing on a female face--which it was. All of the shots are intense and claustrophobic, the frame focusing on Joan and her inquisitors from the neck up, the details on their faces rich, textured, and sculpted; the talking heads appearing crepuscular, dense, and chiseled, like emasculate granite slabs showering bible verses at one another, as Raww's soundtrack narrated the intensities of their dialogue and the subtle, slow, powerful leans that their faces made as they lurched from one emotional state to the next. These transitions were some of my favorite parts of the experience and what I felt the new soundtrack did best--it used a post-industrial lexicon to articulate and accentuate emotional "distortion", interpersonal "white noise" and radically violent dark age emotions. It wasn't quite "anachronism" because that term suggests a discconent between supposedly disparate time periods, whereas Raww's post-electronic crackles vibrantly reclaimed the industrial/modernist lense of Dreyer, who himself was (albeit in an attempt to literalize rather than emphasize Joan's story) crunching, decompressing and intensifying a 15th century trial in which no cameras were present. What resulted is more like synchronism, a piece of music being "before its time" and finding its audience too late, an evolutionary trait perfected millenia ago but designed for a plague coming next century, a composition frustratedly designed for an instrument that had yet to be invented. Was it Beethoven who said "I am electrical by nature"? I'm also reminded of the 90's soundtrack to Fritz Lang's Metropolis whose vibrant, acid house intensity made the film as frightening, imposing, and apocalyptic as it was meant to be.

The film, like a much worse 2004 film with a similar name, focuses on Joan's trial, which is assembled from the transcript of actual 15th Century court documents. The clothing was carefully reconstructed, and the sets as well, despite the fact that the painstaking work and funding Dreyer went through were more an act of formal determination, as the film barely has any visible backgrounds or shots that peak below the neckline. The dialogue and the facial expressions take up most of the screentime, and the film lurches operatically between Joan's emotional states. The most frequently visible of these is a vacated, glassy, painful post-heartbreak, one that communicates a strength and love whose Athenic power is still barely enough to hold the architecture of the face in place. Falconetti portrays Joan as a woman who has crumbled emotionally and physically beyond any real human level, but feels such an intense sense of responsibility and knows that she literally can't crumble--she is the child of God; a martyr for France, the most important woman in her country and someone who has been entrusted with a love and a duty beyond understanding. Yet she can't help but break into paroxysms of emotive, personal hurt when she is harassed, taunted, and tortured by her captors--she knows that this is the way it is and why, but her empathy and horror at the turn the revolution has taken is condensed into an interpersonal angst, looks that say "you treat people like this? You treat human beings like this?", let alone, you treat me like this?. What else is there to say about Falconetti's face? The richness of the shots are designed to amplify the nuances of her face, but especially her recognizability: I have met this woman before, I've been looked at in this way before, I've seen the hope drain from a woman's eyes this way before, I have kissed this woman before, but this time I am watching die, being filled with holes, pricked with needles and burning because she believed in something stronger and braver and bigger than I ever did.

The turning point of the film comes after Falconetti has repented and recanted and has been sentenced to life imprisonment; out of seemingly nowhere, what we can only assume is the spirit of god fills her and her eyes light up with a certainty, an absolute understanding that transcends her emotional state. She asks for the inquisitors to return: she lied, everything she said was a lie, and now she wants to tell the truth. Her inquisitors by this point have developed a sympathy for her and assuage her from confessing the best they can, but Joan's decision is final, and she is warmly talked to like a prisoner on death row saying their final prayers. This is where Raww's soundtrack succeeds the most: as Joan comes to her epiphany the music becomes intense, prickly and builds towards a crescendo with hopeful undertones, a moment that stretches out as Joan is lead to her death, and as the pyre is lit, and Joan's face glows, eyes heavenwards, affixed on a dangling crucifix that falls conveniently in her eyesight, the intensities drop out and flatten in infinite plateau; an ambience void of any lost intensities or striations: Joan and Jesus are married in this moment, and as the villagers and rioters tear apart the courthouse and destroy the scenery, as the camera portrays top down visuals of the anarchic, feverish, violent chaos, Joan's sillhoutte burns along with the music and along with her God, consumed, as the viewer should be, by a peace that passes understanding.

Image hosting by Photobucket

Friday, February 17, 2006

Romantic Comedies for The Painfully Alone

After a few hours at a side job in Oakland on Wednesday, I bike-BARTed, my new verb-form for the bay area, to a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone show in San Francisco. I initially decided I wasn't going to go, as trying to get around San Francisco with public transportation can be a chore sometimes. Fortunately, I realized that the Make Out Room is in the Mission District which is incredibly convenient via BART. The opening act, a four piece girl band with a dude on drums that I've never heard of, is endearing because they perform minimalist pop songs with clever harmonizing, unabashadly prom friendly lyrics and they play their electric guitars and bop their bodies around like sixteen year olds. They are all wearing ties and catholic school girl get ups. I realize that in the past few years there's been a resurgence of "the uniform" within indy-pop, and I don't really have a problem with that. So I took a moment to ask myself WHY I don't really have a problem with that.

Q: Yo Church! Why don't you have a problem with uniforms?

A: I suppose it is because, when I see a band in uniform, I immediately picture them all sitting around the basement of one of their parents, and one of them says, "you know what would be really cool? if we wore uniforms!", and then everyone goes "yeah!", and everyone starts to fidget and get excited and think to themselves, "oh man, this is really happening! we're like a real band and everything! this is so cool! I've wanted to rock out my whole life and finally, we're rocking out!" Then I picture them at band practice a month later, and one of them is not in uniform, and one of the other girls is all like, "guys, I thought we agreed that we were all going to wear the uniforms to practice!", and then, and then there's this tension and catty drama and then there's a big argument, and in tears, the fat one is all like, "guys, this band is falling apart! guys, this band used to mean something to us! guys, you guys are like a family to me!" Fortunately they all manage to reunite in time to play the big battle of the bands and they win the money to save Tom's Record Store from being bought out by DeathCorp. Then one of them professes her love for John Cusack. Or all of them. Anyway, I think it's cute.

Q: Fag!

A: Uh, uhhm.

Q: You're a fag!

Casiotone was pretty solid live, but it didn't occur to me until I got there that it's almost counterintuitive to see Owen Ashworth perform in person. The whole point of Casiotone is that the cinematic snapshots (also prom-friendly lyrics by the way) coupled with vocal distortion and minimalist synthesizer backing tells us stories that are too familiar, specific, and endearing to be anything other than bedroom recordings that our high school friend made for us to cheer us up. It's made to be playing in your car stereo or shitty boombox while you dawdle your life away on livejournal in the oblivious daze you've medicated yourself into, successfully nulling all of your previous hearty-aches and failed relationships and regrets until it emerges sullenly and slowly in the background like the end of the montage in a romantic comedy in which the protaganists have taken time apart from one another but are just begining to remember that deep down they miss each other. Only there is no reunion with meg ryan at the end of your Casiotone song: only twinkies and internet porn as far as they eye can see.

I had to leave the Make Out Room early, while Casiotone was in the middle of an insanely catchy duet which is still burning and bumping in my eardrums right now, unfortunately, because the BART ends service at 1200 AM and I had to get home for to be sleeping and such. Jee, I wonder why the BART closed so early? There must be some sort of MTA strike or something, a union dispute of some kind, or--MAYBE IT'S LIKE THAT EVERY GODDAMN DAY, BECAUSE THE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION IN SF IS TOTALLY FUCKING RETARDED. You don't know what you got until it's gone.

I wish I could make more romantic comedy plots to detail my bikeride home--outside of the Muppet Movie I can't think of any substantial romantic scenes that take place on bicycles. Although San Francisco is one of the few places I've been where I half expect Muppets to emerge on bicycles on the streets, an image of one of Animal's bandmates with a toke in his mouth riding by an unblemished retro 80's graffiti piece on market street is blaring in a room in my mind designated "the holographic projector booth of unfulfilled desires". It is guarded by a man on stilts in a red suit and top hat who blows fire and flails his arms around quickly to distract me while he picks your pocket.

Some final thoughts: Thinking about Casiotone's music in terms of narrative, and not just ambience is part of a gradual internal shift I am making regarding the romantic comedy as medium and its wider implications for the production of meaning in culture. I've long regarded the romantic comedy as a particularly delectable brand of poison, but the worst kind of poison nonetheless; MUCH worse than movie violence because the expectations and values it represents, when reinforced and played dramatically over and over provide the sort of conditioning that makes people delusional, perpetually heartraped losers. But Casiotone's tortured symphonies, self-consciously, cartoonishly "authentic", are a celebration of idealistic, teenaged brand of self-torture that those romantic ideals produce, rewinding and replaying the moments which those admittedly lofty and juvenile ideals were crumbled. It is as if,by turning ideals into stories, we've captured the magic, disenfected the charm by analyzing it, and we are free to live our lives as heartsick and wobbly as we'd like, provided our naivete always transfers instantly into that most valuable product: narrative.

Image hosted by