MONA LISA TEARS

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Pauline Kael went on record claiming it to be one of the single greatest performances recorded on film. I don’t have that kind of chutzpah; all I vouch for is the fact that once you see Renee Falconnetti’s performance in THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, your heart will never forget it. At a time when screen actors were simply unable to speak to the audience, Falconnetti’s Joan is a powerful reminder that the best actors don’t need words.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film gives us not the Maid of Orleans’ entire life story, nor does he depict Joan of Arc as either a granite saint or a delusional martyr, but he gives us simply the final hours of a remarkably brave young woman who, after a long and tortuous physical and internal process, dies for her beliefs.

Courtroom dramas can often be as cliched as entertainment can get but not here. Dreyer’s even-handed portrait, coupled with Falconnetti’s intense portrayal, give us a very human young woman who cannot accurately count her age, but whose convictions run marrow-deep. For a film about Joan of Arc, Dreyer bravely and simply stuck to the trial for her life, forgoing any potentially grand battle scenes; consequently, this is a film that would live or die based on the lead performance, and it is impossible to imagine anyone giving a more heart-wrenching portrayal than Renee Falconnetti. Dreyer is neither trying to convert us nor mock the faithful; Joan of Arc is presented as enigmatically as the Mona Lisa; indeed, by focusing solely on the final hours of her life, it presents us with far more of a psychological puzzle than we’d otherwise have.

Falconnetti’s profound gaze may have perhaps partly inspired Leonard Cohen’s song on Joan of Arc, which sums up her funeral pyre with:

I saw her wince, I saw her cry,
I saw the glory in her eye.
Myself I long for love and light,
but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?

In the home stretch of Bergman’s most overtly religious work, 1962’s WINTER LIGHT, we have the crippled man’s speech to his doubting pastor about physical pain vs emotional pain, with the hunchback eventually favoring, through some of Bergman’s most eloquent dialogue, that the internal pain far outweighs the other, because the physical pain eventually ends. The man is particularly emphasizing Christ’s suffering on the cross compared to His agonizing loneliness at being abandoned by His friends and even, eventually, God Himself and how that hurt far more than the nails and thorns.

All this can equally be applied to Joan’s funeral pyre – we may never go through the profound physical agony and public shame, thankfully, but the utter lonely introspection that becomes her Via Dolorosa is one we all walk down, and Dreyer masterfully dramatizes, regardless of what redemption may or may not come next after death.
On separate occasions, both John Ford and Ingmar Bergman said the most interesting subject for a movie camera is a human face, and indeed, presaging the later masterful work of those auteurs, Dreyer shoots PASSION primarily in intense close-ups, both of Joan as well as those condemning her.

Unlike so many religious films, we aren’t shown a world inherently prone to the miraculous, no guarantees of redemption; there is no Divine admonition that Paradise awaits Joan on the other side of the pyre. Instead, we are given a laser-like emotional look at a woman confronting her imminent death, and, as a result, we witness her profoundly internal examination of what exactly she believes, something that inadvertently happens to all viewing this masterpiece; Joan’s internal search becomes ours, and, again unlike most religious movies, makes us examine what may await us when we enter Hamlet’s undiscovered country. We can easily identify with the Maid’s tears when she is questioned about the Lord’s Prayer; she weeps not over the sublime words, but because her mother was the one who taught them to her.

Film is seductive because it’s dangerous; it can reveal things we’d otherwise ignore, regardless of which side of the camera we’re on. Until the 1950s, it was also dangerous for a far more literal reason – the nitrate film stocks generally used were highly flammable. Fires in labs, editing rooms and projection rooms were not uncommon; an industry-wide switch to celluloid acetate (aka “safety film”) corrected this in the 50s, but the damage had already been done to many cinematic treasures already lost either to the poor shelf life of the nitrate stocks or to fire. THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a notorious example: the original negative was lost to a fire the year of its release .

Dreyer cut a secondary version of the movie from alternative takes, which also was lost to fire, in 1929. Dreyer’s original cut was presumed lost, until a print of the original version was found intact in, of all places, a Norwegian mental institution in the 1980s.

Miraculous.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

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SUMMER INTERLUDE

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Few things are as ephemeral and ever-changing as whatever may currently be hip within pop culture, but the zeitgeist of the summer of 1977 has had a hangover that will doubtlessly vanish anytime soon. Summer’s bittersweet yet magical transience (perhaps it is so magical because it is so fleeting) is something kids know inherently, and something that adults try to relive as often as work can allow: a time to unwind and have unbridled fun, most especially by losing yourself in a summer spectacle at the movies while devouring whole fields of popcorn. However, the film industry didn’t always see summertime as open season at the box office.

Blockbusters themselves were nothing unique to the 1970s; in the silent era, films like THE GOLD RUSH (1925), BEN-HUR: A TALE OF THE CHRIST (1925), and THE KING OF KINGS (1927) all packed theatres, the latter of which was the film that christened Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood. Over the next several decades, films as diverse as GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) and EASY RIDER (1969) played in some theatres for months on end, something unheard of now in the age of Netflix.

The success of JAWS, however, in 1975, gave the entire industry whiplash. As Joseph McBride pointed out in his excellent biography of Steven Spielberg, JAWS swam past THE GODFATHER to become the all-time movie bestseller in its first 64 days of release, and ultimately became the first film to make more than $100 million at the U.S. box office. Of course blockbusters had been around for years, but the fact that JAWS made more cash in its first release than GONE WITH THE WIND had made in all of its’ rereleases over the decades (curiously, both movies were adapted from first novels by their respective authors) shocked the film business with how much business they could do.

Nevertheless, most felt that the titanic success of JAWS must’ve been a fluke; in spite of the inevitable efforts to cash in on it with films like ORCA, PIRANHA, THE DEEP, and, of course, all the JAWS sequels, it seemed unlikely that JAWS’ box office watermark could be topped. 1977, however, proved everyone wrong.

Hollywood was expecting (and Columbia Pictures was banking on) Spielberg’s JAWS follow-up, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, to do plenty of business, but the other two films expected to do colossal box office and Oscar clean-up were Friedkin’s WAGES OF FEAR update called SORCERER, and Martin Scorsese’s ambitious musical NEW YORK, NEW YORK.

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Both films were tailor-made for their era – bold, downbeat epics made by directors much feted at the time for their daring and class. Had both pictures been released a year or so earlier, with audiences still reveling in these auteurs’ prior dark masterpieces, as well the grim cultural zeitgeist in general, they may have been received rapturously. However, both films’ chances at the box office in the summer of 1977 were permanently waylaid by the film no one saw coming – an old-fashioned space fairy tale called STAR WARS.

George Lucas’ mythological fable of heroes and villains proved the success of JAWS wasn’t a one-time love affair, and with a straightforward, fast-paced fun story to tell (not to mention a proper avalanche of merchandise to boot), all of the major studios realized this phenomenon could go on every summer year after year, which is pretty much what has happened. This may have been the beginning of Franchise Fever in Hollywood, but it truly became virulent with the endless sequels that followed in the 1980s.

Personally, I grew up worshipping the original STAR WARS films, and am a huge admirer of Christopher Nolan’s films today, so it would certainly be wrong and hypocritical to make it sound like commercial movies have been all downhill since 1977. It is disheartening, however, that some of the deepest conversations possible regarding mainstream movies revolve around analyzing just how closely the current Marvel epic is compared to its comic book roots. This sea change remains quite something; in the late sixties, young people lined up around the block to see films like BONNIE & CLYDE or THE GRADUATE, then hung around outside the theatres to analyze what they’d experienced and how it connected to their lives and outlooks. Now, young people are more concerned with how faithful a movie like BATMAN V. SUPERMAN is to its original graphic novel.

In his 2004 re-review of 1971’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, Roger Ebert pointed out that the young people of the time greeted that film with the kind of reception that any given franchise epic receives today. True enough, many were possibly just waiting for the nude scenes, but would today’s youth have the patience to sit through Sam the Lion’s monologue about his long ago love affair, or Lois Farrow’s equally wistful speech about the tragedy of only meeting one person in your life who knows your real worth? I hope so, otherwise we should just dispense with movies and switch to making nothing but commercials.

Television today actually seems to have picked up much of the slack of sophistication gone from many mainstream Hollywood films; if shows like THE WIRE, BREAKING BAD or MAD MEN had been features instead of tv shows, they would share a kinship with movies like THE FRENCH CONNECTION or CHINATOWN than THE AVENGERS, so there is certainly an appetite for such films. We’ve become so compartmentalized now in the age of Netflix that even the most popular shows have a bit of a disconnect because not everyone is tuned in, so audiences would welcome a communal event that the best popular movies can offer, especially in summertime, when we’re all looking for a memorable affair to mark that most fleeting of seasons rather than a quick fling.

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper

THE COMMUNAL SENSE OF WONDER

Frame02-Isabel Gene dance02“To me a Moviola – that’s that machine we have in the movie business – is a wonderful thing –maybe the most wonderful. If you use it right, you can make time go backwards and forwards, faster or slower; you can stop time and stay on one second; you can cut out the parts you don’t like, and the parts you do like you have over and over. In some ways, it’s even better than life.”

– Garson Kanin, MOVIOLA

Early in Orson Welles’ THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS there is a moment where Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello, whose characters knew each other in their younger days, realize they can have another chance at love and happiness together as they dance the evening away at a Christmas ball. At first, we see them whirling amongst the large crowd gathered at the Amberson mansion, then Welles gives us a long, lyrical dancing to hours later, and it’s just the two of them, still dancing and savoring both their reunion and the hope rekindled.

For the remainder of his life, Orson Welles swore that the original and uncut AMBERSONS was a better film than CITIZEN KANE and, while we certainly have no way of knowing for certain, the tease of a warm romantic moment like this is enough to whet the appetite for imagining what the full cumulative emotional punch of the movie must have been.

It is part of Hollywood lore how butchered THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS became in Welles’ absence as he was away working on another project, and the film, as it remains, is a ghost of what was intended; since the excised footage was destroyed we’ll never get to see what the film was originally meant to be, and that early taste of Yuletide romance in the picture is one of the few moments of Welles’ authorship to remain intact.

It is doubly poignant that a movie about life’s transience became, because of what had been done to it, so unendurable for Orson Welles; in their interview book THIS IS ORSON WELLES, Peter Bogdanovich recalls a moment where Welles happened upon a repeat television viewing of AMBERSONS and became emotional. Bogdanovich felt it was the recuts that caused Welles such distress and he replied that what upset him simply was, “It’s the past….it’s over….”

Although he later claimed he borrowed the phrase from a remark Jimmy Stewart made, Bogdanovich himself later appropriately named a collection of his own writings on film PIECES OF TIME, perhaps inspired also in part by this incident with Mr. Welles. Movies are indeed mini time capsules cementing the time spent not only by those who make them (so powerfully demonstrated by Linklater’s BOYHOOD and Apted’s UP documentaries), but also by all of us who enjoy them; every time we return to a film we love, we not only revisit our younger selves, but also create new memories with each viewing. Any given film instantly recalls memories, good or bad, of our past loves and lives; even downright awful movies can take on a luster if viewed with the right people because it is still time well spent. It can be the closest we’ll come to experiencing time travel, and, again, not just for us in the audience.

As sad as it is that Welles was never able to return to his past and tweak it to his liking, it is equally easy to understand his distress. In this era of endless “director’s cuts” on home video, many of which are done simply to please the egos of the directors and the greed of the financiers, it is sad that a film like AMBERSONS legitimately in need of reconstruction cannot be put back together, like a handful of movies that were taken away from the directors in question and finished by others; films like PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, and SUPERMAN II were blessed to have such reconstructive surgery, but Welles never got that option.

The flip side to his predicament can be seen in one of cinema’s other preeminent magicians, George Lucas, who, starting in 1997, on the 20th anniversary of his greatest triumph, STAR WARS, took the occasion to not only revisit but do his best to revise his past by retooling his landmark trilogy to what he said had always been his original vision. It was a bold move, and a controversial one amongst fans and critics alike, but Lucas may have lost whatever creative sympathies he may have had when he continued changing the movies with each successive home video release, in 2004 when the films were initially released on DVD, and yet again in 2011 for the Blu-Rays, all while suppressing the original versions of the films that so many loved and grew up with.

This bizarre act of cinematic (self?) deception is not just revisionism at its worse, but also a uniquely and supremely arrogant case of an artist putting his artistic ego ahead of his audience’s enjoyment; Lucas’ bold move tacitly implies that anyone who preferred the original versions were simply mistaken, so mistaken that he’s made it a mission to keep those previous iterations as invisible as possible, which is simply ludicrous. Once a film (or a novel, or any piece of art) has left the hands of the artist, it also becomes the shared property of those who love it, which is why moviegoing is so sacred – whether we are the filmmaker or simply a card-carrying member of the audience, we arrive at any film hoping to mark the time in which we are living with a communal sense of wonder. And, if we’re lucky, sometimes it works better than we ever thought it could, which is the most seductive thing about art: it’s the only place where the past, present and future converge, whether we’re simply relishing it, or simply trying to figure out what’s gone wrong.

 

 

Copyright (c) 2017 by Eric Peeper