Wednesday, October 24, 2007

the passion of joan of arc, by carl dreyer

There's no real way to talk about Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) without talking about the faces. Take a look at some of Joan's adversaries:

I'm hard pressed to think of a better collection of cinematic grotesques, although Fellini Satyricon (1970) might give it a run for its money (as could the opening sequence of Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)).

Now, by contrast, take a look at Joan, played memorably by Renee Falconetti:

Joan is almost always shot this way—a frame-filling close up on her intense, reactive face, and the camera is never off of her for more than a few seconds, making the above shot, or some variant on it, a kind of steady beat throughout the film. Alternate this "beat" with the "beat" of the menacing faces of her enemies and you have basically the entire narrative of the film, represented as visual rhythm. You could cut out every intertitle and you'd still have the story of Vulnerable Beauty versus Arrogant Ugliness: it's built into the film at a nearly molecular level.

There's a way, then, in which this film presages one of the central tenets of "visual culture": the way a powerful Image can trump persuasive rhetoric. Being essentially a sort of courtroom drama, there are a lot of arguments in this film, and even though the film steers well clear of showing anything that would definitively establish Joan's version of events as factual, our sympathies nevertheless align with her near-instantly. If it's strictly because she's more telegenic than her captors, then we're talking about something that's like the 1928 version of the famous Nixon / Kennedy debates, and one could criticize the film for a certain superficiality in exactly the same way as some people have criticized the infamous public response to those debates (or, for that matter, to how people criticized the Fahrenheit 9/11 sequence I referenced above).

Of course, Dreyer's not taking any chances, and he stacks the deck in various other ways. Her interrogators could look like cute fluffy bunnies and they'd still blow their rhetorical credibility the second they break out the torture implements:

Or so I'd like to believe, anyway—television, over its last few seasons, has been putting a new archetype out there, that of the Beautiful Torturer (as seen on shows like 24 and Lost). Whether this is a valid aesthetic choice—a way to cross wires in our heads and generate the spark of complicated feelings—or a systematic attempt to determine just how much human thinking Beautiful Images can override, is a question I don't think I'll dwell too much on today.

Skunkcabbage's and Unscrambled's write-ups on Passion of Joan of Arc are forthcoming....

Monday, October 15, 2007

daughters of the sun, by maryam shahriar

This is how Maryam Shahriar, director of the Iranian feature Daughters of the Sun (2003), chooses to shoot a wedding procession:

And this is how she chooses to shoot a funeral procession:

Does the similarity between these two shots imply a world-view? Something about the relationship between human beings and the larger forces of the World? Before you answer, check out a few more shots of human endeavor from the film:

So, OK. Film club compatriot Skunkcabbage picked this film as the follow-up to last week's pick, Thirteen (2003), in part to investigate how the experience of teenage girlhood plays out cross-culturally. In our own culture, adolescence is a period in which we (ideally) have the luxury to undergo the process of "individuation," but given that the role of the individual seems pretty radically downplayed in the Iran we see in Daughters of the Sun, we should maybe expect the process to look pretty different. And, sure enough, adolescence in this film functions as little more than mark the period at which you get to go off and start laboring as a weaver:

Maybe if you're especially canny you can get a marginally better supervisior-type position at the weaving station by concocting a scheme wherein you disguise yourself as a boy, like our protagonist does:

It's important to underline here that Amanagol's disguise here is something born of sheer financial necessity: it is never presented in the film as anything resembling self-expression or gender exploration. There's no "I don't know who I am" angst in this film, any more than there are any of the other "normal" (read: Western middle-class) dramas of adolescence ("no one understands me"; "I never get to do anything"). If there's any familiar marker of teenage girlhood in this film, it's in the occasional expressions of palpable yearning for a better life, but there's never any sense the social system they're in will ever reward that yearning with anything but a swift reduction to dust.

The film, in fact, takes some pains to systematically discount the potential of hopeful alternatives. We see some, here and there, including a rough-and-tumble travelling musician who looks like he might function as a romantic lead:

Or this guy, who has a homemade Ferris wheel that looks like it's meant for a world where there's some mirth, somewhere:

Or this guy, a person from the government, vaguely associated with the promise of social services:

The overlapping narrative lines here begin to recall something like Do the Right Thing (Film Club V), but whereas Do the Right Thing portrays a lively (if tense) community, Daughters of the Sun is very much the opposite: there's no community at all, just a series of atomized individuals, who could potentially help one another but who end up amounting to nothing but so many missed connections. The musician turns out to be a common thief, the Ferris wheel operator never encounters a single child, and the government agent, in a near-Beckett-grade development, spends the whole movie driving around looking for the village he's assigned to. Pretty grim stuff, not exactly the celebration of "the strength of Iranian women" that the Netflix sleeve promises.

Next week we continue with the theme of Suffering Teenage Girls with my pick, Carl Dreyer's 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, the fourteenth-most acclaimed film of all time, according to the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? aggregate list.

Unscrambled's write-up is here.

Monday, October 8, 2007

thirteen, by catherine hardwicke

Here are two shots of Thirteen's protagonist, Tracy. For clarity's sake, let's call them "Before" and "After."

Here's "Before," wherein Tracy is out in the park, walking her dog:

Here's "After," four months later:

Anyone who is familiar with the words "After School Special" can take a pretty educated guess at some of the narrative touchstones that are going to appear between Before and After: popularity-chasing, stealing, drinking, drugs, sexual experimentation, exposure to a debased culture and bad-seed friends:

Thirteen dutifully hits each one of these marks, which on the surface makes it look like your standard-issue "moral panic" film, a little piece of propaganda designed to scare kids straight (and to scare permissive parents into laying down the law). If it's simultaneously titillating us with the glamour of what it forbids... well, that's never been a problem, that kind of Yes/No witchery is good for keeping a culture jumpy and insane.

But as the film unfolded we in the Film Club began to wonder if it were really so simple. In order to have force as a Cautionary Narrative, the film needs to move us towards one of a number of different possible conclusions: rape, prositution, automobile accident, death resulting from conflict with police, overdose, drug-related murder, whatever. These are the standard endings not only of more obvious Cautionary Narrative films but also of more acclaimed films which (seem to?) transcend the label, but which also deal with sex and/or drugs: think Requiem For A Dream (2000), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Kids (1995), La Haine (1995), etc.

Thirteen, oddly—but perhaps more realistically?—chooses to avoid these endings, and in doing so, it undercuts its own status as a Cautionary Narrative, and gains a greater ability to make the claim that it's operating in a more noble neorealist tradition. It does not culminate in shattering disaster but rather in a sense that life (especially working-class life) contains bad choices, conflict, and struggle, but that it essentially goes on: in this regard it functions less as After-School Special and more as a distant sibling to something like Killer of Sheep (1977).

One of the film's most important choices in this regard is its decision to have recovering addicts play a central role in its narrative, most prominent among them Tracy's mother, Mel (Holly Hunter, in a powerful performance). The idea that addicts can recover is anathema to the Cautionary Narrative: think of how seldom this idea appears in, say, the average Partnership for a Drug-Free America ad. (And when it does appear—in, say, the current series of anti-meth commercials running in Illinois—note how the (uncharismatic) people-in-recovery without fail talk about the life-destroying consequence of their addiction: "I lost custody of my son" or what have you.) Mel is not exactly a person who has emerged from addiction undamaged:

—but the film takes pains to present her as neither a monster, nor a failure, but rather as a person struggling to make the most of what she has available to her: in short, human. The film never says that drug and alcohol (ab)use are actions that don't have consequences, but it does seem to be saying that those consequences, ultimately, are negotiable—a conclusion that feels surprisingly complex.

In La Haine (Film Club IV), one of the characters tells a joke about a man who is falling from the top of a building. As he passes each floor, he says "so far, so good." The punchline?: "It's how you land." That's fitting for La Haine, where the characters seem to be getting by relatively comfortably, even pleasantly at times, until the jolting, destructive impact of the film's final seconds. But the joke doesn't explain the world of Thirteen. Thirteen's characters aren't in a "so far, so good" free-fall but are rather engaged in the effort, each day, of trying to crawl painfully towards something better. It's not about how you land. It's about how you keep going.

Unscrambled's write-up is here; Skunkcabbage's is here.