The Passion of Joan of Arc

Not rated yet!
Director
Carl Theodor Dreyer
Runtime
1 h 22 min
Release Date
21 April 1928
Genres
Drama, History
Overview
A classic of the silent age, this film tells the story of the doomed but ultimately canonized 15th-century teenage warrior. On trial for claiming she'd spoken to God, Jeanne d'Arc is subjected to inhumane treatment and scare tactics at the hands of church court officials. Initially bullied into changing her story, Jeanne eventually opts for what she sees as the truth. Her punishment, a famously brutal execution, earns her perpetual martyrdom.
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VJ Morton8
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  • The countercultural Jesus
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)
    PassionLead

    The countercultural Jesus

    THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004, 9)

    “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.”
    — Richard Niebuhr, “The Kingdom of God in America”

    Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not a movie made according to the kind of Christian creed Niebuhr mockingly describes and that has become the dominant religion in this corner of Christendom. Hallelujah.

    In fact, between this film and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming DOGVILLE, every one of those four “withouts” gets put through the wringer. Both my two favorite films of the year to date are religious movies that play up these “negative” countercultural features of the Christian faith that have been watered down in this era of Nice Jesus Who Affirms Us In Our Okayness. Gibson’s film is a film about man’s sin and Christ’s cross — viewed unsparingly and without sugar coating. If we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried,” then THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is about what we really mean by that sentence. Nothing else.

    THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t flawless, in fact I was frankly surprised I was moved by the film as much as I was. But I was. The shivers went up and down my spine from the first appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and the tears flowed on several occasions (usually in concert with Mary’s IIRC … this is a very Marian Passion play). But my response was not preprogrammed. Jesus movies generally haven’t fared well with me — I really liked Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW and had a restrained admiration for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. But Nicholas Ray, Franco Zeffirelli and George Stevens left me tepid or downright cold, and let’s not even talk about the “Junk for Jesus”/straight-to-video schlock that some of us were exposed to in school. And Gibson’s previous directorial work (primarily BRAVEHEART) I found pompously overblown, overwrought, telegraphed and repetitive. Some of those flaws find their way into his latest work. And though I think Gibson’s flaws as a director mostly work for him, I will go to my grave thinking he could been more discriminate in his use of slo-mo and didn’t need quite so much music score mixed quite so loudly. Their overuse, like all forms of promiscuity, eventually dissipates some of their power when most needed and most-deeply intended.

    But Gibson’s limitations, which produces movies that come across as self-important and grandiose on other projects, become strengths when applied to a Passion film, as if he’s found his project and his niche (think a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille). THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t a drama with a plot (it lacks the usual narrative hooks and assumes you know the basic story already), rather it’s more like a ritual — a real-time Stations of the Cross. If the Roman soldiers doing the scourging behave in a flamboyantly evil style, like the rednecks in DELIVERANCE, it serves to underline that this isn’t a story about some arrogant, privileged yuppies learning a lesson about intruding on nature. Nor are the Romans beating up some thieves. Or the English executing some foreign rebel. To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.

    *As works of art* (the only meaningful way to compare the Gospels to a movie that will be dust one day like everything else) the Gospels offer a different experience, though they have the bonus of a unique-for-all-time guarantee of infallibility. They’re very direct, unembroidered accounts (especially the first three), with minimal description — “Jesus was scourged” is about as detailed as it gets. But since the Passion is such a familiar story and has been done so many times, it’s reasonable to demand that an artist bring something new to it, some of the kind of embroidery absent from the Gospels, and that’s where film’s immediacy comes in.

    Movies are concrete, particular, and veristic; while words tend to abstractify and conceptualize (which is a good thing, I hasten to add; it’s just a matter of how the different media operate). Gibson’s style, overblown as it is, produced for me something even the Gospels themselves don’t — being overwhelmed emotionally by the sensation that something extraordinary and world-historic is happening before my very eyes. And that’s the bell to try to ring if you’re gonna make a *film* of the Passion. A film can show the utter ruination of Christ’s body, something other media can only suggest. The Suffering Servant parable of Isaiah, which Gibson alludes to in the opening title card though not this particular verse, says that the Servant had “no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him” (Isaiah 53:2). We see what such a body looks like, what “the stripes by which we are healed” (the part he does quote, 53:5) look like.

    Even the John and Matthew films I favorably cited are Gospel films, not Passion films. Gibson’s movie owes more to the tradition of Passion plays, a centuries-old genre that cinema has generally shied away from but *is* the genre of one of the greatest movies of all time — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which I deliberately watched again the day before seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While Dreyer, who is ten times the director Gibson is (that isn’t an insult … Dreyer is ten times the director pretty much anyone is), doesn’t amp up the violence like Gibson does, he certainly went for the same effect — a single-minded, compressed appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Dreyer just amped up the feeling in other ways. JOAN is one of the most aggressively eccentric films ever made — shot almost entirely in closeup against white backgrounds, with odd angles and compositions, strange camera movements and montages, chosen for subjective involvement above even logical sense. Much of Dreyer’s drama is contained in the actors’ makeup-free faces, shot like bas reliefs on a wall, and those faces are usually something less than serene. Even when they are serene, the film’s out-of-scale close-ups greatly magnify small details like the path of a tear and a blizzard of sputtered spit.

    The entire genre of the Passion play was never intended as a “life of Christ” primer any more than one week’s Mass is the whole liturgical year or one TV episode the whole season. Dreyer tells us nothing about the Hundred Years War and we never see the Dauphin. The genre simply assumes you know something about the Bible (and it once could) in order to get more out of it than the bald events, which aren’t on the surface very interesting otherwise. There are only a few short moments presented as the import of it all — but they’re there.

    One of the earliest lines of dialog is Satan taunting Jesus at Gethsemane that no man could bear the burden of all the sins of all men. It’s too much. Jesus shrinks from the prospect, but then crushes a serpent, the symbol of Satan’s reign in the world, and proceeds to do just that — to take on, according to the Father’s will, the sins of the whole world. Q: How can a mere man tolerate this? A: He was no mere man — both again justifying the hyperviolent quality of the film, but also giving us a Jesus worth following to the ends of the Earth and dying to self for, rather than just a teacher whose homilies we can take or leave at will as they suit us.

    This extremity also plays with our identification. Jesus’ superhuman endurance, along with His lack of speech, make it hard to “identify with” Him in the usual sense. Instead, Gibson cuts away from Jesus (far more than he’s given credit for) to give us plenty of shots of the people who see Jesus — Mary primarily, with subsidiary roles for Peter, Judas, Pilate and Simon of Cyrene. The dominant identification, I think, is to associate with how they react to Him, to see the meaning of His suffering and how they do or do not contribute to it, more than to Christ’s suffering itself. This is Gibson’s (and the Church’s) point about how we all crucified Christ. If we identify too closely with Jesus and see ourself in Him, then we’d kinda miss the point. Everybody but Mary contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas’ betrayal; the Temple Jews’ accusation; the disciples’ abandonment; Peter’s denials; Herod’s insouciance; Pilate’s condemnation; the crowd’s mockery; and finally the soldiers’ executing Him. And Satan remains behind the whole action — floating above and through it, and motivating the people.

    When watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the first time I remember the tears flowing over my eyes came with Peter’s denials — something I’ve read, referred to or seen represented a thousand times, but in terms of making that denial convincing as something *you* might do, there’s just no substitute for actually *seeing* a threatening, angry mob constructed as Other (and constructing you as Other). Just words on a page, or just a few people milling about, or a Hyde Park soapbox crowd instead of a lynch mob, just won’t do. Since we live in basically a risk-free environment today, it’s easy for us to say “I’d never deny a friend” and so look down on Peter. Well, no. That’s part of the reason I had such scorn for the ADL’s whining that the Jerusalem mob was threatening … well, duh. How could it have made a man deny his rabbi three times if it weren’t?

    There was also an uncanny event that I’ll remember forever. The church I had gone to for Ash Wednesday Mass had some nails set up in the vestibule and you were encouraged to take one as you left for keeping with you during Lent and nailing it into a cross on Good Friday. I kept that nail in my pocket and it began to lie against my thigh a little uncomfortably just at the point of the film where they arrive at Calvary. So I fished the nail out of my pocket and held it in my hand, fingering it and fiddling with it, for the rest of the film. Partly for comfort’s sake obviously, but holding a nail during the last 30 minutes conspicuously underlined and, as a sacramental, reminded me of the role I played in the crucifixion being depicted.

    Gibson personalizes the Passion both through that kind of visceral concreteness, the sacramental quality of his images, and through the liturgical points made in the flashbacks. They don’t really fill in backstory as much as tell us what all this gore is the implicit culmination of. The Passion is what the Gospels had been leading up to.

    For example, the late Last Supper flashbacks are rhymed with the spearing of Jesus’ side and the resulting contemporary-Hollywood arterial spray. So when Jesus picks up the wine and says “this is my blood … it will be shed for you,” the same words the priest says every Sunday, THIS is what “shedding blood” means. Similar flashbacks take us from Calvary to the breaking of bread. It’s as if Jesus “remembers” the Last Supper even as he enacts the eucharistic sacrifice it both establishes and memorializes. Unlike most of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the Sermon on the Mount “love your enemies” admonition is shot in the usual Biblical Epic style, but it occurs as they arrive at Calvary, and after we’re already been through the streets and the scourging. It’s a way of saying THIS is what this admonition means, His command is neither abstract nor easy and no man could be exactly faulted for not wanting to live up to it or failing to do so.

    As I say, the brutality’s very unendurability and relentlessness, taken in human terms, is pretty much the point. And it’s what gives force to the Sermon on the Mount … what makes it Commandments from a God rather than admonitions from a man. THIS was your ransom, a ransom only a God could or would pay. There’s also a raindrop effect that I don’t want to spoil beyond saying it puts God’s sovereignty and the universe itself in His tears, like in John 3:16. The resurrection itself is just one quick shot that’s barely long enough to qualify as an afterthought. The words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” come right after Caiaphas is shown at the Cross. A critic coming to the movie looking for anti-Semitism would notice Caiaphas’ appearance but somehow ignore what Jesus says.

    Which is a longwinded way of saying that I believe THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST really works only if the viewer at least provisionally believes that Christianity is true — suspends disbelief in the same way viewers of comic-book movies allow for the purposes of the film that the sun’s yellow rays can give an alien super strength, x-ray vision and all that. Now this is obviously easier for those of us who do believe it’s all true, and my own Catholicism obviously predisposed me to liking this movie. But what infuriates me about many of the negative reviews THE PASSION is getting is that they are coming from a stance that is at least implicitly anti-Christian (certainly non-Christian) but usually doesn’t acknowledge itself as such (or even as a point-of-view). These critics simply would not or could not suspend disbelief — citations coming in the next couple of days.

    There’s been a lot of talk in churches and the Catholic blogosphere and other Christian sites about THE PASSION being a great “teachable moment” in evangelizing a world that has turned away from Christ. And quickie books and pamphlets on the Passion are being published and whatnot. I have my doubts (actually, I have more than mere doubts) of this film’s effectiveness in terms of converting hardcore or convicted non-Christians. I think its impact will be much stronger with genially, uncritically lapsed Christians and in deepening the conversion of those of us who, while practicing, affirming and following Him, are not doing so as well as we should strive to do. Lord knows that’s a great achievement in itself and it doesn’t affect my emotional experience of the film. But I persist in believing this not-exactly-but-almost “preaching to the choir” aspect of THE PASSION to be an imperfection.

    Maia Morgenstern as Mary gives by far the movie’s best performance. In fact most of the film’s best moments, as cinema, are scenes she dominates — this is a movie that only a mackerel-snapper like Gibson could have made. For starters, there’s the film’s second-last shot, not just a Pieta, but one that has Mary looking right at the viewer as if to say “look what you did to my son.” It frankly overshadows the rather rote and low-key Resurrection that follows it. There’s also a scene that combines the 3rd and 4th Stations of the Cross, where Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and a lying-in-wait Mary runs up an alley to see Jesus. It flashes back to Jesus as a boy and Mary saying something banal in the earlier context and heartbreaking when she says it in the current one. Then there’s a few short shots of Mary following Jesus by walking down one side of the street while Satan walks down the other. It’s like a kind of pas-de-deux, pairing the two black-hooded women in opposition.

    The movie’s other outstanding performance was Hristo Shopov as Pilate, who’s played as the most-modern man in the movie — a bureaucrat who acts from prudence in this to him confusing inter-Jewish quarrel in which he ain’t got no dog. Shopov plays him in the very opposite register from his flamboyantly evil droogs that do the whippings — annoyed, well-meaning, but utterly ruthless in the end as long as he gets to wash his hands. The contrast of evils is brilliant — he’s Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil presiding over some evil Snidely Whiplashes.

    The two biggest names in the cast do not quite so well. Monica Bellucci is mostly just wasted as Mary Magdelene. And then there’s Jim Caviezel as Jesus. To compare him to Falconetti in Dreyer’s JOAN movie is unfair (the films’ direction and what is demanded of them as actors is so different that you’d be better off comparing two athletes playing different sports). Caviezel plays this conception of Jesus as well as you can, but there isn’t much there for an actor to do but simply “be.” For the last 100 minutes of THE PASSION, he has to give his performance with one good eye. But his left eye is about the only body part he has in good working order from beginning to end, and it does give a fine performance, mixing defiance and serenity in its gaze.

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    February 27, 2004 - Posted by | Catholicism, Mel Gibson, Religion in movies

    1 Comment »

    1. […] is to do violence to the film. I specifically argued that a “nice” PASSION would have failed to capture the point of the Atonement — that Jesus was bearing all the sins of the world, and that His stripes […]

      Pingback by A ‘nice’ PASSION « Rightwing Film Geek | November 23, 2017 | Reply


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    (Review Source)
  • Because I’m sitting at a bar with nothing better to do…
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    Because I’m sitting at a bar with nothing better to do…

    Let me pick a fight with a friend, Scott Tobias of the Onion AV Club, the man whose moniker for me wound up in my Big Hollywood bio blurb (“the only hardline Catholic moralist you’ll meet who loved (or, for that matter, saw) Irreversible“)

    Anyhoo … I was looking at the AV Club a little bit ago to see whether he and Noel Murray had any festival walkup pieces (press screenings just started this morning). And saw that Scott had another in his Gateways to Geekery series, a fun premise that actually does fill a very important role — “where do I begin?”

    This one is about one of my very favorite directors — Denmark’s Carl Theodor Dreyer, the man who, as Scott rightly notes makes Ingmar Bergman look like Stanley Donen. And there’s a tradition of me writing impromptu posts about Dreyer over beer, so here goes…

    Scott’s suggested gateway Dreyer drug is THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the medieval French saint’s trial and execution. There’s no way around the fact that Dreyer may well be the most forbidding and intimidating director in the canon, and so there are good arguments against any place a critic might wanna start. But I still think JOAN is the wrong film to recomment to the not-already-hardcore (the second-worst of his five major “late” films, ahead of only the snicker-inducing GERTRUD), and I will suggest two better alternatives as well.

    I think JOAN would be a bad choice because of things Scott correctly notes in his piece. Because Dreyer is so intimidating, I think you want something accessible and as “comfortable” as possible, to ease the way in. For one thing, JOAN is silent, and that’s an immediate turnoff for (too, far far too) many. It shouldn’t be — silent films are their own aesthetic, they “lack” nothing. And the “Visions of Light” score on the DVD is an astonishing work and addition in its own right. But it is, and everything else equal, or even somewhat unequal, a sound film will always work better for a filmmaker with masterpieces on both sides of the 1930 breach. Second, JOAN is in many ways a baffling film even to wrap your head around — extremely spatially disorienting, filled with eccentric wtf-angles and pays no attention whatever to establishing shots or to the ABCs of continuity editing (indeed one would see it has a score of contradictory cues if he were to try to “figure them all out” as David Bordwell did). JOAN is, therefore an alienating experience if one isn’t overwhelmed by the sheer emotional power of it (which is, of course, the ideal response).

    So I’ll make two other suggestion for entry-points into Dreyer. The first is the one of his five films that I think comes closest to conventional viewing habits — DAY OF WRATH. I’m paraphrasing Bordwell from memory. But I think he was correct in noting that WRATH marks a transition point between (to use hostile critical vocabulary) the earlier alienating stylistic eccentricities and unclarity of JOAN and VAMPYR and the staginess and stasis of ORDET and GERTRUD. Thus you get both “sides” of Dreyer’s late work without the excesses of either. WRATH also, Bordwell correctly notes, has more melodramatic appeal and conventional character-conflict than any of the other four films.

    The other entry point I’d pick may seem a bit counterintuitive, given what I just said about silents. But it tickled my mind when I realized Scott hadn’t mentioned it at all. That film is MICHAEL, which Dreyer made for UFA in 1924 at the height of expressionism with such important German collaborators as writer Thea von Harbou, actors Nora Gregor and Walter Slezak, and cinematographers Karl Freund and Rudolph Mate. If you can get past the silent part at all (and a somewhat hammy Benjamin Christiansen in the lead role), I think MICHAEL is Dreyer’s most accessible and melodramatically satisfying film, period. It’s a straight-up “Vie de Boheme” story about an artist, his male muse, his female love and the jealousies between and among them and the vicissitudes of his career. If you could imagine Oscar Wilde as a filmmaker, you’ll get MICHAEL. Like DAY OF WRATH, it also served as a Dreyer career bridge but, also like a lot of films made in 1924 and 1925, it too marks a turning point from the beginning to the end of the silent era. Dreyer’s early silents like THE PARSONS WIDOW and LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK are excellent films, but allowances have to be made for them because of the technical primitiveness of the 10s and early-20s. Meanwhile, Dreyer’s later silents, most radically JOAN, pose stylistic challenges that the improved state-of-the-art allowed. MICHAEL sits balanced on the scale of time.

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    1. Kudos to everything you said in this post. As an mostly irrelevant postscript, I’d like to add that I was just contemplating two days ago that I would much rather have seen DAY OF WRATH in high school English class than read/watch any/all versions of THE CRUCIBLE.

      Comment by Matt | September 14, 2010 | Reply


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  • Some good news at least
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    Some good news at least

    (via Dirty Harry)

    The cinematic gods took away SILENT LIGHT, but they have given us back METROPOLIS. According to Die Zeit magazine, Fritz Lang’s original 1927 German release cut has been found in Argentina (I am not kidding … maybe it fled there after World War 2).¹

    After examining the film the three experts are certain: The find from Buenos Aires is a real treasure, a worldwide sensation. Metropolis, the most important silent film in German history, can from this day on be considered to have been rediscovered. …
    Among the footage that has now been discovered, according to the unanimous opinion of the three experts that ZEITmagazin asked to appraise the pictures, there are several scenes which are essential in order to understand the film: The role played by the actor Fritz Rasp in the film for instance, can finally be understood. Other scenes, such as for instance the saving of the children from the worker’s underworld, are considerably more dramatic. In brief: “Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s most famous film, can be seen through new eyes.”, as stated by Rainer Rother, Director of the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum and head of the series of retrospectives at the Berlinale.

    Not counting long forgotten Chaplin and Keystone Kops stuff from Saturday morning and weekday afternoon anthologies when I was a boy, METROPOLIS was the first silent film I ever saw (yes, Harry, I saw it in the Giorgio Moroder-scored version from the mid-80s, which was an easy find in flyover-country video stores). That particular release, made possible by the film’s out-of-copyright status, was obviously a “gimmick film” and not the ideal way to see METROPOLIS. And I do prefer the original Gottfried Huppertz’s 1927 score.

    But I’m not sure it wasn’t the best type of “first-silent” for someone born in 1966 and so believing that movies, by nature, talk, and that silent films are therefore inferior or at least unfinished or incomplete. (More on that below.) I have seen METROPOLIS a couple of times since, including in a theatrical release a few years ago for the Kino restoration, which was sold at the time (and the print and more-orthodox score WERE awesome) as the “completest possible” or “definitive, authorized” version … oops.

    The influence of METROPOLIS is impossible to overstate. Stylistically, it was the pinnacle of German Expressionism and practically defined the science-fiction genre and hugely influenced the horror genre, in film. The scene of the mad scientist Rotwang animating a robot was practically cribbed in FRANKENSTEIN and then a score of other movies; C3PO in STAR WARS was modeled on the robot Maria; cinematographer Karl Freund went on to shoot DRACULA and direct THE MUMMY and MAD LOVE in Hollywood²; Lang went on to Hollywood and brought German Expressionism and his film-noir sensibility with him; it has been quoted in a score of movies and even a Queen video. It was also reportedly a favorite of Adolf Hitler — there’s a possibly apocryphal story that when he saw METROPOLIS, he stood up at the end and said “THAT is the man to make National Socialist film.” Look at these stills and try not to understand why:

    Is it possible to look at those stills and not also think, respectively, of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL and OLYMPIA by Leni Riefenstahl, the [wo}man who DID make National Socialist film? There’s another certainly apocryphal story that Hitler invited Lang to the Chancellery and offered him a film studio to head. Lang, a liberal and half-Jew, fled Germany the next day.

    Now seeing Fritz Lang’s whole film is a real prospect — not in terms of an imminent release tomorrow (it needs restoration work obviously), but certain and hopefully soon.

    And so the whole “lost film” saga continues … from THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC found in a Norwegian asylum’s janitor closet to WITHIN OUR GATES found in a Spanish version; from as late the original SHADOWS being left on a New York subway to as far back as works by the 1890s popping up even this decade (Melies’ CLEOPATRA). As the world becomes smaller and archives, especially those outside Western Europe and North America, get better catalogued, periodic news like this (even though it’s seldom this BIG) gives us cinephiles, particularly those of us who love silent films,³ hope that past losses can be undone. That maybe somewhere in the world, there is a copy of Chaney’s LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT or Lubitsch’s THE PATRIOT; that the missing footage from GREED or THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS will eventually be found, despite all the perfectly good reasons there shouldn’t be and they won’t.
    —————————————————
    ¹ The Die Zeit article actually makes clear that this print has been in Argentina since 1928. But c’mon … who could resist that joke?
    ² Freund later still defined the art of shooting sitcoms on film as head cinematographer on I LOVE LUCY. (Yes, the same man shot METROPOLIS and I LOVE LUCY.)
    ³ 80 percent of silent films are estimated to be gone. Admittedly few of those are thought to be significant — the best-regarded, best-known and most-successful works will find ways to stay in circulation by virtue of those adjectives. But even the greatest of silent-film artists have some holes in their ouevre — yes, even Charlie Chaplin himself.

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    July 4, 2008 - Posted by | Fritz Lang, Restoration

    5 Comments »

    1. Since you’ve just been blogging about Godard, I am wondering what you think of Lang’s performance (as himself) in LA MEPRIS? Actually, that Hitler story is mentioned in the film. I think that if you’d like any of Godard’s films, it’d be that one.

      Comment by Santiago | July 4, 2008 | Reply

    2. To sorta respond to both your posts: I remember finding a terrible print of METROPOLIS in the library in Fresno not knowing what it really was, because I was just trying to find anything old/silent/odd and it met all three criteria. I was totally fascinated by it, even though I didn’t have a clue what was going on (it definitely did not have the instructive intertitles of the Kino restored version). I’ve since seen it in a theater and on DVD a few times, and it retains the same fascination; along with possibly 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, I think it’s the closest film comes to taking you from your seat and putting you in an entirely foreign world.

      The only big question for me is: when will we get to see it? Come on, Kino, get the super-complete version ready to go!

      Comment by G-Money | July 4, 2008 | Reply

    3. Here is a great scene with Fritz in it:

      Comment by Santiago | July 7, 2008 | Reply

    4. No, Santi … I pretty much detest LE MEPRIS (and all Godard I’ve seen except WEEKEND, BREATHLESS and [now] SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL). The most specific I ever got about LE MEPRIS was in this thread here on Usenet — gulp — almost a decade ago. Can’t say I blame Lang for that though, nor Sam Fuller for the suckitude of PIERROT LE FOU. Both directors are just there as window-dressing for Godard’s juvenilia, both men doing what he can to play himself.

      Which Hitler anecdote was in LE MEPRIS (his liking METROPOLIS or his offering Lang the UFA top job) — it’s been years since I’ve seen it? Some of Lang’s statements don’t check out and may have become a bit taller in the telling (we know, for example, that he didn’t leave Germany suddenly, penniless and never to return).

      Comment by vjmorton | July 11, 2008 | Reply

    5. The anecdote about the UFA top job. I will read your comments.

      Comment by Santiago | July 11, 2008 | Reply


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  • Worst Moviegoing Experiences: Misadventures of a Rightwing Film Geek
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    Worst Moviegoing Experiences: Misadventures of a Rightwing Film Geek

    This is a reprint of an article at the Nerve.com film blog The Screengrab, which is now defunct but was edited at the time by Bilge Ebiri. As a regular feature, he would ask critics and cinephiles to name their worst filmgoing experiences. As I said at the time, “if you want to read all about Victor being accused of committing the solitary vice in public, or how and where he concluded that God is dead — here is your chance.” The Screengrab is now inaccessible except through Web archiving, which is why I feel comfortable reproducing this Nerve post here, in 2013. I was able to recover Bilge’s art and his captions, which were quite fun. The italics are Bilge’s words, including an insertion that I thought required a response. It was initially a separate blog post of my own, but it works fine now as a footnote here.

    ————————————————————-

    Extremism in the defense of Lars Von Trier is no vice.

    Victor Morton, aka The Rightwing Film Geek, is one of the best film writers out there. Notice that I don’t say “online” anywhere in that sentence — that’s because Victor could easily give most pro print critics a run for their money as well. And while Victor’s politics don’t exactly match mine — or most Nerve readers’, I suspect — even some of his political rantings are worth reading, as they’re often (though not always) very cogently argued. Anyway, I digress. Here, Victor relates one rather unfortunate, and unfortunately hilarious, incident that occurred to him a few years ago, and then muses on some of the difficulties of being a film-buff with beliefs diametrically opposed to his fellow cineastes.

    The worst filmgoing experience I have ever had was actually a moment of profound personal embarrassment. An opening weekend midnight screening of HIGH FIDELITY was packed to the rafters and the only seat I could easily find was the very back row, right against the wall. A woman was sitting next to me and her boyfriend was on her other side. It was kind of cold in the theater and so, since I had on only a polo shirt and shorts, I stuck both my arms inside my shirt to keep warmer. In addition, my shorts were just a little bit tight around the waist and so (under my shirt) I stuck my fingers in between the shorts’ waistband and my waist, just about nail-deep, to relieve the pressure some. Now my description makes it clear I was doing nothing untoward. But to someone with imperfect knowledge, like, say…someone sitting immediately next to you in a dark theater…it could easily look like…something else.

    In the middle of the movie, the scene where Rob goes to the bar with the intent of picking up Marie De Salle, the boyfriend turns to me and says (not yelling, but not in a movie-theater whisper either), “Would you STOP that?” Confused, I said, “What? I’m just cold.” It then dawned on me what he might have been thinking. I issued a euphemistic denial and repeated that I was only feeling cold. Nothing was said after that, but my face was the approximate hue of the richest marinara sauce you ever ate and the approximate temperature of Washington in August. I was so embarrassed and self-conscious that the rest of the movie could have been the missing reels from the end of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and my mind would still have been somewhere else. I made a point of sitting through the credits to cut down the chances of seeing the pair outside.

    “You, in the back. Yeah, you. Don’t think I can’t see what you’re doing…”

    Most of my bad film-going experiences have involved bad reactions from other audience members. When I saw RUSSIAN ARK in commercial release in Washington, someone made his political opinions known after the credits started to run. He yelled at the screen (or it felt like a yell in the little shoebox art-house with a capacity of maybe 80 people) “Hooray for empire. Fuck Bush. What a disgusting movie.” Yes, there is a human being walking the face of the Earth, wasting perfectly good oxygen (and I doubt he’s the only one) who can see a movie about the aristocratic splendor of traditional monarchy and think of … Dubya.

    But I expect nothing on that front from DC art-house audiences. Or from the Toronto Film Festival audience who applauded in the middle of THE FOG OF WAR at Robert McNamara’s retarded “please love me, leftists” line “if we can’t persuade nations of similar values of the rightness of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.” Of course, Errol Morris thoughtfully provided a few seconds of dead space at that point. [Editor’s confession: We applauded too. It’s a great line.]*

    That sort of “lone Red Sox supporter in Yankee Stadium” moment is just par for the course for a conservative film geek. Which is why my most-depressing filmgoing experience ever came from a very different audience. When I was in grad school, I was psyched for the chance to see DAY OF WRATH in a theater, at a campus screening. Now, I’m a complete Dreyer fanboy, and while he did make a couple of lighter films early in his pre-PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC career, he wasn’t one for inserting comic relief into a serious film. And DAY OF WRATH, masterpiece though it is, is a completely humorless, gray, dour movie. There is a scene near the midway point of the movie of Anne and Martin — the new wife and stepson — together at the rectory that was intercut with Absalon (the religious patriarch) visiting the deathbed of the witch-torturer. Anne says to Martin something like “I wish him dead,” referring to Absalon. Then Dreyer cut back to Absalon crossing the moors on the way home, letting out a shiver and saying something like, “I felt the cold hand of death brush my shoulder.” At that line, the audience let out a big laugh.

    Hipster central?

    I was on the point of tears when I reflected on it. Here was a movie where clearly witches, the devil, God and the supernatural are taken deadly seriously and yet the audience was too post-modern, too hip, too knowing to take the possibilities seriously enough, even if only for 100 minutes of a VERY somber movie. Apparently God can’t even gain a place as a fictional character about whom you suspend disbelief as though he were a crime-fighting space alien who flies and gains super strength because of our planet’s yellow sun. But what makes this moment the ne plus ultra of depressing filmgoing experiences was where this occurred — Notre Dame. The national icon of Catholic higher education. Where every dorm has its own Sunday Mass. Where academic department have their own priests. The home of Touchdown Jesus, ferchrissakes. I had tears in my eyes for most of the rest of the movie. God is dead. Hip irony has won. The Coen Brothers are masters of the universe.

    But that very art-house faux-sophistication redeemed a different bad film experience, this one involving print quality. During the flurry of Peter Greenaway releases in 1990-91 after the notoriety of THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE, AND HER LOVER, I saw A ZED AND TWO NAUGHTS (a movie so mannered it makes COOK look like a cinema-verite doc) at an Austin, Texas arthouse. At a certain point, the film jumped so that each image consisted of the bottom half of, say, frame 1000, at the top of the screen with the top half of frame 1001 at the bottom half of the screen. There was a black bar in the middle maybe 10 percent of the screen depth. (I hope that makes it clear what we were seeing.) I decided relatively quickly that it wasn’t intentional. I entertained the thought that maybe it wasn’t a mistake, but this film, even more than COOK, THE DRAUGHTSMAN’S CONTRACT or DROWNING BY NUMBERS consisted of frame after frame of stunningly composed still lifes. It just didn’t strike me that Greenaway, unlike say an Andy Kauffman, would split the image in half bass-ackwards that way. But since I was hating the movie anyway, I decided to have some fun and see if anyone else noticed the emperor’s clothes. It took at least 5 minutes before anyone piped up.

    ————————————————-
    * Point of Personal Privilege: Why the there-referred-to McNamara line in THE FOG OF WAR is retarded. “Nations with similar values” doesn’t mean anything. Looking at how nations lined up vis the U.S. on the Iraq War — setting aside Britain and France (they’re special culture-driven cases). By what standard is Canada (opposed) a “nation with similar values” but Australia (supportive) not? By what standard is Germany and Belgium (opposed) “nations with similar values” but Spain or Italy (supportive) not? Russia, but not Poland and Bulgaria? Turkey but not Kuwait? And if the UN’s gonna get into the act, nothing would be done on anything at all without the approval of Communist China, about whose “similar values,” the less said, the better. Looking at the European and Commonwealth nations named above, with the Anglo-frog exceptions — support entirely turned on whether the government in power at the time was left-led (in which case it opposed the war) or right-led (in which case it supported it). Support for the was pretty much a partisan affair (and this was so in the US too). “Nations with similar values”? My tookus.

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    September 6, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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  • The Passion (of Jesus of Nazareth)
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    The Passion (of Jesus of Nazareth)

    Here is the trailer for Mel Gibson’s upcoming movie on the Crucifixion.

    I was initially a skeptic about this film, when Gibson was saying he wanted to release it in Latin and Aramaic without subtitles. That strikes me as wack, and I’m glad Gibson has relented. Also, from the looks of the trailer, Gibson has decided to portray the Crucifixion in terms rather like the climax of BRAVEHEART — which means that whatever else we’re gonna get, it’s not gonna be a watered-down bit of triumphalism. Two of my favorite religious films just about ever — THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and BREAKING THE WAVES — are both about [female] Christ figures that are quite heavy on the suffering, but even they didn’t get as bloody as THE PASSION looks to be (though Gibson as a director is in the league of neither Dreyer nor Von Trier). Cheap grace is such a pet peeve (a Resurrection and forgiveness without the gory execution is a contradiction in terms), but now that that is off the possibility charts, I’m genuinely psyched about this film’s 2004 release.

    I already know what some of the reaction will be — Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and the Simon Wiesenthal Center already have attacked the film, based on a script draft, as anti-Semitic. The New York Times Magazine did a hatchet job on Gibson’s octogenarian father as an anti-Semite. And I can’t wait to see the reaction of the feminists to the portrayal of Satan as a woman. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver got the best line … in the Denver Catholic Register: “When the overtly provocative ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ was released 15 years ago, movie critics piously lectured Catholics to be open-minded and tolerant. Surely that advice should apply equally for everyone.”

    But bishop … you’re talking as though “tolerance” is actually a moral principle, rather than a political weapon. How naive can you get?

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    July 16, 2003 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

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  • Top 100 Catholic Movies (sic)
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    Top 100 Catholic Movies (sic)

    A couple of years ago, the National Catholic Register (that’s the good NCR) asked readers to nominate (and later vote on) “films that best celebrate Catholic life … movies with specific Catholic references, not simply with Catholic themes.” The results of the more than 1,000 votes are here. I wasn’t impressed. Like all popular polls, this is basically a list of “Catholic” movies people remember having seen recently (or in some cases treasure from their youth).

    But, as much as I like it (as I said at the time), I don’t believe there is any way that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (#1) is that much a better film than THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (#48). Or even better at all. But that I can chalk up to taste — and Dreyer is an acquired one — and to the obscurity and difficulty that an 80-year-old silent film poses for most. And since Gibson did in fact make a great film, I can’t call honoring PASSION OF THE CHRIST unworthy. But what either film has to do with “Catholic life” (particularly as distinguished from “Catholic themes”) is unclear at best.

    There are also a lot of downright bad films on the list, starting all the way up at #2 — though I can chalk that particular one up to taste also (or more precisely, my distaste for easy uplift). But the #11(!!!!) showing for the 2004 THERESE is just a crime — the worst example of both presentism and judging a work of art by its surface content. There is no way, no how that the 2004 THERESE belongs on any list of honor or high regard. Particularly so much higher than the French THERESE from 1986 — Alain Cavalier’s film is down at #79. That is merely a reflection of how many have seen the film, and how recently. If this gets repeated in 2025, the 2004 THERESE will be forgotten.

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    August 10, 2006 - Posted by | Uncategorized | ,

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  • 2-on-1 tag team
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)

    2-on-1 tag team

    I’ve been tagged by two different friends — Dale Price and Steve Skojec — for the same meme  — the “Top-Five Critically-Lauded Movies I Simply Detest.”

    Since I generally only see movies that have at least some critical acclaim, I could probably do this for any given year. For example, in 2006, none of the films that won the world’s three top juried festivals were IMHO worth recommending — GRBAVICA (Berlin, 5), THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Cannes, 2) and STILL LIFE (Venice, 3).

    Since Dale and Steve are both papistbuds who have named some truly detestable films, and often on grounds I’d choose (see Dale on CHOCOLAT and DEAD POETS SOCIETY), I’m gonna restrict myself to “Religious or Moral/Spiritual Films” that are widely liked in St. Blogs; several are on the Arts and Faith listing of 100 Spiritually Significant Films. Some of these films would not be considered critically praised in some of the FilmSnob circles I hang around, but well …

    (1) A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (Fred Zinneman, USA, 1966) — This is the sort of film that causes many religious people to confuse the subject matter with the movie. Thomas More is a saint; this movie is a sin. It’s all respectable and britcostumey and sincere and stiffupperlippy, a lengthy episode of Masterpiece Theatuh (I can’t decide whether Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey is brilliant or just a kitchen sink gesture, SOUTLAND TALES avant la lettre). Robert Bolt never found a way to make this play into a film. And while I have a high tolerance for lengthy intellectual debates, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS just bogs down in them because that’s all there is once the basic situation is set up — there isn’t any real drama until the trial, just a lot of talk, staking out positions. And when we get to the trial, Paul Scofield’s performance is far too voicy and Zinneman’s direction far too stagy.

    (2) PICKPOCKET (Robert Bresson, France, 1959) — Just about any Bresson, the cinematic Jansenist, would do here (COUNTRY PRIEST, JOAN OF ARC, BALTHAZAR, L’ARGENT) — the same somnambulent, inexpressive and unpsychological style that the uncharitable heathen (that would be me) insists on seeing as just plain empty tedium — events without drama, behavior without character. The acting would disgrace a middle-school play, even one about zombies, which is how Bresson deliberately gets his “models” to “perform.” For example, the police catch our so-called Dostoyevskian hero in a crime (imagine Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov as an obscurely interior mumbler for a sense of how bad this is), but then immediately drop the charges **in the next scene.** He escapes a police crackdown at another point by going abroad and making a fortune and losing it all on gambling and women — we learn all that in a voiceover introducing the very next shot after he leaves Paris, which is of him returning to Paris. He doesn’t act (sic) any differently or make any reference to his foreign sojourn — so wtf is the point of our learning of it?

    (3) LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (Peter Jackson, USA/New Zealand, 2001-3) — Neither Tolkien nor swords-and-sorcery fantasy are things I’ve ever been able to get into — never had either a Dungeons and Dragons or a comic-fanboy phase as a boy. Yeah … I’ve been a stuffed shirt for 35 years, all right. I’ve tried to read the Middle Earth novels, but not gotten past 40 or 50 pages because Tolkien is too in love with coining names and inventing creatures and laboriously laying out a whole universe, as if the real one isn’t good enough, so the artist-god has to create ex nihilo, that my mind’s and eye’s reaction — film and book — was just to let it pass through me like prune juice. The first film was eye-popping, but spectacle doesn’t last in my mind, and the symbology felt childishly obvious, and without a “reality” to anchor it, it could only function as symbology. The second was just “ehhh.” I couldn’t even drag myself to see the third.

    (4) WINTER LIGHT (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1963) — Homer nods — maybe if I could believe a depressive collapse into suicide because China has the bomb, I could halfway credit this overschematicized whinge (though typically brilliantly made and acted). The faithlessness of Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pastor isn’t convincingly dramatized — if it’s ever shown how he got that way, I’ve forgotten it (plus GB usually played a skeptic in Bergman’s movies and so his ever being a priest didn’t convince me). With some notable bravura exceptions — Ingrid Thulin’s teacher reading her note to the camera being the most obvious example — the film feels cinematically static as though this material would work better as a play or novella.

    (5) SONG OF BERNADETTE (Henry King, USA, 1943) — Typifies everything wrong with Hollywood studio-era religious movies, offensive in its calculated inoffensiveness — full of what Flannery O’Connor called “the pious voice” and what St. Josemaria Escriva derided as plaster saints. Also see above re A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and subject matter — as long as neither holiness nor sainthood is imputed through a camera lens, subject-matter per se will never impress me. Seeing this movie is not a pilgrimage to Lourdes and the notion that it is, or relatedly, that a work of art can be judged on the basis of its subject matter is one I frankly find morally offensive. Add to that the typical dramatic shapelessness of the biopic, which gets deadly at 160 minutes, and a 25-year-old woman playing a 14-year-old girl (though that is actually kinda funny)

    I tag James Frazier, Adam Villani, Donna Bowman, Barbara Nicolosi, and Peter Chattaway.

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    7 Comments »

    1. Thanks for trashing a couple of my favorite movies. I’m hoping that’s just an April Fool’s joke on your part. Probably not.

      😉

      You might enjoy the post on IFC at my blog today.

      Comment by Jay Anderson | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    2. Oh, and thanks for trashing my favorite author, to boot.

      Comment by Jay Anderson | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    3. I like this topic, but I think it’s tiresome how often it degenerates into an anti-Hollywood Left bitch fest (see the liberty thread). A movie’s not bad just because you don’t like its message.

      Even though I wasn’t tagged, I will impertinently offer my choices here nontheless:

      1) Natural Born Killers — an evil movie that glorifies serial killers (after all, at least they’re not repressed like middle Americans), except when they kill an American Indian man– that’s just over the line!!

      2) American Beauty– repression is bad, homosexuality is good, religious/military men are closet Nazi homosexuals, teenage fornication is good, blah blah blah etc etc etc.

      3) Titanic- it took me nearly a decade to forgive Kate Winslet after seeing her in this. The biggest movie of all time? Peopla are indeed stupid. Don’t blame the elitist leftist critics for everything.

      4) Funny Games– evil, sadistic and pretentious.

      5) Dances With Wolves– PC to the max and boring to boot.

      Comment by Andy Nowicki | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    4. Jay:

      It’s not an April Fool’s joke at all, but I didn’t realize you were such a fan of WINTER LIGHT and PICKPOCKET.

      And actually I’ve never had IFC … all the cable systems I’ve ever been on have gone with the Sundance Network.

      Andy:

      Yes, that thread at Liberty Film Fest was depressing, which is part of why I deliberately restricted myself to a different type of films, without a single reference to PC liberal Hollywoof.

      And BEAUTY is not just “teenage fornication is good,” it’s “dirty old man slobbering over daughter’s teen friends is good.” BTW … isn’t it interesting [sic] how Hollywoof always sees homosexuality as good except when conservatives do it?

      And what prompted you to forgive Kate? LITTLE CHILDREN? (which was a good movie, and she was brilliant in it, but I kinda doubt it)

      Comment by vjmorton | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    5. “Hollywoof?” Is this an inside joke or a typo?

      Yes, quite right: homosexuality is bad when conservatives do it– hence no gay rights group leapt to the defense of Larry Craig (R) after his public restroom shenanigans.

      I think it was ENIGMA that enabled me to like Miss Winslet again. So, not quite a decade later, but close. I thought she was good in LITTLE CHILDREN (with a flawless American accent), but found the movie quite dull.

      Comment by Andy Nowicki | April 1, 2008 | Reply

    6. The faithlessness of Gunnar Bjornstrand’s pastor isn’t convincingly dramatized — if it’s ever shown how he got that way, I’ve forgotten it

      I’ve seen the film recently and I felt the same way at first — that the moment of rupture is not sufficiently explained, though Bergman makes the moment very clear (it’s at the point when the sun shines through the window, and the pastor throws himself on the floor in front of the altar, and the teacher holds him, kisses and caresses him, softening the existential impact of losing the faith). However, I’ve changed my mind. The point is that the pastor’s faith has never had anything to do with reality — he believed in an idol that only ruled over an imagined world. Recall his story of living at the margins of the Spanish Civil War, and not doing anything to help; also his disgust at the teacher’s bleeding hands, how ineffectual and weak his faith was before the cold face of reality. That is the point that Bergman is making, and it’s a point that is subtle enough that most people have not noticed it, and today we are stuck with sociological analyses of the causes and effects of contemporary European secularization, when Bergman was already warning us about it 50 years ago. If the faith doesn’t help me live in the real world, then we may as well shirk it off.

      You’re right that *dramatically*, there is no one event that causes the pastor to lose his faith. But there are reasons for it, reasons that are in the past and that are related in two monologues (the pastor’s reminiscing about Portugal, the teacher’s letter). There is also the suicide, which is a dramatic event that is caused by the faithlessness. But the mundane, anticlimactic way that the pastor experiences the loss of faith, the dread with which he goes through the loss, and the lack of any feeling of “liberation” which supposedly accompanies the atheist, are all keen insights on the part of Bergman. Insights that I wish Christopher Hitchens would absorb, but I have a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to appreciate this movie.

      The China thing was *supposed* to be somewhat silly — without faith, we have no moorings, we are pathetic, we can’t deal with our fears, petty or real.

      Comment by Santiago | April 2, 2008 | Reply

    7. […] Morton calls it one of the “critically-lauded” religious films he hates. I don’t entirely […]

      Pingback by It’s a Horrible Life? | The American Conservative | August 16, 2012 | Reply


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  • Top 20 of all time
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)
    ...
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  • The Phantom Carriage
    (”The Passion of Joan of Arc” is briefly mentioned in this.)



    While I would not exactly call myself a silent cinema connoisseur and I tend to only be willing to sample the best that the pre-sound era has to offer, I have to admit that the greatest of these films has a singular hypnotic quality that sound cinema seems to somehow lack. Apparently, actor turned one-time-auteur Charles Laughton believed this too and was heavily inspired by both the great cinematic works of film pioneer D.W. Griffith and German expressionist films of the 1920s when creating his directorial debut The Night of the Hunter (1955). Undoubtedly, my initial viewings of Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Jean Cocteau’s Le sang d'un poète (1930) aka The Blood of a Poet, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and especially Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) proved to be such profound cinematic experiences for me to the degree that I found myself questioning the power of a cinema and ultimately coming to the natural conclusion that it is an artistic medium that is truly unrivaled when it comes to pleasurably imprisoning the subconscious and putting the viewer in a waking trance of sorts.  Hell, even a largely forgotten silent short like Das Wolkenphänomen von Maloja (1924) aka Cloud Phenomena of Majola directed by Teutonic mountain film maestro Arnold Fanck has a certain exceptional ethereal quality that seems impossible to reproduce nowadays.

    While it had been a number of years since I had a comparable experience with silent cinema, a somewhat recent first time viewing of the fairly influential Swedish horror masterpiece The Phantom Carriage (1921) aka Körkarlen aka The Phantom Chariot aka The Stroke of Midnight aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness directed by and starring early silent maestro Victor Sjöström (The Outlaw and His Wife, He Who Gets Slapped) reminded me of the singular power and pulchritude of pre-talkie cinema. Like a virtual Nordic Gothic antithesis (and virtual prototype) to Frank Capra’s classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946), the film tells the surprisingly darkly morose and and unwaveringly grim yet ultimately moral tale of a belligerent wino learning the hard way that life is worth living after a serious brush with death that involves a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper figure in a hooded black cloak teaching lessons as opposed to a lovably jolly, if not seemingly semi-autistic, angel without wings named Clarence like in the Hollywood flick. More a dysfunctional family drama about the perennial homewrecker known as alcohol than any sort of ‘pure’ horror flick featuring cheap scares and banally enigmatic monsters, The Phantom Carriage is not only one of the greatest silent films ever made but also one of the greatest, if not the greatest, film on the subject of alcoholism and its deleterious effects on friends and families. 



     Indeed, as much as I hate being around drunkards (aside from having various friends that degenerated into alcoholics, I was once a bouncer), I would be lying if I did not admit that some of my favorite films, including John Huston’s underrated Malcolm Lowry adaptation Under the Volcano (1984), are about the perils of dipsomania, and I would certainly argue that Sjöström’s film is unequivocally the best of the best despite being one of the first films to seriously tackle the subject. In fact, what makes The Phantom Carriage so effortlessly brilliant and striking is that it manages to relatively seamlessly merge the metaphysical horrors of alcohol with conventions of the horror genre in a fashion that is more or less timeless, hence why it is still one of the very few films of its era that still packs a pleasantly pernicious punch. Surely, Sjöström’s flick is Häxan (1922) tier as far as silent Nordic horror is concerned, albeit with a more innately important message. Based on the novel Körkarlen (1912) aka Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness! written by Nobel prize-winning Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf whose works auteur Sjöström had already cinematically adapted three times previously, the film is like a gothic proto-psychedelic fable on acid-laced steroids where the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity is depicted and where human frailty in the face of both addiction and disease is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentalism, at least in comparison to other films from that era. Among other things, the viewer is exposed to suicide, deadly drunken brawls, deathbed hysteria, deadbeat dad style family dysfunction, and a decidedly dark climax involving an extremely lonely and desperate mother getting ready to execute a filicide-suicide scenario while her unwitting children sleep nearby with baby dolls with cracked plastic heads in their beds. A fairly preternatural morality tale about redemption with a surprisingly non-linear structure involving a number of flashbacks (and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks) that depicts a literal daunting date with death that a drunkard must take on one rather auspicious New Year's Eve to learn the error of his way so that he can reform and, in turn, safe his family before it is too late, Sjöström’s penetratingly phantasmagorical flick is probably the only ghost story where man in his natural habitat is more horrifying than the gothic supernatural elements.  Additionally, you will not find a more effortlessly artful or aesthetically refined cinematic depiction of alcoholism and I say that as one of the few people that has probably seen Ermanno Olmi's underrated alcoholic odyssey La leggenda del santo bevitore (1988) aka The Legend of the Holy Drinker starring Rutger Hauer.



     Undoubtedly, one of the most poignant things that I personally took away from The Phantom Carriage is that it made me become more aware of the fact that I have been, mostly subconsciously, haunted by alcoholics for almost my entire life. Indeed, while I have thankfully never had the misfortune of having alcoholic parents, the three most important women in my life were the daughters of pathetic boozers. While I have met two of these men, it is, somewhat ironically, the one that I have never met that has haunted me the most, so naturally I was somewhat startled when I first watched Sjöström’s film and discovered that the quasi-antihero bears a striking resemblance to this man in both appearance and character. A smart and charismatic yet oftentimes savagely sadistic bastard that prefers hanging out with his wino buddies at a sleazy bar to spending time with his family, the lead character's behavior so closely mirrors the description that the woman in my life constantly gave of her own father to such a startling degree that it almost felt like the film was an occult form of déjà vu and specially made for me as a form of esoteric art therapy.   Undoubtedly, watching Sjöström’s cinematic masterpiece is probably the closest I will ever come to meeting the miserable man that unleashed so much senseless trauma on the woman I loved.  In that sense, I found the film's hopeful conclusion to be somewhat contrived and its greatest weakness, as the abusive alcoholic can never make up for all the pain and suffering he has caused, even if he has accomplished the seemingly impossible task of getting completely sober as internal scars are forever.

    Naturally, as a film with a alcoholic lead, one of the major themes of The Phantom Carriage is how an unrepentant drunkard negatively affects his friends and family. In short, I have never felt so haunted by a film, especially one that oftentimes takes place in haunts where dipsomaniacs act like boorish buffoons and beat the shit out of each other for the most trivial reasons. While the film was made nearly a century ago, it ultimately makes a relatively modern alcoholic film like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) directed by Mike Figgis seem like a slapstick comedy by comparison in terms of sincerely expressing the spiritual sickness, emotional decrepitude, and psychological depravity that comes with alcoholism. Likewise, the short American ‘silent sermon’ from around the same era, Episodes In The Life Of A Gin Bottle (1925) directed by Bela von Block, seems like something on par with Louis J. Gasnier’s Reefer Madness (1936) in terms of being an unintentional joke at the expense at its anti-substance-abuse message. Of course, one expects a certain degree of singular artistic prowess from a film that was such a huge influence on a master auteur like Ingmar Bergman that he hired its star-auteur to star in his own films. In fact, Bergman was so obsessed with The Phantom Carriage that he directed a TV-movie entitled Bildmakarna (2000) aka The Image Makers based on auteur Sjöström and writer Selma Lagerlöf’s collaboration on the film. 



     Despite technically being a ‘horror’ film, The Phantom Carriage—a cinematic work that is certainly not a slave to genre conventions—begins in a somewhat melodramatic, if not downright histrionic, fashion on a somewhat morbid New Year's Eve night with a tragically beauteous Salvation Army sister, ‘Edit’ (Astrid Holm), pleading on her deathbed to her fellow Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm) that she receive one final wish involving a final meeting with a drunken bum named David Holm (Victor Sjöström), who is not even worthy of shining the gorgeous god gal's shoes. Indeed, as depicted later in the film in a flashback, Sister Edit made David promise to meet her on the following New Year's Eve in the somewhat spiritually delusional hope that he would have a “good year” despite his self-destructive alcoholic ways.  Although the year is technically not over yet, David—a belligerent bastard that has a nasty knack for making everyone around him just as miserable as he is—has had a rather horrendous 364 days of self-induced misery and depravity as a result of his rather aggressive alcoholism, which has destroyed his entire family and left him a lonely gutter-dwelling bum who is only tolerated by other similarly hopelessly debauched gutter-dwelling bums. Unbeknownst to dastardly dickhead David, he is unwittingly responsible for Sister Edit being on her deathbed as she contracted tuberculosis last New Year's Eve as a result of committing the selfless act of touching his dirty jacket so as to clean and repair it.  Indeed, while David was sleeping at the local Salvation Army center the year before, Sister Edit took it upon herself to mend the jacket for the protagonist and he repaid her kindness by destroying her fine stitch work right in front of her face and then stating in a sadistically sarcastic fashion, “It’s a shame you went to all that trouble, Miss, but I’m used to have it like this.” Although David ultimately agreed to visit Edit the next New Year’s Eve, he had less than savory reasons, or as he snidely remarked to the poor sister, “Oh, I’ll be there. I’ll come to show you God didn’t give a fig for you or your twaddle.” Of course, being a typical unreliable drunkard that cannot even bother to remember to take a daily shower, David fails to show up and when Edit’s colleague Gustafsson (Tor Weijden) goes out looking for him and finally finds him, the prick protagonist refuses to honor the poor sister’s last dying wish and instead focuses on getting all the more hammered with his friends in a spooky graveyard. Somewhat ironically, it is only when David himself comes face to face with death that very same night that he desperately wants to speak to Edit and atone for his past wrongs. 



     While Edit is praying for his arrival as she slowly but surely succumbs to her sickness, David is getting wasted with his friends in a graveyard and telling them about a local legend that was once told to him by an old scholar friend named Georges (Tore Svennberg) who was deathly afraid of being the last person to die on New Year’s Eve because he believed his own story that the person in question would be foredoomed to drive Death's ghostly carriage and collect the souls of every single individual that dies the following year. Rather ironically, Georges was the last person to die the previous year and David soon discovers that his old comrade has taken up the unwanted supernatural position of the local Grim Reaper. In fact, not long after telling the story, David is accidentally killed just before the clock strikes twelve after one of his boozer buddies hits him over the head with a bottle during a heated drunken brawl. Indeed, when David wakes up from the deadly blow, he is somewhat baffled to discover that his soul has exited his body and that he is being confronted by Georges and the phantom carriage.

    With the creepily dispassionate help of his ghostly friend, David is forced to confront all the evil that he has sired during his mostly pathetic lifetime in a series of pivotal flashback scenes. While originally a happy and loving family man with a decent job at a local sawmill who spent his free time joyously playing with his children in the scenic countryside, David more or less completely destroyed his entire life overnight after becoming a full-time drunkard, which eventually led to the loss of both his job and family.  Naturally, David caused much familial collateral damage in the process, though he was mostly too drunk to notice. Developing an almost demonically depraved alter-ego as a result of his dipsomania, David eventually began to derive an almost sadistic glee from abusing his family, hence why his wife Ann (Hilda Borgström) eventually absconded to another town to get away from her aggressively assholish hubby.  Needless to say, like most bitterly resentful drunk bastards with nothing left to lose, David refused to take responsibility for his own actions and thus was not about to let his wife get away freely.



     Notably, the final straw that inspired Ann to leave was David turning his own younger brother into such a bad drunkard that he accidentally killed someone during a brawl. Needless to say, David is wholly deserving of the karmic fate of eventually dying the same way as his brother’s victim, but luckily for the protagonist, The Phantom Carriage, quite unlike Rainer Werner Fassbinder's early Sirkian masterpiece Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (1971) aka The Merchant of Four Seasons, is a strangely optimistic film about the power of redemption where it is argued that even the most devilishly debauched of haunt-haunting troglodytes can embrace teetotalism and dedicate their lives to wholesome good instead of gutter-level beer-chugging bacchanalian buffoonery. Indeed, it is only when David hits literal rock bottom in the form of an ancient tomb where his lifeless body collapses after being fatally struck with a bottle that he begins to see the error of his ways. Thankfully for David, his suicidal wife is masochistic enough to give him one more final chance in the end. Rather revealingly, David—a man that has already been given a number of recklessly misspent second chances—is only able to convince his wife of his sincerity in regard to wanting to change because he sobs hysterically during a moment of sort of transcendental meekness, or as Ann states to him herself, “It is hard to believe, David, but I do believe you. Your tears convinced me. I won’t truly be happy until my sorrow is drained.” Repeating something his undead friend Georges said to him earlier in the film during a philosophically insightful supernatural carriage ride, David concludes the film by stating while his wife Ann is lovingly resting her head in his lap, “Lord, please let my soul come to maturity before it is reaped,” thus underscoring one of the most important themes of the entire film.  Just as the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung theorized after decades of dealing with numerous hopeless alcoholics, the film ultimately reveals that alcoholism is more of a spiritual sickness than a social or biological disease, hence the importance of David's date with death.



     Notably, Aryan Christ Jung was an important philosophical influence on the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) due his promotion of theory that certain hardcore alcoholics would never be able to completely quit the booze unless they had a life-changing “spiritual experience,” as he believed that the addiction had more to do with a certain void in the soul than a simpler hopeless thirst for alcohol.  Indeed, as Jung wrote in a 1961 letter to Alcoholic Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson, “You see, alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”  Notably, Avon Products heir Conrad Rooks was only able to get over his terrible alcoholism and substance abuse via a sort of spiritual reawakening, which he would depict in his hermetic counterculture flick Chappaqua (1967). Undoubtedly, judging by his masterpiece The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström seems to have a similar theory to Jung in regard to the metaphysical roots of alcoholism.  In that sense, supernatural horror is in many ways the perfect genre for tackling the subject of the misery of methomania.  Aside from his masterful direction, Sjöström’s performance as the extremely emotionally erratic alcoholic lead is among the greatest, if not the greatest, in cinema history, especially when compared to unintentionally hilarious displays of demented dipsomania like Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. Undoubtedly, Figgis' film seems like Bobcat Goldthwait's decidedly dumb Shakes the Clown (1991) in terms of depicting the nuances of dipsomania when compared to the brilliance of Sjöström's silent masterwork.  In terms of sheer pathos and sensitivity towards the drunkenly insensitive, I can only really compare Sjöström's film to Paul Schrader's fairly underrated Affliction (1997).

    Notably, in the essay Phantom Forms: The Phantom Carriage by screenwriter and Nicholas Roeg collaborator Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Croupier) speculates that Sjöström’s performance was influenced by his own much despised womanizer and defrauder father Olof Adolf Sjöström who he apparently closely resembled in physical appearance. Indeed, the film might have been based on a work by Selma Lagerlöf, who Sjöström apparently constantly quarreled with during the production, but it has an undeniable highly personalized quality to it, as if the auteur used his performance to perform a sort of personal exorcism from all the metaphysical pain and suffering that his prick padre caused him.  Throughout the film, Sjöström seems possessed by an almost demonic drunken rage that is quite disturbing in its seeming authenticity, so I do not doubt the auteur was using the role as personal therapy for past traumas.



     I think it is safe to say that Swedish master auteur Ingmar Bergman, who would cast his cinematic hero Sjöström in both his early work Till glädje (1950) aka To Joy and masterpiece Smultronstället (1957) aka Wild Strawberries, probably paid the film and its auteur-cum-star its greatest compliment when he stated in the documentary Victor Sjöström: A Portrait (1981) directed by Gösta Werner, “My encounters with Victor Sjöström—at first, by way of his films, and later on, when I met him in person—these encounters affected me deeply. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE was an early encounter. It completely overwhelmed me. I was shaken to the core by the movie. Not necessarily because I understood it, but quite simply, it affected me . . . by way of its incredible cinematic power. For me, it was an all-encompassing emotional experience. Certain sequences and images have left an indelible impression.” Undoubtedly, anyone familiar with Bergman’s singular oeuvre can easily see how Sjöström’s film had such an imperative influence on the younger filmmaker. Indeed, the influence is so great that it is comparable to Douglas Sirk’s influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Alfred Hitchcock’s on Brian De Palma in terms of the latter’s films being somewhat unimaginable without the influence of the former. From the obsession with iconic “sculpted close-ups” to signature depictions of Death personified, Bergman can certainly be described as a hopeless Sjöströmian who, rather deservingly, eventually transcended his master in terms of fame and influence. Rather absurdly yet not altogether surprisingly considering the oftentimes hyper self-critical nature of many great artists, Sjöström apparently thought little of his own great cinematic masterpieces, or as Bergman recounted in The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography (1987), “He had never thought GIVE US THIS DAY, THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE or HE WHO GETS SLAPPED were especially remarkable. He mostly saw the failings and was annoyed by his own sloppiness and lack of skill.” Incidentally, in the same book, Bergman explains how he filled Sjöström with “senile anger” during the shooting of Wild Strawberries for failing to provide him whisky that he had promised.  Aside from Bergman, The Phantom Carriage seems to have also been a crucial influence on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), most obviously in regard to the famous scene where a demented Jack Nicholson breaks down a door with an axe in a manner quite like Sjöström's character in his silent horror masterpiece.



     Notably, in his classic novel The Long Goodbye (1953)—a work that Robert Altman wonderfully cinematically adapted in 1973—Raymond Chandler, himself a terrible drunk, wrote, “A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.” Undoubtedly, The Phantom Carriage certainly expresses Chandler’s sentiment in its depiction of the unpredictably unhinged behavior of the protagonist while he is drunk. Even more relevant to the film than Chandler’s quote is an excerpt from the anti-alcoholic Alcoholics Anonymous tome The Big Book by Bill Wilson that reads, “As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did—then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair.” Indeed, The Phantom Carriage not only offers a delectably hallucinatory cinematic cocktail of terror, bewilderment, frustration, and despair, but also a stoically humanistic depiction of alcoholism that does not seem like it was created by some self-important ‘self-help’ leftist phony. In that sense, the film is like a Nordic arthouse proto-The Twilight Zone on Gothic Dickensian LSD in terms of being a phantasmagoric horror movie with a moral ending.

    Undoubtedly, when poet and avant-garde filmmaker James Broughton wrote his collection of cinema aphorisms Some Fruits of Experience, he was perfectly describing the aesthetic prowess and importance of a film like Sjöström's as indicated by words of cinematic wisdom like, “Cinema is a lie which makes us realize a truth” and “Movie images are dim reflections of the beauty and ferocity in mankind.”  After all, The Phantom Carriage forced me to confront dipsomaniacal phantoms that have, in various ways, haunted my own life yet it also managed to provide me with a deceptively narcotizing experience that reminded me of the singularity of cinema as an artform. To go back to Broughton, his poetical film book Making Light of It (1992) features a quote from the pseudonymous Early German Romantic poet, mystic, and philosopher Novalis that reads, “The seat of the soul is where the outer and inner worlds meet.” Of course, the titular ghostly carriage in Sjöström's film is undoubtedly a morbid poetic symbolic reflection of the “seat of the soul” that Novalis spoke of.  While he would have never admitted it himself, Sjöström was not only a great actor and auteur, but also a closet poet as indicated by The Phantom Carriage—the ultimate cinematic marriage between methomania and the macabre—and great later works like the fairly idiosyncratic silent western The Wind (1928) starring Lillian Gish.  I certainly like to think Sjöström's masterpiece is set in a world that Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up (and/or inhabited), as I can certainly see Death's carriage strolling the streets of Baltimore for him on the night of October 7, 1849 after he died a dubious alcohol-related death.



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