Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

August 18, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) *****
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

My tweet:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)- Rarely a wasted image in this most devastatingly beautiful treasure. Falconetti is perfect. ***** of 5

Other thoughts:

Though unimaginable in its circumstances, the story of the trial of nineteen year-old Joan of Arc is ultimately a simple one. An uneducated, illiterate girl believes she is a vessel of God and is willing to be tortured and killed for her faith. That's it right there... anything else is superfluous.

In telling this tale, there are two artists of note working in perfect unison. One is the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, who also made the noted masterpieces 1932's Vampyr and 1955's Ordet. The other is Maria Falconetti in the title role giving what may very well be the greatest movie performance I've ever seen, right up there with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Both masters of their art strip everything away right down to the soul of this young woman's story, and yet, there's little at play which could be described as minimalist. There's nothing small in this epic story of internal religious combat leading ultimately to agonizing martyrdom. Joan of Arc's epic turmoil is given room to breath precisely because, during Joan's trial, Dreyer and Falconetti hold onto only what's absolutely essential.

Never have I seen a film so dedicated to nothing else but telling a story. In this sense, The Passion of Joan of Arc proves almost sacramental in nature. It's a vessel through which something can be transmitted in full integrity without ever acting as an end in itself. Falconetti especially gives her face and her emotions over fully to Joan's love of God, and not once does she come across calculating or smug. As an actress at the end of the silent film era, she could easily have imbued her performance with an all too common melodramatic theatrical acting style employed by someone like Lillian Gish. Instead, Falconetti's soft, subtle, nuanced and devastating as Joan of Arc.

Clearly pulling from German expressionism, Dreyer takes what's essentially a transcript of a trial and makes it so achingly cinematic, especially during the final scenes when Joan is burned at the stake. During her martyrdom, the heavens and the earth quake in injustice, and this is shown through arresting chaotic images, many of which are filmed in purposefully disorienting ways, culminating in some shots that are presented upside down. Granted, the best parts of The Passion of Joan of Arc are the moments when Falconetti is allowed to act, and so the final sequence, which feels a bit like the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin and contains a few images that come off slightly indulgent, shows perhaps the only lag in one of the most tightly constructed and successful masterworks in all cinema.

This achievement proves profoundly disturbing and invigoratingly transcendent at the same time. Falconetti never appeared on screen again, dedicating the rest of her career to stage acting. Her performance and this film are so good, it's not too much of a stretch to say they're slight glimpses of that which is true beauty. This is a movie meant to honor Joan of Arc, and it succeeds not only in its goal, but also by honoring cinema as an art form at least as well as any other movie ever made.

A Face in the Crowd

August 18, 2010

A Face in the Crowd (1957) ****1/2
Directed by Elia Kazan

My tweet:

A Face in the Crowd (1957)- Dark look at power corrupting a decent man. Solid performances. ****1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

I don't usually watch the extras on DVDs I receive from Netflix, but I decided to watch a short documentary called "Faces from the Past" this time simply because I'm not too familiar with the reputation of A Face in the Crowd. It didn't appear on AFI's 100 Greatest Movies list, and it's nowhere to be found on They Shoot Pictures, Don't They's 1000 Greatest list either. It was nominated for no Oscars or Golden Globes; it won no critics awards, though Kazan was nominated by the Directors Guild of America. Yet, when Patricia Neal died this past week, people were mentioning this film more than any other except Hud. I also know that my father mentions it often, mostly for Andy Griffith's surprising turn as a pretty monstrous individual.

The documentary helped me understand that A Face in the Crowd was a huge box office and critical failure, with some calling it one of the worst movies they've ever seen. The film was perhaps a bit ahead of its time considering that Network would come out nearly twenty years later and deal with the same issues of consumerism and the interplay between entertainment, business and culture with even more condemnation. Also, I'll admit that the film doesn't age seamlessly, which is understandable considering that the focus is on the pulse of the people in the 1950s. What remains timeless and perhaps most relevant today is the cautionary tale about living in a world so transfixed by celebrity and the often unspoken power that goes along with it. Maybe this is why it's become such a revered film over the years.

Andy Griffith makes his screen debut as Larry Rhodes, a drifter who sometimes makes trouble just so he'll be thrown in jail to have somewhere to sleep for the night. The late Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries, the daughter of the owner of a small Alabama radio station who goes into Larry Rhodes' jail to do a show called "A Face in the Crowd" where she captures the words of wisdom of everyday people. Larry's natural charisma, musical talent and storytelling ability make him a natural, and he's quickly given a regular gig on the station along with the nickname Lonesome making him known from here on in as Lonesome Rhodes.

He quickly becomes a local celebrity, and his powers of influence are shown early on when he tells the people of the Alabama small town that the mayor has graciously opened his pool up to the local children. Eventually, he's invited to Nashville to appear on regional television where he's not afraid to go off script and do what he wants, including collecting money for a black single mother with nine children whose house recently burned down. The money pours in for the woman as well as the sponsors of the show, though getting Lonesome to seriously plug products he doesn't believe in over the air proves difficult--at first.

His ratings and earning potential catch the eyes of the network executives in New York where Lonesome becomes an almost unprecedented nationwide success. The American public craves his folksy Southern attitude, but Lonesome is all too willing to compromise his principles to hold onto fame, which is never an easy thing to do. He goes so far as to ask Marcia to marry him only to publicly marry a 17 year-old baton twirler without telling her about it first.

Marcia has given her entire self over to Lonesome, and without her, he wouldn't be where he is. Sadly, the more he succumbs to his own inner demons due to the pressures of fame, the more she starts to crumble as a woman. Ultimately, at least one of the two of them is going to crack, and quite possibly in a brutally damning public way.

The ending of A Face in the Crowd feels quite similar to Sunset Blvd., a film that also deals with the fickle nature of fame. There's no happy ever after for Lonesome; he's become too much of a demagogue to be worthy of salvation. As a matter of fact, by the end of the film, he tries and fails to remember his real name. He's totally become Lonesome Rhodes, and that's a road he simply can't backtrack. A film that starts with so much joy ends with a great deal of unapologetic malevolence.

Griffith, who has become a television icon playing saintly Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith show as well as the squeaky clean Matlock, gives a huge performance that's really compelling to watch. He's at his best early on when we're supposed to believe that Lonesome Rhodes has the charisma to capture the affection and attention of the nation. Griffith rises to the task and envelopes the screen making his character's success feel totally genuine. As he spirals out of control, the histrionics goes a little bit far, though as a screen debut and as an actor playing against his later reputation, Griffith is really something to see.

We lost a great actress this past week when Patricia Neal died after battling a long illness. Her character goes through a transformation as well. Early on, she's supposed to be happy and fearless and then as Lonesome gains fame, she must show her character unraveling until the end when she's about to crack. Her performance is much more nuanced and quiet, though Neal gets a few explosive and disturbing moments which she delivers exceptionally well. Marcia could have come across as a pathetic pushover, but Neal always comes plays her as the smartest person on screen, even if her character isn't always in control of her own situation. If you haven't yet seen Hud, one of my favorite movies and the film which won Neal her Oscar, you should put it right at the top of your Netflix queue. Patricia Neal is one of the great screen talents ever, and it was a privileged to see one of her most lauded performances as Marcia Jeffries.

The controversial director Elia Kazan had a part in changing film acting by directing Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Kazan's way of coaxing performances out of actors is by having them express their emotions on their face with complete abandon. A Face in the Crowd mostly benefits because of this, with bombastic performances all around. Watching it can be a pretty draining experience, but it's certainly worth it.

With the Real Housewives and the Kardashians among others gaining notoriety in our own culture, A Face in the Crowd couldn't be more relevant today. Never has there been a time in history when the everyman or everywoman could so feasibly attain fame and its resulting influence. The society in the film was conned by a man who turned out to be a brute. Though the influencing faces might be new, is the crowd we live in today really all that different when it comes to blindly eating out of the often unwashed palms of those in celebrity?