Voices of Light & The Passion of Joan of Arc

Last night, I enjoyed the greatest film/live music experience of my 40+ years as a silent film aficionado. The film was Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. The music was Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, “An Oratorio with Silent Film.” Mark Sumner conducted the 22-piece orchestra and approximately 180 singers from multiple choruses. The overall effect was powerful, entrancing, awe-inspiring, frightening, and beautiful.

Let’s start with the motion picture itself.

Based on transcripts from Joan’s 15th century trial for heresy, Dreyer’s film concentrates on people–not myths. Renée Jeanne Falconetti plays Joan as an illiterate, 19-year-old peasant girl in way over her head and terrified (the actress was well into her thirties when she played the role). Joan tries to draw strength from her strong and profound religious faith, but faced with intimidation and threats of torture and death, that faith waivers. Falconetti captures the young girl’s fear, determination, piety, ignorance, and confusion in a performance of startling depth and intensity. And all without use of her voice.

With one exception, the church dignitaries who oversee her trial show little sympathy for her plight. Yet the way they react to Joan and her dilemma differs. Some are dignified, others mocking. With some, you wonder if they might be feeling just a tad guilty.

Dreyer has set up a conflict between religion as pure and simple faith, and religion as bureaucracy. All of the characters are devout Catholics. But while Joan believes because she has heard voices, seen angels, and thinks that God has a mission for her, the judges believe because the Church has placed them above everyone else. Someone who claims to be taking orders directly from God is a threat to their power as intermediaries. Dreyer pretty much ignores the England vs. France political issues involved in the actual trial.

No other filmmaker loved the human face like Dreyer. Passion is a symphony of close-ups and tight two-shots, many from odd and dramatic angles, and often shot against blank backgrounds. The camera often moves, panning from one striking close-up to another. This isn’t just showing off, as it arguably is in Last Year at Marienbad. Dreyer uses his unusual style to pull us into the characters, emphasize the bizarre reality of the true story, and heighten the
emotional effect.

And speaking of emotional effect, there’s that music.

Richard Einhorn composed Voices of Light in 1994, both as a score for Passion and as a separate work that stands on its own. Either way, it’s about religion, and about Joan of Arc.

Musically, it’s about voices. There’s a great deal of singing in this piece, all by large choruses and in Latin, old French, and old Italian. For a monolingual English-speaker like myself, the singing evokes piety and worship, but I have no idea what’s actually being said. I do know that, in last night’s performance, the choral group Perfect Fifth sung the part of Joan.

This wasn’t a presentation where the music supported the movie or the movie illustrated the music. It was something different entirely. Both the music and the movie are great works of art that can stand alone, but blended together, they create an altogether unique and powerful meditation on faith and oppression.

I won’t be forgetting this one for awhile.

Last night’s performance was a co-production of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Pacific Film Archive, and the Oakland Paramount (which has, by the way, fantastic acoustics for this sort of thing).

What’s Screening: April 23 – 29

The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through this week at various locations. My festival-related blurbs are at the bottom of the newsletter. I’m also devoting a special section to the Castro’s Stanley Kubrick section.

Roots of Animation, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday night, 7:30. This collection of silent cartoons starts with a short from 1892 (that’s before movies were projected onto screens in front of paying audiences) through late silent works from 1928. Dr. Russell Merritt will present the show, with Frederick Hodges on piano.

B- Coffy, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Pam Grier made a name for herself by kicking a lot of ass, killing a lot of scumbags, and shedding a lot of clothingcoffy in this 1973 blaxploitation hit. You can call this a feminist work—this is one of the first, and still one of the only, Hollywood action film with a very strong, female lead. On the other hand, the movie arguably exploits women, as it’s filled with a lot of totally gratuitous nudity. But however you view Coffy from a sociological point of view, it’s really just a low-budget, competently-made action movie with a talented, beautiful, sexy, and charismatic star, who also happens to be an African-American woman.

San Francisco International Film Festival 

State of Cinema Address: Walter Murch, Kabuki, Sunday, 4:00. The State of the Cinema address is almost always one of the highlights of the SFIFF. This year, one of my heroes is speaking—film and sound editor Walter Murch. If you’re not familiar with his name, you’re certainly familiar with his work, which includes The Godfather, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He was also heavily involved in restoring Touch of Evil and a scrap of test footage from Edison’s lab that’s probably the earliest surviving sound film.

B+ My Queen Karo, Kabuki, Thursday, 1:45. 70’s radical chic was a strange way to grow up. This Belgium drama views the self-contained world of a myqueenkara1974 Amsterdam squatters’ commune through the eyes of a ten-year-old girl. Karo’s idealistic and charismatic father wants everything and everyone to be free. Free as in both “free love” and “free rent.” Her mother’s view of the world is less romantic, but considerably more practical. Young Karo, meanwhile, tries to live a normal life—taking up swimming, for instance—in this extremely abnormal environment. A moving tale of those who try to live their dreams, and those who have other people’s dreams imposed upon them. Not a must, but worth catching.

A Conversation with T Bone Burnett, Kabuki, Saturday, 6:00. The musician and songwriter, whose cinematic work include the songs in Crazy Heart, will appear live to discuss his work and show clips from films he’s worked on.

D+ You Think You’re the Prettiest, but You Are the Sluttiest, Kabuki, Wednesday, 4:30. Wealthy teenagers hook up badly for sex in this dreary drama from Chile. (Maybe it’s a comedy. I’m not sure, as it was neither funny nor dramatic.) Javier performs badly in bed with Valentina, who understandably prefers his best friend, Nicolás. Sprettiestsluttiest[1]o Javier spends the night wandering the town, talking to be men and hitting on women. All that might have worked if writer/director Ché Sandoval had created likeable, believable, or even moderately unique characters. But he didn’t—at least not in lead roles. A few small parts manage to be interesting, however. There’s a scene with an aging prostitute, flattered by Javier’s attention, that says more about human nature and sexuality than the rest of the movie combined. And two likeable thugs actually succeed in being funny. But the young lovers at the center of the movie are too dull and nondescript to care about.

Stanley Kubrick at the Castro

A Double bill: Sparticus & Paths of Glory, Castro, Sunday. The big toga spectacles of the 1950s are usually more (unintentionally) funny than dramatic, but not Sparticus. Written by Dalton Trumbo (his first screen credit after the blacklist) and directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, it tells the story of the famous slave uprising with bold pathsofglory excitement and (mostly) realistic characters. Unfortunately, Sparticus will be presented in 35mm rather than the 70mm needed for its full effect. Like all great anti-war movies, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory isn’t content to show that war is hell. It also illustrates that poor men go through that hell for the benefit of richer, more powerful men. The story follows three enlisted men tried for cowardice to hide incompetence at high levels.

A Dr. Strangelove, Castro, Monday. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things once were. Thank heaven we no longer have idiots like those running the country! It’s also very funny. On a double-bill with Kubrick’s race-track heist thriller The Killing, which I haven’t seen in many years; I remember it as a taut little noir filled with one great set piece after another.

B- 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Thursday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination, but it hasn’t aged all that well. We’ve all2001 seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it properly presented. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. The Castro can and has presented it in 70mm (although on a flat screen). Unfortunately, this presentation is merely 35mm.

C Clockwork Orange, Castro, Saturday. Stanley Kubrick’sstrange, “ultra-violent” dystopian nightmare about crime and conditioning seemed self-consciously arty in 1971, and it hasn’t improved with time. But several of its scenes–the Singin’ in the Rain rape, the brainwashing sequence, Alex’s vulnerability when he’s attacked by his former mates–are brilliant, as is Malcolm McDowell’s performance as a hooligan turned helpless victim. But it doesn’t add up. On a double bill with Barry Lyndon, which I saw once when it was in first run and have had no desire to see again.

Around the Bay and My Personal Appearance

A small film I’ve been championing for over a year, Alejandro Adams’ Around the Bay, comes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum this Friday night (June 12). This low-key drama never got a theatrical release, and isn’t available on Netflix. You don’t get many chances to see it.

You can read my original review.

I’ll also be coming to the Museum that night, and not just as a member of the audience. I’ll introduce Adams before the screening, and conduct the Q&A afterwards.

It’s all part of the Museum’s June series on Local Independent Production.