Saturday, January 30, 2010

Battle in Heaven

(Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Germany/Belgium, 2005)

*2nd Viewing* - - I missed the boat on this one the first time around, and I think now that I'm about ready to board the SS Reygadas. Basically, my beef was that Reygadas was playing fast and loose with lots of formal tropes and devices that other filmmakers had shown much more care and nuance while employing. The hairy, sweaty, corporeal focus of Dumont, combined with mystical intimations of grace, redemption, (Dumont again), a preference for longish, meditative takes (yes, Dumont, yet again) and the use of non-actors (guess who?) were all there, but felt mishandled and slipshod. I'm exaggerating the proximity to Dumont's films - there are plenty of other filmmakers who employ these techniques, and the tearless gaze at the affect-free faces of nonprofessional performers has its greatest precedent in the work of Bresson.

The fact is, I've never been fully convinced of Bresson's techniques, and the way they have been employed by his aesthetic and spiritual descendants. Partly, its a matter of predisposition - for me, a generous and well-crafted performance is one of the signal joys of movie watching, so when a filmmaker disposes with this I always feel just a bit out of sorts. It all goes back to the Brechtian thing, as private Joker would say. How much are we willing to believe in this artificial world? Remove the emotional lives of the characters, and it's a significant impediment to the suspension of disbelief. In the case of Reygadas and others like him, secondary questions of self-consiousness arise. It's not the kind of non-acting and fourth-wall busting we see in Godard, where part of the pleasure is from the theatrical irreverence. We're kept on the exterior of the film's world, but drawn into the experience through a kind of intellectual kinship, like being privy to an inside joke - thus clearing the way for a possible emotional reaction as well. Brecht, and Godard after him, weren't anti-emotion, but they were very interested (concerned may be a better word) with the terms under which the audience gave its collective emotions. They wanted an experience that combined a critical attitude with a sense of feeling, and believed this wasn't a contradictory proposal. I don't think it is, either, but I don't think the devices that were used are always successful - Godard's films can be smug and overly blithe about engaging the audience, and his analytical gamesmanship can get pretty damn tiresome.

But Reygadas is after something different, I think, something like a middle ground between emotional indulgence and critical distance. His films are more intuitive, more lyrical, more openly ingenuous about the characters and their predicaments. His formal shagginess isn't to draw attention to the process of filmmaking itself, to the physical relationship between the audience and the film. He's not interested in meta-questions or theories about fantasy, detachment, etc, and he certainly isn't the playful intellectual riffster that Godard has been for so long. It is, rather, an aesthetic device to establish and work through the thematic underpinnings of his films. This all sounds overly schematic, I know, but it's a crucial distinction. Reygadas wants us to see the film - the artifice, the camera flares, the grain of the film, the awkward stiffness of the non-actors - but he also wants us to see through the film, to a posited realm of Truth. This is heady stuff, and it can easily lapse into self-important junk. Reygadas has a better grip than I previously thought, though, and I think he achieves a great amount of success for all of the risks he takes.

Here's another crucial distinction - Reygadas has more in common with Apitchatpong than he does with Lisandro Alonso. He uses long takes, yes, but he isn't a minimalist, and he isn't interested in the same kind of hyper-formal approach. Again - the self-evidence of the film - grain, lens flares, shakiness, characters who stare into the lens and then away, deliver their lines flatly - this is all in aid of a very specific effect - not the creation of a critical distance from the situation of the characters, but to elevate the situation to an almost mythical level, and to create awe in the minds of the viewer.

It's a difficult proposition, and it doesn't always work. There are times when it's difficult to tell if Reygadas is just being absurd, and just how seriously he wants us to take Marcos' plight. The other chief obstacle is the nature of film itself - certain genre tropes, the occasional echoes to melodrama, film noir, and the like, create a dissonance that isn't entirely productive. This is why stepping outside of genre is tricky - so deeply is it entrenched in our collective consciousness that adequately transcending it (if that is indeed your intention) is a very tricky high-wire act. I'm thinking of Anna's dalliance as a prostitute, her sudden murder at the hands of Marcos, and the occasional nods to interior struggle suggested by the dialogue - these things aren't as jarring as they were the first time around. That's largely due to taking the film on its own terms, which is tough at first viewing, especially for a film like this.

All in all, though, I'm very glad I had the occasion to revisit and reasses Battle in Heaven. The next step, which I'm looking forward to, will be a re-viewing of Silent Light - a film of less corporeal provocation but even more aesthetic provocation that left me similarly befuddled. I'm counting on an eye-opener.

***I should also remark on the other elements I liked - his grounding the story in a political context, which we need more of in cinema (something that Dumont largely eschews), his excellent taste in music (even if it is occasionally a bit too much), and his commitment to the blood, sweat, and tears - what Cornel West would call the "funkiness" that is integral to a spiritual work of art. I'm not sure about this at present, but it seems to me that Dumont is occasionally too severe in his treatment of the body, perhaps a bit too bleak in his focus on the torment of the flesh. Another lyrical filmmaker who could use more of the funkiness is Terrence Malick - adore his work though I do, I am receptive to the criticisms that occasionally he is a bit too austere, chaste, and blissed-out, which can result in an aesthetic remoteness. He could learn a thing or two from the ugly, smelly, dirty, torrid quality that Reygadas work includes. I also think that while it is a source of some internal dissonance, the working from a foundation in genre is a good instinct - at it's most basic level, Battle in Heaven is noir; a botched kidnapping and the resultant disorder - and then Reygadas builds this into a mythical, spiritual work of cinematic expressionism. Overheated on occasion, but evincing very strong instincts. Another cue perhaps taken from Dumont's use of the policier as a framework for L'Humanite.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Boxer

(Jim Sheridan, Ireland/US, 1997)

Let me hurry to get on the record that I'm madly in love with Emily Watson. And Daniel Day-Lewis ain't bad either. The best thing about this movie is the cast, and the second-best thing is everything else. I'm not super-familiar with Sheridan's work (previously I'd only seen In America, which I recall as being solid but mawkishly tainted) but I feel familiar enough now to assert that he is a mightily talented director who works wonders with actors (as in all cases, the cardinal rule being though shalt know how to cast) and is a dyed-in-the-wool storyteller, and that he has a lapidary eye for movement and color.

As wonderful and soulful and sexy as the film's first couple are, it would be a dire mistake indeed to overlook the enormous contributions of the rest of the cast - it really is an ensemble affair. This is exactly the kind of highwire act that seems woefully rare in contemporary cinema - it's a classical story about love, loyalty, family - in other words, a classic expansive melodrama, with a political subtext that's neither overbearing or defanged (although it comes close to defanging, on the latter side of the spectrum) featuring strong, three-dimensional characters and with just enough suspense. This is something that Hollywood should be able to crank out with some regularity, but it doesn't. Don't get me wrong - I'm not getting all goopily nostaligic about the Golden Era, but simply making the observation that the talent exists in writers, directors, DPs, editors, all the way down the line - but instead, we get bullshit like The Blind Side and Righteous Kill. This is the exit for a lengthy digression, which I'll avoid, but the point is crucial - The Boxer isn't a mindblowingly awesome film. It's just a very, very good film - it's sincere, it's stylish, it's smart it is perhaps best described as being very, very solid. Why don't these come down the pike with more regularity?

***The politics are well-handled, I think, but I really don't know enough about "The Troubles" to say how risky or not-risky that element of the story is. It is a bit on the feel-good side, in that it focuses on the "why can't we all get along" entreaty of the naive a bit too ingenuously, and elides many of the relevant facts (again, I'm aware of only the most basic of these facts) but I think it basically has its heart in the right place***

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Last Winter

(Larry Fessenden, US, 2006)

A decent, spooky, supernatural eco-thriller. Fessenden has a keen eye and a knack for suspense, and the film's greatest asset is its atmosphere of gradually mounting dread. Unfortunately, there isn't as much care given to the characters, who are typically (for the genre) pretty thin, prone to utterances that range from passable to obvious to seriously clunky. This is frustrating, because Fessenden seems to be one of the only American filmmakers interested in the unrealized potential of thriller/horror as a genre - the problem being he only goes so far. The ecological slant is relevant without being too heavy-handed, and the Arctic setting is mined for all sorts of nifty freakiness, but it doesn't end up having the gravity that it could. It feels like a near-miss; Fessenden's fusion of the familiar thrills-and-chills with an elegaic sense of impending doom is provocative but not fully realized. In any case, it's a fun film to watch, even if it repeatedly reminds you of how it could be better. Perhaps a great, genre-busting masterpiece is in the works - doubtful, but I wouldn't put it past ol' Larry. Bonus points for the creature effects - a little obviously low-fi, but they're also original and genuinely scary.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Extraneous Thoughts on the Great Blue Thing

Since first viewing Avatar a few weeks ago, I've had a few leftover thoughts beyond my initial review, both on the film and on the inevitable tempest of opinions re. the film. So I figure now's as good a time as any to, er, purge them.

First: Avatar is an allegorical fable, and this permits a certain amount of simplicity and bluntness that I think has been unfairly maligned. The broadsides against imperialism, and American imperialism in specific, should be taken seriously. They aren't subtle or well-developed, but they aren't inaccurate, either. It would have been just peachy keen if Cameron had seen fit to produce a deft polemic about our current crimes in Iraq, one that took into consideration both the mendacity of the power base and the press' complicity (not to mention the complicity of the intelligensia), but let's be real: That ain't Jim Cameron. His first priority is to rock our socks off, and he does this with aplomb. The inclusion of certain unmistakable signifiers ("shock and awe", "fight terror with terror") isn't a cheap or cyncial ploy, it's a serious comment - simple, but serious.

The key distinction is that between simplistic and simple (this has been noted elsewhere w/r/t Avatar) - Cameron's movie is absolutely the latter. Again, it's a formal thing - Avatar never presents itself as anything more than a fable. This allows the film to retain a level of integrity that several ostensibly realist projects end up missing. The allegory to aggression against indigenous populations (Native American, Iraqi, Afghani) can be broad, touching on the major points of evil without going into the socio-political context that a more historically minded piece would require.

While it might seem like having his cake and eating it too, it's actually just a case of playing it smart as an entertainer and a thinker. Film, being strictly bound by temporal constraints, makes this kind of context difficult. I'm not saying improssible - just difficult. For an example of just how badly one can err when treading on such thin ice, see Lions for Lambs, which was fusty, didactic, and smug. But Cameron doesn't have to worry about this, because his criticisms are more general. When he has a character say "we're gonna shock and awe 'em" or something like that, he's giving that phrase exactly as much consideration as it deserves - a jingoism uttered by a corporate thug.

If you're under the illusion that Iraq is a "mistake" and that the our actions there exist in some kind of ethical gray area (and this is ostentibly the case for most of the mainstream media) then it's easy to see why you'd be rankled, if not offended, by Avatar's politics. If, however, you've got anything like a clear perspective on the issue, there's no reason to complain. The quibble that Cameron "didn't go far enough" is valid, but not as related to the film. Cameron himself may have a long way to go in his evolution as a progressive filmmaker, but the film has to be taken for what it is, not what it isn't.

The other big area of critique, though, is a bit more thorny, although I remain willing to let Cameron off the hook. Basically, this line of attack centers around the issue of racism - that of the Na'vi and that of the humans, and it breaks down into two main points: one, that Avatar is another case of enlighted-white-man's-burden. The main precendent is Dances With Wolves, and everybody knows why its politics are queasy; white man hero undergoes a spiritual transformation by learning the ways of the natives and then becomes their savior, defending them against his own race. The other critique is that the film basically sets up a moral preference between two races: the Na'vi are just intrinsically better than the humans, and therefore they deserve our sympathy. This assessment is usually followed by a corollary, noting that the Na'vi aren't all that admirable by our standards - they're a martial, stratified culture without much apparent variation or heterogeniousness.

This is a significant caveat, and I think it does partially compromise the ethical high ground that Cameron siezes at the outset. More than one commentator has called this a kind of typically Western arrested-development fantasy, in which the white man-child returns to an idealized edenic bliss. But a) I think this problem has to be considered as separate from the allegory of imperialism and b) I still think it's not as serious an issue as some have made it out to be.

Again, keeping in mind the fable or pageant formal context is essential. Literally, the Na'vi are a biologically distinct race, with blue skin, displaced genetalia, and nerve-endings in their ponytails. But this is science fiction, and the best science fiction functions by literalizing (in the imagined techno-biological realm of the future) basicly human ideas. Thus, the human crisis of identity and mortality is literalized, in Blade Runner, by the conceit of a race of artificial humans. This is an old trick but a good one, and its everywhere in world literature - fantasy, surrealism, gothic horror - pretty much everything that isn't straight realism, incorporates the same technique (This is, incidentally, such a favored method in film because film deals with the abstract directly throgh the concrete, which makes strong - ie, visual - metaphors so useful). Which is, of course, a long way of saying that the Na'vi are humans, too, on a metaphorical level - a different race, sure, but still human, and their radical difference is contextual, not intrinsic. There's no facet to the Na'vi that doesn't have an analogue in human culture. Their connection to the land is literalized, but again, this is merely the logical extension of the Gaia ethic, imaginatively transferred into the realm of fiction. The other major comparison that Avatar gets saddled with is that of the Pocahontas story, and this one is far more accurate than DWW. And in both Avatar and Pocahontas, what is it that ultimately breaks through the bonds of culture? Why, only the universal panacea of love, the one true Magic Bullet. So Avatar basically boils down to the old saw about love conquering all - that elusive and exalted human trait that permits us to overcome even the most entrenched and vile of prejudices. It's love that turns Sully around, love that gets him to give up his former "humanity" and cast his lot with the Na'vi. Now, the way this story is told certainly lacks the requisite dexterity and nuance that we'd all prefer. But I think it makes it clear that while Cameron might be guilty of mawkishness, he isn't making any serious moral transgressions.

Phew. I wasn't expecting that to take so long, but there you have it. Jim C. is exonerated

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Hurt Locker

(Kathryn Bigelow, US, 2009)

As an action film, THL is ingratiatingly straightforward - the plot is basically a series of bomb-defusing scenes, connected tenuously by a pretty standard tale about the psychic and physical hazards of war. The story isn't particularly insightful or perceptive, but it does offer a modicum of realism - the soldiers exhibit the familiar array of wartime emotions, from scared-shitless to brazen to bored. Subtract the hype, and you've got some passable entertainment, with a few well-executed suspense scenes being the main attraction. THL shouldn't be taken for anything more than that, though, and the attempts to glorify its thematic and psychologial narrowness have only highlighted those limitations. Put it this way - when the film is not only summarized but entirely reducible to its opening epigram (in this case, Chris Hedges' quote that "war is a drug") then you're in trouble.

The actors all acquit themselves competently, although there isn't much for them to do but portray soldiers whose major differentiation is the hardness of their balls: Renner is at the high-carbon steel end of the spectrum, as a stone-cold wire-snipper, with the others less being less nervy but still beyond the norm in terms of stress-endurance. The script is, again, passable. But it's also frustratingly inconsistent - every time the action subsides and the dialogue shifts from the tense bravado of the battlefield, it becomes obvious and rote, e.g. the exchanges between Specialist and the Army Shrink.

The real problem with THL lies in its treatment of the moral and political dimesions intrinsic to any treatment of the Iraq war. My own politics, in their increasing radicalization, make it very difficult to stomach movies about the Iraq war that don't contain the kind of critical perspective that's both obvious and woefully absent from the mainstream: the Iraq war is, in principal, morally wrong and illegal: a war of aggression being carried out against a destitute and mostly unarmed populace. The Hurt Locker, so commonly lauded for it's apparent lack of political posturing, is all the more corrupt for what ultimately amounts to an evasion - of ethics, of morals, and of truth.

(There is, certainly, a dramatic gray area, ripe with the possibility of existential conflict, i.e. the soldiers' attempt to reconcile their need to be soldiers with their need to remain human. That is, the need to simultaneously carry out the mission and not feel like murderers. They are, with some minor exceptions, like anybody else - they don't want to kill people, least of all civilians. But focusing on that solely, without ever casting an eye to the larger evil and injustice that makes such a bind possible, is an unforgivable omission. To use a counterexample - the same kind of institutional vs. human conflict is present in several cop dramas, such as NYPD Blue. But here, the disconnect between the Law and what is Just is a byproduct of a necessary system, or one that's at least provisionally justifiable - we need law enforcement to live in a free society - debatable but generally agreed upon. This isn't true of the Iraq war, which is not only unnecessary but actively malignant. And again, skirting the larger issue, the meta-problem, is not okay.)

And even still - the main conflict doesn't resonate all that deeply. We are reminded that war is hell, but James, the protagonist, never successfully transcends his status as a cipher. There are several indications that James is a decent, empathetic guy beneath the wacky death-wish exterior, but not enough of the story is allocated to his character to make him truly interesting. He's an adrenaline junkie, plain and simple, addicted to the fix of the battlefield and unable (or, more likely, unwilling) to kick the habit. When he rotates back the war at the end of the film, it's meant to be a tragic coda, but at that point I wasn't interested enough in the character to care very much. This is directly related to the parenthetical issue above - the fact that the dice are loaded at all times for these men, their fates costricted by the massive injustice of the war, isn't given enough dramatic weight.

And what about the fact that it seems to have more allegiance to the genre requirements of action movies than that of real human drama? This would be an unfair assessment if the film weren't about Iraq (as in, some movies are action movies, some movies are dramas, and sometimes the twain shall not meet), but it is, and therefore the question is a pressing one: what does it say about the ethical responsibilities of the filmmakers that this presently-unfolding (and entirely changeable) catastrophe is being used as the backdrop for a series of knuckle-biting action set pieces?

I'd venture that one analytical approach to the film would center around it being basically another treatment of the male identity as shaped by the warrior ethos. The film being exclusively male-centered, concerned with rank and relative courage...but I'm too spent to go into that now. And I'm not sure the film warrants it.

To end on a positive note: the most beautiful moments in the film, and the only moments evincing any cinematic sense of poetry (besides the terrible beauty of the sniper scene, which for me was undone by a sense of unreality that I'm not sure was well-founded: would the bomb-squad guys really be such adept snipers? And would even professional snipers be so accurate at that range - doubtful enough with the garngantuan .50 caliber rifle, but really doubtful with an AK-47?) was the film's coda - a striking progression of images, from the supermarket to the leaves falling from the gutter, to the mushrooms in the sink. Where was this gracefulness in the rest of the film?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Girlfriend Experience

(Steven Soderberg, US, 2009)

Formally, very cool. Thematically interesting. Not very emotionally engaging, however, which is increasingly becoming the sole criterion that seems to matter to me. So whattaya gonna do?

Speaking to it, then, as a purely formalist exercise (and there are those who would require any discussion of Soderbergh to incorporate that limit, although I don't think I'm one of them), TGE is mostly solid. There are moments when its hyper-aesthetisized compositions approach installation-caliber video art, which can be exciting, but such fancies aren't served by the screenplay, which is mostly obvious, or the non-actors, who are predictably stiff and vacant.

All of which is not to say that TGE doesn't pack a nasty little emtional wallop. Soderbergh's eye has never been less than sharp, and here he uses it to cast a painfully bleak gaze on a fascinating and super-contemporary phenomenon - the sudden anxiety of the elite. It occurred to me that there's almost a dimension of classical tragedy in this - the fall of the mighty and so on, but with a satirical edge. The mighty are displayed as being uniformly unctuous, vain, ignorant, and shallow. They don't deserve a shred of pity, and yet viewing their plight makes us experience anxiety. This is the flash of brilliance that Soderbergh's movie deserves to be complimented. While it doesn't accomplish much in the way of storytelling (and again, it's doubtful that storytelling was his first priority), it does reveal, in the manner of a good short story, something true and uncomfortable: our secret and abiding lust for wealth. As much as we revile those privileged pricks of Wall street, and as much as we felt a certain satisfaction in their fall, we all still harbor a desire for the success that they once embodied: fast, easy, and all-encompassing. Their failure to become immortal exposes a certain failure of our imagination, I suspect; a twinge of shame for ever believing in such a measure of success, even if we kept our belief hidden.

Honestly, I don't know how much there is to say about, y'know, Sasha Grey. She does as well as the rest of the non-actors, maybe even a hair better. Again, believable performance, or three-dimensional characterization, isn't really Soderbergh's bag in TGE. It's a perceptive and crystalline sketch of a film, which isn't such a bad thing, although I think it represents the iceberg-tip of a much more ominous problem.

I don't have the time or energy to really get into it here, but let me just say this: part of the problem of today's glut of disposable films is that so few of them have anything at stake. Soderbergh doesn't help matters by doing this whole moonlighting-as-an-arthouse-filmmaker thing, in which he produces films that don't reach beyond the realm of clever exercise. That is all for now.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Christmas Tale

(Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2008)

I'm hereby naming Desplechin the most infuriating filmmaker currently working, and here's why: Because he displays dazzling ambition and talent, works with some of the finest actors in Europe, seems equally adept at words and images, is pushing all kinds of buttons in the world of cinema, and yet - his films are, finally, complete messes.

I haven't figured out if he's a slob, a loon, a coldly calculating scientist of trends, or just another stupendously insecure artist. He is certainly sincere, and enormously talented. So why does he permit himself to overload his movies with tripe, totally swamping those fleeting moments of absolute brilliance? Why does this director, who is ludicrously, almost autistically focused on the possibilities of cinema, spend half his time (or more) chasing down patently stupid ideas? I would call it an open-and-shut case of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, but he's too damn good for that to be true. There's a project here, an almost systematic approach to breaking new ground through restless and radical juxtaposition - one after another after another.

But to what end? I'm more than willing to concede that on a first viewing, plenty of this stuff went over my head. But what I did experience was a freakish mystery - a half-breed of uncompromising art-film and middling melodrama. I don't want to just label Desplechin a smarmy idiot-savant with twice as much formal brilliance as story (and thus, human) sense. But that's the feeling I get. Desultory and silly and finally, with a disregard for truth that feels actually disrespectful - of the actors, of the material, and of the audience.

I get why people are so hot for him. I'm hot for him too - except when I shake myself out of my mesmerized stupor long enough to recognize that he's pulling some seriously jury-rigged bullshit with character and story. It's virtuosity without discipline, and seriously prone to pretentious meandering and self-indulgence. Maybe I need to watch ACT a few more times and then some of it will begin to settle and stop giving me indigestion. But a) that won't happen, and b) I think I've taken all I can from him - lovely ideas, but they found like jewels in a junk store. There's way more useless crap than anyone could ever want, and that just makes me angry.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Passion of Joan of Arc

(Carl Theodor Dreyer, Netherlands, 1929)

Yes, the The Passion of Joan of Arc, the stuff of cinema legend, widely hailed as one of the greatest films ever made, a true visionary work that remains groundbreaking and innovative even today, etc., etc. Here, as always when discussing a film of such repute, I can't help but feel a bit stymied. If I enjoy the movie, then I'm faced with the unenviable task of coming up with something at least marginally new to say about it. If I find that I didn't enjoy it, or even hated it - that I'm totally at odds with critical consensus, then the onus is on me to first express my bewilderment at said consensus (quickly followed by a stoic shrug or two) and then begin the long slog to correct their collective error and thus set the record straight for posterity - which entails lots and lots of defensive, overheated yammering that will not matter one iota in the grand scheme of all things cinema. Except to me, of course - and here we've come full cycle in the inadvertent rehashing of the narcissism and delusion at the heart of this blog project. But does this ultimately matter? Shouldn't I take films as they come, ignoring (to the best of my ability) the influence of history, and concentrating on my own emotional and intellectual reactions?

Okay, so, now that I've indulged my compulsions a bit, I can set about with the task at hand.

I was happy to discover a terrific film, and also a very strange one; it contains that special mix of grand ambition and peculiarity that tends to produce artistic greatness. There's no doubt that Dreyer was a genius - his obsessiveness and ambition are evident in every frame. In retrospect, what is most remarkable about the film that it is a two-person show. To an extent that seems increasingly rare in this post-silent era, The Passion is devoted utterly to its star: built around and focused to an almost insane degree on the performance of Maria Falconetti. She's in nearly every scene and appears in practically every other shot for a good three-quarters of the film, framed almost exclusively in close-up and perpetually on the brink of a colossal nervous breakdown. Falconetti's performance is uncanny and heartbreaking and difficult to watch; just the sheer volume of shed tears is enough to make the mind reel at what an ordeal the shoot must have been for her.

On a formal level, The Passion of Joan of Arc stands out in three areas: a)the heavy reliance on close-ups, b) the vaguely abstract set design, and c) the nuanced use of the moving camera. I'm not sure I'm with Dreyer all the way on the close-ups - they're very effective, but they do eventually begin to feel excessive. The emphasis on the face as the theater of the soul's torment isn't misplaced, but I think he underestimates the poetic (which is to say emotional, expressive) uses of physical space. It helps, in films, to have a spacial context, and the lingering on Joan's long-suffering features can get repetitive. This problem might have been avoided had Dreyer given her whole body, and the rooms in which it was imprisoned, more than an occasional glance.

Which brings us to the set design - curiously abstract, as I said, especially considering Dreyer's insistence on authenticity. I think it works in certain scenes - the spare, white walls help to emphasize Joan's isolation and the severity of her predicament. Otherwise, though, it feels a bit too indebted to theater. Stylization itself isn't the problem - I can dig Dreyer's preference to heighten the imaginative reality of the space - but it has the unfortunate effect of looking flimsy and cheap by modern standards (which it definitely wasn't - as the commentary related, TPOJOA was one of the most expensive films of its day) This is a historically biased opinion, certainly, but its worth noting, I think, if for no other reason than to highlight the extent to which we've come to expect seamless, minutely-detailed representations of reality from cinema.

On the other hand, Dreyer's use of the moving camera is absolutely and completely modern, maybe even post-modern. When the frame isn't super-tight on the face of one of the characters, it is usually moving, and the movement is never less than exciting and beguiling. This is where the movie is at its weirdest, I think: the occasional swoops, rapid pans, repetitive tracking shots and odd angles (e.g. the villagers coursing through the gate, repeated by the shot of the soldiers driving them out) all don't quite jibe with the ice-hard stare of the standard close-up, but the dissonance produced is compelling rather than distracting.

So what about thematically? Well, it pretty convincingly makes a case for Joan as a saint. Not in the canonized, official Catholic sense, but as a person whose story is, in a sense, especially deserving of spiritual consideration. That's to say that it portrays her suffering and devotion as something exalted and deeply tragic, absolutely singular and yet symbolic of all suffering. At the same time, Joan retains a distinctly human sense of self-awareness - she might be, in the modern sense, crazy, but we never get the sense that she's not fully aware of just how serious things are. Joan is, if anything, far more cognizant of her mortality than any of us are at any given moment, and this is what makes her so fascinating and poignant. She seems exactly like a normal person who suddenly begins hearing a God's voice. If you believed it was God (and here things get ontologically dense - if it was really God's voice, than wouldn't a necessary quality of that voice be complete persuasiveness?) what choice would you have but to follow wherever it led? This is where the simplistic divide between belief and nonbelief breaks down, between insanity and sanity, and one of the films greatest strengths is that it manages to illustrate the complexity of just such a situation. How does one know God? Is all belief ultimately blind? Is there any room in faith for reason?

None of these questions are raised explicitly. Like all great art, it effectively resists any reduction. One could concoct any number of valid interpretations: it works as a Christ parable, a polemic against the hypocrisy and oppression of the Catholic church (or really any powerful, stratified organized religion) or even as a straight-up rebuke of political power in general (the specific reference is to England's occupation of France during the Hundred Years' War.) The thing that strikes me the most, though, is that TPOJOA, despite all of its very overt Christian symbolism, feels remarkably and thrillingly like a work of humanism. This goes back to what I was saying about Joan being more than a credulous nut who hears voices and blindly decides to trust them. She was probably insane, at least in the modern, diagnostic sense of the word. Today she's be committed if she was lucky, and a raving bum if she wasn't, whereas in the 1400s she was burned at the stake. But the suffering that she must endure is (and this is very important to note) mainly internal. I don't mean to deny the fact that if she weren't being persecuted (and summarily railroaded by the church officials, practically dripping with corruption) she would still have suffered. There is a clear external pressure, but the dilemma begins and ends within Joan. The great and terrible irony is that while the vicious men of the cloth claim (and likely believe) that they're primary concern is her soul - for them what's really at stake is the secular authority of the church. For Joan, it is her soul that's at stake. It is to Dreyer's (and moreso still to Falconetti's) credit that they manage to convey that interior suffering so lucidly; the suffering of a person who must endure a world in which her most deeply cherished beliefs are not only unwelcome, but threaten to destroy her. That's what makes her dilemma so affecting - we see the terrible stress she's under, the temptation to turn away from God, who has inspired her and given her life meaning. Her death and martyrdom are tragic and entail unthinkable amounts of physical pain, but by the end of the film, the inner conflict has been resolved - she has made her choice, freely and without regret.

This is the kind of paradoxical effect that tragedy is supposed to engender, I believe. Pity and sorrow infused with a sense of peace. And I think this film accomplishes that.

Does this satisfy the requirements of my ego? Have I contributed something lasting? Not, surely, as much as Saint J. But maybe just a smidgen. That ought to be enough for now.