The Sound of Silents

The Passion of Joan of Arc scores live orchestration at Gammage "opera-oratorio"

Last year, Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium hosted a special showing of Sergei Eisenstein's masterpiece The Battleship Potemkin, accompanied live by the Phoenix Symphony, performing a score cobbled together from various Shostakovich works. I wrote about the event, focusing mainly on Potemkin's importance in film history, and on the validity of scoring it with the music of Shostakovich, who admired the film.

What I didn't get the opportunity to say was that the actual screening/performance was one of the most thrilling moviegoing experiences of my life.

Film's strengths are legion, but as a performing art, it has a huge weakness: lack of immediacy. No matter how marvelous a performance may be, film can only offer it as the visitation of a particularly vivid ghost. This is especially true of silents. But a score played live gives the screening of a silent film the key element of true performance: physically present human beings participating in the creation of art. Talkies can't do that.

This Friday's film program at Gammage at 8 p.m. ought to demonstrate all of the above abundantly. It's an even more ambitious musical accompaniment to a silent masterwork of, possibly, even greater stature than Potemkin. The film is Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc), which for this screening will be paired with American composer Richard Einhorn's 1994 "opera-oratorio" Voices of Light. Although inspired by Dreyer's film, the piece was not intended to be an actual score. It will be performed by the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra, with the choir I Cantori, and the vocal quartet Anonymous 4.

But which is it--a soundtrack or a concert with pictures? Whichever the audience prefers, says Einhorn the composer. "I certainly had the film in mind," he says, "but I also had Joan of Arc in mind, without the film. So while the whole piece works, frankly, very well as a soundtrack for the film, there's another way of looking at it: that the film is the staging for my opera."

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, ASU's Executive Director of Public Events (and self-described film nut), booked the Joan of Arc program after the rousing success of Potemkin in 1995. "I've always believed there was a place for film in a performing-arts series" says Jennings-Roggensack. "I hope it will open both worlds to both audiences. When I saw Potemkin done at Wolf Trap with the National Symphony, there were people there who were clearly classical music lovers, and then there were people with their candy bags--film people.

"What I really hope happens is that sort of cross-fertilization, so that we'll get a new hybrid of people who like this art form, and want to see more of it. The possibilities are endless."

Einhorn agrees. "I think what we're talking about is a hybrid form, you know, kind of a new music-theatre of which this is one example, but one can imagine a piece that incorporates film or computer animation in live performance."

Joan of Arc, the final silent of the Denmark-born Dreyer, chronicles the trial and execution of France's national heroine. It is one of the greatest, and most harrowing, achievements of the cinema, but if you've never seen it or have only heard it described, it's not likely to be a movie that you're dying to catch up with. Not only is its story exhaustingly tragic, it's also invariably saddled with the libel that it's "shot entirely in close-up." This sounds so miserably oppressive that one could hardly be blamed for seeing the film as a duty rather than a pleasure.

While it is true that Dreyer chose to focus primarily on the face of Joan (the great Renee Falconetti, sometimes billed as Maria Falconetti) and those of her sneering judges, capturing every subtle nuance of their thoughts, that style does not represent the film's entire visual vocabulary. Many sequences--especially at the climax, the riot sparked by Joan's death--are done on a large scale. They could be called epic, although the film is far too stark for pageantry. Furthermore, Dreyer's variety of angle and tone keeps even the facial close-ups from visual monotony.

Still, even those of us who would place the film among the four or five greatest ever made must own that it has a tryingly slow pace. Einhorn's presentation promises some relief; while many video prints are recorded at 18 frames per second, the Voices of Light show will screen it at 24 frames per second, which cuts the running time from nearly two hours to just more than 80 minutes. "After watching the film numerous times and doing a lot of research," says Einhorn, "I'm convinced that it should be shown at 24 frames per second. In fact, Carl Dreyer himself said that he wanted it projected at 24. So ours is the director-approved running time."

"The music fits to the dime" says maestro Lucinda Galvin, who watches the film on a video monitor as she conducts the piece. "If I do my job right, it fits like a glove."

Joan of Arc is virtually unique among silent movies. Even the most accomplished silents generally are distanced from modern audiences by a stylized exaggeration in the acting--a necessary one, in most cases. But Dreyer's film is pure, agonizing psychological realism. His intense technique was the perfect vehicle for the astonishing Falconetti. This lovely Corsican actress was a major star of the French stage, but she had never made a film before, and she never made another--because, it has long been rumored, of the traumatic experience of Joan of Arc.

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