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The Sound of Silents

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.

As a dramatic character, Joan of Arc is endlessly open to interpretation (in Henry VI Part I, Shakespeare depicted her as a sorceress and a loose woman). Dreyer (and Falconetti) allowed no glamour or pictorial piety into their conception of the Maid of Orleans--presented just eight years after the Catholic Church had officially declared Joan a saint. The filmmaker sees Joan as a dazed, deeply scared young woman who doesn't want to die. The pitiless faces of her judges are as terrifying an image as you'll find in movies, and Joan's undefiant bravery before them is enormously touching, and humbling.

Yet there's another element to Joan's martyrdom: the voices she hears. When she briefly, under threat of torture, repents her "heresy" (her transvestism appears to be the crime which affronts her judges the most), she is given a life sentence and her head is shaved. As she watches her hair being swept up, along with a crown she has made from straw, she frantically calls the judges back and recants. She is given absolution by the sympathetic young monk Massieu (played by none other than Antonin Artaud), and then is led off to the stake. She's still in terror at her fate, but the voices are just too compelling to risk losing.

This is where Einhorn, who has written music for everything from PBS documentaries to the fine horror cult favorite Shock Waves, comes in. The text of Voices of Light (which is available on CD from Sony Classical) is made up of quotes from medieval female religious mystics, including the dictated missives of Joan herself, and the baleful music powerfully suggests the beautiful, terrible state of having one's head constantly full of voices from heaven. Like everything else connected to the film, it fills one with admiration for Joan, along with, maybe, the whispered prayer that God picks someone other than you for sainthood.

--M. V. Moorhead

The Passion of Joan of Arc:
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; with Renee (Maria) Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Antonin Artaud and Maurice Schutz.

Unrated.
(Screens Friday, October 18, at Gammmage Auditorium, Mill and Apache in Tempe. Showtime is 8 p.m.)


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