A Festival of Music, Death, and Ants

It has been an odd combination of emotions the last couple of days; if you watch the news at all, you know there was some flooding in Houston Sunday night through Monday. I picked the right part of that city to settle in, it seems. I’ve been nervous several times, but never terrified by events like this. Everything has been shut down and cancelled, leaving me with two days doing little more than sleeping (which, frankly, I needed), but it means the next three days will have five days worth of work crammed into them, so I should play catch-up right now. This will likely be rushed and graceless, for which I apologize.

Woodstock (1970)

woodstock-movie-posterThis is one of those movies I saw piecemeal over the years, but never as a whole. I kept getting tempted by a blu-ray package that promised the original Director’s Cut along with a ton of extras, and I successfully urged this digital Satan to get behind me until I found it in a Wal-Mart $5 bin.

Well, I ah… I still can’t say I’ve seen it as a whole. That’s not because of the movie itself, it’s because of me.

The music festival itself and the movie chronicling it are both cultural milestones: at their best, they show a possibility, a moment in time when we thought that things could get better through wishful thinking. That the entire event spun out of control and still managed to be an overwhelmingly positive experience is nothing short of miraculous. All it takes is watching the Maysle Brothers’ Gimme Shelter to know that this is true.

Woodstock_music_festival_redmond_stageIt’s also true that what was felt to be a wasteful, ridiculous venture by Warner Brothers – filming the festival – would be what saved the studio from bankruptcy, becoming tremendously successful and pulling it out of a financial hole. It won the Oscar that year for Best Documentary and was up for Best Film Editing, which almost never happens with documentaries. The editing is, indeed, brilliant and frequently adventurous, making use of multiple panels in the widescreen, allowing maximum usage of the tons of recorded footage. This was an innovation reportedly created by one of the film editors, a young feller named Martin Scorsese, and it is something you would see repeatedly in movies for the next few years.

The original movie was a little over three hours long, and the Director’s Cut adds over 40 minutes to that. And that’s still not the reason I stretched it out over two nights (though it is admittedly a contributing factor). It’s the interviews. That is an essential part of documentary filmmaking, and the interviews cast a suitably wide net, not only attendees but local townspeople who have a variety of opinions on the festival.

It was the non-stop parade of idealism and optimism that punched me somewhere that hurt. I’m familiar with such feelings, I had them myself aplenty, back in the day. And miserable old bastard that I am, I kept thinking, “I wonder how he feels about that now” or “I wonder if she’s voting for Trump”. And circumstances such as this make me wonder how I got to this state.

woodstock-1969-photo-2There was a time back in… well, it must have been 1989 or so, when my pal Diane and I were the movies, and there was a trailer for the Sean Penn/Michael J. Fox vehicle Casualties of War. A man seated behind us had brought his young son, and the boy asked, after the trailer, “What’s war?” Diane thought that was wonderful and refreshing. I thought it was depressing, because that innocence wasn’t going to last.

How did I get to this state?

Anyway. Woodstock is a marvelous cultural document, deserving that Academy Award, and likely more aside. The trick is, apparently, not to be a miserable old bastard when you watch it.

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Macbeth (1971)

macbethEven this has an infamous connection to my youth. Accelerated courses for gifted students began to be a thing in my high school days, and I pretty easily qualified for that (only to find that accelerated classes in anything concerning math were doing me no real favors). I was a junior that first year of what was called Alternative School, but the real fun was to be had on the senior level, where the not-surprising innovation was to combine the English and World History curriculums into a sort of mega-humanity study. The Shakespeare studied that year was Macbeth, and they rented the 1971 Polanski version of that play to show the seniors.

They did not repeat that the next year.

They probably realized that mistake in the opening credits, which proclaims it to be a Playboy Production. The snickering that accompanies that is the sound of people forgetting that yes, there actually was a time when you could “read Playboy for the articles”. Part of the so-called Playboy lifestyle was intellectualism. The most in-depth interviews of notable people, along with new fiction by Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As the Playboy Empire branched out, it was almost inevitable they would eventually attempt film production.

They would probably regret that, as Macbeth went over budget and its premiere was a massive bomb. But all this obscures what is one of the best versions of the play I have ever seen.

The Macbeths

Macbeth is one of the Bard’s most straightforward scripts; even for a tragedy, it moves forward with admirable economy. Macbeth (Jon Finch), a minor Scots nobleman, distinguishes himself in battle in an uprising against King Duncan (Nicholas Selby). Three witches prophesy he shall be king, and his wife (Francesca Annis), ambitiously sees to it that this will happen, the cost being escalating murder, madness and death.

There is so much done right in this film, it is almost mind-bending that opinion should be against it. Kenneth Tynan, the former dramaturg of The National Theatre, adapted the script, smoothing the edges of the antique language to make it more seemly to the modern ear, without damaging it. Finch and Annis are a marvelous Macbeth and Lady, but were criticized for being too young for the roles (huh). Those that clutched their pearls at the Playboy production logo had their misgivings confirmed when they discovered there was – gasp– N*U*D*I*T*Y* in their precious Shakespeare!

out dmn spotOkay, Annis does the sleepwalking “Out, out damned spot” in the altogether, but that’s pretty minor and artfully shot. If you think that Playboy is going to make Carry On Shakespeare, you are going to get nut-punched in the libido by Polanski when the first instance of nudity – even before Annis – is the witches coven when Macbeth breaks into their sabbat to demand further prophecies. Anybody watching this movie for whacking material is going to spend several years in therapy.

"Ha Haaa They'll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!"

“Ha Haaa They’ll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!”

The most vitriol against Macbeth, though, is because of the violence. Yes, we are quailing at violence in a story about assassination, mass murder and war. Those critics had probably never seen anything past an antiseptic high school production or Classics Illustrated. (If they had ever seen a production of Titus Andronicus, they would have swallowed their tongues) The most surprising, and yes, satisfying, departure from usual productions is when Macbeth is besieged in his castle by the forces of Macduff and Malcolm, which is usually handled with cost-effective efficiency. But no, Tynan and Polanski haven’t forgotten that Macbeth is a warrior know for his prowess on the battlefield, and he takes on attacker after attacker, until finally Malcolm’s footsoldiers are giving him a very wide berth. Until the vengeful Macduff (Terrence Bayler) steps up, as prophesied. The fight scenes, incidentally, are choregraphed by William Hobbs, who literally wrote the book on stage combat.

bloodPolanski doesn’t quail at throwing the red stuff around, certainly, but didn’t deserve criticism that this was the reaction to his wife Sharon Tate’s 1969 murder at the hands of the Manson Family. I mean, jeez, I have my problems with Polanski, but that is below the fucking belt.

Anyway, I am especially happy that this got the Criterion blu-ray treatment, and I finally got to see it.

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Phase IV (1974)

phase ivSpeaking of movies that somehow managed to elude me all these years…

Phase IV is an odd mixture of science fiction and mystic philosophy. One of those planetary alignments that new age enthusiasts keep babbling about causes not a change in man, but in the ants. Different varieties of ants, previously warring with each other, begin cooperating and organize into a supercolony near an atomic testing site, creating tall, unusual structures. Enter scientist Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and graduate Lesko (Michael Murphy), set up in a high tech dome to study the situation. As funding begins to run out, Hubbs decides to push the issue by destroying the structures with a grenade launcher (and I would love to see the line item on the budget that okayed that).

phaseiv4The ant’s reprisal comes that night, not only swarming the dome, but a nearby farm. Fleeing the biting, stinging invasion, the farm’s occupants nearly make it to the dome, but Hubbs unleashes a dense fog of yellow foam pesticide, killing the family, and any ants that didn’t get away by burrowing into the family’s bodies. The daughter, Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives by hiding in the cellar of one of the mock houses in the test ground.

The face-off between Hubbs and the ants escalates, and Hubbs gets increasingly unstable, lying about radioing to get Kendra airlifted out (it doesn’t help that Hubbs got stung by the ants, and they’re apparently breeding themselves for extreme venom). The ants build mirrored mounds to direct sunlight onto the dome, and then actually sabotage the air conditioner, so all the high-tech gizmos can’t function until the middle of the night. Lesko, meanwhile, is trying to communicate with the supercolony, and may be actually succeeding – it’s going to be a race between the sun, Lesko, and Hubbs’ increasingly Ahabian desire to tackle the main mound and kill the queen.

phaseiv09This is the first and only feature directed by Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created the iconic credits of so many prominent movies, it would be ridiculous to try and list the here – just go to the IMDb page. It doesn’t have the feel of a first-time director – Bass had been working in the industry for far too long to not have something rub off on him – but it does feel strangely half-formed. The ant footage is amazing, and the storytelling within these sequences is first-rate. The human actors, though, don’t seem to have the same advantage. Hubbs is a cypher, his motivations largely opaque – maybe he read “Leiningen versus the Ants” one time too many. Poor Kendra has to wear a corset to make her look 16 years old, and constantly suppress her English accent. Lesko, at least, shows some humanity and intellectual curiosity, which is what you pay Michael Murphy for.

The movie’s end is pretty abrupt, too, mainly because Paramount cut out a hallucinatory coda that would have made the trip – so to speak – worthwhile. It’s Saul Bass echoing Kubrick’s 2001 in a way. It was rediscovered a couple of years back, and it’s unfortunate it didn’t make it onto this Olive Films blu-ray, even as an extra. Luckily, it can be found on YouTube, even if it is a cam:

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On The Changing Face of Heroism

I’ve been dealing with some un-fun aspects of Life’s Rich Pageant lately. That means that in a duel between Watching Movies To Relieve Stress & Also Believe Once Again Life Is Capable Of Good Things, or Writing Something Worth Reading About Those Movies, stress relief won. I don’t think you’d blame me for that.

So let’s get started.

Rio_Lobo_1970Rio Lobo (1970) is not regarded as a very good movie, and sadly, it really isn’t. The final film of the legendary Howard Hawks, it’s yet another retread of 1959’s Rio Bravo (one of the best westerns ever made), the other being 1966’s El Dorado (which is, I will admit, another of my favorites). El Dorado, at least, had script problems and Hawks elected, mid-production, to pirate from himself, to good result. I’m not sure of the reasons for returning to that particular trough four years later, but reportedly John Wayne asked, “Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

No, this time Wayne will be playing Cord McNally, a Union colonel still seeking the traitors who sold the secret schedules of trains carrying Union payrolls. McNally pursued the Confederate squad responsible for the robberies, and was even their prisoner for a time, but he turned the tables on them and captured their leaders, Cardona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum). The three actually wind up respecting each other, and Cord buys the rebels a drink when they’re released after the War ends a few months later. They tell Cord what they know about the traitor and his men, and promise to get in touch if they find out anything else.

4370_5As luck would have it, the traitor and his men, under new names, have taken over the Texas town of Rio Lobo, where Tuscarora’s father Phillips (Jack Elam) has a horse ranch. Phillips is one of the few landowners resisting the new robber baron, and Cordona has journeyed to Texas to help his old friend – when he sees a familiar face, and telegraphs Cord. Mayhem will ensue. G-rated mayhem.

For all the bobbles, this is still identifiably a Howard Hawks movie, mainly for the rapid-fire, witty banter. There are some trademark Hawks women, too, though Shasta (Jennifer O’Neill) isn’t given much to do outside of using a derringer that’s apparently loaded with elephant rounds, and to be a somewhat reluctant love interest for Cardona. Really, the ballsiest female character is a Latina named Amelita (Sherry Lansing), who Cordona surprises while she’s changing (in a G-rated movie, remember. 1970 was amazingly open about such things), and manages to help our heroes on a couple more occasions. Why the hell Cardona is gaga over the rather more vanilla Shasta is puzzling to me.


Cardona, you idiot.

(Then again, I was puzzled by her in more ways than one, as I was going “Sherry Lansing, Sherry Lansing, why do I know that name? Not much of a filmography, but I’m sure…

(Oh yeah. She gave up on acting, then ran Columbia, then 20th Century Fox, then Paramount in the period from 1977-2005. Cardona, you idiot. Also, she’s married to William Friedkin, who knows talent when he sees it.)

Eventually we get to the mandatory siege-in-the-jailhouse, but that’s rather short-lived as Cord is outmaneuvered by the bad guys, and we head to the other standard that El Dorado managed to forego, a big shootout, this time with the townsmen helping to repel their oppressors. Jack Elam enters the picture at roughly the two-thirds mark, and proceeds to steal the movie right out from underneath its star. Wayne didn’t much care for that, and never worked with him again.

elamRio Lobo did pretty dismal box office, and Hawks felt it was largely due to Wayne’s age – 63, at the time. Rio Bravo had been the first movie to really deal with an aging Duke, and this is the movie where Shasta cuddles up to him for warmth in the desert night because he’s “more comfortable” than the hot-blooded Cardona. This leads to Cord bitching about being “comfortable” for the rest of the movie. Wayne wasn’t doing well health-wise during filming, and apparently had some difficulty getting on and off his horse due to some torn ligaments.



But there is one moment when the Wayne of old shines through. The crooked Sheriff and his deputies accuse Tuscarora of horse stealing, beat him up and slap his girlfriend across the street when she tries to intervene. As they prepare to take Tuscarora to the jailhouse, the Sheriff (being evil) says, “Bring the girl, too.” And Cord McNally, standing tall over the sobbing girl, says one word, loudly: “Why?” It is the single most righteous moment in the movie, Cord willing to throw away his entire mission and possibly his life to protect one person, and it is everything such a moment in a movie should be.

It’s an entertaining enough movie, but light. It’s not going to knock anything else off your playlist when you suddenly remember you have a copy of it, but it’s a harmless way to spend a couple of hours. It mainly looms large in my legend because George Plimpton has a bit part in it, and the resulting TV special held thirteen year-old me rapt:

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I tried to relate that fading 50s-60s concept of heroism to my next couple of movies, which were Kingsman: The Secret Service and Deadpool. Good luck to that, though, since Deadpool is satire, and Kingsman is satire that wants to subvert its subject while still glorying in it.

posterWhen you play the “#NowWatching” hashtag game on Twitter, you find out pretty damned fast what movies people downright hate, and Kingsman fits that bill. It’s the story of a super secret organization of highly-trained troubleshooters with fancy gizmos; they’re all basically 007 without the government oversight.

This seems to be the prime area of peoples’ ire: it is a lovely copy of a fun spy flick from the 60s up to a point. Most people who hate Kingsman weren’t properly prepared by being aware that it is based on a comic written by Mark Millar, and I think Millar’s middle name may be “Piss-taking”. Using the major plot’s opening gambit – as sure a parody of a James Bond opener that ever was – of killing who we think the hero is going to be, and the resulting drive to find his replacement from a hand-picked group of young people, Millar gets to deconstruct the spy novel the same way he deconstructed superheroes in Kickass.

The Kickass movie was quite successful, and after its director, Matthew Vaughn, helmed the pleasantly surprising X-Men: First Class, he dedicated himself to taming another Millar book. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t bother with the Kickass movie because I despised the book, but seeing how Vaughn has rearranged this particular graphic novel for the better, I’m thinking it’s time to get over myself and watch it.

Firth. Colin FirthThe Kingsman we’re most concerned with here is code-named Galahad, played by Colin Firth – and who knew Mr. Firth had such a butt-kicker hiding inside? Galahad recruits the son of another trainee who died years earlier protecting Galahad and two other Kingsmen. The kid is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who has potential, but much of it has been short-circuited by a bad home life scarred by his father’s death. Much of the movie is spent turning a chav into a gentleman, and Eggsy proves he has the right stuff, up to a point: in his final exam he refuses to kill a dog (the dog is a pug, so good on you, Eggsy). Still, everything goes pear-shaped and Eggsy is going to wind up in a tailored suit in the bad guy’s secret lair, hoping to stop doomsday.

Kingsman-ValentineThe bad guy is another of the facets of Kingsman that draws ire. He’s Valentine, a billionaire tech wizard played by Samuel L. Jackson, and, like most twisted geniuses, he wants to save the world by killing four-fifths of the world’s population. He will do this by first providing everyone with free cell phones, then broadcasting a low-frequency wave that turns everyone in the vicinity of a cell phone into a homicidal maniac. He tests it out in a Mississippi church full of a hate group meeting – and, not very coincidentally, Galahad in a field investigation. The ensuing bloodbath in the church is another thing that I recall people not liking, because it was too shocking. People need to watch more kung fu movies.

"It's a bulldog, right? It'll get bigger, right?"

“It’s a bulldog, right? It’ll get bigger, right?”

What bugs people about Valentine is that Jackson chose to play him with a lisp. Matthew Vaughn, in the disc’s bonus features, talks about Jackson bringing this up, and saying that he thought this would be a prime motivation in Valentine’s actions, and Vaughn basically said, “What the hell, you’re Samuel L. Jackson, let’s do it.” It was another absurd thing in a movie full of absurd things, and I didn’t mind it. There was something about that year… I think a bunch of actors got together and said, “This year, let’s do all our funny voices. That’ll mess with them.” So you’ve got Jackson in this, Jeff Bridges in Seventh Son and RIPD

It’s a romp. Not sure why people hate it so.

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But going from John Wayne standing in a sun-baked Texas street saying “Why?” to Colin Firth being so well-trained he can be the sole survivor of a room packed with 200 maniacs is saying a very ugly thing about what our heroes have become, and moreover, what have we become. In the current world of blockbuster entertainment, heroism tends to be measured by who can punch who through the tallest building, or who has access to the most endless supply of ammunition.

If you will forgive my saying so, that is a very jock-centric way of looking at things.

So I, ladies and gentlemen, am now going to head into the nerd direction.

interstellarLet’s start with Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan likes to be all mysterious in the run-up to his movies’ releases, and Interstellar was not an exception; all we knew was that it was about corn and rocketships and Matthew McConaughey. And it turns out, that is it: in a near-future America, climate change is slowly shutting down farms. McConaughey is Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. We find that current textbooks claim that the Moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, so now we need to concentrate all our attention on Earth – not that it’s doing much good. This is all propaganda, as mysterious messages left by a “ghost” haunting his daughter lead him to a secret facility, run not by a shadowy secret cabal, but what is left of NASA (being run by Michael Caine, of course), operating in secret, trying to save the human race.

There is a wormhole near the orbit of Saturn that leads to another part of the galaxy (if not another galaxy altogether). Three expeditions have gone through this anomaly to find other planets suitable for us to move to, because the current one is dying. NASA wants Cooper to fly a new mission, the Endurance, to confirm the prior expeditions’ findings, and hopefully by the time a new planet is found, Caine will have solved “the riddle of gravity” and we can all play Oklahoma Land Rush on another world.

Here’s the problem: physics and relativity is a tricky thing, and Cooper will be leaving his son and daughter for years. There seems little choice, though, and Cooper agrees.

interstellar-movie-still-20The desire to stay consistent with current science runs throughout Interstellar, with helpful bursts of information along the way. Accompanied by Caine’s daughter, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and two others (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley), they first must take two years to get to Saturn, then have to deal with the hazards of alien planets and a black hole. This is scary, frontier stuff – the crew is on their own, and when bad choices are made, somebody can and will die. Even the sole survivor of one of the prior expeditions, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) presents unfortunate complications of his own.

"We've made this spacecraft out of TARDISes - that may help."

“We’ve made this spacecraft out of TARDISes – that may help.”

Dealing with time dilation as a plot device hasn’t been used much in cinema; the only one I can really think of is the anime Gunbuster. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a difficult concept to visualize in a way that doesn’t confuse or make viewers turn away in annoyance. Cooper watching archived video messages from his children, growing older without him, is very affecting.

Articulated machine to the rescue!

Articulated machine to the rescue!

You may ask, yes, but it’s science fiction, are there robots? Um, not really, what there is is two “articulated machines”, CASE and TARS, which have a fair range of artificial intelligence. They look like slabs of metal with a TV screen inserted, but can unfold in a variety of utilitarian forms. I was ready to hate them but quickly warmed to the concept. The fact that puppeteer Bill Irwin is behind them, doing his damndest to make simple geometric forms personable, probably helped.

interstellar-film-cooper-station-cylindrical-spinning-space-colonyThen the moment you’ve all been waiting for: to make it to the third planet, the damaged Endurance has to slingshot around that black hole, and Cooper sacrifices himself so Brand and the cargo of seed and frozen embryos can make it, and we finally come to our IMAX-mastered “trip” portion of Interstellar. Now, I know that this is Nolan doing Kubrick, and I was expecting to have my mind blown – and then it was blown in an entirely unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but it did wrap up everything much more neatly than the climax of 2001 so there’s that.

Buy Interstellar on Amazon

martian posterThen I guess we have to forgive Matt Damon for all the trouble he caused in Interstellar so we can root for him in The Martian. This time around, he’s Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. A habitat has been set up, experiments are being conducted, when bad luck rears its ugly head: a freak windstorm far beyond the safety protocols aborts the mission and the astronauts struggle through a hurricane made of dirt clods and rocks to get to their launch vehicle. Watney is hit by debris from a communications tower, skewering him and his biometer. Receiving no life readings, he is presumed dead and left behind. The launch vehicle nearly doesn’t make it as it is.

Watney survives, though, and finds himself alone on Mars. After performing emergency surgery on himself, he sets to finding a way to survive. He does have the rations for a full six man crew, but that won’t last forever. Luckily, he’s a botanist, and he sets out to find a way to make potatoes grow in Martian soil.

damonnautSharp eyes on Earth eventually note that the Rover vehicle is moving about the surface of Mars on their satellite feeds, and various pieces of the survival story start arranging themselves; Watney’s potatoes start to grow. He finds ways to maximize the battery life on the Rover, and salvages a Pathfinder probe to set up communications with Earth. All the steps that are taken are so nerdy and so, as Watney puts it, “Sciencing the shit out of it,” that you cannot help but be swept along in the story, thrilled by the sheer ingenuity. The frantic work being done at NASA and the JPL, Watney’s own efforts, all these are beautiful examples of what heroism should be, along with the people who accidentally abandoned Watney, who have not been informed of his survival so as to keep their minds free from regret and second-guessing themselves on the trip back.

martian-gallery13-botanistA radical plan is hatched to rescue Watney, but it would mean that the returning astronauts would have to basically pull a U-turn around the Earth, capture a resupply vessel, and then head back to Mars, essentially spending another two years in space. And it is only with the slightest of hesitations that they agree.

Of course, nothing will go as planned, and some extreme measures have to be taken. This is probably why NASA couldn’t endorse The Martian, even though it is basically a love letter to the organization; there are too many bad ideas acted upon that put everybody in danger just to – once again – rescue Matt Damon.

the-martian-1024x1024-best-movies-of-2015-movie-matt-damon-6528I remember back during Blade Runner when director Ridley Scott said he wanted to become the John Ford of science fiction movies. What became of that, I wonder? Well, Prometheus aside – and I didn’t hate that quite as much as a lot of people did – it’s fine by me that he seems to be back on that track.

Having not read the source novel by Andy Weir, I can’t really say if the callbacks to earlier science fiction movies are actually there, or simple tricks of my nerd perception, even beyond the obvious comparisons with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney manages to survive the breaching of his suit at the beginning by way of the very harshness of the environment, out of Journey to the Seventh Planet. Of course, his eventual escape vehicle must be lightened a la Destination Moon, and there is a bit of jiggery-pokery with improvised thrust in the vacuum of space also reminiscent of that old warhorse.  I was really beginning to expect It! The Terror from Beyond Space or at least a ratbatspider. But noooo, they had to keep on being realistic and rational.

Don’t care. Good movie. Hell of a cast. I understand people don’t like it. Don’t care. Go watch Expendables 19 or something. These guys – all of them, right here – these are my heroes. Simple solutions like guns and super punches are quick and satisfying, but largely inadequate for increasingly complicated problems in a world that is itself complexifying by the moment. We have more than enough heroes that can blow stuff up, we need to recognize the heroes we already have that can build and rebuild stuff, and do so, over and over.

We need heroes that can science the shit out of it.

Although, I will tell you one thing: if I am ever on a space mission with Matt Damon, I am not letting him anywhere near the airlocks.

Buy The Martian on Amazon

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The_Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_(1928)_English_PosterI must have known on some level that this movie existed, surely. Joan of Arc has been an inspiration for centuries, an inspiration for plays, books, movies, even songs by Leonard Cohen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But this movie by Carl Theodor Dreyer was assumed essentially lost for years, and as a silent movie released after 1927’s The Jazz Singer – a fate it shares with another excellent silent, Murnau’s Sunrise – it’s a movie that seemed shamefully ignored by all but those much-maligned cultural elite, or people who came upon it by accident, like composer Richard Einhorn, whose composition Voices of Light has accompanied the movie on most DVDs of recent vintage. Once again, I will cite Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey for convincing me this was a unique picture that deserved seeking out. The Criterion Collection seemed to agree, and it was with something approaching religious ecstasy that I found their DVD during a trip to Half-Price Books.

Maria Falconetti

Maria Falconetti in a performance for the ages.

Dreyer’s research, taking over a year, was meticulous, as was his vision; transcripts of Joan’s trial were examined (a scribe is visible in almost all the interrogation scenes), apocryphal stories either merged into the script or discarded (one small detail – when Joan signs the confession disavowing her holy visions, she follows her name with a small cross – a practice she supposedly used for dispatches to tell her soldiers the contents of the message were false, to confuse the enemy. Never referred to in the movie, it demonstrates how deep Dreyer’s study went).

joan2The Passion of Joan of Arc is famously – or infamously, depending on where you are on the timeline – composed almost entirely of close-ups. If, as Ingmar Bergman once said, “The human face is the great subject of cinema,” this movie is Exhibit A: our constant nearness to Joan’s suffering, the intractable remorselessness of the Church inquisitors, the martial brutality of the English occupiers – and then the transcendent serenity of Joan when she recants her confession, insuring her execution for heresy. She is finally allowed the holy sacraments, even if they are the last rites, and then we also made to feel the regret of her Church persecutors, and the fury of the French crowds as they witness her martyrdom.

Oh, and that's Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

Oh, and that’s Antonin Artaud on the right, creator of The Theatre of Cruelty, said the drama major.

"Excommunicate whoever did those windows!"

“Excommunicate whoever did those windows!”

The riot following her death is instructive on many levels; as befits a sequence pitting a mob against a troop of soldiers, the close-up strategy is largely abandoned for a thrilling sequence that is no less affecting than the preceding hour and forty minutes of close-up emotion. It’s also our first real opportunity to see bits of the massive village set constructed for the movie, the most extensive and expensive in European cinema at the time. Evidence of this set only exists in photos taken at the time, because you certainly don’t get a decent look at it in the course of the movie. And one does desire to see the whole thing, as Dreyer’s insistence on reproducing this period exactly extends to odd design choices, most notably in small things we do get to see, like oddly shaped windows in the background of many shots – replicated from contemporary drawings, when artists had not quite figured out the whole perspective thing.

la-la-ca-1010-joan-of-arc-004-Some silent film directors played music while shooting their movies, to create a proper mood, but Dreyer preferred silence to coax honest emotion from his actors (this extends even to a lack of makeup!), and may indeed have wanted Passion to unspool in silence, in the dark (this never happened, and Dreyer was not particularly impressed by the music that did accompany its first, disastrous showings). To harken back to my first paragraph, Richard Einhorn’s Voice of Light on the Criterion disc provides such an amazing accompaniment for the film that I have to disagree with the director on this point. As I write this, another artist has presented, locally, a new score based on medieval music for Passion. My first thought was, “Why bother? It’s been done,” but that is not a worthy question for any creative endeavor. If that was a question that should ever be asked, we would have no new productions of Shakespeare. Nor would The Passion of Joan of Arc even have been made, as a more traditional version of the story, with the expected military pomp and action, Saint Joan the Maid was being produced at the same time, and that after six other movies and shorts dating back to 1900. As I said, Joan is an extremely inspirational character.

passion_joanAs I also said earlier, The Passion of Joan of Arc was essentially lost. The original version of Passion fell victim to that bane of nitrate film, a fire, and Dreyer had to cobble together a version made of takes he had originally rejected, and that was the version the world knew for years (and that version was further cut by Church and government censors, to boot). Then, remarkably, a print of Dreyer’s original version was found in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981. How that print journeyed to this place in 1928 and how it then survived a half-century of benign neglect is an argument in favor of divine intervention, or at least how fate can look after us, even when we are our own worst enemies.

Here’s a sequence with that Voices of Light goodness:

And here’s a more modern take on a trailer:

Buy The Passion of Joan of Arc on Amazon