I had forgotten how intense 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928) can be. I was reminded by yesterday's screening of Carl Theodor Dreyer's late silent at the Center of the Arts in Natick, Mass.
The Center for the Arts (referred to as "TCAN," with the N standing for Natick) is housed in a converted firehouse, which is a good thing, as 'Joan' generates quite a bit of heat, and I'm not talking about how she's burned at the stake.
I'm talking emotional heat, and that's important to keep in mind when considering music for the film.
It's an unusual movie for many reasons—Dreyer's reliance on extreme close-ups, the almost-abstract settings, and the one-of-a-kind performance of actress Renée Falconetti in the title role.
(Literally: this was the only motion picture that Falconetti, an acclaimed stage actress, ever appeared in.)
By that I don't mean loud, obnoxious music. I mean a score than minutely follows and brings out the many changes of emotional temperature in the narrative, which unfolds largely in the faces of the performers. (Remember all those close-ups!)
Dreyer's film, as I see it, is an attempt to use the then-new motion picture to bring a specific historical event to life visually. We see that intention clearly at the start of the film, which shows the old record books with the ancient line-by-line questioning and testimony covering the pages.
But Dreyer's trick, borrowed from the stage (just like Falconetti), was to strip things down to emphasize the human element—hence no elaborate 14th century interiors or other sets to gawk at. And that's an extraordinary choice for the time, as movies were still in the "look what we can do" phase of visual design.
In Europe, consider what Fritz Lang was doing at roughly the same time with 'Metropolis,' with its sprawling visuals of a futuristic city. And Hollywood was cranking out elaborate costume dramas by the yard, from Douglas Fairbanks on down.
Yes, movies were a visual art, and the prevailing idea was to give people lots to look at: eye-popping sets, incredible locations, even elaborate title cards.
Not Dreyer. His telling of 'Joan' is simplicity itself. As I see it, his film actually borrows one of the best elements of the live theatre—intensity of focus that comes with actually limiting what an audience sees.
Think about it. Compared to movies, the stage has some real built-in limitations in terms of presentation.
With theatre, all the magic has to come within the narrow confines of a single building and whatever can be conjured by cardboard and paint. On stage, reality is not an option, at least in terms of going on location—say, setting a scene in a real city street crowded with real people.
I believe some of the best theatre happens when directors use that limitation to reduce potential distractions and focus on things such as the human drama and emotional line of a story.
Think of Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town' (written not far from where I live, by the way, and based on the nearby town of Peterborough), which is staged with the simplest props and furniture.
Yes, everyone loves a great set. In London, the set itself often gets applause when the curtain goes up. But ultimately, very often less can be more, or it can lead to an emphasis that otherwise wouldn't be present.
Because this is about music, how about 'Amadeus,' the stage play about Mozart and Salieri by Peter Shaffer? Right in the script, the stage directions are very explicit: although set in the palaces of 18th century Vienna, it should be given on a mostly blank stage, with minimal settings.
Costumes, however, should be "sumptuously of the period," and as originally staged, they were.
All of this serves to bring out the human element of the drama, which is an intense experience as played out in a theater with an audience. Did Salieri assassinate Mozart? How did it happen? It's gripping stuff to see Salieri's concern about his rival slowly bloom into an all-consuming obsession.
Also, leaving out the bric-a-brac of elaborate set design allows our imaginations to create something more elaborate than any set designer could conjure, and more personal, but that's a whole other topic.
Then consider what happened when 'Amadeus' got made into a movie. Because movies can go anywhere, in went elaborate location shots: castles and palaces and exteriors bringing to life bustling Vienna in the 18th century. (Director Milos Forman actually filmed a lot of it in Prague, which I guess looked more like 18th century Vienna than Vienna did.)
And the resulting film, laden with visual splendor, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1984. But I remember being disappointed with it because it somehow lacked the intensity of the evening in the theater.
It felt flabby. And I realize now that one reason is that the human story was buried by all the rich visuals: the horse-drawn coaches coming and going, the immense interiors, and so on.
It lacked the focus of the stage play. And although it was the same story, it was a completely different experience.
So back to Dreyer's film. By emphasizing extreme close-ups, but by keeping everything else fairly abstract, he greatly enhanced the intensity of the human drama of what on the page was a dry, historical record.
And so I think he cleared the way for music to make a major contribution to the film's overall impact, then and now. His film, I think, is almost like music already—it's an abstraction (like music) intended to affect us on an emotional level.
As such, 'Joan' has attracted composers from outside the silent film accompaniment world. Richard Einhorn's 'Voices of Light' (1994) is often performed to screenings of the film, with great effect. A glance at Wikipedia bring to mind the old Jimmy Durante line, "Everyone's trying' to get into the act." Scores have been done by everyone from British early music group the Orlando Consort to the Australian rock band 'hazards of swimming naked.'
My own approach, as taken on Sunday in Natick, was to first follow the film's lead and strip the music down to bare essentials. So for the first two-thirds of the movie, I used strings only. No brass. No percussion. Just strings, and heavy on the sustained notes. (Which sound pretty good on the Korg synthesizer that I use.)
However! Within that limited palette, I felt free to bring out the emotional ups and downs of Joan's interaction with her inquisitors, which varies widely from sympathetic to antagonistic. So it was a score of constantly shifting ground: melodic or harmonic fragments tossed about as the emotional waves rose and fell.
There really wasn't much action. But still, the visuals inspired at-times rapid shifts in tempo, mood, and character. At times, I felt like I was scoring people's faces rather than a traditional silent film.
But then, when Joan is sent to be executed, things change. Maybe it's because we're now outside, and now Dreyer begins to include hints of Joan's world and all the people in it. It's still very abstract, though. We rarely see anyone in full figure.
So for the final third of the film, I switched to an orchestral setting, knowing that the big "burning at the stake and rampaging mobs" scenes that conclude the film would really benefit from it.
In switching, though, I kept the texture quite spartan at first, hoping that if I did it effectively, it wouldn't be noticed. And then I gradually amped things up to the point where Joan really does get burned at the stake (still all in close-ups), when it's justified to pull out all the stops, which I did.
Drums, trumpets, the works!
And that takes us to the next adventure: a three-day tribute to the Kansas Silent Film Festival, which (alas) has gone all-virtual this year due to Covid-19.
Here in New Hampshire, we're recreating the Kansas festival this weekend with three programs of films featuring performers from the Sunflower State.
Info is in the press release below. But let me note here that I'm especially excited to do music for three films that I've never accompanied before: Fatty Arbuckle's 'The Round-Up' (1920); Louise Brooks in 'The Show-Off' (1926); and Vera Reynolds in 'Risky Business' (1925), which turns out to be a surprisingly effective film. (Even without Tom Cruise.)
We'll even have delicacies imported from Kansas: specifically, legendary hot pickles from Porubsky's Deli in Topeka. In a world: Wow!
The only thing missing is you as part of the audience. So, essential collaborator that you are, get thee to the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. this weekend, and let's make some silent film magic together!
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Upcoming Kansas-themed film festival includes silent-era 'Risky Business' and 'Wizard of Oz'
• Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: Claire Windsor in 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923) and Fatty Arbuckle in 'The Round-Up' (1920). Kansas-born star Claire Windsor stars in 'The Little Church Around the Corner' (1923), a labor relations melodrama with a role for Milford, N.H. native Walter Long; followed by 'The Roundup' (1920), a rarely screened feature film starring Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (also from Kansas) that wasn't released in the U.S. following accusations of murder against the comedian, leading to a notorious series of court trials that exonerated Arbuckle, but left his career in ruins.
• Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, 7:30 p.m.: Kansas-born silent screen icon Louise Brooks stars in 'The Show-Off' (1926) and Zasu Pitts (also from Kansas) appears in 'Risky Business' (1926). In 'The Show Off,' Brooks (from Cherryvale, Kansas) stars in the story of a working-class family's reluctance to accept their daughter's suitor. In 'Risky Business,' Zasu Pitts (from Olathe, Kansas) co-stars with Vera Reynolds in a comedy/drama about a rich socialite who falls in love with a poor country doctor—a relationship the girl's family is determined to break up, with unforeseen consquences.
• Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, 2 p.m.: The original silent 'Wizard of Oz' (1925) plus Buster Keaton in 'The Navigator' (1924). In the final program, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore with the original silent version of 'The Wizard of Oz,' starring comedian Larry Semon as the scarecrow and featuring Oliver Hardy as the Tin Man! Then it's the timeless visual comedy of Kansas-born Buster Keaton, often called the most silent of the silent comedians. In 'The Navigator' (1924), Buster sets sail on a deserted ocean liner, riding a high tide of hilarity. Classic silent film comedy!
"Thanks to everyone at the Kansas festival for giving us permission to stage this socially distanced tribute," said Rapsis, who has attended every Kansas Silent Film Festival since 2000. "We may be 1,500 miles away, but our hearts are in the same place."
For more about the Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H., please visit www.wiltontownhalltheatre.com or call (603) 654-3456. For more about the Kansas Silent Film Festival, visit www.kssilentfilmfest.org.