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A silent film star of romantic adventures named George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) refuses to ride the wave of the future at the onset of talkies and instead watches his career and marriage disintegrate while an ingenue he helped land her first role named Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) becomes the toast of Hollywood.

Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a film that never allows you to forget that you are watching a film.  From the opening moment where we are in a film within a film to the closing dance number, The Artist is self-aware and as in love with itself as George Valentin is with his stardom.  It’s also a lovingly mounted and pure homage to silent films…but it’s the type of silent film it aims to be that is the major problem and prevents it from rising above charming gimmick status. Continue reading

Napoleon Complex

Sometimes a film exists beyond words (spoken or not) and there’s no description that can accurately prepare one for what they are about to see.  Some films exist solely on a visual level, are so purely cinematic, that nothing anyone could ever say about them could speak as well as the images from the film themselves.  Hell, but that won’t stop film buffs and writers like myself from giving it the old college try. 

Triptych on this.

Recently, I was lucky enough to have someone over there at the incomparable Wonders in the Dark toss me a copy across the pond of the Kevin Brownlow restored version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon.  It included the Thames Television cut of the film (which runs over five hours and is presented mini-series style in three parts) with both the TV tailored single frame version of the Italian set finale and the phantasmagoric tripped-out red-white-and-blue triptych that is unlike anything ever seen before or since.  I’ve been told this is the definitive way to view the film and far superior to the Coppola produced version that came out stateside around the same time in 1980.

If a director were to compose a film today like Abel Gance composed his untethered and monstrous epic Napoleon in 1927, it would be called audaciously experimental.  Continue reading

A Review of Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

Re-watching Carl Dreyer’s silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was the final piece of my self-taught Spring Film School that started in April with The Third Man and continued in May and June with M, Metropolis, The Big Heat, The 400 Blows, The Innocents, Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Citizen Kane and finally Dreyer’s film.  One of the most interesting facts about Dreyer’s film is that the “text” is taken verbatim from confirmed historical documents of Joan of Arc’s actual trial.  Catholics are meticulous record takers.  Fans of Dreyer should also note that the Criterion Collection will be issuing a new re-mastered edition of his other bona-fide classic, Vampyr (1932), sometime next month.

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CAPTION:  A silent picture speaks a thousand words.

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
– Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Craft”

Dreyer’s “Realized Mysticism”, 7 June 2008
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*Note: This a review of the Criterion Edition DVD with the “Voices of Light” accompaniment.

Over the decades Dreyer’s film was a victim of religious and politic censors, two fires that destroyed valuable prints, unauthorized cuts, and zealous editors working against his wishes to modernize the film. An original, uncensored cut was found miraculously in a Norwegian hospital for the mentally ill (ironic?) in 1981 and fully restored for the Criterion Collection. Famed composer Richard Einhorn created his libretto, “Voices of Light”, in response to his own experiences viewing the film and researching the history of Joan of Arc. The film can be viewed with or without the accompaniment, though I can’t imagine Dreyer would’ve objected as Einhorn with great care honored the spirit of the film and arguably of Saint Joan with his compositions.

Carl Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a shocking example of the potential of film as art. No amount of scholarly critique can account for the raw power in viewing the film. It’s one of those rare experiences that can only be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetics (the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups of the actors’ faces) are perfectly married to the gut wrenching performance of Maria Falconetti (a theater star who never acted in another film) in the lead role. I think Dreyer was most accurate in describing her performance as nothing short of “the martyr’s reincarnation.” One need not be religious to understand what is meant or to feel for Joan as portrayed so humanely and exquisitely by Falconetti. Her face is beyond the realm of haunting, and Dreyer seers it into the audience’s memory along with other stunning imagery like a window frame’s shadow turning into a cross on the floor, worms crawling through a skull unearthed from a freshly dug grave, or a bored executioner barely able to hold up his head in the company of his torture devices. And then there’s the burning at the stake and the brutal suppression of the peasant riot–unimaginable horrors rendered so beautifully and hyper realized onto a series of moving images projected onto a blank screen.

The genius of Dreyer’s visuals and Falconetti’s performance is that they create a deep psychological complexity that can engage a modern viewer on multiple levels. In their bold suggestions and through the artistic integrity of their respective crafts, Dreyer and Falconetti leave it to their audience (weather it be a French nation still celebrating and mythologizing their 15th century hero Joan a mere eight years after her canonization in 1920 or a more skeptical 21st scholar studying the history of film) to decide the veracity of Joan’s convictions. Was Joan truly a mystic, a martyr, a saint? Or was she simply mad and the unfortunate victim of the time period in which she lived and died? Either way, she is presented here as human. And in relating to her, one thing is for sure: the mysticism of film was realized by the Dane Carl Dreyer and Maria Falconetti in the year 1928 with The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019254/usercomments-119

 

A Review of Tarsem’s “The Fall”

CAPTION:  Mountains and water and trees, oh my!  And funny costumes, too!

The Stuntman, 3 June 2008
8/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*** This comment may contain spoilers ***

The Fall opens with a disembodied symphony of black and white images done to the tune of Beethoven’s 7th where the beauty is in not fully understanding what you are watching. There’s a train, a bridge, a man in the water, a rope, and the hoisting up of a horse from the river. And there’s one quick shot of actress Karen Haacke, looking shocked and dreadfully beautiful as she (and not yet the audience) realizes what has happened that made my jaw drop.

Some movies, like the Indiana Jones films, are designed to evoke fond feelings from other movies. Then there are films like Tarsem “Don’t Say My Last Name” Singh’s The Fall, which exists to tell a tried and true story with new images we have never seen before. When we last met Tarsem, he gave us the trippy crime flick The Cell in which we were made to feel sympathy for a serial killer who literally became trapped inside Jennifer Lopez’s head–talk about HELL! With The Fall, Tarsem, wanton and reckless, creates a tenuous relationship with the audience as he weaves the tale of broken-hearted silent film era stuntman (Lee Pace) who suffers a severe injury after a foolish stunt (seen in the opening) and forms an unlikely friendship with a migrant farm girl (Catinca Untaru) who broke her arm falling from a tree while picking oranges.

The Fall shares some thematic similarities with Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the Polish Brothers’ Northfork as Pace’s character begins to construct an elaborate fantasy world for the little girl to pass the time. The images Tarsem creates are breathtaking, strange, and confounding and like nothing seen in modern cinematic myth-making. The vibrant director uses visual and textural transitions from scene to scene (witness a butterfly turn into an island, or spilled coffee turn into blood) like it’s nobody’s business. The Fall is a true independent film, shot over the course of four years in twenty-eight different countries and funded primarily by Tarsem himself (with some last minute help from contemporaries David Fincher and Spike Jonze). With no CGI alterations, part of the fun is trying to figure out how some of the scenes were shot. Sometimes distracting is trying to determine where they were shot–as I believe one of the scenes was done (is it even possible?) outside India’s Taj Mahal.

There’s sometimes an undercurrent of malevolence in the imagery, and often it is so over-the-top in its pageantry as to become incomprehensible inside the grander scheme of the simple fairy tale. Paradoxically it also reaches the level of silliness as one scene involving the overly dramatic death of a monkey named Wallace had me laughing so hard I almost cried. Meanwhile, the acting verges on amateurish. Justine Waddell in her dual roles as a nurse and princess is stunningly gorgeous but vapid. In the lead role, Pace, ranges from wooden to overly emotional, while the pint-size Untaru is so uncommonly naturalistic one wonders if she even realizes she was playing make-believe. These follies can be forgiven, though, as the movie celebrates the power of imagination and the lore of films. Where else are you going to find a man shot to death with dozens of arrows only to fall on his back and be held suspended by the very instruments of his death? Believe me, the scene is amazing.

The Fall succeeds as a movie for true film buffs. Critics like Roger Ebert, who sincerely love movies and their power to entertain, have raved about it, while others more cynical have dismissed it as a moving coffee-table book of empty modern art. Viewing it as a midweek matinée, I witnessed the only other patrons walk out, while some ushers looking to pass the time, sat in on the last ten minutes, which featured a montage of silent film era stunts that gloriously celebrated the old images that astounded their audiences just as much as Tarsem’s new images attempt to astound us. The ushers seemed to get a mad kick out of it, and so did I.

Originally Published on The Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460791/usercomments-36