Friday, May 25, 2007

Textures 1: The Walls in The Passion of Joan of Arc

a still from The Passion of Joan of Arc

The walls of the set of Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc were painted light pink. The reason is simple: on black and white film, the color would come out as a light gray, therefore preserving the texture while seeming to us to be almost white; in fact, we remember them as white: white and bleak, with a rough surface we can imagine running our fingers over, chalky like whitewash. They would crumble at the corners or perhaps leave white streaks on our backs if we leaned too hard. We imagine the whitewash slathered by workmen with primitive brushes—something about that set makes it impossible for us to imagine even modern tools working on it; we can feel the cold stone underneath the surface of the paint, cold like a cellar wall, even though we know very well that underneath the paint there is probably nothing but wood and chicken wire and plaster. We've heard, too, that it's not Rene Falconetti's arm that is bled, just a willing stand-in's, but we still wince.

The wall constructs an imaginary place just with its texture: The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film of concrete, harsh surfaces—Joan's oily face, the rough cloth of the clerics' robes, the iron of the window-bars. But we remember the walls best of all: their uncomfortable angles stick in your mind just as strongly as Falconetti's gracefully pained facial expressions; their starkness seems to taunt her throughout the entire movie.

But the walls are pink—light pink—not gray, and certainly not white. It’s not the real color of the set, but it’s the real color of walls in the film and in our minds. So it’s not the real wall that we see, but something that resides inside of it—a possible image, a ghost maybe. The camera has x-ray vision: it reveals aspects of everyday objects invisible to the naked eye. A harmless pink wall, but buried somewhere within is the possibility of a cruel gray wall; wood and chicken wire and maybe some plaster, but deep inside somewhere there is a cold medieval prison. And Rene Falconetti is just a woman, but buried somewhere in her is a saint. Images make mediums out of everyone. Cinema is a seance.

The camera, after all, doesn't see things the way we see them, regardless of whether it's loaded with color film or black-and-white film or high-speed film. The camera is an instrument that captures images, but it is not an extension of our vision. It’s like a piano and our eyes are like the fingers on the keys and the foot softly pressing the damper pedal, guiding it to produce something we can't on our own.