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.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Science as Literature

Jean Painlevé's short film Le Vampire

The films of Jean Painlevé are not very good science, yes, but they're great cinema.
The later ones--the color ones, especially--veer dangerously close to reality, but
Painlevé's early, sensationalistic science shorts present a view of nature so radically simplified that it becomes something completely new, an imaginary fauna that could only exist in the movies. Familiar animals become mysterious monsters or, via the narration, take on human characteristics. The sea is an alien planet, not because it is so removed from our experience, but because Painlevé has said it is. Tangential connections are made between unrelated species; Painlevé is like a writer who treats biology as literature, Darwin as Shakespeare. Themes and characters might be borrowed from previous works (the world of science), but the stories are distinctly the director's own. Jean Painlevé is Celine and Julie at the zoo.

In Le Vampire, Murnau and Schrek's Nosferatu interacts with a vampire bat, paraded with its guinea pig prey in front of a stagy backdrop. The vampire bat's bite is like a trick--in fact, animals in Painlevé's films seem as though they're gifted in sleight-of-hand and escapism, or as though his beloved ocean was a circus, or maybe, as the score suggests, a night club act.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Lee Marvin on John Ford

excerpt from an interview originally shot for The Directors Series television program, 1986

Monday, May 7, 2007

The Brick and the Mirror / Selected Answers from Ebrahim Golestan

The Gene Siskel’s series on Ebrahim Golestan calls him “the lion of Iranian cinema,” but he’s even fiercer than that. In his mid-eighties, Golestan is rude, dismissive, hard of hearing, charming and exasperating. Like his first feature, the rarely screened The Brick and Mirror, he ignores questions and forces seemingly unrelated information on us, in the end telling us even more than he would h ave otherwise. Do we even want him to respond to us?

The Brick and the Mirror
is a jumble of episodes, each more infuriating that the last; as Golestan is like his film, the film is like Golestan—it’s something you have to fight. A Nouvelle Vague cab ride leads into a mystical aside in an abandoned construction site out of a Japanese ghost film, which in turn leads to an extended comic scene in a night club and to a police station that seems to have been built inside of a theatre. There are interior scenes in long, immobile takes and outdoor scenes in short handheld ones; a scene in an orphanage abandons the film’s arrhythmic style in order to attune itself, unflinchingly, to peculiar beats—children rattling on metal cribs, rocking back and forth, staring at the camera, receiving injections.

The following are selected responses and questions from the lengthy Q&A that followed Saturday's well-attended screening of the film:

[inaudible audience question about the film’s script, which Golestan wrote during shooting]

What I said was that there was no script written for the whole of the film. I was writing dialogue—I did what they should do—I was writing the dialogue a day or so before, giving time to rehearse it.

The film you saw yesterday [The Secret of the Treasure of Jinn Valley], I did not give them the story, I wrote most of it on the spot because I didn’t want it to leak…but this was not that sort of thing. I would write it a day or so before, they would rehearse it in a way—but, no, no, there was no problem.

But these things, they are not really of any importance if you are serious enough to make a serious film. My aim was not to solve any of these problems. These problems, with the cooperation of the actors…it could be done. How much confidence you could generate in them—it’s not a problem.

Audience member: The scene in the orphanage had a haunting reality about it. Was it shot in a real orphanage?

Of course. Possibly, it came out because of my years of working as a newsreel reporter. I had begun to make newsreels films—items—actually for American television, because in those days, television was not popular throughout the world. There were very few places where they had television. From 1951. I began to make newsreel items for CBS, NBC—then, 1954, I went over to BBC and in 1954 from BBC I went to ITN.

I had all these practices and training, and when I went to this orphanage…the problem in the orphanage, the technical problem, was to light. I did not want to have shadows on the walls; that is stupid. I just wanted to have a kind of available light, but the available light was not enough. In those days the fastest speed would be like 400 ASA, which is not really enough, so I had to use a lot of light, but fix the lamps so that there were no shadows.

Whenever I see it, for instance, in cowboy, in Western films: you see the man in the sunlight passing by and the shadow is passing one way, there is also a second shadow on the wall. [audience laughs] You’ve got the stay within a semblance of reality. But that was the only problem I had in the orphanage.


Audience member: You said that you hadn’t spoken to audiences about your films for some 35 years. I was wondering why that is—do you find the questions…well, they’re not all technical, but, I mean, do you find these kinds of discussions…well, how do you find these kinds of discussions? Is this why it took 35 years before you wanted to speak to audiences?

I never had any discussions with my audiences for the last 35 years because I never had any discussions with audiences anyway about this film [audience laughs] because I was separated from my audience. That’s it—nothing has changed. I believe what I believe, and, perhaps my audience has changed, or it has not changed, I do not know, I have not been in communication with them.


Something which I am forced to tell you now is that this story at the core is the story of—I don’t know if I should say it or not—but it is the story of the human need: do we have a need for a savior? Who is this savior? Is a savior sent to us by some higher authority?

And still it so happens a kid, this baby, is brought in. Towards the end of the film, the girl is telling the man: “We got together and I thought that my life and your life was saved because of that little girl, that baby and I thought that she is a link, she is our savior and now you have snatched her away from me. Now I have to rely on myself, I know that it is me, the human being, who is responsible for his own life. [I] should save [myself] without any help from anybody—just me, my conscience, my view. The time for my relying on some unknown thing, for imagining things, as far as I am concerned is over.”

She says that; perhaps she is wrong—perhaps I am wrong, but that is the film, that is the idea of the character in the film: “From here onwards I am going to see how I can useful.” And that is where she goes into the orphanage to find the factor that she thought is the savior and she realizes that all of those babies could be that and she decides to stay; that shot when she leans on the wall, the camera goes away—as a matter of fact, it is a very much longer shot, another minute and there is nothing except the sound of the outside and the camera is going away, away, away to emphasize that woman’s loneliness in a place where she has realized or she thinks, wrongly or rightly, that she should be dead, that there is nobody coming to do anything for her.


Audience member: Could you talk about the title a little bit? Why you chose it?

The Brick and the Mirror? Well, there is a…are you Iranian?

Audience member: No.

Why is asked you is…well, there is a poet—was a poet—a long time ago. He was killed during the invasion of the Mongols. His name is Attar. Sheik Farid al-Din Attar. He is a wonderful, wonderful poet. He is a great, great poet, and he has written the line [speaks Persian], which means that what an unexperienced sees in a mirror, the young man sees in the mirror, the old man, the experienced person, sees in a mud brick.

It is a mud brick in which you can see what is the world around—if you have the experience. That is the spirit of the title.