Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Passion of the Silent Era

Last week I had the chance to watch the silent, 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring the talented and awesomely named Maria Falconetti as Joan. The print we saw had been rescued from a janitor's closet of some Norwegian mental asylum in 1981, a bizarre piece of trivia that helped to set the mood for what turned out to be a gloriously strange cinematic experience. The film depicts Joan's trial and execution at the hand of the English, and it is told almost exclusively in close ups on the actors' faces. If you are a filmmaker, and you want to know what a close up should look like, see this film. Apparently, the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, insisted that his actors not wear make up, a subtraction which simply was not done during that eon of cinema. Add to this the use of then-newly developed panchromatic film stock, and you get 82 minutes of the most emotionally resonate and harrowing close ups the art form has thus mustered.
On the rare occasion that Dreyer does cut to wider shots, in part because of their infrequency, they have a breathtaking impact. This director's sense of movement, both with the camera and people inside the frame, is so modern and ahead of its time that one can hardly accept it was achieved so early as 1928. The cinematic bravura on display in The Passion of Joan of Arc is so complete and intense, it dives so deep, that it gives us a small window into where film might have gone had sound not crashed the party a year earlier. I was talking to my friend after the movie about what a shame it is that the silent era had not lasted longer. Once we could hear the actor's talking, filmmakers got lazy, cameras grew immense and far less versatile, and the art died a little. Imagine the innovations that could have been made; think of all the vocabulary that could have been written into the cinematic language had the crutch of sound not crippled us. We may be just now doing things with movies that might have come about in 1940 or so were it not for evil, easy sound.
Another thing I realized while watching this masterpiece is that silent film is not given nearly the respect and appreciation it deserves. Firstly, almost no one realizes that most films of that era were shot and projected at 18 frames per second, not 24 as we are used to today. It is such ignorance which is to blame for the ridiculous, sped up look we have become accustomed to when watching silent films. Unfortunately, this formerly asylum-bound print fell victim to this practice; it was clearly shot at 18 fps, but then transferred at 24 fps. So, though it was Dreyer's original cut of the film, I still have not seen it as he intended. Ignoring the original frame rate is just as destructive to a film as inflicting pan-and-scan on a letterboxed movie to make it fit 4:3 televisions. Hopeful someone who knows what they're doing will get their hands on this print and release a correct transfer on DVD. If we had been watching silent films at the proper frame rate all along, I have no doubt that modern audiences would take them millions of times more seriously and be more willing to fold them into our collective memory of cinema.

(Above: Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc in a still from The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

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