Friday, June 7, 2019

Feeling Haunted by Joan ... and in Love

Renee Falconetti as Joan of Arc

It is said that if you put a frame around something, then it will be considered a work of art. This should tell us something about how important a frame is to art. When incorporated in just the right way, the frame is what can make the art.

One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. He knew how to frame his art. When I was a child, a commercial came on the television advertising a showing of the movie Psycho on a local TV station. I didn't know about framing at the time, as I was only about 4 or 5 years old, but the images from the movie haunted me, and even though the commercial only implied the shower scene, for years every time I took a shower I would only think of Psycho and who could be in the room with me as I shut my eyes to shampoo my hair.

I finally saw the whole movie when I was a teenager. In fact, I must have seen it at least twenty times since then. It wasn't as scary as I thought when I was a child, but as I grew older and watched it over and over, I realized how much of a masterpiece it was. A few years ago however I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen at a local theater. Seeing it on the big screen helped me notice something I never noticed before. I noticed how well Hitchcock framed his shots.

In the first half of the movie the main character is Marion Crane (Janet Leigh). It is said that Hitchcock always fell in love with his leading ladies, and you can tell that by the way he frames her; he wants you to fall in love with her too. He does this by often closing in on her and showing a close up of her face, especially whenever she talks. By allowing the audience to get close to her in an intimate way, we can't help but fall in love with her, even though she commits an awful crime in the movie.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane

Marion finally arrives at the Bates Motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). He offers her something to eat, and they sit down to talk. She realizes she did something wrong and wants to make things right, and we grow to sympathize with her. The camera is real close to her face now. You become embedded with this character. She then goes to her room to take a shower before sleeping. Then comes the infamous shower scene. One stab after another. The music is haunting, the camera shots are haunting, it is all frightening. Then the main character, half way through the movie, is dead lying in a pool of her own blood. This woman, whom you just fell in love with, is dead in a very horrific and shocking way. Then a new main character emerges, Norman Bates the psycho.

As I noticed these things for the first time in such a powerful way seeing it on the big screen, I panicked. I had never panicked before seeing this movie over twenty times. I saw it for the first time the way Hitchcock wanted his audience to see it. As my heart beat uncontrollably, I had to turn away from watching the shower scene. I couldn't believe how effective this was, especially on someone like me, who has watched hundreds of horror films and never felt like this before.

Actually, I did feel like that a few times before. For instance, I saw the American remake of the The Ring in a packed theater on its opening day. Because it was packed, I was forced to watch it from the third row, pretty much right below the big screen. This is a movie that understands the concept of framing. Sometimes it uses a frame within a frame to make the effect more powerful, and what makes it scary is that the horror moves out of one frame and enters another, to the point where you think it will escape the frame of the movie screen and come out at you. When this happened in the end, almost everyone in the theater screamed. It was hard to get the imagery out of my head for about three days. (The original Japanese version is better, but it is difficult to repeat the experience when you know its coming.)

Having said all this, I had the most powerful experience of being haunted by a film last night when I went to see a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film from 1928 based on the transcripts of the trial of Joan of Arc. It was directed brilliantly by Carl Theodor Dreyer, and featured the stunning, emotionally wrenching. otherworldly and transcendent performance of Renee Falconetti as Joan. This movie is all about framing. The close ups of Joan's face are powerfully utilized to help the audience fall in love with Joan. No matter what you think about her, you cannot help but fall in love with her. The bad inquisitors are also framed up close, but they are depicted in a very sinister way, full of bad motives. This helps us fall in love and sympathize with Joan even more.

When I saw this film in the theater last night, it was not just your typical screening of a movie. A live orchestra accompanied it, the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra to be specific, and they had a totally unique approach to the film. They made the film into an opera, with four singers and a small orchestra, in which the characters on screen sing their lines (in French and Latin, the libetto created - as the film was - using the actual transcript of the trial as preserved by the Catholic Church), in direct lip-sync to the mouth movements on screen. If this sounds amazing to you, then I assure you, it was more than the most amazing way you can imagine it to be. I have never had such a powerful film experience. The music and the singing haunt you from the very beginning. And as it moves towards its conclusion, when Joan s condemned to be burned alive at the stake, the score becomes more and more harrowing.

The theater was full, mainly made up of older people who have a deep appreciation for high art. As the movie came to its conclusion, you could see a few people leaving. They knew they could not take what was coming, combined with the powerful score. In all honesty, I wish I could have left myself. I had never seen the movie before, so I didn't know how graphic the ending was. The director made the audience fall in love with Joan, and now she is killed in a hideous and scary way. What I felt when I saw Psycho was multiplied. I came close to walking out, cause I was afraid I was going to have a heart attack. But utilizing some breathing exercises, I calmed myself a little. The lady sitting next to me was probably wondering why I was drinking so much water.

I never thought I would feel so haunted by a silent movie from 1928, though I must say the way I saw it it was anything but silent. I'm sure if I had seen it on television like most people have, it would not nearly have the same effect on me. The movie is probably one of the best movies ever put on screen, and the acting by Renee Falconetti is perhaps the best performance of any actress in cinema history (amazingly this was only her second and last role ever filmed). I realized also that Hitchcock was clearly influenced by this film, or at least by a film that it influenced. And here I am the next day, and I find it difficult to get Joan off my mind. I'm still feeling haunted by Joan, because I was made to fall in love with her.

If you ever get a chance to see The Passion of Joan of Arc on the big screen, do so. I would avoid seeing it on a small screen or on television. Go to a local theater and request it. Better yet, get the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra to come out and perform it. It will enhance your experience times ten. They are currently on tour with it, but only going to three locations in Massachusetts, and the first one has passed. Believe me, you will not regret it.