best film:  The Passion of Joan of Arc from Dreyer

  • It’s formally flawless and stylistically audacious at the same time. It’s one of the 20-25 (or so) I think you could legitimately call the greatest film of all-time at this point. It’s a film I’m going to try to get to every year or so.
  • Shockingly enough (he’s known for taking a lot of time between his work)- this was Dreyer’s 9th film—he has 9 from 1919 to 1928—he’d slow down considerably after this and would only have 4 more over the rest of his life (36 years)
  • The only of those 8 films from Dreyer made prior to this that I’ve seen is Master of the House (1925). It is not good. Preachy and offers almost nothing stylistically- so this is really, as far as I know, his birth as an artist (I think the rest of his films prior to Passion of Joan of Arc aside from Master of the House were lost)
  • He was big on non-professional actors and stripping away all overacting and emotion—clearly he’s a massive influence on Bresson (The Trial of Joan of Arc Bresson made in 1962- not nearly as good) who did the same thing and also had films on similar subject matter and theme
  • No makeup uses- unheard of in 1928
  • Maria Falconetti’s second performance- her last performance
  • Dreyer and Falconetti didn’t invent the close-up as an art form (Griffith and Gish really did that) from an artistic standpoint but this is the close-up as art at its zenith. It’s searing imagery and one of the greatest performances of all-time without a doubt
  • Ebert references Bordwell’s book on the film—apparently there’s a study on the disorienting cuts and he does a breakdown (I can only imagine- how awesome)—there’s true theme and variation in the choices by Dreyer- many don’t carry directly over- either way it’s a masterpiece built, amongst other things, in the editing room
  • It’s also a masterpiece in front of the camera (performances, mise-en-scene) and with the camera- there are many rolling tracking shots. Formal brilliance.
  • There are really no establishing shots- at least in the court room or the prison (there are a few I guess in the gorgeous exterior work in the second half of the film on the way to the execution)
  • Apparently Dreyer editing the film from current footage in post when he had some issues with money—it took him a year and a half to complete in the 1920’s and very few artists (Griffith, Chaplin, von Stroheim) took that long
  • the mise-en-scene is masterful. The concave shapes, the crosses, and in a few scenes- gorgeous displays of blocking and framing

the mise-en-scene is masterful. The concave shapes, the crosses, and in a few scenes- gorgeous displays of blocking and framing

  • I look forward to continuing my Dreyer study but I don’t remember it to be that closely connected stylistically with his other work. There are hints of it in Vampyr but this is closer to Eisenstein (I mean the battle sequence in the last 10 minutes of Passion of Joan of Arc has to make you think of Potemkin and the art of editing) in most ways than Murnau (which Dreyer’s Vampyr feels more akin to)
  • Authenticity in the text is a goal here- we have the script taken from actual text from the trial
  • The opening track is a stunner of a shot (one that would be repeated regularly) through the crowd at the trial
  • It could just be me but Falconetti looks a little like the profit kid (Jeremy Blackman) from Magnolia. Normally I wouldn’t think anything of it but knowing Magnolia and PT Anderson I wouldn’t put it past him
  • Characterizations enhanced with grotesque faces, fat, warts, moles, hair in nose, padded fat suits on the judges-Falconetti is unreal with those unblinking eyes
  • Reoccurring tracking shots of judges
  • It’s a top 5 edited film of all-time
  • The head judge’s performance is underrated- never heard him motioned
  • Stark white walls with detailed mise-en-scene (crosses mainly) placed sparingly and strategically throughout—the walls also draw you to the performance
  • Simple but formally perfect
  • Variation on the angles—profile, from underneath—the low angle-work with the camera predates Welles—this is a major breakthrough for me on this film (after 5 viewings here)
  • It’s a symphonic repetition in the editing
  • There are countless inventive shots- images that belong on a wall in a museum too many to mention- over 100 in an 80 minute film
  • Disorienting breaking of the rules of eyelines—gives to her mythic quality and state of mind
  • Both stark (objects in the frame in front of  blank slate) and expressionistic (creative angles, eyelines, ordering and sequencing of the images)
  • Worms in skull
  • Hill with a cross
  • The entire film is form and aesthetic choices—it’s worth noting that the first 15-20 minutes are essentially a court-room scene with questions and dialogue back and forth. This type of scene, going into the 21st century 100 years later, is almost always done in such an uncinematic way— Dreyer makes a masterpiece of back and forth dialogue.
  • Painful to watch hair cut scene
  • Another stunner shot is the overhead upside down shot of soldiers marching towards the end
  • The rolling tracking shots of the sad crowd at her death perfectly mirrors the opening of the judges shouting at her

It’s formally flawless and stylistically audacious at the same time. It’s one of the 20-25 (or so) I think you could legitimately call the greatest film of all-time at this point

 

most underrated:   Champagne from Hitchcock

  • Most memorable for being (I believe) cinema’s first freeze-frame. But it isn’t just in the archives for this one cinematic flourish—this film is a series of high-wire stylistic exercises Trojan-horsed in a pretty bland narrative
  • The freeze-frame is brilliant- and it’s important—Truffaut is the auteur most aligned with the freeze and it makes sense that it’s from Hitchcock. You can trace the roots back.
  • Silent, comedy—the set-up (a lot of light flapperism that is a distant cousin plot to 1934’s Oscar-winner It Happened One Night
  • Bookend visual flourishes- shot through the champagne glass- ingenious
  • Like Murnau before him (this is clearly influenced by Sunrise in many ways) and Scorsese (the rubber biscuit drunk in Mean Streets), Aronofsky (a pounding headache in Pi) and many others after Hitchcock is determined to shoot everything creatively—he doesn’t want to tell you the ship is rocking violently back and forth, he wants to show you with the camera. Pure cinema. Sea sickness here.
  • Vaseline on the edges around the entire frame to give the edges a soft focus and put the attention on the character in the center—alternative between his and her POV here
  • Tracking out of Demme-like close-ups—really well done
  • Hitch has another brilliant sequence here—he shows a robbery by showing only the feet of the characters—he’d perfect this of course and do it in 1951’s masterful Strangers on a Train
  • Many graphic match transitions— once he goes from the blueprints of a boat to the room number on it
  • The famous freeze frame edit comes 49 minutes in. There are people dancing and then we freeze and we’re in her POV looking at a picture (of people dancing) and he tracks away from it. Stunning

The freeze-frame is brilliant- and it’s important—Truffaut is the auteur most aligned with the freeze and it makes sense that it’s from Hitchcock. You can trace the roots back.

 

most overrated:  Nothing from 1928 in this category. The TSPDT has The Cameraman ahead of where I would but it is a strong film so I’d be splitting hairs.

gem I want to spotlight:  The Wind from Sjöström features Lillian Gish’s best performance, is a great drama, and is extremely accessible for the fan of contemporary cinema looking to tap into the silent era. The way Sjöström shot on location and used the sand and wind as characters in the film is quite astonishing- a great achievement.

trends and notables:  1928 is absolutely loaded. We have one of the best films of all-time leading the way and even without Murnau and Eisenstein contributing to the 1928 archives, there are multiple Must-See films and a legit top 10. Despite the advent of sound by Warner Brothers in 1927 with The Jazz Singer these are almost all silent films. Like 1927 the years are starting to get more and more depth so we have really superb films (The Cameraman, The Wedding March, Spies, Docks)  from top line filmmakers from the era (Keaton, von Stroheim, Lang von Sternberg,) rounding out a top 10. There aren’t as many great auteurs as there are at any given time in the back-half of the 20th century or early 21st century— but the ones working during the 1920’s were more prolific. Sadly, this is largely the end for Buster Keaton—his last two archiveable films (giving him eleven in seven years). What a run! You can’t overlook the first archiveable film for Dreyer. As far as actors- the great French actor Michel Simon makes his archiveable debut in Passion of Joan of Arc.

Sadly, this is largely the end for Buster Keaton—his last two archiveable films (giving him eleven in seven years). What a run!– the house falling on him and his narrow escape in the open window in Steamboat Bill, Jr. here

striking imagery in Fritz Lang’s Spies

best performance male:  It isn’t the best work from either of them- but both Chaplin and Keaton deserve another mention for their work in 1928. The depth here from both of them is impressive- strong lead performances again and again in some of the years’ best work.

many will guess this is the final shot from 1936’s Modern Times and it isn’t- another iconic walk off into the distance final shot from Chaplin, years before, in The Circus

best performance female: I want to say a tie because Lillian Gish is wonderful in The Wind. But, I definitely have to give the best performance of the year to Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.  It’s a devastating performance, her last performance, and one of the best 10 performance in cinema history.

 

top 10

  1. The Passion of Joan of Arc
  2. The Crowd
  3. The Wind
  4. The Circus
  5. Champagne
  6. Steamboat Bill, Jr.
  7. Spies
  8. The Cameraman
  9. The Wedding March
  10. Street Angel

 

Archives, Directors, and Grades

A Woman of Affairs- Brown
Champagne – Hitchcock HR/MS
Docks of New York- von Sternberg
Show People- Vidor R
Spies- Lang HR/MS
Steamboat Bill, Jr– Keaton, Reisner HR/MS
Street Angel- Borzage HR
The Cameraman- Keaton
The Circus- Chaplin MS
The Crowd- Vidor MS
The Horse Ate the Hat – Clair
The Last Command- von Sternberg
The Passion of Joan of Arc– Dreyer MP
The Wedding March- von Stroheim HR
The Wind- Sjöström, Gish MS
West of Zanzibar- Browning R

 

*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-See- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives