Wednesday, December 27, 2006

#63: Carnival of Souls

Carnival of Souls, 1962, directed by Herk Harvey, written by John Clifford.

I write a lot about comedy as though it were the great neglected genre. And it's true; comedies don't get a lot of critical acclaim. But nobody gets less respect than horror movies. Except for B-horror movies from the sixties. And the only films that get less respect than B-horror movies are B-horror movies made in Lawrence, Kansas, by filmmakers who never worked on another feature. So what is Carnival of Souls doing in the Criterion Collection? I'd love to report that it's a brilliant film, a lost gem of incalculable worth. Well, it's not. But it's not quite a B-picture, either. The filmmakers got a lot wrong; the sound is laughably badly mixed, there are some terrible performances (and some passable ones), and a great deal of the movie, particularly toward the end, just isn't very frightening. But in the weeks after you see it, you will find yourself remembering some of the strangeness of the film, its odd tone, its uncanny images.

And even if you don't, you'll remember the movie because of its strange pedigree. Variety's review began, "Occasionally a feature film emerges from the midwest..." John Clifford and Herk Harvey were both employees of Centron Studios, one of the big three producers of educational and industrial movies (the other two were Coronet and Encyclopædia Britannica). And like any good social guidance film, it opens with young people making a terrible decision. In this case, they agree to drag race, which ends pretty much how you would expect.

If the movie had been directed by Sid Davis, that would have been the last shot. If it had been a Highway Safety Foundation production, that wouldn't have been the last shot, but audiences would have wished it was. In Centron movies, though, things always tended to be a little murkier. And speaking of murky, the car crash isn't as tragic as it looks, at least for one of the passengers.

That's Candace Hilligoss playing the sole survivor, Mary Henry. She remembers next to nothing about the wreck, but we see her haunting the bridge soon after, staring into the water. We don't see anything of her life in Kansas, where the movie begins, except for a brief scene of her practicing organ on the assembly floor of the Reuter's Organ Company:

She's not always shot from such a distance, but she is consistently apart from everyone else in the movie. Apparently on the theory that a change of scenery will do her good, she leaves town as soon as she can, to take a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City. Asked to "stop by and see us the next time you're in," she replies, "Thank you. But I'm never coming back." She's as good as her word.

On the drive west, her radio goes on the fritz: whatever channel she turns it to, all it picks up is organ music in minor keys. In the distance, she sees a hulking building across the salt flats:

And almost immediately she runs off the road to avoid hitting a gaunt apparition who looks suspiciously like the director wearing grease paint:

And there her troubles begin. For the rest of the movie, Hilligoss keeps seeing this guy, and finds herself strangely fascinated by the strange building she passed on the highway. That building is the movie's secret weapon, and I believe it is the reason it has survived so long. On his way back from a vacation in Los Angeles, Herk Harvey passed the same hulk of a building off the freeway, and was curious enough to pull off and check it out. What he found was the wreckage of a grand experiment in Mormon entertainment, created while the church was distancing itself from its first grand experiment in Mormon entertainment, "celestial marriage."

In 1893, the Church of Latter Day Saints built a resort on the edge of the Great Salt Lake to provide wholesome entertainment for young families called Saltair. It featured salt water bathing in the lake and a grand pavilion on piers over the water, and was remarkably successful:

Believe it or not, you're looking at one of the most famous tourist attractions of its time. In 1925 the whole thing burned to the ground and was rebuilt on a slightly less grand scale:

Notice that the large central tower is missing, as is the second level of the promenade. You can also see the park's roller coaster and the railway tracks leading in near the road. The centerpiece of Saltair's second incarnation was the enormous dance pavilion. I believe this photo is of the second dance pavilion, at its time one of the largest in the world:

In the late 30s, the salt lake receded away from the pavilion, leaving it on a great muddy plain, which proved to be somewhat less appealing to vacationers. Still, they limped along until 1958; so when Harvey shot there, it had been closed for about three years. Here's what he found:

That's the wreckage of the main pavilion. Here's its interior:

It would be hard to do a bad job shooting such an evocative location, and the scenes at Saltair are the best in the film. And I think there's something about using an actual abandoned resort that gives this section moments of creepiness that a more calculated film wouldn't have had. For instance, imagine how you would create a deserted carnival for a horror film (or play a few hours of Carnevil). Then ask yourself if you would have included anything as sad as a long-abandoned Barrel of Fun:

Or as uncanny as the bad advertising art on the wall here (the sign is for Salt Water BATHING, but the woman's face seems to be an advertisement for Inter Family BREEDING):

No set designer could come up with anything as weird, sad, creepy, and appropriate as Harvey and his crew found in the wreckage of Saltair. I admit it. I'm a sucker for abandoned places, and I would have been perfectly happy with two hours of footage of what was left of Saltair. The film offers other pleasures as well, however, most notably Sidney Berger's performance as Hilligoss's lecherous neighbor:

His character is a type of person you don't see too much of in film. He's fiercely anti-intellectual, but in kind of a charming way, starts his day off with whiskey in his coffee, and comes on to Mary Henry full speed ahead from the moment he sees her. In fact, his pursuit of Mary Henry is the focus of the middle third of the film, which is kind of strange because it isn't supernatural in the least. In the horror movies I'm used to seeing, by the end of the first act most subplots are subordinated to whatever the main horror of the film is, but this one doesn't intersect with Mary's other problems at all until the end of the second act. It's a strange choice, but actually, the scenes between Berger and Hilligoss are some of the best written and fastest moving in the movie.

The Criterion edition features two cuts of the movie; the original theatrical release (which features some cuts in the final third) and the original version. In both cuts, a lot more could have been sliced without being missed. There's a recurring scene where Mary Henry becomes invisible to those around her: it's very well done the first time. But the second time it drags on to the point of parody. One of the moments of sheer pulse-pounding terror, for instance, is that she is unable to hail a cab:

And she has even worse problems at the bus station. Needless to say, transportation problems aren't the stuff of nightmares. But despite all the goofiness towards the end, Carnival of Souls has some moments of inspiration that transcend its Z-movie roots. Even Herk Harvey in greasepaint has one moment of being truly horrifying, rising silently from the salt lake towards the camera.


  • If that last shot of Harvey looks familiar, it should. Francis Ford Coppola stole the shot (and the creepy, lifeless way Harvey rises out of the water) for Apocalypse Now. Carnival of Souls may be more famous for the later, better films that stole from it than it is great in its own right. George A. Romero has admitted modeling his zombies in Night of the Living Dead on Harvey and the other ghosts in this film. And although there's no direct link, I can't help but think that the Overlook Hotel in The Shining has a little bit of Saltair about it; look again at the picture of dancers in the main ballroom in the place's heyday. Whether or not Stephen King was familiar with the movie, I have no doubt that Kubrick was, because there's a scare shot that's identical to one he used in The Shining. Mary is in her room with John Linden; he leans close behind her and kisses her neck:

    When she looks up at their reflection in the mirror, however, she finds Herk Harvey's character leering back at her.

    The idea is better executed in The Shining, but there's no mistaking its origins. It's a strange kind of cinematic glory, to be a well that many more gifted filmmakers have drawn from, but it's better than nothing.

  • Harvey and cinematographer Maurice Prather had a great eye for mathematically precise compositions. You can see it in that great shot of Mary at the organ above, and in the following stills, all with very strong diagonal layouts. Notice how precisely the building's shadow defines the frame below:

    Of course, organs are naturally pretty mathematically precise:

    This last one is symmetric, not diagonal, but is probably my favorite shot in the film; it's from inside the dance pavilion looking out on the salt flats:

  • Virtually the entire crew had a long career at Centron both before and after Carnival of Souls. The DVD includes a lengthy section of excerpts from Centron films. Here's a younger Herk Harvey in one of them, Star 34.

    Star 34 is about a couple from some unnamed large city who inherit a significant amount of money from a distant relative, provided they tour the state of Kansas and learn about its many attractions. Guess which snobbish-at-the-beginning-of-the-film couple fall in love with Kansas? But despite having a clip from Signals: Read 'Em Or Weep, the DVD unaccountably omits Shake Hands With Danger, Herk Harvey's closest thing to a Sid Davis movie, in which construction workers meet disaster after disaster by ignoring workplace safety. Here's a sample:

    What really makes the film, though, is its bizarre soundtrack, by a Johnny Cash sound-alike. Sample lyric:
    Shake hands with danger
    Meet a guy who oughta know
    I used to laugh at safety,
    Now they call me... Three-Finger Joe.
  • As easy as it is to snicker at educational and industrial films (and not just easy, but fun), it bears remembering that they were big business in their day. The best, and as far as I know only, source of information about them is Ken Smith's excellent Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945–1970. I can't recommend this book enough. Other invaluable resources are Skip Eisheimer's Educational Archives series of DVDs (the source of the Shake Hands With Danger stills above) and the Prelinger Archives.

  • I can't think of another film that was inspired by a single location the way Carnival of Souls was, but I can think of some locations that should have inspired films. My pick would be Heritage USA, the remains of Jim Bakker's criminal empire. Check out the "Take a Tour of Heritage" to get a feel for the place. You could do a lot of interesting things shooting in the Grand Tower. If anyone else has great location ideas, leave them in the comments.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

#62: The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, directed by Carl Theodor Dryer, written by Joseph Delteil and Carl Theodor Dryer.

I've watched this movie five or six times in the last few weeks, and I haven't come close to plumbing its depths. It's searing, harrowing, pick your adjective. I've been trying to describe the effect it had on me, the experience of watching it, and I don't think I'm a good enough writer by half. So let's stick to the facts.

First we can rule out what it's not. The Passion of Joan of Arc is not The Messenger or anything like more recent treatments of Joan's life. Dryer doesn't give a damn about Joan's military exploits. No one plays the Bastard of Orléans or Charles VII. The Hundred Years' War could be the Twenty Minutes' Disagreement for all the difference it makes to this film. Of course, you wouldn't have needed much context, in France, in 1928. Joan's ecclesiastical rehabilitation was finally complete; excommunicated in her lifetime, she had been canonized in 1920. Joan's status as military hero had been used as a call to arms throughout France during World War I, particularly after the Germans bombed Reims cathedral. Here, she's triumphing over a silent-movie-villain looking Kaiser Wilhelm:

Joan was also used to drum up support for the war in the United States and even (demonstrating somewhat selective memory of her achievements), Great Britain:

And I would only be a little surprised to find her on a German recruiting poster ("Joan of Arc Slaughtered the British. Women of Germany..."). So you wouldn't have needed much context. But Dreyer didn't make a film about Joan as national hero, savior of France; his film could really have been set anywhere. And he didn't make a biopic. Instead, The Passion of Joan of Arc ignores the more obviously cinematic parts of her life and deals exclusively with Joan's trial for heresy in the late winter and early spring of 1431. The movie does have a reverent attitude toward Joan, but it's a different kind than France had at the time. Compare Joan's depiction in the recruiting posters with Dreyer's first shot of Maria Falconetti playing her:

Both the camera and the monk to her right look slightly down on her, she takes up less than a quarter of the image, and she's framed by her captor's weapons. Throughout the film, we will see Joan behaving intelligently and honorably, but not heroically. The Passion of Joan of Arc is not a French version of Henry V.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is also not The Passion of the Christ or anything you might find in the Lives of the Saints. This was something of a relief for me; narratives of martyrdom have always struck me as a little vulgar, satisfying our base instincts while claiming to appeal to our higher ones (for a quick example of what I mean, check out Henryk Siemiradzki's A Christian Dirce; the nicest thing you can say is that the painter's attitude is conflicted). I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, so I'll stay out of the debate about the explicit torture scenes, but here's Gibson describing why the movie is so violent:

So that they see the enormity—the enormity of that sacrifice; to see that someone could endure that and still come back with love and forgiveness, even through extreme pain and suffering and ridicule.
There's an assumption here that by witnessing suffering we come to a better understanding of it. Martyr, after all, comes from the Greek for "witness." Gibson further seems to be asking the audience to consider what it would be like to undergo the same sacrifice (someone could endure that"). The Passion of Joan of Arc doesn't work that way. We are continually denied the ability to identify with Joan; and whenever we reach the comfortable assumption that we know more about her than her judges and tormentors, Dreyer yanks the rug out from under us. One of the ways he does this is (again) through the complete lack of context; but this time it's lack of visual context, not historical. Consider a single line, about halfway through the movie:

This is roughly a point of view shot, from Joan's perspective. On close examination, there aren't that many; usually the camera is closer than she is. The judge says (in the intertitle), "Don't you see that it's the Devil who has turned your head..." and we cut to Joan:

So far, so good. The shot is noticeably off from the judge's perspective (the camera is a little lower and to his left, if we assume that the preceding shot was Joan's POV). This would be a typical way of shooting a scene, if the director wanted us to identify with Joan: modify the standard shot-reverse shot so that one shot is from Joan's POV and the next is third-person. But then we cut back to this:

...right before the judge finishes his sentence with "...who has tricked you?" Now we're not looking at the scene from any perspective at all. Assumptions we were making about knowing how sitting there felt to Joan aren't valid. "Who has turned your head, who has tricked you," indeed. Dreyer cuts back to the earlier shot of Joan, before revisiting the "point of view" of the first shot, with a difference:

But now we're uncomfortably close, and again, clearly not seeing things from Joan's perspective. And then the last shot of her:

As Mark Twain might say, the 180° rule is not just broken, but flung down and danced upon. The result is disorienting and a little exhausting. Notice also, that nothing carries from one shot to the next. That's Dreyer's strategy throughout; as David Bordwell pointed out (via Roger Ebert): "Of the film's over 1,500 cuts, fewer than 30 carry a figure or object over from one shot to another; and fewer than 15 constitute genuine matches on action."

Let me be clear; although we are denied the ability to truly identify with Joan, I don't think we're implicated with her judges. To me the film seemed to have more to say about the impossibility of identifying with anyone at all, especially at the last extremities of faith and suffering. Here's a telling exchange during Joan's first interrogation. The judges, trying to trick Joan into blaspheming, ask the following:

"You have said that Saint Michael appeared to you. In what form? Did he have wings? Did he wear a crown? How was he dressed? How did you know if it was a man or a woman? Was he naked?"

Joan replies only to the last question, "Do you think God was unable to clothe him?" When asked if he had long hair, she answers, "Why would he have cut it?" This is treacherous: Joan is dodging her interrogators, but also making the point that her experiences are incommunicable. Language is inadequate to describe her visions. You will not find many narrative films with as little faith in storytelling as this one. To the extent we try to judge or understand her, we're in the position of their interrogators, who are uniformly as old and unattractive as the one pictured above. You'll notice that I don't refer to any of them by name: although they have names in the screenplay, they're never referred to by name on screen and frankly I'm not sure who's who. But that's sort of the point; they're barely distinguishable. They don't always look angry, though; from time to time, they smile at Joan with infinite condescension:

That's the face of a man who knows he's right. But as I've already noted, we don't really get to identify with Joan, either. So where does that leave us? One way of reading the movie would be to see it as Nabokov saw Cervantes:

The author seems to plan it thus: Come with me, ungentle reader, who enjoys seeing a live dog inflated and kicked around like a soccer football; reader, who likes, of a Sunday morning, on his way to or from church, to poke his stick or direct his spittle at a poor rogue in the stocks; come... I hope you will be amused at what I have to offer.

That would put us back in Passion of the Christ territory, though, and that's not what Dryer is up to either. Although the film does invite us to watch Joan's tormentors slowly and methodically destroy her, and although the experience is extremely unpleasant, we are explicitly asked not to consider her judges as garden-variety sadists. One way Dreyer does this is by putting a few garden-variety sadists in the film: Joan is tormented between interrogation sessions by her jailers, including this upstanding fellow:

I suppose it's the difference between Pilate and the Roman soldiers, an analogy Dreyer makes explicit when Joan's jailers force her to wear a straw crown:

The church officials don't take pleasure in destroying Joan the way her jailers do. But Dreyer suggests that the compassion of the church is worse. One of the monks rescues Joan from the jailers, sends them angrily away, and wipes her tears. Then he takes her to the torture chamber.

So: we're not being asked to watch Joan's destruction for our own pleasure. We can't understand what she's going through, but we're not really implicated or invited to judge her. What's left? I would suggest that one thing the film teaches is compassion, in the older sense of the word (suffering along with). Here's Joan at her lowest point, after she has signed an abjuration she does not understand, denied that her visions were divinely inspired, and been sentenced to life in prison. One would think that her torments were over, but Dreyer cuts from her sentencing directly to this:

It's impossible to watch this penultimate humiliation without wanting to do something, anything to stop it. This is the polar opposite of Cervantes trying to amuse us with cruelty. The Passion of Joan of Arc cuts to the quick of what it is to be human; what, exactly, we have in common with Joan, despite the fact that her experiences are incommunicable. It's worth noting that the judges feel this, too. When Joan recants her abjuration and condemns herself to death, her murderers weep. But they kill her anyway, because they believe they serve something more important than humanity. Joan signs her abjuration when she is most reminded of her own mortality, facing execution and confronted with a maggot-filled memento mori.

Mortals have one thing in common that transcends all ideology; we're headed to the same place. You're thinking, reading this, that the historical Joan would have disagreed with it. The point of the "vast, moth-eaten musical brocade" that she and her captors agree on is that it promises something beyond becoming worm food. And Joan was no anti-ideologue; she killed for her beliefs, and in the end she dies for them. After she burns, the closing intertitles tell us

The flames sheltered Joan's soul as it rose to heaven—Joan whose heart has become the heart of France... Joan, whose memory will always be cherished by the French people.

That suggests, in a few seconds of screentime, that her martyrdom, and the French identity it engendered, somehow made the agony we've been watching for the last ninety minutes "worthwhile." Although she suffered, her country benefited. But this is undercut by the chaos surrounding her death. Those French people who cherish her, who share her heart, are driven into an ecstasy of rage at her death and rebel against their British captors. The British cheerfully slaughter the lot of them.

As far as we see on screen, Joan's death only brings more death, her suffering more suffering. And although we may wish to stop it, we can't even understand it. The Passion of Joan of Arc is the rarest of films, the kind whose violence does not desensitize, but instead raises sensitivity to an unbearable pitch. While Joan burns, Dreyer abandons the closeups and sharp focus he's treated her with in earlier reels. She is obscured by smoke, then by flames. In the end, this is all the mercy the film can offer. The camera's ability to record suffering does not exceed our ability to withstand it.


  • Maria Falconetti's performance is the best I've ever seen. And it's her only major film role; if you're going to be on film just once, you could do worse than this. Dreyer wrote about her, "In Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call 'the martyr’s reincarnation.'" His phrase seems fair. Her eyes are impossible to meet.

  • One bit of trivia about Falconetti; the film was shot in sequence, and she had hoped to convince Dreyer not to cut her hair by the time they got to that scene. So she's genuinely miserable there.

  • Rudolf Maté's cinematography is, as you've already noticed from the stills, stunning. He used new-at-the-time panchromatic black and white film, which allowed him to shoot without using makeup. In fact, Dreyer forbid his actors from using it throughout the shoot. One thing you don't get from stills is the remarkably fluid camera movement. Watch for a beautiful tracking shot that follows the judges as they whisper a question to try to trick Joan with:

    The camera pans right as each whispers to the next, much more smoothly than in other films I've seen from this time.

    The composition of this shot (and the flat, oddly proportion backgrounds throughout) reminded me of Giotto:

    And the lighting, while anachronistic for Joan's trial, often recalls Caravaggio.

    Even the insert shots are beautiful:

    I think that the beautiful photography (and the rhythmic, methodical editing) has a great deal to do with the film's effect; together, they give it the feeling of a dance. And the more Joan's suffering seems planned, methodical, and inexorable, the more you consider why she is suffering.

  • One of the United States' new favorite alternative interrogation methods makes a cameo:

    Since this one's a "no-brainer" when lives are at stake, imagine how easy it was to do when souls hung in the balance!

  • The film's provenance is as muddied as Joan's history. The original negatives and all extant prints were lost to fire; Dreyer recut the film using alternate takes, and then that version was burned, too. All people had seen were bastardized, recut versions; one was dubbed, one had the intertitles superimposed on still shots of churches and stained glass, &c., &c.. Then, in 1984, a print of the original, long lost cut, turned up in a closet in a Danish mental institution. I'm not making that up. The Criterion version is from that print. I'm curious about the discoloration you see in the right side of each frame. The print would have been separate reels, but it seems to have affected all of them.

  • Exteriors on The Passion of Joan of Arc was filmed on one of the most expensive (if not the most expensive) exterior sets of the time (at least in Europe). And it's almost completely invisible, given Dreyer's penchant for close-ups. Here's a model of its layout, the only way to see the whole thing.

    Note to aspiring filmmakers: spending millions on a set that you don't shoot is the kind of thing producers love.

  • It's a commonplace complaint that film productions run on the blood of underpaid and underappreciated production assistants, but no one took this quite as literally as Dreyer.

    Someone donated their vein for the bleeding scene. That's not an effect, that's an actual arm shedding actual blood. In fact, disgustingly enough, one of the ways to identify the second cut of the film, the one from alternate takes, is that the blood doesn't spurt as much:

    Because of course by the time they got to that take, the PA's blood pressure had dropped. From all the bleeding. I thought the worst story along those lines I'd heard was that a PA was tased on the set of Hannibal when no actor or stuntman was dropping as fast as Ridley Scott would have liked (the way I heard it, the PA got hazard pay and a chance to hang out and talk about movies with Ridley Scott; not a very good deal). But The Passion of Joan of Arc takes the cake.

  • This is a strange question, but it's been bothering me since I saw the film. Can anyone identify the graffito on the wall in this still?

    Here it is blown up:

    I know I've seen this creature, drawn in this style, somewhere before, but I can't remember where.

  • Dreyer hated having his movies shown with musical accompaniment (and the DVD actually has an audio track that has nothing but silence on it; you would think viewers could just hit MUTE). I am going to go ahead and advise you to ignore his wishes in this matter, though, because the second audio track sets the film to Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light," an "Opera/Oratorio," as the DVD has it, inspired by The Passion of Joan of Arc. The music is beautiful, haunting, wonderful; it suits the film perfectly. The pace of the editing is perfectly matched by the methodical counterpoint in Einhorn's score (particularly during her early interrogations and the scene in the torture chamber). Even if it wasn't written to be a score to the film, precisely, it goes down as one of the best silent film scores ever.

  • If I haven't made it clear enough by now: WATCH THIS MOVIE, PLEASE. You'll wonder how you lived so long without knowing it backwards and forwards.