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Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What is really good: The Passion of Joan of Arc

Last night I saw the Passion of Joan of Arc at Bath Abbey as part of the Bath Film Festival. The film was accompanied by a live score by Will Gregory and Adrian Utley performed by six guitarists, a vocal section, harps,  woodwind and brass and conducted by Charles Hazlewood.

With the live score, this was a heart stopping event that moved me in a way that cinema had never moved me before. I sat there watching Joan go through the tribulations of her trial, threat of torture and her ultimate burning at the stake.

The music accompanying the film amplified the venality, the fervour, the cruelty, the dignity and the tenderness of the characters - the pious Joan in her man's clothing, the priests, the peasants, the judges.

It's the Passion of Joan of Arc so faces dominated the screen; they were brought even further to life by guitars, harps and trumpets that echoed the anxiety, the madness and the injustice happening on screen.

The Joan of Arc narrative is driven through a study of faces that is at a revolutionary mix of expressionism and off-kilter editing. So it's a conceptual film as well, made up of close-ups that reveal the inner workings of a tortured soul.

So the cinematography, the staging, the editing is all ground-breaking. It's incredible. But at the same time it's only a secondary layer. The story comes first and that is what gives the Passion of Joan of Arc its heart and soul, its power to move. And that is what the score addressed so beautifully. I spent the film with my head upturned watching the amazing face of Maria Falconetti slide into the ultimate depths of despair. By the end of the film, in a very small way, I had become her - head tilted, lips parted and teary eyed.

I arrived home yesterday despondent and world-weary. In photography, I see a great deal of wonderful work that has spirit and heart and pierces me to the core. But on the flip side I hear so much about amazing work that issinsightful and inspirational - work that is supposed to be amazing but simply isn't; the kind of work that is conceptual and looks at the inner workings of photography, that strips it to its means of representation and its mode of distribution, that uses dense texts to convey its power, texts of theory that alienate and intimidate, that become of a self-justifying world where the statement rules and intellectual jiggery-pokery is a major part of the game. But sometimes I feel I should like it, that I should be part of that club. But I am not very good at clubs and in any case it's not any good. Or is it?

The Passion of Joan of Arc killed that despondency. It showed me in the most direct way possible what amazing work is, that it does not strip away the emotional power of a story, but has it at its heart. Things can be minimal and laid bare, but when all that is left is the act of stripping, then what exactly is the point; we are left with a barren, presbyterian world view of art, where what tastes harsh and bitter in our mouths is what is good for us, where the obscurantist becomes an end in itself.

For me, The Passion of Joan of Arc calls bullshit on that. It lifted my despondency at the world of branding, pretension and hype and stopped me (for a while at least) from second-guessing my instincts. Somthing brilliant had touched me and made me remembered what really matters in film, in photography, in life. And conversely, what really doesn't matter, what is just so much empty vanity and branding and hot air.

I live in Bath which is a beautiful place. Every morning I walk out of my door and see Solsbury Hill, Brown's Folly and Claverton Down. Without exception I count my blessings and wonder at the beauty of this world.

This morning I did exactly the same, but with a little something added. Thank you Joan of Arc.


Anonymous said...

Can I just take this space to recognise a great job by the conductor last night: Charles Hazlewood what a pleasure to see you work.

colin pantall said...

Absolutely -should have mentioned it in the piece.

Stan B. said...

I recently saw some work which featured women with motorcycle helmets looking dazed and confused. The artist had a rather long, convoluted and not very convincing explanation of his photographs. Today I saw it again on some short list. I enjoy being challenged, insulted- not so much.

What I really love is going to an exhibit and just being flat out humbled by work to the point that I'm embarrassed to be even seen with a camera. Alas, you don't get very many of those, even with the vast photographic deluge of present times.

colin pantall said...

Ha - the not very convincing explanation syndrome. Yes indeed.

the humbling effect is something else but it always seems to be from something raw and under produced for me.