On October 2 Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, and collaborator Bill Nace performed their score for Carl Theodor Dreyer’s classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc at Augusta’s Sacred Heart Cultural Center as a part of the Westobou Arts Festival.
Often called the last great silent film, Joan (original French title: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) occupies an unusual place in film history: It was made in 1928 at a time when “talkies” were already taking over cinemas. The Jazz Singer, widely considered the first feature-length film with synchronized dialogue, was released in 1927; by 1929 the sound era was in full swing, and nearly all of 1930’s top-grossing films featured synchronized sound. A mere 10 years after the release of Joan the film industry had undergone a complete transformation.
The incidents and text of the film are based primarily on historical records from Joan of Arc’s actual trial, but the most salient and memorable aspects are Dreyer’s stark, close-up images of his performers and lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s intense, presciently contemporary performance.
Dreyer, already a successful filmmaker in his native Denmark, was hired by the Société Générale to make a film for France, and because Joan of Arc had recently been canonized and made patron saint of France, they chose her as a suitable subject for a film. Curiously, though the finished film is shot almost entirely in close-up (one barely sees any sort of background or setting at all), the huge concrete mockup of Rouen Castle built for the film was, at that time, one of the most expensive film sets ever created. The castle set was meticulously based on medieval manuscripts, with towers, turrets, a working drawbridge, and four-inch-thick poured concrete walls, all of which are only briefly glimpsed in the film.
At some point in the telling of this story, Dreyer decided to focus not on broad and epic re-creation of huge historical events but on the faces of his actors, especially the dramatic, sculpted planes of Falconetti’s face. The film deals only with the most claustrophobic elements of Joan of Arc’s story: her imprisonment, trial, torture, and execution. And Dreyer’s focus gives the whole thing an almost dizzying sense of interiority and modernity. The sneering mob descending on the forbearing individual; the slow approach of the inevitable; the mocking, self-satisfied, warted and goitered faces of her tormentors all give the film the quality of a nightmare. Its literal components are seemingly factual, religious, and historical, but its truest heart turns out to be, surprisingly, psychological. Close-up shots of Falconetti with her hair closely shorn still have a shocking, starkly contemporary look.
Some scrolling text at the beginning of the Criterion DVD edition of the film, which was used at the screening, informs viewers that copies of the original film were once thought lost, but a pristine copy of the original edit was found in canisters in a janitor’s closet at an Oslo mental institution.
Gordon and Nace (who perform and record together under the name Body/Head) create a composition that makes for an awesomely fitting soundtrack. Although the duo uses lots of electric guitar, reverb, echo, and feedback, there’s nothing abruptly harsh about their score: It has a spacious, gently layered, meditative quality, made even more resonant by Gordon’s eerie vocals. Plaintive cries and prolonged moans lend an emotional texture or reading to the film scenes as if poetically voicing the struggle of Joan’s religious transfixion and/or mental instability. The vocals are most often wordless, though there emerges a singsongish repetition of Joan’s name. The final sentencing and execution build up to a loose, spooky cover of “Ain’t Got No,” from the musical Hair, in which the singer lists the things she doesn’t have (money, coat, home, etc.) and then lists the things she does have (hand, head, shoulders, arms, etc.), an anthem of personal empowerment, here ironically and resonantly placed.
The performance occurred at the stunningly beautiful (and stunningly pertinent) venue of the Sacred Heart Cultural Center, a former Catholic church in Augusta’s historic district, now used for various cultural activities. The setting was not just gorgeous and appropriate for the film, the acoustics were really clean, solid, and intimate, as well. The event took place as part of Augusta’s new Westobou Festival, a five-day multidisciplinary arts event modeled after Charleston’s Spoleto, and the audience responded to the performance with a seemingly heartfelt ovation. Organizers should feel proud that they were able to book the event: Gordon and Nace typically perform at established festivals, European capitals, and major arts institutions. I felt lucky to see them at such a cool spot in Augusta, Georgia.