Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Trial and Passion

What do I know about Catholic saints? Nothing? How much do I remember about Franz Kafka’s “The Trial”? Only a vague sense of confusion, fear, and doom. So, let’s start talking about two movies, both regarding accusations and innocence. “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc,” filmed in 1928, tells the tale of the trial and execution of the famous St. Joan, while “The Trial,” directed by Orson Welles in 1962, gives us an adaptation of Kafka’s novel.

As I understand it, Joan of Arc was declared a saint only eight years before this silent classic was made. The director was full of reverence for her suffering, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t also full of the 1920s dictum that art should be extraordinary and extreme. Sets were designed by the same dude who did them for “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and though these aren’t nearly as Max Beckman-esque as were those expressionist backgrounds, they aren’t exactly realistic, either.

Carl Theodor Dryer was in charge of this film, smack in the heyday of a long and varied career of art films nobody I know has ever seen. He sets the camera roving close-in on every oddball, rancid, and downright ugly face he could find to fill the huge peanut gallery around the court setting for Joan’s trial. Then, ultimately, he moves in to the incandescent face of Renee Maria Falconetti, in the only film role of her life, and one which has occasionally been called the greatest single performance in the medium’s history.

Great is a big word, of course, and greatest is even bigger, but I’ll tell you what, this woman made you feel like she was going through a war inside her head because of the price she was paying for serving her God. Dryer clearly believes she was holy, but you don’t have to accept that the Lord was taking sides in a long-gone grudge match between France and England to at least recognize suffering when you see it. She could be incredibly stubborn for no real reason at all, but she isn’t going to betray her principles, no matter how much it hurts.

And, oh, how it hurts. The judges, all high muckety-mucks in the Church of the time, aren’t taking “I served my Lord” for an answer. So, they, each line a valley in their ancient faces seen in these tight close-ups, spit out question after question at Joan, trying to trip her up, trying to catch her in denying the role of the church. Here’s where my lack of Catholic history training holds me down, because I really can’t figure out what she did to piss off the priesthood. Other than dressing like a man, which was such a dreadful sin in her medieval prime that she wouldn’t be able to ever get communion without agreeing to wear a dress. (Or, waiting until she was about to be burned at the stake; I’m not giving away the ending unless you’re even less informed about Joan of Arc than I am.)

Falconetti was apparently mistreated by Dryer in the course of making this film. Or, as film buffs like to put it, she was made to feel Joan’s suffering in a personal way, forced to remain on her knees for hours at a time, or deprived of water and food so she could know what it’s like to be this miserable. Her genius, however, seems to be not that she could look like she was staring Satan in the face, but that at the same time, she could look as though she was watching him get his ass whupped by God. She went through doubts, of course, but her convictions were always strong, right up until that long, arduous burning at the end. Well, except for the time when she did recant, and the priests told her because her crimes were so egregious, she would still have to spend her life in prison. But, she couldn’t even last a few hours with the knowledge she’d grow old before she had to admit her mistake, and tell them that, no, she really did know what God wanted her to do.

The look of this film is like nothing I’ve seen from 1928, let alone anything I’ve seen until at least the late 50s. All the tight close-ups, the lack of make-up, the constant cutting in point of view, the strange sets, the decision to make the prison guards wear World War I military garb, it all serves as a template for much later work. I’m thinking Bergman, Goddard, and Herzog. At any rate, it’s a haunting flick, made even more powerful by the accompanying soundtrack written for it in 1985 by Richard Einhorn.

Joan was accused of something I couldn’t quite understand, but which she was certain she had not done. Joseph K, on the other hand, is merely accused in “The Trial.” Not accused of anything, just accused. And that’s the genius of Kafka. Welles, a sort of genius of his own, took that foundation and ran with it, albeit ultimately mucking things up and creating a slightly less chilling movie. Still, that there is any film in existence that even begins to capture Kafka’s work is impressive enough, and something I didn’t know until I stumbled across this one the other day.

Anthony Perkins is perfect as Joseph K. He’s an ordinary man, an assistant manager in an enormous company of virtually interchangeable accountants. Things happen to him in this movie, just as in the book, and his befuddlement and frustration with events beyond his control is the story we are here to watch. As the world becomes more divorced from the expression of human individuality, we find ourselves trapped, accused of crimes we don’t even know.

Welles managed to find a crumbling railroad station in Paris back in the early 60s for filming, and this gives the film an amazing ambience. The vast spaces, the nooks and crannies, the steel limbed skylights, all very cool stuff to see. Where I think he went wrong is with the introduction of a sexual desire in Joseph which I simply can’t remember from the book. I mean, I think Kafka was afraid of women, and he probably gave Welles the blueprint for their sexual predation roles, but for some reason, Perkins keeps pushing his own interest in these women. He’s alternately shy and virile, in ways that distract from the story itself. I don’t want Joseph K to have any power in the world, and this sexual power is especially wrong.

That said, there are some other brilliant updates. By 1962, the corporation man was a much more familiar concept, and Welles played it up. I loved the three co-workers, all dressed alike, but one of them being over a head taller than the other two. I enjoyed the computer in Joseph’s company, an enormous, mile-long string of giant machines all spewing out data and still unable to help him find out of what he has been accused. The massive amount of useless paper assembled in the home of Joseph’s advocate – played with suitable insanity by Welles himself – was a delicious touch.

In the novel, Joseph is killed, though I don’t remember the exact tale. I know he was never able to understand what was happening to him, and we were never able to completely declare him free of guilt. Not that he did anything any more wrong than his accusers, but he was complicit in the same society they were running. He wanted to be accepted by them, which made him a more pathetic choice as someone accused of any transgression against them. As I said, I don’t remember the exact ending, but I’m fairly sure it wasn’t a nuclear explosion. On the scale of nuclear explosions ending movies, I have to put this one well below the classic “Dr. Strangelove,” and perhaps a notch or two above the hilarious “Beneath the Planet of the Apes.” I’m not sure where Welles was going with this, other than to remind us of the existential terrors of the time. At any rate, he was reaching for a bigger statement than he could make. A “rosebud” this was not.

Trials are supposed to determine guilt or innocence, so it’s interesting to see these two movies which make no such determination. The real people on trial, I suppose, are the inhuman accusers. The church fathers of medieval times, the faceless modern machine-styled society, both systems which denied the freedom of individuals to live and breathe without conforming. Remember, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Just ask Joan, who believed she had her eternal soul to lose, or Joseph K, who had nothing in the first place.


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