Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Handcrafted Cinema and Figuring Out Day of Wrath

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Handcrafted Cinema and Figuring Out Day of Wrath

Two excellent essays from the Criterion Collection: one on Il Posto, written by Kent Jones, one on Day of Wrath, written by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Tonight, I just read the latter and re-read the former and was so taken with both that I had to link them up here.

Jones' sensitive piece wonderfully conveys both the humanist spirit of Il Posto and the larger context in which it was birthed; Rosenbaum's brief but penetrating discussion of Day of Wrath manages to be both subjective (memorably conveying his own initial indifference and later emotional engagement with the film) and objective (placing the film in its various historical contexts, that of its making and that of its telling; also, thrillingly conveying the formal audacity of the Great Dane).

Two selections, to convey the flavor. From Jones:
One of the most unusual features of Italian cinema of the late ’50s and ’60s is the way that it affords us multiple perspectives on the same event, namely the economic boom following the postwar recovery. Where the directors of the French New Wave each created his or her own unique poetic universe, Italian cinema of the same period feels like a series of moons circling around one planet. Again and again, one encounters the same sociological material, filtered through Michelangelo Antonioni’s elegant precision, Luchino Visconti’s luxurious emotionalism, Dino Risi’s exuberance, or Valerio Zurlini’s sobriety. Again and again, one sees the construction sites, the quick-stop cafes, and the cramped apartments owned by nosy landladies that were constants of postwar Italian society. Most strikingly of all, these movies feature a parade of young men fitted outfitted in regulation white-collar attire, betraying their essential inexperience. They are ill equipped for a life of work and responsibility in a mechanized, high-efficiency world, and lonesome for the nurturing comforts of home.
From Rosenbaum:
Set in 1623, when people still believed without question in witches, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, involving a sensual form of camera movement he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine—a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey—but a hypnotic experience to follow. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the torture chamber where Herlof’s Marte is being interrogated. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment. And enhancing the strange sense of presence that results is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching—giving scenes an almost carnal impact that becomes lost in smudgy and staticky prints.
Two of my favorite films, and two wonderful pieces of criticism. Enjoy, and happy Thanksgiving.

4 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

I've seen both these pieces, and they are indeed worthy of re-posting. As much as I admire IL POSTO, however, Dreyer's film, DAY OF WRATH is one of the supreme masterpieces in the history of the cinema.
Most of the film, which was written by Dreyer and two other screenwriters from the play, "Anne Pedersdotter", is shot in gloomy and claustrophobic interiors with thin rays of light punctuating the dark shadows, a scenario that showcases the superlative black and white cinematography of Carl Andersson, which was surely an inspiration to Ingmar Bergman a decade later. The tranquillity of the film in many sequences never diminishes and oppressive sense of doom, which is a reflection of humorless characters, a society with little room to breathe, and visual allusions to death, including the short journey of a horse cart passing by carrying branches for a burning.

It is worth noting that outside of Herlofs Marthe, whose inner character is more ambiguous, no character in the film is even remotely likeable or endearing, a further thematic commentary on the society at large, which discourages free-spirited contentment. The performances in the film, hence are extraordinary in conveying this dire estimation of humanity. The contributions of art director Erik Aaes and composer Poul Schierbeck are considerable, even though the latter’s score was spare in keeping with the serenity of the film.
Few films in cinema history are as disturbing as DAY OF WRATH, fewer still are as extraordinary. Among Dreyer’s select but brilliant output, only the silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is in the same category.

Rosenbaum's insights, always superb, are espwecially "penetrating" as you say, no matter the length.

Stephen said...

Day of Wrath is my favourite of Dreyer's films. I felt the ending needed more emotional punch but even so I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans!

Just Another Film Buff said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you too MovieMan... Thank you for pointing to these essays...

Cheers!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, all. Sam - I know you love this movie and have written extensively about it before. I agree with you - I would probably put it in a top ten, at least on the basis of my initial viewing. While the characters are harsh, I agree with Rosenbaum that they have enough shades to them (and enough humanity) that you find yourself sympathizing with them at times.

Stephen, I can see why you might initially feel that way, given how muted the conclusion is, but it's that very subtlety which I think makes it pack such an emotional wallop. I've seldom been more moved by the conclusion of a film. It's hard for me to explain why at the moment; I would have to see it again (it's been about 3 years), which I will be soon now that I own it.