Sunday, 17 July 2011

ADRIAN UTLEY AND WILL GREGORY'S LIVE SOUNDTRACK TO 'THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC' (MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)


Sunday 29th May, Brighton Dome, part of the Brighton Festival

I feel I’ve now seen enough of these live soundtracks now to get a feel for common strengths and weaknesses. Of course, even when they show old silents such as this, it’s not the same as the days as when cinema showings routinely had live accompaniments. Such endeavours are today by nature an event, and people are here primarily for the music.

But even so, the biggest weakness of all is that the musicians play too much, work too hard, try to dominate the film, treat it as a competitor not a collaborator. (The Cinematic Orchestra being chief culprits with their take on ‘Man With A Movie Camera.’) Or they go too micro, trying to match its every beat, cut and switch. Or fix and impose a commentary on the film as if bending it to their willl. (Asian Dub Foundation’s ‘La Haine’ in both cases.) But a good soundtrack will enhance what the film does, not duplicate it. It can show even a familiar film in a fresh light, and after a while you stop even noticing that it’s stitched from two elements.

Adrian Utley (from Portishead) and Will Gregory (of Goldfrapp) have amassed a large number of musicians, perhaps around twenty. However, these are divided into three sections – choir, wind and six amassed electric guitars. Despite such numbers, rarely did more than two sections play at once. They were willing to let the music slowly build up, establishing themes and moods, or even let it fall away almost to nothing.

This also meant that they could wring a huge variety of sounds from their orchestration. The choir provided the sort of stuff you might expect given the film’s religious themes. But things took in the accumulated dissonance of the guitars, reminiscent at times of Glenn Branca’s old guitar symphonies, to (briefly at the beginning) the witchy whisperings of Goblin’s old horror soundtracks. And when they do all play together, it makes for a mighty crescendo indeed. Perhaps once or twice they switched themes out of a need for variety. But mostly everything felt in service of the film...

...and speaking of which, I have to admit this to be the first time I’ve seen Dreyer’s silent classic. (Thought lost twice over, and only recently re-discovered in... I kid you not... a Norwegian mental institution.) It’s almost entirely set around Joan’s trial and execution (figuring you must know the rest of the story). But despite these limited sets, and for so early a film (1928) it feels already advanced – not at all reliant upon the theatrical.

It’s almost entirely composed of picked-out close-ups, filmed with the ‘pinhole’ effect where the edge of the screen fades to black. The few establishing shots are tracked, never held. And the close-ups are chiefly of human faces. Gestures and expressions are heightened, as is common for a silent film, yet it’s still notable how rich a repository of imagery can be wrung from such a simple-sounding source. (And doubtless of benefit to the soundtrack, allowing it to bring out much of what is merely implicit on the screen.)

This structure means that Joan is almost never in the same shot as her inquisitors, but always juxtaposed against them. Described in the opening titles as “simple and human” she’s in every way their opposite; young and innocent to their old and wizened, simple and pure of heart against their worldly scheming, illiterate to their plotting. Melle Falconetti’s performance is quite extraordinary (acting hardly seems the word), she seems to have her sight permanently fixed on something beyond the room.

The spiked cogs and wheels of the torture changer are the externalisation of their minds, mechanistically malevolent. Then, as the film progresses, when the inquisitors do enter the same frame as her, it feels like a forceful intrusion - as they try to tempt her to confess and recant.

In my only semblance of a complaint, a clumsy piece of staging meant the conductor obscured part of the screen for those of us in the stalls, obscuring some of the subtitles. Still, this was a tremendous note to end the Festival, perhaps even this year’s highpoint, and one which clearly stirred up the audience. Though premiered in Bristol a year ago, it deserves to be much better known. It is being performed again in London on 24th July, as part of All Tomorrow’s Parties’ I’ll be Your Mirror festival. (Which I would love to attend, but shan’t unless I have an unexpected outbreak of wealth.)

Alas you don’t even seem able to buy it on CD (let alone DVD). This is a short film about its making. And this is the full film with the most common score, in liturgical style, by Richard Einhorn. (No cut up into clips, no annoying ads!) But finally here’s a taster – the opening sequence, courtesy of YouTube...

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