[Ryan McNeil of The Matinee and I are reading through the American Movie Critics anthology and discussing each chapter as we go, crossposting on each of our blogs.]
We’re coming to the end of the silent era, and we cap it off with one of the most tantalizing and intriguing essays we’ve come across so far, about a film that both Ryan and I have seen – Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc. Sometimes critics declare films to be masterpieces, and time doesn’t bear them out, or they dismiss films that are later revived as classics. Here we have a fascinating case of a critic (Hilda Doolittle, who was primarily a poet who published under her initials H.D.) who declares Jeanne d’Arc to be a masterpiece, and yet her review is an encapsulation of the emotional turmoil the film put her through, and her simultaneous appreciation of and resistance to the film. Her poetic side comes through in her turns of phrase throughout, but also in her sensibility – she values her troubled subjective experience of the film over a firm judgement of its objective quality. Ryan confessed during our conversation that he read the piece twice; I think I’ve read it four or five times now, partially to refamiliarize myself with it while writing, but also because I find it simply the most amazing thing we’ve read in the anthology so far. I would write criticism like this if I had the talent. As it is, I’m eternally grateful to Phillip Lopate for including it in this anthology so I knew to read it.
When we discussed Carl Sandburg, you mentioned the way enthusiasm shone through in his writing. So today we have another poet, and again we’re met with another burst of enthusiasm. Do you think there’s something to be said about artists commenting and critiquing on other art forms? I don’t imagine it would always be as effusive as what Sandburg wrote before or what Hilda Doolittle writes here…but is there perhaps a creative spark that an artist latches on to that a journalist – or even an appreciator of the medium – wouldn’t?
There’s definitely something more expressionistic about both Sandburg’s and H.D.’s pieces in the anthology. I don’t think this piece on The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc is strictly speaking a review in the same sense of the weekly consumer reviews that Sandburg was writing, but they both have a commitment to the subjective, to the experiential, and to a certain turn of phrase that set them apart from many of their more prosaic contemporaries.
I was also amazed to see her begin her piece by planting such a positive flag in the ground:
The Passion and Death of a Saint is a film that caused me more unrest, more spiritual forebodings, more intellectual rackings, more emotional torment than any I have yet seen. 
Now to be fair, Doolittle was being affected by what remains a benchmark in the medium…so we can hardly question how deeply she was affected. However, what caught me about this opening statement is how boldly it comes out swinging in the affirmative. It’s rare that this happens – why is that?
What’s interesting to me is that as effusive as H.D. is, her piece is not straightforwardly enthusiastic. You call her opening statement “positive,” and I think her piece is definitely positive about the film as one that holds great power and artistic merit, but her reaction it is quite troubled, even in this opening. She praises it on a technical level throughout, and for its ability to affect her so deeply, but she’s hardly sanguine about it. She’s clearly resisting a good bit of the emotional, visceral effect the film had on her, and working through that internal conflict almost directly on the page. She follows praise like “I know in my mind that this is a great tour de force, perhaps one of the greatest” with “But I am left wary, a little defiant. Again why and why and why and just, just why?” 
His is one film among all the films to be judged differently, to be approached differently, to be viewed as a masterpiece, one of the absolute masterpieces of screen craft. Technically artistically, dramatically, this is a masterpiece. But, but, but, but, but… 
This wrestling with her reaction to the film is something I think we see even LESS often in criticism than the kind of effusive praise you credit H.D. with. I think it’s very easy for critics to feel like they NEED to plant a flag in the ground with whatever their opinion is, which means they generally work out their opinion before writing their articles. Here we see H.D. really grappling with how she feels about the film, and the conflicts and resistance she has to it, right here in the finished piece. I think that’s fascinating. I often find I reach conclusions about difficult art while writing about it, but again, I tend to put that in the background of the finished piece. Have you had these struggles as you deal with a piece of art? What did you think the specific points of resistance she had to the film?
For the first time in this series, I went back and fully read the chapter in question a second time (up until now, I’ve made notes as I’ve gone along, but primarily been one-and-done). I was prompted to do so on your point about her grappling for her own opinion.
You’re right – modern criticism relies on “this is good, because…” or “this is bad, because…”. very seldom do any critics have the guts to stand up and say “this is…”
The one thing Doolittle knows for sure is that she was affected by film – possibly for the very first time. She is shaken, saddened, awestruck, and deeply deeply moved. I’ve made mention in the past about how great cinema can be a religious experience, and it seems like that’s what Doolittle felt coming away from her experience with Dreyer. Despite knowing the history of Jeanne backwards and forwards, it knocked her back in a way she’d never felt…and probably wasn’t prepared for. She is clearly changed because of it (and mentions how the butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers around her were likewise changed), and seems to be hoping to better understand that change by way of her own words.
The amazing thing about this piece is that we don’t see this happening in modern film writing – for two reasons, I believe. The first is editorial; a piece like this is too existential, too confessional, too personal to be okayed in the current media culture. Even the outlets that allow long-form, “wandering” prose (like The New Yorker) would have a hard time getting behind one of their writers testify about the day struggled with a direct challenge to the iconography she’d grown-up believing in.
The second is personal; what Doolittle writes here gets down to the very core of who she is. She is expressing her own confusion, fear, anguish, and wants. She talks about how she wanted the angels that Jeanne purportedly encountered to be there for her too – to confirm what she had previously believed and comfort her during this traumatic encounter with art. NOBODY wants to publish something that naked about themselves anymore. If they do, they certainly don’t want to do it in a major media outlet.
And yet, I find myself wishing more writers did. It’s like everybody is leaning against the playground wall trying to “look cool” and nobody wants to be themselves. As ourselves, we can say “I don’t know what I just saw, but it has made me feel like this”…but as critics – a position that seems to come with being above feeling – we can’t.
I think there are a few things going on in her response. One is, as you say, that Dreyer’s Jeanne is not quite the same as the Jeanne that Doolittle had in her head – Falconetti’s portrayal is unbelievably moving, but it’s a clash with Doolittle’s expectations in some way. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have any great experience of Jeanne d’Arc in terms of iconography, so I’ll admit this section was a bit obscure for me, but it’s clear that Doolittle struggles with the fact that this Jeanne may be a better rendition of Jeanne than her idea of Jeanne, which throws her into turmoil.
Funny thing about Jeanne and her place in the Catholic church – she’s a saint, so not someone who is part of the teaching of scripture. The lessons to be learned from her life and the sacrifice that led to her sainthood is taught in the church, but more on a peripheral nature. So it’s not as if a figure from her very belief system is being portrayed different (I’d pity poor Doolittle if Dreyer had made a film about The Virgin Mary)…just that a very important historical figure was being portrayed so intensely. She might have felt the same way if she’s seen something intensely emotional about Lincoln for all we know.
Besides that, Doolittle struggles with the sheer brutality of what happens to Jeanne, and with seeing that presented on screen so bleakly. This may in fact be a step forward in terms of what directors were willing to show on the screen. Doolittle wonders if it needs to be so extreme – while simultaneously admitting its great effectiveness. It’s not too different than complaints brought against The Passion of the Christ for being too brutal to the point of almost glorying in depicting every bit of suffering – even if you believe that Christ underwent such suffering, do we really need to see it? Maybe we do, but there comes a point where we become inured to it. In many ways, we’re close to that point with violence in our cinema in general – it’s easy to maintain a critical distance (“that wasn’t REALLY blood” or “he didn’t REALLY knock the other guy’s teeth out” or “it’s just special effects”), but sometimes I wonder how healthy that is. Doolittle knows Jeanne is being played by an actress, she knows the film is artifice, and yet she allows that critical distance to fall, she allows herself to be traumatized by the film. I wonder if we’ve lost that. Are we jaded? Does our critical distance betray a lack of empathy with on-screen characters and sometimes with the real people they represent, like Jeanne d’Arc?
The Passion is a great example because it cause such a stir ten years (!) ago with the violence you mentioned. Some wanted to point to it as “the truth”, some wanted to paint it as gratuitous. Reality was somewhere in-between them. It was right on the mark when one considered the actual physics and mechanics of 39 lashes and a crucifixion. The thing is that through the centuries, so many have forgotten about the physics and mechanics – the same way that for people of Doolittle’s era, it’s difficult to imagine the intense scrutiny of an inquisition, followed by death by pyre.
Reading it is one thing. Looking at paintings something else. Watching it flicker to life makes it more real for so many of us, whether it’s the plight of a people, or a lesson in civics, or somebody being martyred.
There have been a few times for me where a film has left me struggling – and to various extents. Sometimes it’s been a deep stage of confusion, sometimes I just found my brain going off in all directions, sometimes I felt like there were deeper ideas to be explored. Persona comes to mind. Likewise 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Master, The Tree of Life, Requiem for a Dream, and La Dolce Vita. This must have happened to you too.
Of course, and with some of the same films you mention. Sometimes I work through it, but more and more I’m content with letting the struggle remain.
Do you think part of this comes from Doolittle witnessing a step forward in the evolution of the medium? That she had become accustomed to film only coming built with a certain amount of power and that she was ill-prepared to witness it finding a higher gear?
Also, what do you make of the final statement of her piece?
The Jeanne d’Arc of the incomparable artist Carl Dreyer is in a class by itself. And that is the trouble with it. It shouldn’t be. 
I’m not dead certain on what to make of that.
I interpreted the final sentences as something like â€œthis film is outstanding, but itâ€™s also an anomaly, and there should be more films on this artistic level.â€ That upholds your suggestion that this was an evolution of art, a breakthrough in cinematic power. You mentioned earlier that Doolittle may have been taken aback by seeing something so viscerally affecting when most films were like this – perhaps thereâ€™s an aspect to her conclusion that if there were more films like this, weâ€™d better be able to deal with the emotional impact of them. Thatâ€™s projecting somewhat, though, and Iâ€™m not sure that becoming inured to the effects of films is a good thing, though I suppose to the extent that it allows us to watch them without ongoing emotional turmoil, perhaps it is. In any case, after watching her struggle back and forth for several pages (this is one of the longest individual pieces we’ve read so far), her conclusion feels pat to me. I agree with her that films of the artistic merit and impact of The Passion of Jeanne d’Arc shouldn’t be an anomaly, but suggesting that the real reason she’s been struggling is that there aren’t enough other films like it seems somewhat insincere, like she or her editors wanted a tidy way to wrap up what is hardly a tidy critical response.