Sunday, January 15, 2006
Recommendations, Part I

There are at least a dozen posts I've been meaning to write here, mostly about wonderful things I've found over the last few months that others might also find wonderful. But I just never get around to it. Still, since I promised to write something happy, it seems like a good excuse to put the Sister Novena seal of approval on a few of these items. None of them are new, but I think they're all interesting and worth your time if you're curious. I'll be posting about them over the course of the week, starting with:

Häxan

It sounds like an obscure Norwegian black metal band, and that's closer to the truth than I'd like. But it is, in fact, a seminal 1922 Swedish silent film, and there's a gorgeous Criterion DVD available, so you've got no excuse not to watch it.

This isn't one of those dry silent "masterpieces" that's only tolerable to those of us propped up by years of conditioning to sit through even the most mind-numbing canonical films. This one's actually entertaining. In a nutshell: it's a kind of proto-documentary about witchcraft through history, and it goes into great, dramatic detail on the subject of witch trials and all of the unpleasant superstition surrounding them. It's a beautiful film, all masterful chiaroscuro and high-contrast design. It's also unfortunately capped off with a weak section comparing medieval "witches" to modern hysterics (which doubtless made more sense in 1922); how much better the film would be if the interpretation had been left open-ended. Eventually even the director acknowledged it was a mistake, but left the section in the film out of respect for his original vision -- so we can give him credit for integrity, anyway.

But what's in it for you? Well, the image of Satan, tongue incessantly flicking, madly churning butter in the general direction of an impressionable old crone is worth the price of admission by itself. It also contains the best nun scene I've seen in any film, ever... and I know my nuns. And it was huge in French surrealist circles, apparently.

But wait, there's more! The film was "re-done" in 1968 -- that is to say, a bunch of ex-beatniks found it and dubbed a whole new soundtrack for it. The intertitles are mostly gone, and in their place is an intermittent, semi-accurate narration by William S. Burroughs. Then underneath, there's a credible jazz score with Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. So what's not to love? Of course, it's a completely different film experience, and to be honest, the "re-working" is a trainwreck. Burroughs is always worth the time, but here he's wasted as a straight-up narrator. (Seems like someone there might've been creative enough to conceive of a full-scale Beat rewrite, but maybe that's only obvious in a post-What's Up, Tiger Lily? world.) The jazz works okay during the devil/demon sequences, but the rest of the time I was wincing -- the score misses all the important parts and never feels cohesive, just slapped-on. Even so, the re-make is a motherlode of subcultural joy, for the sheer absurdity of it if nothing else.

I picked it up because it was an early favorite at Cinema 16, and I've been trying to watch as many of Amos Vogel's picks as I can find. Most of them are fascinating but challenging to watch. Imagine my delight at finding one that I could love right out of the box. If you're feeling ambitious, I recommend following it up with Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (also available in a Criterion edition that finally renders it watchable.) And that one has a slapped-on "score" that's actually worth having.
3:16 PM ::
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