The power of eyes and a face

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Released 21 April 1928 in director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s native Denmark, and 25 October 1928 in France, the country where it was filmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc is rightly, widely considered among the greatest of all silent films, and one of the greatest films period. It represents silent cinema at its pinnacle, shortly before the advent of talkies and their creaky recording technology made such films impossible to produce for quite some time.

At first glance, it might seem a film mostly built around closeups of faces won’t tell a very compelling, moving story, but that makes it the emotional powerhouse it is. I’m always so emotionally impacted. It’s a raw, stark level of emotion not found in many other films, with all the extras cut out. Eyes and faces tell most of the story.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actor who’d only appeared in one prior film, in 1917. This was her second and final film role. Afterwards, she returned to the stage.

Société Générale des Films invited Carl Theodor Dreyer to make a film in France following the success of his Master of the House in his native Denmark. The subject would be either Joan, Catherine de Medici, or Marie Antoinette. Dreyer claimed it was chosen by drawing matches.

He spent over 18 months researching Joan, who became a saint in 1920, and has long been one of France’s greatest national heroes. Dreyer based the script on the transcripts of Joan’s stacked trial and execution.

On 30 May 1431, Joan is subject to kangaroo court, headed by clergy who are no men of God. No matter how much she’s tortured or mocked, she refuses to recant her belief that she’s been sent on a mission by God to liberate France from the English.

The authorities are horrified she claims to be religious, in a state of grace, sent by God, etc., when she’s “just” a young, illiterate woman, acting without the orders of the Church, wearing clothes considered to be masculine instead of a dress or skirt, not acting meek and submissive. (Don’t get me started on people posthumously transing Joan because she wore pants and didn’t perform stereotypical femininity!)

Joan doesn’t fall for a fake letter from King Charles VII, telling her to trust its bearer, nor does she crack when shown the torture chamber. She faints, but doesn’t falter.

Joan panics when threatened with burning at the stake, and lets a priest guide her hand in a signature on a false confession. The judge then condemns her to a life sentence, and her head is shaved. Joan realises she’s disobeyed God, and demands the judges come back.

Joan recants that confession, and accepts the death penalty. All the while, her faith never wavers.

The film’s French release was held up because many nationalists were horrified Dreyer was neither French nor Catholic, and a rumour Lillian Gish had been cast as Joan. The film was eventually censored, which outraged Dreyer. The Archbishop of Paris demanded more cuts and changes.

Critics loved it, but it was a box office flop. Dreyer’s contract was cancelled, and he accused Société Générale des Films of mutilating his work to avoid offending Catholics. He sued them for breach of contract, and was unable to make another film till autumn 1931.

The film was banned in England, for its portrayal of English soldiers mocking and tormenting Joan.

A fire at Berlin’s UFA Studios on 6 December 1928 destroyed the master negative, and for decades, only versions of Dreyer’s patched-together second version were available. Then, in 1981, an original cut was discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dikemark Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near Oslo.

There were no records of the film being sent to Oslo, but film historians think the hospital director, who was a published historian, may have asked for a special copy.

This film is truly an emotional tour de force, all accomplished without any speech, or even a lot of full-body acting. Joan’s eyes and face are the story. There’s a reason she’s so beloved by the French people.

P.S.: Any comments posthumously transing Joan and distorting history to fit a TRA narrative will be deleted. Joan never claimed to be anything but a woman!

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Yom Kippur Beach Walk

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This post was originally scheduled for 14 September 2013, as part of the long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. I wanted to finally move all these old posts out of my drafts folder already!

Like last week’s post, this also obviously comes from an older version of the book formerly known as The Very First. It’s since undergone several more rounds of edits.

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Important Note: Out of reverence for Yom Kippur, this post, like all my other Saturday postings, has been prescheduled.

This scene takes place a bit after the Yom Kippur piece I shared last year. Young Cinni and Sparky are taking a walk on the beach in the late afternoon, and have gotten to talking about Cinni’s feud with her older sister Stacy (Eustacia). Sparky is trying to explain what repentance and forgiveness mean, though Cinni and Stacy will continue not speaking to one another until June 1985, when their near-lifelong silence ends by accident.

***

“Real repentance happens between two people.  God doesn’t perform forgiveness on your behalf if you haven’t talked to the other person and apologized.  And you’re not supposed to think about how things might be different or better in another life.  Our focus is on the here and now, on this life.  But the gates of repentance are always open.”

“So you can ask God, or other people, for forgiveness at other times of the year?”

“Of course.  And even though tonight is gonna be the main closing of the gates, they’re still gonna be officially open till Hoshanah Rabah, one of the holidays at the end of Sukkot.  It’s like one last chance to get in any final, missed prayers or apologies.”

“Wow, you people have a lot of holidays I never knew about.  I don’t think even Laura celebrates so damn many.  She says the Catholic Church stopped celebrating all their fast and feast days a long time ago.  At least, normal people stopped celebrating them.  I’m sure religious fanatics still do it.”

Sparky cast her eyes up toward the sky, which was still rather blue and not yet turning into a watercolor of the setting Sun. “I can almost see the gates of heaven up there, even though I know God doesn’t really live up in the sky or even in this world.  It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been there and heard it, but when the shofar is blown at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, the final, very long note, I can feel time and the world standing still, and the gates of heaven opening.  And when the long note is blown again at the end of Yom Kippur, it’s like I can feel the gates shutting for another year.  But God hears prayers at all times, even if this time of year is the most ideal time to ask for important stuff.”

“Next year at this time, I bet you’ll be a proper American girl and not so focused on old world stuff.  I mean, you can still be religious, but I hope it won’t be the main thing about you.  Laura lives in the real world while still doing her Catholic thing.”

Sparky looked down at her skirt, which covered her knees, and her sleeves, which covered her elbows. “I guess I still don’t look exactly American.  Even if I’m not Orthodox, I still was taught I have to dress modestly.  But when I’m at school or with you and your friends, I do feel kinda outta place.  The only other girl we know who dresses like me is Nancy, but you said she ain’t really your official friend.”

“You’ve got a leg up on Nan, ‘cause at least you show way more skin and don’t think it’s a sin to even look at a boy.  But your hair’s slowly starting to grow outta that awful haircut your mom forced on you, and the poodle curls are gone.  I think you’re more scared than you oughta be of showing off extra bare skin.  Once you start wearing more normal clothes, it’ll become like second nature, and you won’t be able to believe you useta shun them.”

“Can we talk more about this tomorrow?  Even if I’m not old enough to fast or do other grownup stuff, I don’t feel right talking about stuff like clothes and hair on Yom Kippur.”

Cinni dug her sandaled foot into a patch of wet sand. “If you insist.  I ain’t some twit like Al, who only likes to talk about stuff like that, even if I ain’t the opposite extreme like Nan or Adeline.  Speaking of, I’ve long been itching to get my hands on botha them to try to make ‘em over.  Perhaps they’ll be inspired once they see how I’ve successfully made you over.  Even unpopular girls can’t be that immune to wanting to look normal as they get older.  If they want boys to notice ‘em when we’re old enough, they’ve gotta start dressing the part and talking about normal stuff.”

Sparky looked up at the seagulls flying overhead as she and Cinni continued on down the beach.  If only she could be as carefree as the seagulls, and not worrying about heavy things like repentance and how to become a real American girl before she was even bat mitzvah.

A novel of tedium and infodump in Medieval France

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I was excited to find this among the $3 books at a used bookstore. My parents bought me the second book years ago, for my birthday or Chanukah, but I’d never read it. Sadly, I yet again had the exact opposite reaction from the crowd re: a very popular recent hist-fic.

Why might that be this time?

1. Ms. Anton gets an A+ for research, a D for storytelling. It’s a bunch of ideas and historical facts patched together. The narrative plods along tediously, with no compelling, well-developed characters or strong prose to compensate.

2. Showing off her research. Ms. Anton dumps in detailed information that has nothing to do with the purported main story, like Medieval French politics, parchment-making, wine-making, and Rashi’s mother’s diary.

3. Stilted, infodumpy dialogue conveying said details. Enough said.

4. Head-hopping deluxe! When we’re in too many heads, too close together, for not enough time each, we’re ultimately in no one’s head, and can’t care about the characters. The trick to handling an ensemble cast is to weave the POVs, just as a great figure skating program weaves the elements in and out instead of clustering them.

5. By the time an actual plot finally emerged (over 200 pages in), I was long past caring about anyone. At least in A Farewell to Arms, I felt bad for the baby for about two seconds!

6. The sex scenes are like Medieval Jewish porn fantasies! I also call BS on Rashi giving fairly graphic sex advice to his own daughters and son-in-law and giving the latter intimate details about his sex life! And enough already with the unrealistic trope of virgins having a mind-blowingly awesome first time!

7. I call BS on men waiting outside the mikvah for their wives and gossiping about who went there! Taharat hamishpacha, family purity, is an extremely private mitzvah, which even many women didn’t discuss with other women till a few decades ago. You’re not supposed to know who went there, esp. if she’s your sister, mother, or rabbi’s daughter! A brother also wouldn’t oversee his own sister’s immersions!

8. Was it really common for women to regularly come to synagogue, not just for holidays and the Sabbath, in the 11th century?

9. The word “gender” is anachronistically used in place of “sex” six times, including twice in dialogue. People in the 11th century DID NOT use that word in that way, EVER! It only became a euphemism for “sex” in the late 20th century, thanks in large part to the vile Dr. John Money and his grotesque experiment with poor David Reimer. The freaking Victorians weren’t afraid to say “sex” when referring to being male or female!

10. Either someone confused the dating, or Ms. Anton SORASed her characters. The timeline says Joheved was born in 1059, yet she’s twelve when the story opens in 1069. Miriam’s birth year is given as 1062, yet she’s nine when the story opens. Joheved’s husband Meir is depicted as four years older, yet he was born circa 1060.

11. Speaking of, I had no sense of these girls growing up. I know there was no concept of adolescence in the Middle Ages, but I never had a feeling for how old they were at any given time, or of going on a coming-of-age journey with them. It felt more like SORASing.

12. Zero character development. Enough said.

13. I call BS on the premarital kissing and making out! Traditional Orthodox couples aren’t even allowed to be alone without a chaperone or hold hands before marriage.

14. Every time a conflict appears, it’s quickly resolved, like when Rashi catches Joheved and Meir making out before they’re married.

15. The blurb makes it sound like the story is about Meir’s disapproval of Joheved’s Talmud study, but he’s totally cool with it after his initial shock. It was extremely unusual for Jewish women (and even most men) to be so educated in this era, yet we never gauge any long-lasting reactions to this from anyone!

16. The depictions of births and midwifery aren’t accurate, as a reviewer on Amazon and Goodreads explained in detail.

17. Constantly interrupting the narrative to define or explain things!

Rashi and his daughters (who really did study Talmud and pray with tefillin) deserved so much better. I’m told the second book depicts Miriam’s husband Benjamin as openly gay, and the community anachronistically accepts this.

Tashlich 1938

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This post was originally scheduled for 7 September 2013, as part of the now-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. It comes from an older version of the book formerly known as The Very First, which has since undergone even more edits.

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In loving memory of the one and only Keith John Moon, greatest drummer ever, who passed from this life, far too early, 35 years ago today.

In honour of Rosh Hashanah, which spanned 4-6 September this year, this week’s post comes from my chronological first Atlantic City book, The Very First. (I know it needs a much better title, but after over 20 years, I just can’t think of it by any other name!) Chapter 12, “High Holy Days,” covers the full cycle of the fall holidays in 1938.

New immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine) is struggling to fit into her new town and American life. Her new best friend Cinnimin, whom her family lives with, thinks Sparky should make some compromises to be a real American girl. Each girl tries to convince the other, in a respectful way, of the merits of her side.

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Monday after school, Cinni was skipping stones at the pond with Tina and Gayle when the Smalls appeared on the horizon, along with a bunch of other people Cinni didn’t recognize.  When she saw the man with the beard, she figured it must be their rabbi.  None of the other gentlemen had beards.  Perhaps he felt it were his duty to set an example and appear very religious on behalf of everyone else.  As it was, beards seemed so pre-modern, on a man of any religion.

“Would you like to skip stones with us?” Cinni asked. “It’s nice how your folks ain’t against having fun on a holiday.  I’ve heard some Christians in the olden days useta just sit and read the Bible on holidays and Sundays, and wouldn’t let their kids play or listen to music.”

“We’re not here to have fun,” Barry said, sneaking a look at Cinni. “We’re here for tashlich.”

“We’re going to throw crumbs into the water to symbolically cast off our sins,” Gary explained.

“Don’t you get rid of your sins by doing all that praying?  And I know you fast on Yom Kippur.  This seems like a silly superstition, like sacrificing children or spitting to ward off the evil eye.”

“It’s not meant to take the place of prayer and repentance,” Barry said. “It’s just a nice ritual done in addition to praying.  Some really religious folks spin a chicken or fish around their heads to transfer their sins to the animal.  We’re not nearly that goofy.”

“Barry and I are too young to fast on Yom Kippur,” Sparky said as the adults assembled a short distance from them. “We’re encouraged to not eat for part of the day, but we’re not supposed to fast the entire day before we’re obligated to keep all the commandments.  But Barry will be bar mitzvah in January.  He’ll have to do it next year.”

“Would you like to come to my bar mitzvah party?  I’ll give you a seat of honor at my table.”

“Sure, that sounds fun.  I ain’t a fan of most religion, but if there’s a party involved, it can’t be that boring.”

Cinni moved to another part of the pond with Gayle and Tina and continued skipping stones.  They watched the ceremony out of the corners of their eyes.

“I don’t understand what in the world they’re doing, or why, but I think it’s neat,” Gayle declared as she selected a round, flat gray stone and skipped it quite a distance across the water. “I wish Methodism had rituals like that.  I like religions with fun stuff.”

“Why do you even read about religion?” Tina asked. “It’s grownup stuff.  Grownup stuff is boring.  I only like reading stuff like comic books and magazine stories.”

“I like opening my mind to new worlds.  I don’t wanna look like some stupid American who only cares about her own culture and community.  When I grow up, I’d like a job where I can use my interest in these things.  Maybe I’ll be a fortuneteller or an astrologer.  Or maybe I can do what Mrs. Malspur does in her séance room, only make money for it.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever thought about what I really wanna do when I’m a grownup.” Cinni pulled a candybar out of her skirt pocket, ripped off the wrapper, and took a huge bite. “For now, all I wanna do is fill my stomach and have fun.”

They watched the man they assumed to be the rabbi reading from a prayerbook as some of the group followed along in their own prayerbooks or from memory.  At the conclusion of the brief prayer service, someone passed around a bag of breadcrumbs mixed with fish food, and people took turns going to the water’s edge to cast the crumbs into it.  Cinni noticed that there weren’t many young people in the group.  Sparky probably felt lonely.

Top Ten Tuesday—Books with sensory reading memories

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Top Ten Tuesday, formerly hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s topic is Books with Sensory Reading Memories (i.e., linked to very specific memories).

1. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse. I was reading this when my family left NY in August ’96, and it went into storage at my maternal grandparents’ house with almost everything else we owned. When I picked it back up in 2003 or 2004, I kept the bookmark in the place it’d been all those years ago, as a reminder of that depressing time.

Interestingly, that bookmark is one I left in a library book about Tad Lincoln, and got back when I checked the book out of the library again at thirteen. I knew that was my bookmark, and no one had taken it in all those years!

2. The Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu (Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation). This was one of the few things I had during my junior year of high school, 1996–97, while we lived with my paternal grandparents. My relationship with that book of ancient Chinese wisdom was forged in fire. It got me through a lot of tough times. Just smelling the pages takes me back to that dark period.

3. Anything by Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, my favourite writer and one of my heroes. Each and every book, story collection, play, or prose poem takes me back to the time I first read it.

4. The Play of God, Devi Vanimali. I read this beautiful book about Lord Krishna in summer 2002, while my parents and little brother were at Cape Cod. I was sick to death of that place, and decided to stay home. It was so hot, I had to go into my parents’ room for the AC unit at night. We didn’t have central AC.

5. The Lives of John Lennon, Albert Goldman. This book is absolute garbage, but I have so many memories of being a naïve 14-year-old who believed everything she read, and eating this crap up every time I went to a library or bookstore, until I finally checked it out in late ’94 to finish reading it at my own leisure.

6. Upon the Head of the Goat, Aranka Siegal. Not only was this the book that started my Magyarphilia, but it was one of the books I read that spring of ’95 that awakened my Jewish soul. When Piri and Iboya are being threatened by anti-Semitic bullies, I felt afraid and threatened myself.

7. Pretty much any book I read during the 11 months I couldn’t walk, from August 2003–July 2004. How could one not remember being so immobile and helpless?

8. Related to #1, pretty much everything by Hermann Hesse. I have so many memories of the first time I read each of his books, starting with Demian at age 14–15. He was the first real adult author I read, and became my next-fave writer.

9. Beatlesongs, William Dowlding. My receipt from June ’94 is still in it. That was a very happy trip to Borders. A TV in another room upstairs was playing Help!

10. Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom, by Isabella Leitner (originally published in two volumes, Fragments of Isabella and Saving the Fragments). Hands-down the most haunting, memorable book I’ve ever read. It was only upon rereading it as an adult that I realised how sparse the supporting details and backstory are. It’s driven by emotions, this story of four (later, sadly, three) sisters who survived for one another, because of one another.

I’ve since listened to, watched, and read a number of interviews with Isabella and her surviving siblings (now all deceased). They filled in so many blanks I was curious about, and often left me wondering why some pretty important details were omitted, like the fact that there were twin boys who died at eight months, not just five sisters and a token brother.