Welcome to the latest installment of Hidden Treasures. Also, please keep in mind that there’s just one week remaining to make your submission for this month’s guest Hidden Treasures, which will post on June 19th. For more information on how to submit your favorite film, click here
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
When the Broad Avenue Cinema in Albany, Georgia, made the decision to run Mike Nichols’ controversial new film, Carnal Knowledge, I’m sure they had no idea that doing so would land them in a prolonged legal battle, one that would eventually make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States. In January, 1972, reacting to the supposed ‘obscenities’ found in the film, Albany deputies raided the small theater. Local courts would later slap the theater’s owner, Billy Jenkins, with a $750 fine and a sentence of one year’s probation for exhibiting ‘obscene material’. As is the case with many such moral crusades, those who attacked Carnal Knowledge never bothered looking any further than the surface, condemning the film for what it showed while ignoring what it was trying to say. Far from glamorizing promiscuous sexuality, Carnal Knowledge attacks that very lifestyle, relating with extraordinary skill the tale of a man torn apart by his inability to connect with women on any level other than a physical one. Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) and Sandy (Art Garfunkel), college roommates in the 1940s, spend a lot of time comparing notes on their concept of the ‘perfect woman’. When it comes to actual matters of the heart, however, Jonathan and Sandy couldn’t be more different. Jonathan is extremely confident, and doesn’t hesitate in going after as many women as he can, while Sandy is shy, and uneasy in the company of the opposite sex. Spurred on by Jonathan, Sandy musters up the courage to talk with Susan (Candice Bergen). From this point on, Carnal Knowledge follows the two friends as they experience a variety of relationships over the course of the next 20 years. Far from the rallying cry of free love the moral pundits professed it to be, Carnal Knowledge is the tale of one man’s descent into the dark recesses of his own sexuality. As Sandy’s relationship with Susan blossoms, he fills Jonathan in on all the details, such as the long talks he and Susan share and the fact that they seem to have connected on a deep, spiritual level. However, it isn’t until Sandy talks about their first sexual encounter that Jonathan finds he’s also attracted to Susan, and begins pursuing her for himself. Before long, Susan is dating both men, and having sex with both as well. Sandy, who knows nothing of Susan and Jonathan’s relationship, continues telling Jonathan about his feelings for Susan, and how well they get along. Jonathan is perplexed. He can’t understand why Sandy and Susan are sharing so much, whereas he and Susan have found nothing in common aside from sex. Jonathan longs to connect with Susan on a deeper level as well, yet is never able to do so. It’s a reality that will haunt Jonathan over of the next twenty years. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Carnal Knowledge was not obscene, and reversed the findings of the Georgia Courts. With Justice William Rehnquist delivering the unanimous decision, he wrote that “(The Court’s) own viewing of the film satisfies us that Carnal Knowledge could not be found…to depict sexual conduct in a patently offensive way”. I absolutely agree with them. The sexuality depicted in Carnal Knowledge is far from offensive, and farther still from sensual. In fact, if anything, I’d say it’s downright destructive.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Very seldom in life do things come together perfectly. The same can be said for the movies. The cinema’s history is filled with films that are good, many that are even great, yet every once in a while, a seemingly perfect one will come along, an artistic triumph that moves you with its power and imagination. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is one such film. A singular vision with a unique approach to telling its story, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a treasure that should be cherished. The film recounts the trial and subsequent execution of Joan of Arc, the Maiden of Orleans, that was carried out by the religious and political leaders of 15th century France. Much of the dialogue is lifted directly from the surviving transcripts of Joan’s trial; Joan (Maria Renee Falconetti) is accused of heresy for believing that God speaks to her. During the trial, the young girl faced tough questioning from a collection of bishops and priests, all of whom try their damnedest to convince Joan that it was the devil who spoke to her, and not God. Yet Joan remains steadfast in her beliefs, and when she refuses to recant her claims of divine communication, she is condemned to death, and burned alive at the stake. One cannot discuss The Passion of Joan of Arc without delving into the performance of Maria Falconetti. Dreyer made a stylistic decision to utilize extreme close-ups of his characters throughout the film, and the majority of these are of Joan herself. It’s in these close-ups that Ms. Falconetti shines, evoking enough pain and suffering to make each and every tight shot worthwhile. Falconetti shied away from over-the-top theatrics (which were popular at the time) in her portrayal, favoring instead a much more subdued interpretation. As a result, she had to rely not only on her eyes (which are haunting in their depth of feeling) to convey her character’s anguish, but also her pouting lips, her head tilts, and even the occasional slow tear running down her cheek. Falconetti’s Joan of Arc is much more than a girl on trial; she is a tortured soul completely abandoned in her hour of need, and through her the film transforms into an intensely moving experience. I understand my labeling The Passion of Joan of Arc a ‘perfect’ film is a very bold statement, yet I believe this work transcends standard cinema, rising to a level of art that few other films ever reach. The Passion of Joan of Arc not only reached that level; it continues to rest there comfortably, even all these years later.
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill opens with a shot of actress Angie Dickenson standing in the shower. As she watches her lover through the smoky glass of the shower door, Ms. Dickinson alluringly caresses her body with soap, the passion building slowly within her. This erotic scene is suddenly, and quite jarringly, interrupted when another man sneaks up behind her, covering her mouth as he rapes her right there in the shower. What started as a dream quickly becomes a nightmare, and Dressed to Kill has revealed the first of its many surprises. Following a torrid sexual encounter with a complete stranger, New York housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickenson) is found brutally murdered in an elevator. Prostitute Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the killing, and is caught between a rock a hard place as a result. On the one hand, the police are pressuring her for information, and threaten to charge her with the murder if she doesn’t cooperate. On the other side is the actual killer, who’s out to silence Liz permanently. With the help of Kate Miller’s son, Peter (Keith Gordon), Liz hopes to clear her name and track down the killer before ending up in prison, or the morgue, herself. Director Brian DePlama flexes his cinematic muscles throughout Dressed to Kill, giving us everything from his patented split screens to the ever-popular dream sequence (which he springs on us a number of times, and usually when we least expect it). Along with his bag of tricks, the director also makes excellent use of the film’s musical score, which performs the dual function of furthering both the passion and suspense of a scene. Take the sequence at the Art Museum, for example, where Kate meets the man with whom she’ll have her first, and last, extra-marital affair. By this point, De Palma had already established that Kate is sexually frustrated in her marriage, having confessed as much to her psychiatrist, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), earlier that morning. At the museum, Kate sits quietly in front of a portrait, occasionally glancing around at the various mating rituals playing out around her. In one corner, a young couple resists the urge to become more amorous in this public place, while next to them, a man hits on a pretty blonde. All of this plays out in total silence. Then, as Kate jots something down in her day planner, a man takes a seat next to her. The music swells. She removes her glove, revealing her wedding ring. He notices it and walks away. She pursues him, dropping her gloves to the ground when she stands. She follows him. He follows her. Before long, this passionate chase escalates, and Kate’s walk through the museum hallways becomes more frantic, to the point that we’re not sure if she’s running to, or from, this mysterious stranger. The sequence changes in tone from soft and romantic to quick and frightening, and does so without a single word of dialogue spoken. It’s all the better in silence; the way De Palma constructed this scene, words would have only gotten in the way.