Consider this still and you’ve got the gist of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc, a facey, affecting melodrama of male power out to crush the Other. Maryrose Larkin’s treatment emphasized the instruments of patriarchal control, with the wheel and the rack incidental to the legal formalities and structures of repetition that “constitute” Joan as a legitimate criminal subject.
Against Eric Matchett’s quick metallic beat of dripping water, rushing the action forward through silent time, Larkin read a series of short poems built around procedural language from the trial transcript. (“That the articles should first be read for her; that the articles …”) On the table in front of her, Larkin had a boxy device with a slit on the top that took in large magnetized cards—about the size of a ScanTron exam—to read back pre-recorded phrases in a mechanical masculine voice. (The machine, she told me later, was used for speech therapy in the ‘70s, another governor of the ‘correct’.) Larkin punctuated her reading with run-throughs of the cards, sometimes speaking in unison with the machine, sometimes interrupting the card’s progress through the device to abbreviate and control its repetitions.
What impressed me about Larkin’s approach was the way it called attention to one of the most salient features of a neo-benshi performance: that time becomes hostile to the performer, since the action has to take place against the film’s pre-existing rhythm. Konrad Steiner describes neo-benshi as a dance, as you work alternately with and against the movie’s movement. Larkin’s piece suggested another analogy; a heresy trial, where orthodox film-time tries to push things forward to a conclusion the benshi doesn’t necessarily want, and resists, like Joan, through her silences and hesitations, using strategic appropriations and counterspins of the accuser’s language.
By the time the clip delivered us “dans le chambre de torture” (the intertitle cards were another source of speech not the benshi’s own), we were ready for Dreyer’s special way of depicting Joan’s horror: a spiked wheel cranked at top speed, the operator looking more like a factory worker—or a projectionist—than a 15th-century monk. In the movie, Joan passes out at the sight of the wheel, as if to suggest she’s already been crushed by procedure, and any physical pain would be redundant. Larkin’s piece seemed to make a similar point, while at the same time mapping the benshi’s experience of speaking in sync with the film onto Joan’s experience in front of the tribunal. Somehow, between the speech machine and the script’s repetitions and Larkin’s refusal to match the language up directly with events on the screen, the time came to seem entirely her own, and you felt in the end that Joan, for all her suffering, had won.
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