shen done him wrong: day seven

here we are again, another week of cinematic exploration nearly over. we ring down the curtain on this installment of queue de grâce with a pair of excellent choices that illustrate, each in their own way, the power and magic of the movies. first up, hayao miyazaki's wondrous ponyo (2008).

it is the master japanese animator's most recent full-length feature and the most accessible yet in a long line of ruminations on the capricious nature of humanity and our relationship with the rest of (super)natural world. the film opens with an undersea panorama full of as much light and color as yellow submarine (1968). a rebellious half kewpie doll/half goldfish who wants to see what the world has in store for her makes a break for it, stowing away atop a jellyfish. as she nears the surface, she is caught up by a ship dredging garbage from the harbor and is trapped in a jar. five year-old sōsuke is playing by the seaside and frees her from her predicament. it is the start of a beautiful friendship, as they say. she licks a cut on his finger, magically healing it. he names her ponyo and vows to take care of her. her father seems quite the sinister figure when he appears on land to retrieve ponyo but that's a red herring. hey-o! he marshals the forces of the sea to bring her back to him but she has had too much fun (and human blood) to keep her down on the farm. she escapes and, in a sequence that demonstrates all the fearsome power and rapturous beauty of the ocean, generates a tsunami that she runs gleefully across the top of in search of her friend. she is reunited with sōsuke but so much magic has been released in the wake of her escape that the natural balance of things is in jeopardy of irreparable damage. it is determined that if sōsuke can pass a test of devotion then ponyo can live her life on land as a real girl and the natural order will be restored. sōsuke passes with flying colors, as he is absolutely pure of heart and he loves ponyo, regardless of her form. it is sweet, touching and beautifully drawn. i tend to favor miyazaki's other, darker work but this was superb. it is geared more toward children than some of his previous features and the simplicity of that approach reveals a profundity that you find in all of the world's most durable stories. i love how magic intersects with the everyday world in this film. case in point: after sōsuke identifies the five-year year old girl who just ran across the top of a tsunami as the now-human form of the goldfish he brought home earlier his mother's response is a matter-of-fact "life is mysterious and amazing, but we have work to do now". i love her for that. the universe is full of wonder, so why should a day when your son's tiny goldfish girlfriend sprouts human legs as she runs by you be any different from any other? every day is full of magic in some way or another. i love ponyo because she is a complete lunatic, all unbridled id and appetite for ham. i love sōsuke because he a solid little dude, all noble heart and duty. i love miyazaki because his imagination takes me to all these places. i love this movie.

and, in sharp contrast to all the hyperkinetic, candy-colored fun we've been having all week, we end with carl theodor dreyer's stark and haunting silent masterpiece, the passion of joan of arc (1928).

it is a re-enactment of the last days of her short, turbulent life, picking up with the beginning of her trial and ending with her execution, burned at the stake. no simple synopsis could ever do this justice, though. dreyer, with his majestically austere scandinavianness, is one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, so i am biased, but i don't know if i can think of a more striking and prolonged portrait of agony and ecstasy. shot in almost unrelenting close-ups, you are immediately on intimate terms with both martyr and the hypocritical, blustering swine in charge of her inquisition. flying in the face (appropriately enough) of accepted film practices, dreyer refuses to give you the comfort of a long shot, just lingering and lingering and lingering so tightly on the geography of this parade of faces until you can see in them everything that is beautiful and hateful in all human beings. he also repeatedly and intentionally violates the continuity of sight lines to the point that you can no longer be sure in some cases if joan is looking up at her tormentors or her god, making for a confusion and discomfort in the viewer that leaves you grasping for clarification that does not come. you struggle along with her. and oh, how she struggles. renée maria falconetti, in her only cinematic role, delivers a performance that is among the single greatest ever committed to film. every detail is perfect. there is a moment early on where she raises her hand to her cheek and touches the spot where a rabid cleric just spit on her face that is shattering, but not for the reasons you may think. the offense, the indignity is a given. what moved me was her hand, with its dirty, broken fingernails but slight softness to the skin. it was very much the hand of someone who was a soldier but also a pious nineteen year-old girl from the country and it moved not quickly, but steadily to the spot, responding not with outrage, but a measured acceptance and dismissal. there is an equally heart-rending moment later when, as she is being tied to the stake, the executioner drops the rope and she gently bends down to retrieve it for him. her sincerity and suffering are simply off the scale. it is one of the most beautiful and harrowing things i have ever seen. i know this one is going to be tough sledding for a lot of people, but if there is one film out of everything i have talked about this week that i wish you would see, it is this one. if you care about cinema history it is a necessity, no debate. dreyer's iconoclastic vision is innovative, uncompromising and bold and falconetti puts her very soul on display. a must.

and with that revelatory experience, we complete another program. thank you, shen. that was a very rewarding week.


  1. I'm glad you liked Ponyo - Karen and I watched this for the first time a couple of weeks ago and were really delighted by it. Will queue up Joan as well.

  2. joan of arc is no longer streaming, unfortunately. i just happened to own that one so i left it on the list. dreyer has three other films available to stream currently, though, the best of the lot being "vampyr".