Zoo Animal on Joan of Arc: It's so intense
When Duluth-based Zeitgeist Arts asked local indie-rock trio Zoo Animal to create a live soundtrack for a public screening of Danish director Carl Dreyer's classic silent film The Passion Of Joan Of Arc, lead singer Holly Newsom was a little unsettled.
"This movie was the most intimidating thing I've ever played with, you know, when we're talking about people and films," said band leader Holly Newsom. "It's so intense."
Indeed, the 1928 film -- though a phenomenally powerful work, widely noted as Dreyer's directorial crowning achievement -- is one of the most harrowing and evocative films of all time. In it, Dreyer forsakes the popular warrior-Joan of Arc hero tale, the woman who led the French to a series of victorious battles in the Hundred Years' War, and focuses solely on the trial of Joan by the Catholic Church in 1431 and her sentencing to death.
French actress Renée Maria Falconetti is a pious Joan, resolutely faithful as priests attempt to trick her into blaspheming and obstinate in her convictions even in the face of ridicule, torture, and her own mortality. Falconetti's stunning face conveys more emotion than words possibly could, and it's for this reason that when Joan is condemned to burn at the stake at the end of the film that the experience of viewing the scene is more potent and personal than simply knowing what happens.
Newsom recognized this right away.
"I watched [the film] a few times, and I thought about it a lot before I just started playing with it. It was so intense, and I didn't want [the music] to be cheesy at all," she says of initially creating the score. "I almost wanted the music to be sometimes lacking emotion, because I didn't want it to be some cheesy thing to this not-cheesy movie."
Newsom and her bandmates Joshua Caro and Josiah Quick (a shift in the lineup, since the departure of Tim Abramson and Thom Burton from Zoo Animal) play in the near-dark on the right side of the stage as The Passion of Joan of Arc is screening. The composition is built around a haunting rhythm and skeletal drum and guitar patterns; without sheet music, using only visual cues, Zoo Animal creates a searing soundtrack.
"The main part of this is the film, it's not us, I'm aware of that. [The film] is what you're here to see, and we just want to make a frame, and hold it up on a pedestal," asserts Newsom humbly. "I didn't want to do anything that was like, 'Oh, what a crazy talented group of musicians that is.' I just wanted every frame to be magnified. That's why there is a lot of repetition [in the music], so that you almost can forget that we're playing over there."
For a band that's known for minimalist rock and a hushed-to-explosive progression, the marriage between The Passion of Joan of Arc and Zoo Animal could not be more ideal. Contemporary audiences might find a traditional viewing of the film overwhelming and unappealing: the extreme close-ups that Dreyer favors are dramatic, his take on cinema leaning heavily on a proclivity for art and less on storytelling. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most important films in history, but it's not for everyone. Zoo Animal's live soundtrack modernizes the film somewhat, reviving its relevance and aiding its impact.
"I value bringing something out in public that maybe you only think about when you're by yourself. It almost makes you feel less alone. And the fact that this movie has so much despair in it and then we're all sitting in the same room, it's like you're facing something together instead of facing it at home alone," says Newsom. "And I know it's awkward to look at each other after this intense experience, but at least we're together."
Zoo Animal will be performing the live score with the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc at the Cedar Cultural Center on Wednesday, November 7th and Thursday, November 8th at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $11. All Ages.
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