Alex Mcquilkin: “Joan of Arc”
526 West 26th Street
New York City
212 627 3363
Alex Mcquilkin’s new two-screen projection film is ironic, sincere, casual, rigorous, knowing, adolescent, narcissistic, and emotionally generous. It is a small masterpiece about another masterpiece.
For most of its five minutes and eighteen seconds the artist is present in full color in the right frame, approximating short fragments from Carl Dreyer’s black and white silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) that is projected on the left. In it, Mcquilkin wears a gray t-shirt that says “OK” in white letters while her occasional voice-over mumbles about how she couldn’t get the film out of her head.
In one of the many ways that the original film was radical was in its use of close-ups, which Mcquilkin matches with tight blocking (a common attribute of many of her films) of her torso and face. Mournful music (medieval) by The Anonymous Four is the soundtrack.
By the (very short) time she begins to cut her long, strawberry blonde hair, Mcquilkin’s film has matched the emotional climate of the original. Her body shifts within the frame to reveal an electrical outlet behind her and an electric razor appears to finish the job. It has the power of a grim intruder.
In the original film, according to French film theorist Andre Bazin, when Dreyer ordered the actor in the executioner role to cut the Maria Falconetti’s (Joan of Arc) hair the film crew began to cry.
Like Dreyer, Mcquilkin is interested in how the film medium can be used to reveal authentic emotion. As Oscar Wilde said “A mask tells us more than a face.”
Joan of Arc, the artist narrates, was put to death at age nineteen. Several underlying themes intersect: adolescence as state of spiritual purity and the adolescent desire to be a religious martyr. Contemporarily, it begs the question as to what constitutes martyrdom.
Towards the end of the film, Mcquilkin shorn head appears, matching the tilted angle of Falconetti’s shorn head. Here the use of highly definitive color film and the subtle detail of Mcquilkin’s gold nose pin contrasts with the filmed black and white rawness of Joan of Arc’s face. (Dreyer insisted against makeup on his actors.)
Mcquilkin’s film and Dreyer’s (observed Bazin) aspire towards a state of emotional dignity that is found in religious painting. The actor’s filmed visage becomes the equivalent of an icon.
The film closes with the artist’s observation that Joan of Arc was the only figure in history that the church both put to death and canonized as a saint, using her for their own symbolic purposes not just once, but twice.
Of related interest: DAVID COHEN on Karen Yasinsky, Alex McQuilkin, Isaac Julienprint