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This review by Jack Florek was prepared for the July 11, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Film: `Wired Angel’
There’s a difference between just narrating something
and telling a story," says filmmaker Sam Wells. "If you say
`The cat sat on the mat,’ you’re merely stating a fact. But if you
say, `The cat sat on the dog’s mat,’ you’ve begun the art of
Of course, the story of Joan of Arc is certainly a prime example of
a cat sitting on a dog’s mat."
Wells’ first feature-length film, "Wired Angel" is a funky,
post-industrial retelling of the story of Joan of Arc — the
peasant girl of the 15th century who listened to her holy voices,
battled the English, and was ultimately burned at the stake as a
Joan was officially canonized in 1920 and has since become one of
the Catholic Church’s most celebrated saints.
"Wired Angel," which won the award for best experimental film
at this year’s New Jersey Film International Festival, will be
at the festival on July 13, 14, and 15, at 7 p.m. at Scott Hall 123,
on the Rutgers University College Avenue Campus. Wells will attend
all three screenings and take part in a question and answer session
with audience members after each showing.
Although Wells isn’t Catholic, he never considered that a hindrance
in making the film. "The fact that I’m not a Catholic was a help
in the sense that I was able to look more freely at Joan in terms
of her medieval Catholicism," he says in an interview conducted
in the backyard of his Princeton area home.
In addition, Wells responded naturally to the highly ritualized
of the Catholic mass. "My sense of narrative and drama is based
on ritual anyway," he says. "I think that’s a prime source
of drama. The fact that the film has a Catholic subject matter,
with my approach, which is abstract, gave me a form to work with."
Shot entirely in black and white, "Wired Angel" is a visually
stunning film employing pyrotechnics and a provocative use of shadows
and shapes, all set in an industrial landscape. The film is aurally
underlined by a gritty original score by Joe Renzetti, with sound
design by Fred Szymanski that is evocatively high-tech and urban.
But despite his choice of a modern setting, Wells struggled to remain
faithful to the medieval content of his subject. "When I put the
mass at the center of the film, I researched its history and made
sure I put together what was a plausible 15th-century mass, even in
terms of the liturgical objects that were used," says Wells.
Despite Wells’ enthusiasms for Joan’s story, his original idea for
the film was very different. "I started out with a completely
different story concept that also happened to have a character in
it based on Joan of Arc," he says. "But that film didn’t work
out for a number of reasons."
But with Caroline Ruttle, who was set to play the Joan-like character
in the other film, still onboard, Wells became interested in making
a film around her character.
"I started researching the history of Joan of Arc, and I was
drawn into the story," he says. "It gave me an acquaintance
with western history in a depth that I didn’t really have before.
It was like going back to school."
But Wells found it a bit daunting to take on subject matter that had
already been so successfully interpreted by such high-profile
as Robert Bresson, Victor Fleming, and especially Carl Dreyer, whose
1928 silent feature, "The Passion of Joan of Arc," has earned
the status of a legend in its own right.
"I was very intimidated to follow in the path of Dreyer,"
explains Wells. "I asked myself more than once, Do I really want
to go through with this? But then I thought, Rembrandt didn’t get
halfway through `Descent from the Cross’ and say, Hey, wait a minute.
Didn’t Tintoretto already do this?" Wells laughs at the idea,
and then quickly adds, "not that I’d compare myself with
Wells grew up in Princeton, where his father worked
as a mechanical engineer and his mother was a computer programmer,
but he was born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. "I was born there,
but I’ve never been there," he puckishly asserts, "and I’ve
never been back."
Wells has little formal film education and proudly labels himself
"self educated." In fact, apart from having occasionally
into a film course or two at New York University, Wells hasn’t been
in a classroom since graduating from Princeton High School in 1968.
But even after leaving high school, filmmaking wasn’t his first love.
"I originally wanted to be a songwriter," says Wells.
couldn’t play an instrument. Then I tried writing poetry, and some
fiction, but with little success."
Wells was finally introduced to the world of movies by some friends
who had gone to art school and had become avid film buffs. "I
suddenly found myself spending all my free time watching films,’"
he says. "Then I moved to Palo Alto in 1972, and it was like a
gold mine. There were something like five film series going on at
the campus, and there were two art houses that showed films from the
Janus collection, Tarkovsky, and Bergman."
Finally Wells had a kind of personal awakening and discovered what
appears to have been his true calling. "I spent so much time going
to the movies, I figured I might as well try to make them," he
says. So he went out and bought a cheap Super 8 film camera, and some
instructional books, and made some small personal films in a "one
person-one camera abstract sense."
Next he bought a 16mm camera and made a series of 10 short
films in the late 1970s and early ’80s and gained more experience
working as a gaffer on some small independent film projects in New
York. "Those were probably the best learning experiences for
Wells says. "I really had to learn to do some sophisticated stuff
on borrowed lighting equipment."
In 1990 Wells made "The Talking Rain," a 20-minute short
based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld with a "film
twist. It was screened at the Telluride, Sundance, and Mannheim film
festivals and received an encouraging response. "I had the sense
at the time that if `The Talking Rain’ had been a feature length film
it might have gotten some distribution," says Wells.
Wells began filming "Wired Angel" in 1993 and completed it
in 1999. Unfortunately, the end of the ’90s brought a veritable
in the number of independent films being made and the cold reality
is that very few of these films actually get distribution deals.
are more screens in more theaters now than there used to be, but
showing fewer films," says Wells. "Something like 93 percent
of all theaters in the United States right now are playing the same
"Wired Angel" and "The Talking Rain" are both filmed
in black and white, but in planning for his next film (what he calls
"a post Vietnam War ghost story"), Wells expects to shoot
in color. "It’s time to do something different," he says,
qualifying this by vowing to take "a black-and-white approach
"I want to work in color again," says Wells, "but color
is a real pain. It’s very hard to control. You can’t really compose
in color the way you can with black and white. In `Wired Angel’ I
have things like diesel electric locomotives, but by using light and
shadow, I can make them into Gothic shapes. I didn’t start out working
in black and white. It was something I discovered later and I was
seduced by it."
Despite the fact that "Wired Angel" won accolades as an
film," Wells is leery of having it pigeonholed as an experimental
film. The film is constructed much like a poem or a piece of music,
with recurrent motifs that add a sense of depth to the film that a
viewer may not normally encounter on a typical trip to the movies.
"It certainly takes some radical approaches to narrative, but
I still consider it to be a narrative film, although I use a different
strategy then most," he says. "Our conventional sense of
is very ingrained in most people’s minds, and it’s risky to do things
that challenge that. But still, it comes out of a century-long
of cinema. It’s not alien to that at all."
Distribution deals and the vagaries of audience expectations aside,
Wells’ hopes for "Wired Angel" are understated. "I just
hope it reaches its audience. It’s the kind of film that really
from a theatrical screening. I just hope it has some kind of life
in that sense, and not just on VHS or DVD. Certainly its exhibition
history will have to be slow and steady."
— Jack Florek
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