Corrections or additions?

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

storytelling.

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

legendary

peasant girl of the 15th century who listened to her holy voices,

battled the English, and was ultimately burned at the stake as a

heretic.

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

screened

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

structure

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,

coupled

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

really

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

filmmakers

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

Rembrandt."

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

dropped

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.

"Unfortunately, I

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

experimental

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

me,"

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

subject

based on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld with a "film

noir"

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

avalanche

in the number of independent films being made and the cold reality

is that very few of these films actually get distribution deals.

"There

are more screens in more theaters now than there used to be, but

they’re

showing fewer films," says Wells. "Something like 93 percent

of all theaters in the United States right now are playing the same

movies."

"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

to color."

"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

"experimental

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

narrative

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

tradition

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

benefits

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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