Days of Wrath (Film, 1953)

Film: Day Of Wrath (1953) by Lee Streiff

The Background

The three movies I have made, one on 8 mm (1953-4) and two on 16 mm (1963 and 1964), are not really “films” in the common sense of the term.

The first, Day of Wrath, (1953-4), comes closest to the conventional definition. It was made during the period when we were selecting “experimental” films for the University Film Society and was intended to be in the tradition of such surrealistic films as Fireworks, The Andalusian Dog (Dali), The Blood of a Poet (Cocteau), and others. The “scratched film” sections were inspired by Norman McClaren’s technique in such films as Fiddle Dee Dee and Begone Dull Care. Because of a lack of time, ruined film, and low finances — problems which were to beset the other films as well — and even lack of a film editor — the film was never really finished. Later the original was run through a bad projector and several feet of what had been done were destroyed. At an even later point several feet showing Bobby Burns, John Pearson, and Francis and Barbara Honey out in the country were removed and spliced into my own home movies. The video selection on this website has been copied from the screen of a hand-cranked editor which had light flares on the screen. While copying I also accidentally jiggled the video camera a couple of times, causing it to refocus momentarily. Thus, the clip is only suggestive of what the film, even in its shortened and mangled state, is like. I plan to work on producing a better, digitized version in the future.

Sometime early in the summer of 1953, I began work on the film, using my father’s 8 mm movie camera. The film was inspired by the “Lachrymosa” from Berlioz’ Requiem. The idea — if not the specifics — had come into my head almost all at once as I listened to the music. I took down a copy of the Bible from my book shelf, and read over the words of Revelations:

“Alas! Alas! thou great city,
“Thou mighty city, Babylon!
“In one hour has thy judgment come.”

And all kinds of images had come to me, and I tried to write them all down:

1st angel, shoot pan up, as the finger touches the sky, show clear sky and the inscription title appears: “Day of Wrath ….”

Those notes, and the rest, and the voice-over poem I later wrote, were my script:

“With Clarion trumpets
“Sounded in diminishing air,
“As Time diminishes ….”

And I had images of cold and bloodless supernatural angels who laid waste with fire and sword — and the burning city of brick and flesh; and the dying of human beings who had been full of life …

John Pearson, Bobby Burns and others were in the first shots I took at Sim’s Park. Bruce Conner was in town when I was shooting on one occasion and would have been in the film, except for a technical foul up. I shot several takes of Bruce falling down a sand embankment on the Big Arkansas onto a beach, but I had turned the 16 mm film around (as was normal) when half-way through the roll, but had put the unemulsified side out toward the lens (which was not normal), and thus Bruce’s image never got photographed (Bruce referred to the filming in a letter to me on 9-13-53).

When Bruce and Corban LePell went to the University of Nebraska in the fall, they also decided to make a film — abstract rather than realistic — but it was abandoned and never completed (Bruce’s letter to me on 12-4-53).

The filming of the movie

John Pearson had been enthusiastic about the idea and had volunteered to help. Now — in November of 1953 — he held the light meter out toward the high marble statue: an angel, blank-faced, with cold, staring eyes; its right arm raised and one finger pointing upward to heaven.

It was a chilly day, but the sky was clear, and the winter sunlight seemed to permeate the marble and give it a white glow. All around us were the granite and marble tomb-stones of Highland Cemetery, the “Old” cemetery where the early settlers of Wichita lay buried.

“Better give it about an f-8 with the blue filter.” John said. “That sky is something fantastic.”

I turned the f-stop to 8 and screwed the filter on.

“Let’s try it from both the front and the side,” I said.

“Yeah, good,” he said nodding his head.

I adjusted the legs of the tripod and panned up and down the statue several times, testing the length of the movement to the top of the angel’s finger.

John stood beside me, dragging on his cigarette. I pushed the button and heard the buzzing of the gears as they whirled. Slowly I let the camera move up the statue and come to rest with just the top of the hand in the bottom of the picture.

“Smooth, smooth — very smooth,” he said.

“I’ll do it again,” I said, “Just to make sure.” I jerked the camera a little bit the second time.

“The first time it was real smooth,” John said.

I panned down twice.

“I think that’ll do for this angle,” I said, and started unscrewing the tripod legs.

“Now just hold it,” said my wife, Phyllis, and snapped our picture with my little still camera. “Okay.”

“The picture taker having his picture taken,” John said and laughed. “How about that? Boxes inside boxes.”

A week later we went out into the country to shoot some more of the film: the “wandering” sequence. This sequence occurred near the beginning and was repeated near the end:

To search among hills
For meaning
Along ancient trails of musty vines
And dry, exploding spores Left in the air
From a time when the earth
Was meaningful.
But journeys through the imageless earth
Of tangled autumn’s
Golden sun
End in liquid dreams”

Journeyers forlorn
Are wandering the autumn earth
And in the sky
The winter sun Is building arches of darkness.

There were six of us, Francis Honey and his wife, Barbara; John Pearson and Bobbie Burns; and Phyl and I. As we drove the thirty miles to the abandoned stone house I remembered from trips out in the country during the late forties, I cradled a cow skull between my knees in the back seat of the car and tried to explain the film to them.

“In Revelations, John makes the people nothing. They are just a cast of thousands who are clothed in white robes and sing ‘Alleluhju’ or who are put to the flaming sword.

“Okay — let’s take the imagery of the angels. I want to show them as cold and alien. As creatures who don’t feel love or hate. They’re the servants of God — created to be perfect — without fear or lust — the things that make man imperfect in God’s eyes, and justify man’s destruction. You see, the people who are singled out to go to heaven can’t really be human — they are some sort of imitation angels.

“What I want to show is that it is the real human beings who are somehow glorious. They are what the angels ought to be. They are the ones God ought to be pleased with. The tragic human beings who try to find some way of living in a world where the mystery of birth and death dooms us all.”

“But it’s God’s game,” said Francis over his shoulder, keeping his eyes on the highway. “He can play by whatever rules he wants.”

“That’s the point!” I said, “So it should be seen as a tragedy. Human beings can’t expect to win. They are doomed to begin with — and the beauty in their lives is that they still search.”

“Can you get all of that on film?” asked Barbara smiling.

“I doubt it,” I said and laughed. “If I can just get a feeling about how these people are lost and proud and doomed, that’ll do.”

Francis pulled off the highway onto a dirt road that wandered toward a ruined stone house on the side of a hill. Down to the left, the hillside sloped off steeply to a small stream that ran in a little valley. He pulled up in front of the house and we all got out. Bobbie pulled her guitar off the window ledge in the back seat and strummed it a couple of times.

The air was sharp. The mid-afternoon sunlight fell in a golden fall of light. “Umm!” said John loudly, drawing in a hugs draft of air. “Get that, you know, air.” He looked around delightedly. “I just may stay here.”

“Where do we start?” asked Bobbie.

I pointed down the side of the hill. “There’s a little trail down there with some large rock outcroppings.”

We moved down the hillside, strung out, each separate.

“Now make a single file line along the trail,” I shouted. “I’ll bring up the rear and shoot you from behind.”

It was perfect. The heavy entangling vines drooped from the bare winter trees, and as they moved slowly among the vines, against the backdrop of the rich yellow limestone outcropping, there was an almost mythic aura around them. The camera whirred, catching the images, illumined in the golden light.

“Let’s build a fire — it’s getting cold,” said Bobbie. We had finished all the shots I wanted and Barbara had gone back to the car for the thermos of hot coffee. We went into the shelter of the three standing stone wells and Francis began to collect pieces of wood. John stood around awkwardly, his hands in his coat pockets.

“A great place,” he said. “Really a great place.”

Francis went back to the car to get some newspapers out of the trunk to start a fire with.

Bobbie sat down on a pile of fallen rocks and strummed the guitar. I stood by the vacant window, looking out through the wooden frame at the dry, tall grass moving slightly in the wind.

Bobbie’s voice drifted across the still air between the stone walls, singing one of Joanie’s songs. I felt a sense of melancholy. And the sun waned, and its light darkened slowly as the earth tilted, inevitably and imperceptibly.

The Clip

The clip shown here [all video has been lost from the original site] consists of parts of two scenes near the end of the film. The first is of the “wanderers” coming over a hill, and the second is of the male Hero (John Pearson) coming down to a seated female (Bobby Burns) who holds a cow skull and a guitar. In the Surrealistic vocabulary, the woman is both “Sexual Desire” and “Mother”, the skull “Death”, and the guitar, “Art” — simplistic, but visually easily grasped. In the rest of the sequence, the Hero picks up the skull and throws it upwards, and we see it arcing through the sky and breaking into fragments as it crashes to the ground: thus he defeats Death in the only way possible: through sex and art.

Anyway, it seemed a good idea at the time.

The last scene I made for the film was that of a bas-relief face carved in a kind of pinkish stone that was inset in the side of one of the old stone houses overlooking Oak Park from across the Little Arkansas River. (See the “Face Across the River” on “The Indian Legends” page.) It seemed a sufficiently ironic image.


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