Distance(s) #15

Young Mr. Lincoln - John Ford, 1939, 35mm

Quei loro incontri - Straub-Huillet, 2006, 35mm


Virtue is unvirtuous, reason unreasonable, intolerance rules everywhere, everyway. For the Augustinian-Irish-Catholic John Ford, sin is inescapable; without God’s grace, we are lost. Thus Ford’s movies are melodramas set-to-music of darkness battling light – in myriad shades of grey. Each life is a pilgrimage and a cross.

Demeter: Who could have guessed that their wretched lives could hold such riches? For them I am a fierce mountain, bristling with forest; I am cloud and cave, goddess of harvests and towers and cities; Lady of the Lions, goddess of cradle and tomb, and mother of Core. Everything I am I owe to them.

Dionysus: They're always talking about me, too.

Demeter: Then shouldn't we help them more, Dionysus? Make amends to them somehow? Stand at their side in the brief instant of their lives?

Dionysus: You gave them grain, Deo. I gave them the vine. Let them be. What more do they need?

Demeter: I don't know why it is, but our gifts are always ambiguous. Double-bladed axes. My Son Triptolemus almost had his throat cut when he brought that Scythian stranger his gift of grain. Even your gifts cause the shredding of innocent blood, Dionysus. Or so I hear.

Dionysus: But they wouldn't be men if they weren't miserable. Death is what they're born for. It's death that drives them to their efforts, to memory and foresight. And don't go supposing, Deo, that their blood is any better than the wheat or wine with which we feed it. Blood is vile, foul, wretched.

Demeter: You're young, Iacchus, and you don't know that they discovered us in blood. You course restlessly through the world, and for you death is like wine: exalting, an ecstasy. But you forget that mortals have suffered every story they tell of us. How many mortal mothers have lost their Core and never seen her again? Even today the richest offering they make is blood.

Dionysus: Is it an offering, Deo? You know better than I that there was a time when they thought that in killing their victims they were killing us.

Demeter: Can you blame them? This is why I said they discovered us in blood. If for them death is the end and the beginning, then they have to kill us in order to see us reborn. They are very unhappy, Iacchus.

Dionysus: You think so? They seem stupid to me. But maybe not. They are so mortal that by killing themselves they give a meaning to life. They have to live and die their own stories.

--Cesare Pavese, Dialogues with Leuco, 1947, trans. William Arrowsmith & D.S Carne-Ross (Eridanos, 1989), p.176-177.

Forests #7

Une visite au Louvre - Straub-Huillet, 2004, 35mm


Together and apart we walked along the forest's sharply turning paths. Foreign to us, our steps were united, for they went in unison over the crackling softness of the yellow and half-green leaves that matted the ground's unevenness. But they also went separately, for we were two minds, with nothing in common except for the fact that what we weren't was already treading in unison over the same resonant ground. Autumn had already begun, and besides the leaves under our feet we could hear, in the wind's rough accompaniment, the constant falling of other leaves, or sounds of leaves, wherever we walked or had walked. There was no landscape but the forest, which veiled all others. But it was a good enough place for people like us, whose only life was to walk diversely and in unison over a moribund ground. I believe it was the close of day, the close of that day or any day, or perhaps all days, in an autumn that was all autumns, in the symbolic and true forest.

Not even we could say what homes, duties and loves we'd left behind. We were, in that moment, no more than wayfarers between what we didn't know, knights on foot defending an abandoned ideal. But that explained, along with the steady sound of trampled leaves and the forever rough sound of an unsteady wind, the reason for our departure, or for our return, since, not knowing where the path was, or why, we didn't know if we were coming or going. And always, all around us, the sound of leaves we couldn't see, falling we didn't know where, lulled the forest to sleep with sadness.

Although we paid no attention to each other, neither of us would've continued alone. We kept each other company with the drowsiness we both felt. The sound of our steps in unison helped each of us to think without the other, whereas our own solitary steps would have brought the other to mind. The forest was all false clearings, as if the forest itself was false, or were ending, but neither it nor the falseness were going to end. Our steps kept going in unison, and around the sound of the leaves we were trampling we heard a very soft sound of leaves falling in the forest that had become everything, in the forest that was the universe.

Who were we? Were we two, or two forms of one? We didn't know and we didn't ask. A hazy sun presumably existed, for it wasn't night in the forest. A vague aim presumably existed, for we were walking. Some world or other presumably existed, since a forest existed. But what it was or might be was foreign to us, two perpetual walkers treading in unison over dead leaves, anonymous and impossible listeners to falling leaves. Nothing else. A now harsh now gentle murmur of the inscrutable wind, a now loud now soft rustle of the unfallen leaves, a vestige, a doubt, a goal that had perished, an illusion that never was - the forest, the two walkers, and I, I, unsure of which one I was, or if I was both, or neither, and without seeing it to the end I watched the tragedy of nothing ever having existed but the autumn and the forest, the always rough and unsteady wind, and the always fallen and falling leaves. And always, as if surely there were a sun and day out there, one could see clearly - to nowhere - in the clamorous silence of the forest.

--Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith (Penguin, 2002), p.319-320.


Material evidence, or: our hoarsened voice


--Fury, Fritz Lang, 1936.

A great political film would not give us statistics, but figures instead. In Fury there are figures: how many people have been lynched per week for such and such a length of time. In Trop tôt, trop tard we included figures: a third of the population of such and such village is unable to survive...

--Jean-Marie Straub, in conversation with François Albera & Danièle Huillet, Sickle and Hammer, Cannons, Cannons, Dynamite!, 2001, published in the 2004 Straub-Huillet Viennale & Filmmuseum retrospective catalogue, p.43.

And yet we knew:
Even the hatred of squalor
Distorts one’s features.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow hoarse. We
Who wished to lay the foundation for gentleness
Could not ourselves be gentle.

But you, when at last the time comes
That man can aid his fellow man,
Should think upon us
With leniency.

--Bertolt Brecht, An die Nachgeborenen / To Those Who Follow in Our Wake, 1939.


Realism(s) #9, or: everything is alive



Francesco's sobs fill the sky. The brothers' singing fills the sky. Their passion fills the sky. / 'the sky was ablaze with flaming words of love' / Their dispersal fills the world. All are gone now, into the air.

--notes from Tag Gallagher's Francesco, giullare di Dio: A New Reality (video essay, presently unreleased, circa 2005/6). Images: Cântico das criaturas (Miguel Gomes, 2006).


Forests #6


tests caméra A-minima, pour tournage de 'La maladie blanche'

by Christelle Lheureux, at INDEPENDENCIA.


Realism(s) #8, or: everything was lost in the air and the wind


Direct Sound: An Interview with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

Q: Italy has, to the rest of the world, the reputation of being the country that dubs ‘the best.’ The Italians don’t just dub the foreign films, but Italian ones as well: they are shot without sound, or with an international sound track, then they are dubbed. You are members of that group – and they are few enough – who film directly with sound; that is, who film the images and record at the same time the sounds of those images.

Straub: Dubbing is not only a technique, it’s also an ideology. In a dubbed film, there is not the least rapport between what you see and what you hear. The dubbed cinema is the cinema of lies, mental laziness, and violence, because it gives no space to the viewer and makes him still more deaf and insensitive. In Italy, every day the people are becoming more deaf at a terrifying rate.

Huillet: The thing is still sadder when you think that it’s in Italy that, in a certain sense, Western music, polyphony, was born.

Straub: The world of sound is much more vast than the visual world. Dubbing, as it is practiced in Italy, does not work with the sound to enrich it, to give more to the viewer. The greatest part of the waves that a film contains come from the sound, and if in relation to the images the sound is lazy, greedy, and puritan, what sense does that make? But then, it takes courage to make silent films.

Huillet: The great silent films give the viewers the freedom to imagine the sound. A dubbed film doesn’t even do that.

Straub: The waves that a sound transmits are not just sound waves. The waves of ideas, movements, emotions, travel across the sound. The waves that we hear in a Pasolini film, for example, are restrictive. They do not enhance the image, they kill it.

Q: There are filmmakers like Robert Bresson or, better, Jacques Tati who use dubbing intelligently. Certain Tati films would be much less rich if they didn’t have artificial sound.

Straub: You can make a dubbed film, but it is necessary to use a hundred times more imagination and work to make a direct-sound film. In effect, the sonorous reality that you record is so rich that to erase it and replace it with another sonorous reality (to dub a film) would take three or four times the amount of time needed to shoot the film. On the contrary, the films are usually dubbed in three days, and sometimes in a day and a half, there is no work. It would make sense to shoot without sound and then make an effort with the sound, in counterpoint to the image. But filmmakers tend to paste the background noises to the silent images that give the impression of reality, the voices that don’t belong to the faces we see. It’s boring, vain, and a terrible parasitism.

Q: Filming with sound costs less than dubbing.

Straub: Yes, but that would kill the dubbing industry and it violates the local customs.

Huillet: Directors prefer to dub out of laziness: if you have decided to make a film with direct sound, the locations that you choose have to be right not only in terms of the images but also in terms of the sound.

Straub: And that is translated into a thorough analysis of the whole film. For example, our last film, Moses und Aron, the Schoenberg opera, we shot in the Roman amphitheatre of Alba Fucense, near Avezzano, in Abruzzi. But we weren’t looking for an ancient theatre. What we wanted was simply a high plateau, dominated, if possible, by a mountain. We started to look for this plateau four years ago, in a borrowed car, and we put 11,000 kilometres on it, driving more on back roads and country lanes than on paved roads, through all of Southern Italy, down to the middle of Sicily. In the course of this research, we didn’t see one plateau, no matter how beautiful, that was good for the sound, because when we found ourselves on a plateau, everything was lost in the air and the wind. And, if there was a valley, we were assaulted by the noises from below. We were therefore obliged to reconsider our intentions and we discovered what we wanted, which was a basin or crater. And in the end, we saw that to film in a basin, in our case the amphitheatre, was better for the images also, because we had a natural theatrical space in which the subject, instead of being dissolved, was concentrated. We followed the opposite course of the Taviani brothers or Pasolini, who look for pretty spots, postcards such as you see in magazines, in which the subject of the film is dissipated instead of being localised. For us, the necessity of filming with direct sound, of recording all the singers you see in the frame, of getting at the same time their songs and their bodies that sing, led us to discoveries that meant we arrived at an idea that we would never have had otherwise.

Q: Filming in direct sound means also editing in a certain way, rather than in another.

Straub: That’s obvious. When you film in direct sound, you can’t allow yourself to play with the images: you have blocks of a certain length and you can’t use the scissors any way you want, for pleasure, for effect.

Huillet: It’s exactly the impossibility of playing with the editing that is discouraging. You can’t edit direct sound as you edit the films you are going to dub: each image has a sound and you’re forced to respect it. Even when the frame is empty, when the character leaves the shot, you can’t cut, because you continue to hear off-camera the sound of receding footsteps. In a dubbed film, you wait only for the last piece of the foot to leave the range of the camera to cut.

Q: Many filmmakers don’t believe in an empty frame with sound that continues off-camera, because they want cinema to be a frame: it should have nothing outside. They deny the existence of a world outside the frame. In your films, the off-screen space is something that exists and is materially felt.

Straub: That’s another illusion of the dubbed film. Not only are the lips that move on the screen not the ones that say the words you hear, but the space itself becomes illusionary. Filming in direct sound you can’t fool with the space, you have to respect it, and in doing so offer the viewer the chance to reconstruct it, because film is made up of ‘extracts’ of time and space. It’s possible to not respect the space you are filming, but then you have to give the viewer the possibility of understanding why it has not been respected and not, as in dubbed films, transform a real space into a constructed labyrinth which puts the viewer into a confusion from which he can no longer escape. The viewer becomes a dog who can’t find its young.

Q: In sum, direct sound is not merely a technical decision but a moral and ideological one: it changes the whole film and especially the rapport that is established between the film and the viewer.

Huillet: I must say this: when you arrive at the conclusion that you must do a film like that, you cut yourself off from the industry, more or less completely. If you refuse to film with just a general sound track, if you refuse to dub your film, if you refuse to use such and such an actor because he’s been seen too much and it’s absurd to always use the same faces, it’s over. You cut yourself off completely. In fact, the main reason for dubbing is industrial: only by accepting the dictatorship of dubbing can you use two or three stars from different countries in the same film.

Straub: And the result is an international product, something stripped of words, onto which each country grafts its respective language. Languages that don’t belong to the lips, words that don’t belong to the faces. But it’s a product that sells well. Everything becomes illusion. There is no longer any truth. In the end, even the ideas and emotions become false. For example, in Allonsanfan, and I mention this film because it’s not worth talking about Petri’s or Lizzani’s, there is not a single moment, not one instant where there is a true, human emotion. Not even by accident, by chance. It’s trash. It has only the illusion of a comic book.

Q: Many filmmakers identify the international aesthetic with the popular aesthetic, and accept dubbing, stars from different countries, and the rest, because they think it’s the only way to make successful films.

Straub: The international aesthetic is an invention and weapon of the bourgeoisie. The popular aesthetic is always a personal aesthetic.

Q: For the bourgeoisie, there is no art that is not universal. The international aesthetic is like Esperanto.

Straub: Exactly. Esperanto has always been the dream of the bourgeoisie.

--trans. Bill Kavaler, Film Sound: Theory and Practice, eds. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton (Columbia UP, 1985), p.150-153. This seems to be, until the conversation with François Albera titled Sickle and Hammer, Cannons, Cannons, Dynamite! included in the 2004 Viennale Straub-Huillet retrospective catalogue (original French version here), the last interview with Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to be published in the English language. It is itself an abridged translation of a Cahiers du cinéma interview published in the 1970s. As far as I'm aware, nothing has emerged since. Information on any others is welcome.


Moses und Aron - Straub-Huillet, 1974, 35mm

Distance(s) #14

Einleitung zu Arnold Schönbergs Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielscene - Straub-Huillet, 1972, 16mm

Où gît votre sourire enfoui? - Pedro Costa, 2001, digital video


Peranson: Does [Straub] still want all of his films to be destroyed after his death?

Costa: It depends on his mood. I don't think so. They're the only filmmakers in the world that consider every shot that they have done as something done with pride and honour. Not even Godard can say that. And there is no second in one movie of theirs that they'd change. Straub told me his final testament that he wants on his grave, a quote from Hyperion by Hölderlin, which has something to do with going into oblivion, but leaving a very strong trace in the world.

Peranson: Which is an odd thing for a materialist to say.

Costa: Well, he said a very nice thing to me about that. Once he was teaching a film course in Germany, and he was talking about Moses und Aron [1974], and he said God three or four times in a lecture, and he saw some students were smiling, almost laughing. And he asked them, "Why are you laughing? If you laugh when you hear the word God, then you'll never make a film." And that proves to me that to be a materialist you have to be a mystic in the beginning... or the end.

--Pedro Costa, interviewed by Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope 27, 2006, p.15.

An aside, or: the ability to see

Playback - Hartmut Bitomsky, 1995, video


Realism(s) #7, or: bolts

Hamaca paraguaya - Paz Encina, 2006, 35mm

When Jean-François Millet paints two peasants praying in a field and calls it The Angelus, the title matches the reality.

--Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, The Old Place, 1999.

The Hay Trussers - Jean-François Millet, 1850-51

- Sharon Lockhart, 2003, 16mm

The Old Place - JLG & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1999, video


Today you don't see the image, you see what the title says about it. It's modern advertising.

--JLG & Anne-Marie Miéville, The Old Place, 1999.


Realism(s) #6, or: hands



Cinema is not a medium of touch, but of vision. Cinema translates most sensations of touch into glances.

--Harun Farocki, Der Ausdruck der Hände, 1997.

Hitchcock poses the question: what is death? How can it be portrayed? Can it be portrayed at all? It must be visible, for visibility is the foundation of the cinema. The audience believes it has seen a murder, but it has not taken place; no injured body, no wounds. Hitchcock operates with a cinematography of deception. He cannot show the murder, even though we think we've seen it. From the drain the image fades over to Marion Crane's eyes. They are rigid and unseeing. Seeing is, at the same time, seeing nothing. Not-seeing is the closest approach to death that Hitchcock can conceive of.

--Hartmut Bitomsky, Das Kino und der Tod, 1988.

Psycho, 1960 / Das Kino und der Tod - Hartmut Bitomsky, 1988, video




North by Northwest, 1959 / Der Ausdruck der Hände - Harun Farocki, 1997, video


The dead pile up, under attack. No one is left alive. A hand sticks out of the bodies. Where to turn to in this godforsaken place?

A landscape was chosen that exposes the man as if served on a plate. Without knowing it, he's being used. He has stumbled into an identity that was constructed by the C.I.A., and brought to a place where he does not belong. The film suggests that any identity is false, but nonetheless he runs for his life.

--Bitomsky, Kino Flächen Bunker, 1991


North by Northwest, 1959 / Kino Flächen Bunker - Hartmut Bitomsky, 1991, video


There are two types of dead in films. One has a destiny which the film is trying to communicate, the other(s) are nameless and faceless. They are numbers, indicating the extent of the losses. If you count up all the scenes; the killing, the dying, then there is a gigantic civil war going on.

--Bitomsky, Das Kino und der Tod, 1988.