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Straub and Huillet's exacting, cold craftsmanship


At the n+1 website, Max Nelson takes stock of the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, who are the subjects of multiple current exhibitions and book projects, including a retrospective at MOMA. Their exacting craftsmanship and refusal of commercial cinema makes them paragons of independent, adventurous filmmaking. But as Nelson suggests, their total rejection of cinematic techniques of emotional manipulation renders some of their work less affecting and compelling than it could be:

Over their fifty-year career, which lasted from their marriage in 1959 until Huillet’s death in 2006, Straub and Huillet gave themselves many “cardinal rules.” They took tremendous care to respect anything over which they might have control—the spaces they shot in, the voices they recorded, the texts they adapted, the actors they cast—and they spoke equally often of respecting the moviegoers who watched their films. Most commercial movies were crude devices for eking money out of browbeaten viewers—“abusing holy things as stock in trade”—and their own work was, to them, a brave resolve to “[cleave] to sun and ether”: to give their audiences the freedom they thought most films withheld. Their films can be thrilling purgatives, a vision of what the movies could look like cleared of anything lazy or complacent or pat. But they also suggest how the parameters set by respect—by the determination not to exploit—can restrict in their own way …

But there is something wrongheaded about the couple’s insistence that their primary political task was to “give people the liberty to get up and leave.” Their talk of “respecting the space” can be exasperating, as can be Huillet’s concern that they not “assassinate the bird” in their editing, and Pummer’s contention that “Straub-Huillet’s understanding of materialism . . . is deeply grounded in the belief that the medium of film can be entrusted with the task of recording, showing and revealing while the filmmaker steps back to allow viewers to see for themselves.” No interesting filmmaker has ever “stepped back” and turned down the job of “showing and revealing” things. Nor did Straub and Huillet, although they sometimes claimed to.

Where Pummer sees an admirable refusal not to bully the viewer, it’s also possible to see a kind of unwillingness on Straub and Huillet’s part to dirty their hands, to engage openly in the sorts of deceptions and elisions and selective modifications movies depend on to generate their energy and life. How can it be that cutting a passage of birdsong short, overdubbing a soundtrack, or moving the camera through a peripheral sightline constitutes a serious offense to a moviegoer’s freedom of imagination, whereas refusing to allow spontaneous human interactions into one’s movies does not? Considering what startling and majestic images they often produced, Straub and Huillet are two of the rare filmmakers you wish had been more willing to coerce, manipulate, and deceive you than they were.

Image: Still from Straub and Huillet’s The Death of Empedocles (1986). Via n+1.