One of the more striking shots in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) appears ever so briefly. A row of Italian anti-resistance villagers stand at a bar, peering over their shoulders at their more progressive-minded colleague sitting in a corner off-screen. It’s the first time in the scene that any of the characters are pictured all together within the space, an elegant mahogany interior resembling one of those saloons out of a John Ford western—both good reasons to linger on the shot; the mise en scène virtually demands it. Yet, against custom, Straub-Huillet spend no more than a scant, half-second on it, if that. This much is true, for cinema’s most uncompromising directorial duo, every shot counts.
It’s in no small part thanks to their unwavering rebellious stance—from insisting on using direct sound recording to consistently paying their crew upfront—that have earned Straub-Huillet a combination of ire and awe since they began making films in the 1960s. While their headstrong political attitude and scrupulous interpretation of key texts of the western canon into cinema have spawned all sorts of critical brouhaha, such reception has often overshadowed their subtle, formal contributions to the medium. Indeed, one could say that the couple have never pretended to do anything but work on the level of the shot. As Huillet, who passed away in 2006, once put it, “people say: ‘the Straubs work with words.’It’s not true. He looks for images,”even if they only appear for 1/10 of a second. The beauty and rigor that Straub-Huillet have invested into constructing—framing—their idea of what constitutes the cinematic image are the very subject of a new exhibition at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City. Crucially, it takes place in tandem with the Museum of Modern Art’s major retrospective of the couple’s films.
Organized chiefly by Jean-Louis Raymond, “Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: Films and Their Sites”is composed mostly of luscious, silver-halide photograms, two video transfers, and original and facsimiled annotated scripts. This is the fifth iteration of the show since it was first conceived in the late 1990s by the then-director of the Cinémathèque Française, Dominique Païni. A number of the selected stills will be familiar to those who’ve already encountered some of Straub Huillet’s most popular (relatively speaking) works: the clasped hand over Karl Rossman’s mouth in their Kafka adaptation, Class Relations (1984); Bach bent over playing the harpsichord in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968). Others, by virtue of being rarely screened stateside, are more alarming (and no less beautiful), like the shot of Claudette Baudoche who sits atop a hill looking over a small village in 1994’s Lothringen! Or the vertical triptych from Cézanne - Conversations with Joachim Gasquet (1990), in which a shot of Empedocles crying out to the heavens is sandwiched by a shot of Mount Saint Victoire from the top and a shot of a gated home from the bottom. Moreover, the gallery’s numerous windows invite plenty of sunlight that illuminate these stills—a fitting subtlety, as Straub-Huillet have long sought the strength of natural light to grace their own films.
That this is first U.S. exhibition devoted to the French pair makes the occasion something of a milestone. For a generation of cinephiles whose acquaintance with the notoriously austere Straub-Huillet has largely been limited to what they’ve gleaned from bootleg AVI files, the show provides the sort of discourse that have long been absent for one of the more inscrutable and richly satisfying bodies of work in cinema. That it coincides with a complete retrospective of their works at the Museum of Modern Art makes the present moment all the more momentous. Viewing a Straub-Huillet film can be a daunting procedure, and this exhibition, accessible without being oversimplified, precise without being overly precious, lessens the intellectual burden, and provides an alternative conduit to think about their works. The gallery’s chief, Miguel Abreu, who was pacing about the hallways of gallery on the morning of the show’s opening, put it pointedly. “One of the principles of the show,” he said, “is to manifest the stakes in their films and some of their expressive results—without the films.”
In this way the “Mallarmé Room”is the show’s most expressive curatorial endeavor—a kind of time chamber that presents three distinct mediums against each other, positioned in an oblique triangular formation. On one wall, a video loop of Straub-Huillet’s 1977 short, Every Revolution is a Throw of a Dice runs on a monitor. In the film, a group of unnamed individuals sit atop a hill nearby the Père-Lachaise cemetery, the site of the last mass murder shooting of the 1871 Paris Commune, and bellow out lines from Stephane Mallarmé’s arcane, symbolist masterpiece, A Throw of a Dice will Never Abolish Chance. At hand along the gallery’s adjacent wall is a complete copy of Mallarmé’s poem in the original French. Across the other walls is a long row of original stills from the short, showing each of the reciters sitting resplendently on the grass. Considered in this three-way dynamic (“We’re trying to suspend the mediums,”Miguel Abreu stated), the works here escape the trap of becoming mere documentation, the provenance of so many lazy art shows. Instead of claiming to reveal answers, the works in this room tacitly raise questions, many of which have to do with Straub-Huillet’s relationship to literary works, an admittedly peculiar domain. After all, Mallarmé, that high priest of Art’s mystery, isn’t the most likely poet to be paired with as blood-soaked a revolution as the Commune. Abreu chuckles when the question of interpretation was brought up. “They’ve [Straub-Huillet] always fought with academics about a meaning of a text,”he remarked. “But they don't care. It’s their reading of it that matters.”
The couple’s annotated scripts would seem to support this notion. On display is the original production notebook for their 1987 Hölderlin adaptation, The Death of Empedocles. It is dizzying in its articulation of shooting logistics and camera angles, drafts one wouldn’t normally expect from filmmakers who rarely deviate from static shots and the occasional pan. At the very least, the documents are evidence of Straub-Huillet’s exacting efforts. In addition to being fastidious with the framing of an image, they are no less meticulous with a film's soundtrack. One wall devotes seventeen pages from the voiceover script to A Visit to the Louvre (2004). Marked up by Huillet in bright blues and reds, the script, wild like a Surrealist’s sketchbook, indicate the kind of painstaking dedication they place on precision, and in this case, toward diction and cadence. In these pages, there are requests for the narrator to stress the ends of each word, to practice repeating certain lines (“exercer elles”), to recite them with greater tautness (“tendez”), to take long breathes at the end of them, and in other instances, to take shorter ones. What comes across in Huillet’s scrawl isn't just the labor, but the joy involved in it.
Then again, joy isn’t a typical reaction to Straub-Huillet’s work (many times panned for being excruciating and pedantic), but one could argue that it is an integral aspect of their filmmaking philosophy, a position informed by their solidarity with class struggle and a love for nature, and of which the gallery show accurately delineates. (Indeed, the first work that greets visitors is a creased original poster for their 2001 Elio Vittorini adaptation, Workers, Peasants.) “Their work activates so many layers of history and the way they work, the ethic of their image, their craftsmanship, is so shareable and so raw,”Abreu explained. “As a gallery you’re here to show things. So for me they’re exemplary in their work, in what they show. They have an utmost respect for preexisting things. They think that ‘we’re not just going to add one more layer of self-expression.We’re just going to self-express through service to a preexisting object.’ So as a gallery, we’re just adding one more layer to a line.”
The prospect of creating an experience that is at once faithful and supplemental to the original films and also wholly autonomous is a daunting measure, but one that the organizers were keen on tackling. Still, while one senses this balance throughout the show, there are parts of it that don’t quite succeed in illuminating this relationship, like the inclusion of a MoMA control recording of the last 15 minutes to a 35mm print of History Lessons (1972). Though the video transfer would seem to be concomitant with the exhibition’s general emphasis on a film’s sense of place (“site”), it neither illuminates the source work nor offers anything substantive as a standalone piece. (The print itself is heavily scratched and bathed in a pinkish hue.) It does little else but fall directly into that category of “documentation" that the organizers were originally wary of, and ultimately favors neither the amateur nor the initiated.
This is a minor grouse, though. For the most part, the exhibition skillfully surmounts the obvious difficulty in properly depicting a time-based medium through freeze-frame stills. Even if the press notes tend to describe the show in overly speculative terms—“the Straubs’ frame conveys time; it is inscribed within the duration of the image”—there are at least two parts of the exhibition that justify its theoretical leaning.
One part features thirteen frames culled from Not Reconciled (1965) that run along the tail-end wall of the gallery’s long hallway, and the other features six from The Death of Empedocles in the gallery’s most spacious and light-filled room. Unlike the other photograms in the exhibition, these works are sequential and attempt to lay bare how cinematic time operates in a spatial register. Apart from the title card, the frames from Not Reconciled present a continuous moment in the film in which the shot of a kiosk vendor cuts to one of the character Robert Schrella (played by Ulrich von Thüna) walking towards a small town. Five of the frames from The Death of Empedocles, or a 1/4 of a second of cinema, present the same shot of a patch of dirt and shrubs, with the first one including the French subtitles, “Without any needs, he wanders.” The last frame shows actress Martina Baratta playing Panthea in ancient garb. Given the short length, not much differentiates the frames from each other, but then again, that’s sort of the point. “It’s this idea that you are walking along a half or quarter second of cinema,” Abreu said, with delight. A Straub-Huillet shot has often been described as an event, and here even as stills, these images, like the short glimpse of the bar patrons, seem to erupt with passionate immediacy.