• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2020

    Book Review - Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: 'Objectivists' in Cinema

    Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema
    Benoît Turquety
    (Translated by Ted Fendt)

    Amsterdam University Press 
    315 pages
    ISBN 978-9463722209

    The resurgence of interest in Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in recent years has seen a blossoming of scholarship about them, particularly in English. Benoît Turquety's Danièle Huillet, Jean-Marie Straub: "Objectivists" in Cinema, translated into English by Ted Fendt, sits alongside  Fendt's own "Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet" (2016); Sally Shafto and Katherine Pickard's "Writings", also 2016; and Ute Holl's 2017 "The Moses Complex", about Moses und Aron; and with Tobias Hering and Annett Busch's "Tell It to the Stones: Encounters with the Films of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub" due later in the year there is suddenly a wealth of material.

    Turquety's angle is his argument that Huillet and Straub's films share striking similarities with the work of the Objectivist poets, especially Louis Zukofsky, he also discusses George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff. The brief introduction lays out this scope. Returning to Jacques Rivette's review of Fritz Lang's Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1956) Turquety suggests Straub and Huillet attempted to take it to an extreme "in which all traces or residues of subjectivity -- of personal intervention and even of style -- disappear in favour of a form precisely calculated according to rigorous principles" (11). He sees similarities with their use of pre-existing texts, precision and minimising personal comment, with artists such as Poe, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Mallarmé and particularly a group of early 20th century poets known as the Objectivists. He concludes with a brief introduction to them and the principles behind their work.

    The remainder of the book is sub-divided into four sections: Part One "Foundations", Part Two "Language/Authority", Part Three "Interruptions" and Part Four "Trials, Series". Chapter 1 ("Erotic Barbarity") looks at 1969's Othon or to use its official title Les Yeux ne veulent pas en tout temps se fermer, ou Peut-être qu’un jour Rome se permettra de choisir a son tour (Eyes don’t want to stay shut all the time, or Perhaps one day Rome will let herself choose at her turn). Turquety uses Othon as an access points to the pair's oeuvre in general - the visibility of the layers of history, the importance of sound, the actors' delivery and particularly their use of framing which could be considered "violently off-balance" (27) or conversely, "atonal" (28). This desire to "have it both ways" (29) is also echoed in their desire for both "intelligent classicism...and radical novelty" (29) and "material and fleeting meaning" and whilst this "disconcerts people" it is also a reminder that "The work exists first as the site of loss" (29).

    The other chapter in part one is called "Objectivity and Objectivities" and takes a close look at the word "Objectivists" in the book's title. Turquety starts by repeating an oft-used summary of Huillet/Straub, that "they 'deconstruct' the 'codes' of 'classical cinema' (31), before discussing three different meanings for the term 'Objectivity': "the work of art as an object" (39), "the 'objectivity' of perception" (39) and in the sense of "impartiality" (40). The question facing Huillet and Straub is "How does one make political cinema if it must also be a hands-off cinema?" (41). Turquety finds here a link to similar questions being posed in the earlier part of the last century by "The Objectivists", a group of poets whose ideas mirror those of Straub-Huillet's, and so spends the majority of the chapter discussing their ideas. Primarily homing in on Louis Zukofsky, he also discusses George Oppen and Charles Reznikoff, declaring that the "three of them represent the core of what is at stake" (49). Turquety discusses the theory behind their work, breaking it down into three sections "The Eye and the Object" (50-53), "Sincerity and Objectivation" (53-56) and "Objectivist Politics" (56-62) before shifting the focus to the similarities with Cézanne and composers Bach and Schoenberg whose work was so prominent in Huillet and Straub's early films. The summary here seems to be that the "originality of Objectivist art theory is its affirmation that abstraction (objectification) and figuration (sincerity) are complementary, that sincerity is necessary for objectification, but also, in return, objectification alone permits exactitude...at the heart of sincerity" (58).

    Part 2 ("Language/Authority") takes two different approaches to the couple's 1975 film Moses und Aron, which will be where this volume is of most interest to regular readers of this site. Chapter 3 - "The Power of Speech (or the Voice), of Seeing and the Path: Moses and Aaron" - offers a detailed analysis of the film, not as long as Ute Holl's monograph, but at almost 75 pages, it's the second longest piece of writing on the film available in the English language. working sequentially through the film it compares Schoenberg's work with Huillet/Straub's, noting the areas where they subvert his meanings with their own intentions. Despite initially seeming neutral, Straub and Huillet's subtle uses of cinematic techniques such as mise en scène present a different take on the subject from Schoenberg's opera. Take for example the widely discussed opening scene where God, the burning bush and Moses' face all remain off camera. "The theme of seeing (or not seeing) is one of the foundations of the opening sequence" (79). "We do not see what Moses sees: we do not see Moses seeing....it would be unthinkable for this to happen differently" given both works explore the problems of a god who is unseen, "this framing was, in some ways, the only logical one" (79).

    The difference between the two works perhaps finds its fullest expression in shot 19 where the choir representing the people (rather than the choir representing God) is first displayed on screen. "It sings off-screen before a pan brings it into the frame" (81). Because the God-choir remains off screen the fact that the people-choir begin the shot off-screen "it is inevitable that we think both choirs are the same", that "burning bush=off screen people" (81). Turquety considers this "a forced, if not radical, inversion of Schoenberg's content" (81). Later he explains that "Huillet and Straub effectively make a counter-reading of Schoenberg's opera and empty it of what is at the centre: God" (93).

    Turquety then examines the depiction of  the three miracles (though finding the term "problematic" (98)). I'm not sure I completely agree with his argument that "Historically, there was a miracle -- at least a 'sign' or 'prodigy'. Egyptian magicians performed them too, to a certain extent" (102, emphasis original). Nevertheless, his point is that onscreen because, for example we see a staff being thrown in one shot, then a snake in the next, and then a staff being picked up, the "miracle is the hole between the images" (102). He also notes the circularity of these miracles, "water is blood and then water again" (100).

    Finally in this chapter, Turquety ends by looking at the orgies and power struggles in Act II and the unfinished Act III. Again Huillet and Straub subvert Schoenberg's stated intention that the orgy gets increasingly out of hand, by producing a "logical" (113) and "rather well-behaved" (115) orgy. Turquety cites the July-August "Cahiers du Cinema" interview in 1975 where Straub observed that "they are a people suffering from despair" (p.20, cited on 113). Turquety considers Act III as a "theoretical reversal of the situation, a response to the question: what would have happened if the other had won" (120), in other words "here is a film that offers two endings and maintains that both are the ending" (120, emphasis original). He sees this as Straub/Huillet's "desire to exacerbate the tension to the point of mutually destroying the two 'conductors'" , Moses and his brother (121). Furthermore this is the nature of the objectivity Turquety is discussing in Huillet and Straub's work. "The work forms an impasse and implodes; it is this implosion" (122).

    The second chapter in this section (4. 'Speech Against Power, or Poetry, Love and Revolution: "A"-9') primarily returns to Zukofsky - "a young, leftist, Jewish and atheist intellectual" (130) - and offers an in-depth analysis of his objectivist poem "A"-9. Starting by analysis the poems relation to the rest of his work "A", the nature of it's two distinct halves and its adoption of the canzone song form, he proceeds to draw on some of the similarities with Straub and Huillet's work. In particular, he draws attention to their similar "use of pre-existing texts through interferences between semi-independent, superimposed structures, apposition, disjunction, quotation, etc., techniques always reflecting in problems in the relation between language and things, language and images, language and power, the gaze, love and art." (147). Turquety concludes that for both Zukofsky and Huillet/Straub "the resulting forms are their objectivation" (147).

    Part three consists of a single chapter (five) though at eighty pages long it is by far the book's longest. In it Turquety turns to a number of Huillet and Straub's other works: Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg's 'Musical Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene'" (1972), History Lessons (1972), Too Early/Too Late (1981), Cézanne (1989), Every Revolution is a Throw of the Dice (1979) and The Bridgegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp (1968) as well as Chaplin's Modern Times (1936) as discussed by Zukofsky. Indeed Turquety summarises Zukofsky's 1936 essay on Chaplin's art as that which moves beyond artistic intentions (which are "always predatory" (166) - "it does not matter what an author thinks", 166-7) and which "to allow the work to act on its own" (169). That Huillet and Straub held Chaplin in such high esteem surprises many, but becomes a little more comprehensible in light of the fact that his mastery of cinematic tools had inspired Zukofsky's to make it "a goal of poetry" (306).

    As with previous chapters Turquety uses this selection of Straub and Huillet's films to note the common ground they share with objectivist poets. In particular, their use of quotation (often without attribution); montage as a form of ideogram; fixity's similarity to long static shots; the importance of form as much, if not more than 'content'; cuts as interruptions; and, lastly the way they use abstract links between material as a type of fugue to unite seemingly disparate material. These are the aspects of filmmaking which make Huillet-Straub films so distinctive and Turquety makes a strong, detailed persistent case for them as objectivist intentions, not that they are "trying to put 'cinematic equivalents' in place", but relying on "material form" (180). The author is not arguing that a "Huillet and Straub shot is an equivalent of Zukofsky's poem or would have the same effect or act in the same way" but that they share "common preoccupations, ambitions, conceptions, and concerns" (206).

    Having drawn out parallels between the objectivist poets and numerous films across Huillet and Straub's career, chapter 6, which opens the book's fourth section, focuses on a single film, Klassenverhältnisse (Class Relations, 1983). Turquety posits that both Straub and Huillet's film and Kafka's "The Man Who Disappeared", from which it is adapted, are built around "a series of catastrophic encounters that take the shape of endless trials." (240). The majority of this chapter hones in on the presentation of first such trial from Klassenverhältnisse where Karl attempts to defend the stoker in the presence of his captain. Huillet and Straub film this scene (and others) almost entirely from a single camera position. They use this approach to highlight the power dynamics which are latent in the scene primarily by their use of consistent camera placement and the cuts and editing between shots. By muting out more distracting elements, these facets are more clearly highlighted. Turquety relates this to similar themes in George Oppen's poetry. Whereas in Oppen's Discrete Series poetry "The eruption of the 'I'...interrupts and breaks the poem" (269), Karl, in the film's final scene, ultimately "abandons any idea of subjectivity" (272).

    The trial theme is carried over into chapter 7 "On Dissolution" with two other of Huillet and Straub's films which also both structured around trials. Turquety opens with an analysis of The Death of Empedocles (1987), adapted from Hölderlin's play noting that "what Huillet and Straub maintain from the play is organized into two symmetrical parts, each ending in a big trial" (283). But the film is really about the force of language, "an instrument of domination (rhetoric) that prepares and fulfils its own dissolution" (285). Straub and Huillet "radicalize [(the play's] dramatic stasis by pushing the actor's immobility to the limit" (282) so that any small variation in pose, diction or use of the camera becomes significant. Turquety quotes Straub statement that "sensations must never be provoked, sensations must be translated" (281).1 This thought also carries over into his discussion of Workers, Peasants (2001) starting with a comparison with another objectivist work, this time Charles Reznikoff's "Testimony" (287). Reznikoff's poem takes extracts "from testimonies and trials, from...within a judicial framework" (287) reformatting them into poetry with neutrality as a core principle. In similar fashion Workers, Peasants adapts four chapters focused on disputes from Vittorini's novel "Women of Messina" namely chapters 44-47 which stand out "in the novel, [as] the text of these four chapters is formally distinguished from the rest: it does not appear in classic narrative form, but in an almost theatrical manner" (293). As with Empedocles the directors draw "from a limited pool of gestures, postures, and other cinematic elements" (293) such that the film becomes "a study of the possibility, limits, and modalities of an objective language whose paradigm...is legal testimony (296). But in the published script Vittorini's prose is presented as verse, "though every word was written by Vittorini" (296), such reformatting destroys the link between form and content, creating "an objectivation of language" (296) which, as with Reznikoff, "superimposes a very different form of perception on the question of testimony...deeply modifying the problem of judgment" (296).  Thus the film reflects Reznikoff's emphasis on "neutrality", content based on testimony and comparable use of "editing" to reshape the material.

    The book's brief conclusion neatly draws together its main arguments and ideas.  As Turquety has ably demonstrated the films of Straub and Huillet sits alongside the poetry of Zukofsky, Oppen and Reznikoff; as well as the writings of  Hölderlin and Kafka; the paintings of Cézanne and the music of Schoenberg through the value they place on ideas such as sobriety, impersonality and neutrality - ideas at the heart of Objectivism (303). Yet at the same time these are radical works, both in terms of form and (crucially) because of this mastery of form, politics - "only the strictest formal requirements could create a true political presence for an artistic work" (304). Returning to the idea that "intention is ultimately just a predatory manifestation" (305, author's emphasis) adaptation in the hands of Huillet and Straub is "not a matter of presenting a personal gloss of the original text, but presenting the text as neutrally as possible, while including several structural layers that, without touching it, simultaneously analyse it and even critique it" (305). It is this analytical approach which eschews a "focus on the characters' inner psychological conflicts and instead emphasizes relations -- of class, power and desire" (306). This is particularly true when remaining objective when handling materials in the form of testimonies and trials, "questioning language and its effectiveness, problems of truth and power (rhetoric), and the organization of space and politics (307). 

    A significant proportion of the four other recent Huillet/Straub books mentioned in my introduction are given over to original documents and reflections of the couple's working practices. Whilst this is most welcome, it does mean that analysis of Straub and Huillet's work is still fairly sparse (in English at least). Roud (1971) and Byg (1995) only consider the first twenty years of the couple's output. Ursula Böser (2004) only adds Class Relations and Cézanne to this list of analysed works. Excellent as these titles are, it's great to have some in depth analysis on other films such as Too Early/Too Late and Workers, Peasants. The challenge for many will be, as it was for me, their inexperience with poetic analysis, but readers should not be put off - these sections are no harder to understand than the rest of the work and the comparison between, for example, line breaks in poetry and cuts between shots in cinema illuminates understanding of the latter, rather than obscuring it. Make no mistake, this is a complex work operating at a high level, but it is rewarding and repays repeated readings. There's the odd mistake (a bullet point falls into 'open breach' on page 241, for example) but ultimately Turquety's book throws fresh light onto Huillet and Straub's work in general which remains important, even as it is difficult to understand. And anyone wanting a more in depth understanding or Othon, Moses und Aron, Class Relations, Death of Empedocles or ;Workers, Peasants, would be well advised to track down a copy.

    1 - Daney, Serge and Narboni, Jean (1979) "Entretien avec Jean Marie Straub et Danieèle Huillet", Cahiers du Cinema, 305 (November) p.18.

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