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    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.


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    Matt Page

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    Sunday, April 25, 2021

    Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa, 2001)

    Regular readers will know that, owing in part to my fascination with Moses und Aron (1975) I like to write about the work of the film's directors Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. At the risk of pushing things even further I recently got a chance to watch Pedro Costa's documentary Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001) shot in the editing suite as Straub and Huillet worked on their 1999 film Sicilia!

    Naturally this is a film that I have wanted to view for a while, not least because Jean Luc Godard called it "the best film ever made about film editing" (see this video), so the fact that it you can currently stream it from Grasshopper/Projectr.tv. was great news for me.

    As you might expect the film reflects much of its stars' trademark style: diagonal shots and long takes captured with a fixed and seemingly impassive camera. If you count film as a text, then one could even go further and note that the passage of Elio Vittorini's novel "Conversazione in Sicilia" into Huillet and Straub's film and then into Costa's documentary is typical of their multi-layered adaptations. Indeed much of the running time is given over to close-ups of that 'text', primarily shot from the screen in the editing suite. Brief excerpts play and then are re-wound, forward and back until the subtitler gives up translating and we wait while one of them pinpoints the frame they were trying to find.

    The subtleties revealed by this are immense. Seemingly insignificant details, the slackness in a wrist, the bow of a head, a branch flitting about in the background are highlighted and debated as the pair seek to solve the problems they cause. As someone without any experience of what happens in the editing room it's hard to know if this is typical or not. Perhaps if Costa had set up shop with Scorsese and Schoonmaker the same level of exacting precision would have been captured, but it seems unlikely that the rigour on display here is typical. It's perhaps all the more surprising because of the length of the typical shot in a Straub-Huillet film. One wonders about the number of shots it has taken to even taken them to get this far.

    Yet if Costa's film bears many of the marks of its subjects' style then one key difference is the way in which the dialogue is delivered. In many Huillet-Straub films it is deliberately very mannered and forced. There's an emphasis on rhythm and cadence of the language (which gets mention at one point here). Yet the dialogue here is quite the reverse. I don't know for a fact how Costa shot it but all the indicators point towards it simply being their natural dialogue. And what dialogue it is! Much of it is the back and forth of a married couple who are closing in on 40 years of working together. They bicker and chide, but never with anger, or to cause offence - these conversations feel well worn, familiar, perhaps even comfortable. Huillet (as the primary editor) is trying to focus on the task in front of her and Straub injects with something unrelated. Or he messes with the light. Clearly these discussions have happened many times before and so you sense so much about the strength of both their relationship and the nature of couples who have been together for so long. She knows how he is: he wouldn't object to changing but just cannot Time has mellowed their little conversations, and in any case there is a film to make.

    In between this domestic banality there is a masterclass in film philosophy and practice. Straub talks about this similarities between editing a film and a sculptor working with marble. Just as the sculptor has to work with the veins in the raw material so must they. Elsewhere Straub, in the words of John Dickson "can’t help telling stories about Bunuel, Ray, Chaplin, and Eisenstein, as he paces in and out the door of their editing room, which might as well be the portal to another world".(1) 

    That portal effect (see above) is one Costa creates by his immersion of the camera in the dark recesses of the editing suite. There are no establishing shots, introduction or pre-suite interviews. The film starts in the editing room and remains there except for a few scenes where the pair present the show to an audience. The camera moves position, occasionally someone even turns on the light, but it's a film of warm shadows and silhouettes. The filmmakers are present, usually on camera (unless Sicilia! is), but only rarely in such a way to be able to capture their features. Instead we capture their essence. Their warmth and humour, but also their focus, particularly Huillet's who keeps the more restless Straub on course.

    I'd like to go into more detail, but am both pushed for time and my three-day ticket has expired. I'm aware that Costa's role is pivotal. As Jean Pierre Gorrin asks "What did he do to give us the Straubs with such vitality?"(2). But I'm also short of time and the chance to re-watch it. But the film has been written about else where (in addition to Dickson and Gorrin) and those reviews do enough to re-kindle my memories.

    It would be easy to dismiss this as a film about insignificant details, and, as with many of Straub, Huillet's films it can seem paradoxically dull and engorssing. But it's a film that stays with you. Its words and images. Having never heard Huillet and Straub talk before it's fascinating to see them move, speak, discuss and work, and to see the relationship between them. For that along it will be memorable, but it also captures so much of their spirit. In a wonderful final shot the two approach the theatre inside a cinema where Sicilia! is playing. Outside in the red velvet lobby Huillet continues up the stairs to the projection booth, but Straub stays behind as the music drifts out from inside. He sits on the stairs as if soaking in the moment. In one sense he seems to revel in having a solitary moment left to his own devices. But in another he seems alone and bereft without her. Like so much that has gone before its a moment that seems to encapsulates their relationship perfectly.

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    1 - Dickson, John (2017) "Pedro Costa’s WHERE DOES YOUR HIDDEN SMILE LIE? (Documentary Revival)" in Cine File: Cine: List (Friday July 21 -  Thursday, July 27). Available online: https://www.cinefile.info/cine-list/2017/7/21/-friday-july-21-thursday-july-27-

    2 - Gorrin, Jean Pierre (2016) "Nine Notes on Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?" in Ted Fendt (ed.)  Jean-Marie Straub & Danèle Huillet, Vienna: Synema Publikationen, p.156.

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