For this first review in my themed month, I’ve chosen a documentary, the most straightforward way to deal with the art of filmmaking. Needless to say this one by Portuguese director Pedro Costa is hardly straightforward and instead presents an elegiac look at a vanishing art, filled as much with darkness as light in its depiction of two avant-garde filmmakers at work.
The majority of my reviews on this blog are of mainstream releases, and I can’t really pretend that the reviews for films I get around to seeing on the arid and obscure nether reaches of auteurist ephemera ever really garner much in the way of readership. Yet growing up in New Zealand there were few destinations to see decent films, so my tastes soon got shaped by the programming at the annual film festival and by my local video shop (Aro Street), and then of course I studied film at university. So I still get a thrill watching stuff that in our digital download age remains properly hard to come by, made by filmmakers with little regard for the norms of narrative cinema or apparent interest in the capricious tastes of audiences. The filmmaking team of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet are figures from a past generation of cineastes that spring most easily to mind in this respect, just as Pedro Costa can be numbered among a more updated, modern strand of the same kind of cinematic mentality (though their methods are quite different). So this documentary made by the latter about the former, for an excellent French TV series called Cinéastes de notre temps (therefore not entirely obscure), was already fascinating to me, and seeing it in a cinema with the director present and a full audience reminds me that the cinema exemplified by Straub/Huillet and Costa need not to be quite so abstracted and rarefied a pleasure. Its appeal need not even be restricted to those with an interest in either of these auteurs, for the film which results is about filmmaking as a craft — primarily via a focus on film editing — and about finding that passion for something you love, even as it all feels a little bit elegiac.
As mentioned above, the primary location for the film is an editing suite, where Straub and Huillet are working on their 1999 film Sicilia! (which I didn’t see until after I’d watched this documentary). Huillet sits at the editing booth, while Straub offers his opinions to her as they (and we the audience) look at the film’s scenes, replaying small moments over and over again and noting the tiniest of details of gesture, eye movement, extraneous detail, even sound (for such are the concerns of the editor). Straub also paces around, holding forth about various subjects related to their own work practice and to film history, addressing his comments to an unseen and unheard interlocutor (not always Huillet, and never directly to Costa, but perhaps just to himself, such is his manic energy). As such, much of the film takes place in the perilous darkness, lit only sporadically by the editor’s lamp (which flicks on only when the footage is not playing on screen), or the light from the outside corridor when Straub pops out — which happens frequently, incessantly — while Huillet is cutting the film.
If this insight into their methods has its own fascination, what’s striking is how out of time it seems, even for 1998 when they were making their film, as Huillet physically marks and cuts the lengths of film that she runs through spools, watching the footage on a small monitor accompanied by the loud mechanical whirr of the machinery. But it also has a sort of purity given the very spare images that they have filmed — all the ones we see are a series of dialogues between two people, echoing perhaps the dynamic in this very documentary — and makes the viewer think even more about the choices they make as editors about where exactly to transition between one shot and the next. It also occasions some comparison with Costa’s own methods, who unlike Straub and Huillet is not restricted to a strip of film with its image and soundtrack combined — indeed, the older filmmakers spend a lot of time contemplating where to cut based on extraneous noises that crop up, such as a car door slamming in the background, which would seem bizarre to a modern editor for whom the soundtrack is quite separate from the image. And so Costa has some of the cranky monologues being delivered by Huillet matched with the footage they’re looking at — or maybe not looking at, given that we only hear their voices much of the time (and it would appear, from what I’ve subsequently read, that in fact Straub’s comments are being addressed to unseen students) — meaning that the final film is every bit as much a construction as the one Straub and Huillet are working on.
If as a film this makes it sound particularly slow and difficult to watch, then it is at least leavened by humour, as the two older filmmakers (a married couple) bicker incessantly and amusingly at each other’s contributions. Or rather, it is Huillet who is more often heard grumpily telling off Straub for his meandering monologues and for some of his interventions to the editing discussion. However, the rhythms of the film are certainly slower than most, as the faces of the filmmakers only dimly stand out from the gloom of their editing room, accompanied periodically by the deliberately-paced drama of their film. But for those with the patience, what results is a beautiful work. In some senses, it’s a film about love in one’s declining years (Huillet died five years after this film was released), whether that be love between two people or a love for one’s métier, in this case filmmaking. It’s an elegy for what’s been lost — the craft of Huillet on her archaic apparatus, or the strangely spectral images seemingly from another era as projected on the editing machine — and for its power to still affect us. But it’s the single-minded focus on the craft of making a film that shines through most of all, as Straub and Huillet argue over the exact frame where a gesture or an emotion begins in their actors, or Straub angrily sounds off about filmmakers who have lost his respect (Woody Allen and John Cassavetes are mentioned).
It’s a curious documentary then, but a beautiful one, that captures something of the essence of cinema itself through its blend of an inky dark canvas punctured by flashes of light, manipulated film footage, and the absolute focus of its filmmakers. It may not make you appreciate Straub and Huillet’s films any more, but it makes you respect their earnest devotion to their art.
Director Pedro Costa; Cinematographers Costa and Jeanne Lapoirie; Starring Jean-Marie Straub, Danièle Huillet; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 9 January 2014.