During the last few weeks I have begun again a survey of the cinema focused upon the “alternative” of cinematic expression. I must confess that I do not feel intellectually equipped to properly analyze or debate Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet’s particular brand of cinema. Nonetheless, their contribution to the cinema at large is as immeasurable as that of Jacques Rivette or Mark Rappaport, though all of these filmmakers seem to go on ignored, for the most part, within popular discourse in this country. But what struck me in particular about Straub and Huillet’s films was not just their anti-nationalism or reflexivity (those are simply by-products of the mechanisms functioning within their cinematic language). Rather, it was how the two fundamental mechanisms of cinema itself, sound and image, were stripped down to their absolute minimum so that only in their repeated convergence could anything decipherable be communicated to the audience. This reduction in the mechanisms of cinema has been the work of a fifty year career for Straub and Huillet, and is, perhaps, best exemplified in the films Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1966), Sicilia! (1998) and Une Visite au Louvre (2004).
When one considers the critical impact of these films one is struck by the degree of objectivity achieved by these films in terms of how they present narrative, character, and object. Most dynamic in terms of contrasting opinions whose convergence results in an objective presentation is Une Visite au Louvre. The camera, or eye of the film, majestically caresses the forms housed within the Louvre with an awe for artistic achievement and cultural evolution whilst the soundtrack consists of a recitation of Joachim Gasquet’s critique of the particular works shown, as suggested by Cezanne, that vary from praise to condemnation. Thus the viewer, while contemplating the differing ideas and opinions suggested by the film, must inevitably draw their own conclusions. This is a cinema that demands the participation of its audience.
This demand on the audience is self-aware and part of Straub and Huillet’s objective as filmmakers. Like Brecht, or Straub’s own mentor Robert Bresson, Straub believes that the cinema should stimulate ideas in its audience. Of course, any critic could see how more traditional films that are far less structuralist, essayist, or theatrical than Straub’s could stimulate an audience’s collective intellect. Look at what Fire (1998) did to India when it was released. But those films are simply “matter”, to use Straub’s word. To better elaborate, in 1975 Straud told the magazine Enthusiasm “When you leave (Michael) Snow’s film (Rameau’s Nephew By Diderot) and see the end of Citizen Kane-on the TV screen admittedly-then you have the impression that that doesn’t function anymore”. What Straub goes on to say, paraphrasing a little, is that the cinema of Citizen Kane (1941) and a majority of narrative feature films use the “matter” of sound and image to create an illusion containing an idea, and that the function of this mainstream cinema is to sell the idea to the audience. In the quote above, Straub advocates a cinema where the “matters” are pinpointed in their convergence so as to have the effect of stimulating the audience so that, as a result, the audience manufactures its own subjective ideas with regards to the subject of the film.
It is in creating a cinema around this principle that has kept Straub and Huillet from being identified with any particular artistic or national movement in the cinema. Their expressions in film have remained entirely their own and have kept them among an elite of what I would consider truly innovative cinematic iconoclasts beyond critical categorization such as Chantal Akerman, Jacques Rivette, and Chris Marker. But this is the cinema at its most cinematic and, therefore, inaccessible.