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April 13, 2010


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"What matters, rather, is the physical presence of the text, of the speaker, of his gestures as he delivers Hölderin's lines, of the way in which his body moves relative to the landscape and the frame, even of the impeccable cut of his toga as seen against the magnificence of the natural settings. The cinema, in other words."

This reminds me of the Manny Farber interview at the back of Negative Space where he is talking about The Far Country and what the heck all those actors are doing on that unlikely little porch:

"You couldn’t play that scene without turning it into magic. Because the camera’s there. If you put a camera in front of anything in human affairs and provide some stupid lines, it’s gotta be magical."

It amounts to a poetics of interest - does something interest you enough that you want to watch it again and again, investigate its every nuance and ask it all kinds of questions that don't have answers. The thing is, this has always been a part of watching movies. You can marvel at the 'exactly-so' quality of what takes place in Hammer films just as you can in Straub/Huillet. If Straub and Huillet analyzed it in such immense detail going in, the viewer still has to apply this microscopic metaphysical analysis to it on the way out. And if you're going to go to the trouble, you might as well put that effort into The Far Country, an enjoyable film.

As for Rosenbaum's "the cinema," I say Fuck it. I came from a small town, so small that even the nearest "big" city didn't have theatres at which you'd see anything like Bresson. I rented VHS as a teenager / young adult and, believe me, had road-to-Damascus moments as assuredly as Jonathan Rosenbaum has at his thea-tah. Viewing conditions aren't the important conditions. What's important is the internal conditions that allow a person to encounter a film at a particular moment in his life and be wowed. Francis Bacon never saw the Velazquez that obsessed him his whole life other than in reproduction. David Smith changed from painting to sculpture after seeing photographs of Picasso sculptures in a magazine. I don't share this fetish for pristine works of art in pristine conditions, because, if the art is good, experience just proves that you don't need them (the perfect conditions) for something magical to take place. Bresson in the theatre is almost an unknown to my generation and I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I've seen for myself that the qualities in Bresson are sturdy enough to make sense at home on my tv screen. Criterion is the conduit for cinema's golden oldies now. It's not ideal but there's no sense wrapping oneself up in nostalgia and crying about it when, you know, it still looks and sounds pretty damn good.

Nick Ramsey

d.a., I think you make several valuable points. I worry too much about having the ideal viewing experience when first encountering a film, which limits what I see. I should be prioritizing seeing things by any means necessary.

That being said, when I do find myself watching a p&s VHS or terribly transferred DVD or downloaded file of dubious origins because it's the only readily available version of a film, I'm left wondering about the missing frame, stable colors, or rich sound I'm missing. Frequently, even while watching a decent DVD transfer, I catch myself trying to create a more platonic version of the film screening experience in my mind--more luminous, better colors, better contrast, larger scale of image on a huge screen, etc.

Tom Russell

"I don't share this fetish for pristine works of art in pristine conditions, because, if the art is good, experience just proves that you don't need them (the perfect conditions) for something magical to take place."

I'm with you, but-- LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Its bigness-- the thing that makes it good, if not great, art, is nonexistent on most television screens. It becomes small and squashed instead of expansive and alive.


Glenn wrote: "When considering the paucity of works by the filmmaking team of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub available in the DVD format"

For what it's worth, a goodly chunk of their films are available in several boxed sets--now up to volume four--released by Editions Montparnasse. They don't have English subtitles, but they do exist.

I admire some of their films, but I always thought their "politics of form" was posturing. David Walsh, a fine critic for the Trotskyite World Socialist Web Site, had a particularly blunt dismissal of one of their films: "The piece is uninvolving, finally excruciating, pure charlatanry." Or, more charitably, concerning another: “Still, it is difficult to be entirely enthusiastic about a project whose production one feels is permeated by rigidity, self-seriousness and a nearly religious attitude toward art. The work is remarkable for what it is, a film of a Schönberg opera, but there is something disturbing about left-wing artists so frightened of chaos, emotion and confusion, and finding it so difficult to reach, rather than intimidate, an audience.” (The full piece is here: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/may2002/baf3-m20.shtml)

I'm not sure I object to their audience-unfriendliness as much as their apparent belief that the purity or difficulty of their films somehow contributes to the project of world revolution. Some of the films, such as CLASS RELATIONS, actually have some interesting political content. But more often the supposed link between the pair's formal strategies and the films' supposed political implications seems totally arbitrary. There's an obscurantist grandiosity to their rhetoric that, to me, spills over into the self-importance of disciples like Pedro Costa.


I suppose that as a rear-guard action I should clarify that I'm not, like Walsh, critiquing Straub and Huillet from a Marxist position.

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