Sicilia! (1999, Straub/Huillet)

Great cinematographer William Lubtchansky died this month. I mostly know his Jacques Rivette movies (plus a Varda short and The Regular Lovers), so here’s another side of his work: something by “the Straubs,” the first one of their films I’ve enjoyed watching after a couple false starts.

A dude (credited as “the son” but I believe named Silvestro) talks with an orange seller about meals. A man on the train complains about the poor. Yelling, always yelling! Everyone is yelling. He’s on a trip, stops to have conversations with people he meets (appropriately, this is based on a book called Conversations in Sicily) which sound like recitations. It wasn’t until I rewatched some scenes from this within Costa’s documentary that I appreciated the recitations, their strange cadence – the first time I was just reading the subtitles, following the conversation, but apparently there’s more to it than the words being spoken. More on the fate of Sicilians, and some over-my-head philosophy. The sound sometimes disappears.

The shots at the end of each segment are getting longer. Oooh, a pan! The same one twice! A long pan across a landscape and back, repeated twice, and I don’t understand. Silvestro lands at his mom’s house, listens to her talk about when he was a kid, what they did and what they ate (snails), then about his grandfather, “a great socialist.” She puts down his father and her husband – I wasn’t sure if she remarried and she’s cutting down two men, or if it was just the one – for his/their weakness. Anyway, the man goes outside and meets an awesome knife sharpener. One of them declares “the world is beautiful!” and the movie ends as they face each other listing off beautiful things.

Some official synopsis says that Silvestro “comes face to face with reality, corruption, and treachery, that differ from his memories as a child with a mother lost between abstract fury and an awareness of his incapacity to comprehend the human condition.” I don’t get how the movie is communist, or even whether it’s supposed to be. I liked the style, though, and the length and pacing, the unconventional-seeming editing choices (although in the doc they act like there’s only one way to edit a movie correctly, that it’s obvious, as they struggle for hours to choose the exact frame on which to cut).

NY Times calls it “austere and pretentiously minimalistic”:

Here, at odd moments, it pans slowly back and forth across a particular setting as if to emphasize the filmmakers’ blank emotional and editorial slate. For in the Straub-Huillet esthetic, truth is to supposed to be revealed as much through accident, inference and subtext as through what is actually said.

The Straubs seem to be insulting me for liking this movie more than their others… from an interview:

JMS: Yes, one of the main reason Sicilia worked, is that the bourgeoisie likes to have a protagonist with an initatic journey, and preferably to find back his/her mother, etc. That’s why Bach worked. One can’t change the vices of the bourgeoisie…
Int: So Bourgeoise needs a hero?
JMS: A hero, I don’t know, but they need to hook up on something…
DH: they abhor liberty, for themselves and for others…

Fuck liberty.

Senses of Cinema lays it all out:

Straub-Huillet eschew dubbing in favour of direct sound, to the extent that background noises and even the static noise caused by wind rustling on a microphone are kept in their integrity, and the original sound of each individual image is retained. This, of course, has a huge impact on editing, as cuts cannot be made arbitrarily, but have to defer to the exigencies of the sound: Straub-Huillet will thus linger on an empty space in order to capture the fading footsteps of a character exiting the scene. Similarly, they reject all manipulation of the image in post-production (colour-matching, etc.).

Equally notorious is what in French criticism has come to be known as the “Plan straubien” (“Straubian shot”), which can roughly be defined as a pan or tracking shot of a landscape lasting up to several minutes in duration. While these shots have greatly contributed to the notion of Straub-films as boring and unwatchable, they are crucial for Straub-Huillet’s “pedagogic” project of “teaching people how to see and hear”.

Their position as authors is attenuated by the fact that their films are almost exclusively taken from pre-existing texts – whether literary, dramatic, musical or essayistic. Indeed, only a few lines of dialogue in their entire corpus are their own invention. As Youssef Ishaghpour notes, however, their films are best seen not as adaptations, but as “documentaries of a special type: on works”

Senses also says that “the texture and sensuality of their films mean that they still demand to be seen on actual film stock, in an actual cinema.” Too bad for me, I guess.