Been a long time since Too Early, Too Late, so it’s time to give some more Straub/Huillet films a watch, via the lovely new Grasshopper blu-ray. The first five minutes is about the least visually dynamic thing imaginable, but I like the sound recording of the answering choir. Then a long circular pan across a boring landscape, but at least the blue sky is nice. Looking on the bright side here.

Moses (guy in red pajamas with staff) meets A(a)ron (green headband) in the desert, and they bellow-sing at each other, presumably trying to mesmerize the other with their cadence and beards. Staff is turned into snake… Moses turns leprous and back again. The people are extremely confused after Moses leads them away then disappears for over a month, and Aaron tries to talk them down, but screws it up. They sing about the old and new gods as the picture goes all violet… oh no, they butcher a cow during their little knife dance. I was not expecting the phrase “Holy is genital power.” When Moses gets back, he and A. argue over the best way to teach these idiot people. Discussion of how to use words and images to express larger ideas to the idiots = CINEMA!

I only halfway followed this movie… honestly, have no idea what bible story, if any, it’s retelling, and I have no practice in following stories told in opera, even with the aid of subtitles. But it had been a long, unsatisfying work day, and on the drive home I thought of a bunch of movies I could watch, and this is the one that stood out. Straub/Huillet movies aren’t exactly my bag, but they’re not bad, and my total inability to figure out what they’re on about, plus their weird stasis and precision makes them extremely relaxing to watch. Aaron also has dreamy eyes… but the soundtrack was hit or miss (from my notes while watching: “ban woodwinds”). Based on the unfinished opera by modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Ted Fendt in the liners:

Schoenberg was unable to write music for this [third] act of his opera. The impossibility of resolving the opera’s central issue or committing fully to one side could have been the cause. Works whose internal contradictions resisted them, resisted easy solutions, fascinated Straub and Huillet. Unresolved tensions abound in their work…

Introduction to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Scene” (1972)

Sort of an essay film. Some abrupt cuts and blackouts mid-speech. Music rises up halfway through. Majority of the film in b/w and in a recording booth. Brecht and other writers are mentioned… Schoenberg is mad about Kandinsky. It covers a lot of ground in 15 minutes.

Official description is needed for context: “a fierce condemnation of anti-Semitism and the barbaric war machine of capitalism, inspired by a letter written in 1923 by composer Arnold Schoenberg to painter Wassily Kandinsky.”

Machorka-Muff (1962)

“A satirical attack on West Germany’s re-armament and revival of militaristic tradition in the Adenauer era.” The most commercial-looking movie I’ve seen by them – based on a Heinrich Böll novel, as was Not Reconciled. Wikipedia may know why Böll was popular with the Straubs: “Böll was particularly successful in Eastern Europe, as he seemed to portray the dark side of capitalism in his books; his books were sold by the millions in the Soviet Union alone.” He would win a Nobel less than a decade after these adaptations came out.

“Maybe I’d have an affair with his wife… I’ve an appetite for petit bourgeois erotics sometimes.” We follow a general who is dedicating a building to a military bigwig who is posthumously judged a greater leader when it’s discovered that more of his men died in battle than was previously thought. Their debut short, and the only movie performance by Erich Kuby (a writer, journalist and “an important opponent of German rearmament”).

Not Reconciled (1964)

A boy is often beaten up at school – this isn’t shown, but discussed by a rapidfire narrator. A blonde hotel boy encounters a sheep-crazy knitting cult. Two identical-looking dudes out for lunch, the one in the lighter suit was darker-suit’s tormentor as a kid. Now architect Fahmel is narrating for us… I think we’re hopping between time periods… and it all ends in attempted murder. In general, I’m pretty sure I need to be smarter about European history and culture and politics to keep up with these movies, something they have in common with Godard. I can’t tell if it’s a stylistic choice for everyone to speak flatly, or if that’s just Germans… probably the former, since I know Bresson was an influence. The sound always matches camera angle, no attempt to smooth it out with room tone or make audio consistent between shots. From anyone else I’d assume it’s a technical limitation or lack of professionalism, but from these two I’m sure it’s a political position.

Thanks very much to Neil Bahadur for helping me make sense of this:

Not Reconciled charts a single family in two separate timelines – post World War 1 and post World War 2 – throughout these two timelines events will mirror each other and fold into the present of 1965. Virtually an attack on Germany more vicious than any Fassbinder picture, the purpose is to show the incompatibility of a democratic structure with the new ideas of the 19th and 20th century: communism and fascism. Straub shows us a post-war world where left and right never united after the collapse of both the German Empire and Nazism, and both periods lead (and presumed will lead) to essentially an internal and invisible cold war between classes and ideologies as both sections ascend to bourgeois standards of living – and in the first case, ends up leading to the failure of the left and the rise of fascism. The gun that goes off at the end of the film (in the present of 1965) is the only thing that prevents this.

Nick Pinkerton in Frieze:

The cinematic translation or transcription of texts – poems, letters, fragments, musical scores – is key to Straub-Huillet’s filmmaking practice, which began not in France but in Munich, where the couple landed in 1958 after Straub was faced with prison for his refusal to serve in the Algerian War. (They always put their money where their mouths were politically, and Straub has also crammed his foot in his gob more than a few times.)

“Despite the tendency to reduce their films to a uniform asceticism, there is no such thing as a typical Straub-Huillet film.”

“I was swimming with millions of babies in a rainbow, and they was naked, and then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.”

A woman is singing a song about the virtue of virginity at the Palace when head honcho Greaser’s son Lamie Homo freaks out, getting himself shot dead for interrupting the entertainment. Soon “Jessy” parachutes into the Western movie, resurrects Homo, and goes about impressing everyone with his magic tricks such as walking on water and bleeding from his hands. Meanwhile, a woman wakes up finding her husband and son (cameo by six-year-old Robert Downey Jr.) dead, then loses all her worldly possessions and gets shot a bunch of times, crawling through the desert with no water. It all seems like it might be a metaphor for something.

The son and the holy ghost:

I didn’t get all the metaphors, though – Hervé “da plane” Villechaize is married to a bearded guy in a dress, Greaser has a constipation problem, Jessy’s entertainment agent walks around the desert as if underwater, characters are named Cholera, Coo Coo and Seaweedhead. On one hand it seems like a fun bit of anarchy – the movie can have a Monty Python-like comic sensibility – but if you check the web you’ll find articles willing to draw biblical connections to every last detail. Downey himself underplays it: “The idea of the trinity of the father and the son and the holy ghost parachuting into a western to get it right this time is all I went with.”

Jesse and Herve:

I’ve seen my share of mad westerns – Straight to Hell, The Last Movie, The Shooting – but this one played more like El Topo, seemed more desperate and dangerous than your usual movie, but never without a script and a plan. Unfamiliar cast – Allan Arbus (who’d later play director Gregory LaCava in a W.C. Fields bio-pic) as Jesus, Albert Henderson (of Serpico and Big Top Pee Wee) as Greaser, his main gal was Luana Anders, a Corman actress who followed Nicholson to Easy Rider and The Last Detail, and the Agent Morris was Don Calfa of Return of the Living Dead.

D. Carter:

Jessy is a meeker version of Christ, clear in his intentions but unsure how to accomplish them. … He is a showman, not a messiah or prophet. Walking on water and raising the dead are part of his “act,” and he only reluctantly offers the people advice after he is shown a picture of the Last Supper, calling into question whether Downey intended him to literally represent Christ or merely a Christ-like figure—though it’s most likely a cheeky attempt to obscure any deliberate meaning. Inspired by the image, Jessy comes up with the idea to tell the townspeople of a malevolent force called “Bingo Gas Station Motel Cheeseburger With A Side Of Aircraft Noise And You’ll Be Gary Indiana” living outside of the town, while reassuring them that he has interceded on their behalf because he believes them to be good people. It is a humorous analogue to the Christian belief of Christ’s intercession with God to save believers from Hell, but one that implies that belief is nothing but a parable intended to give people comfort.

“If ya feel, ya heal”

What was initially announced as Auteur Completion Month is now the longer-term Auteur Completion Project (because it can’t be “completion” if I give up when the month changes). I don’t especially aim to watch everything Mel Brooks has been involved with (never saw Dracula: Dead and Loving It because his previous two were so bad) but I noticed that his one classic-era comedy feature (oops, besides The Twelve Chairs) I’d never seen was the one Jonathan Rosenbaum placed on his 1000 favorite movies list. And now that I’ve seen it, I must conclude that it was a half-remembered nostalgic favorite for JR, not one that received much recent, critical thought.

Starts off unpromisingly, with a jokey Orson Welles voiceover (the year before Slapstick; maybe the great man should’ve hired an agent) and a hokey caveman sketch starring 50’s comedian Sid Caesar (whose last movie to date was Stuart Gordon’s The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit). Catalog of human innovation (“the first artist… the first art critic!”) like one of those punny water-treading late Tex Avery shorts, or a sub-Mr. Show sketch (“man’s greatest achievement: the wheelbarrow”).

Some biblical business follows (including my favorite gag, the 15… 10 Commandments). Next: waaay too much time (over half the movie?) spent in Rome running away from Emperor Dom DeLuise, Empress Madeline Khan and 50’s comedian Shecky Greene.

L-R: possibly Ron Carey (Silent Movie, High Anxiety), maybe Mary-Margaret Humes (of an upcoming Michael Madsen/Roddy Piper horror film), definitely Gregory Hines (in his first film), and grimacingly Mel Brooks. I didn’t take very good notes.

Making up for the overlong Roman piece is an extended, extravagant musical version of the Spanish Inquisition, which could’ve stood on its own as a great short film. By now, narrator Welles has wandered away from the movie, off to film some Moby Dick closeups of himself.

Then Brooks is King Louis XVI of France, and also the piss-bucket boy chosen to replace him in event of a revolution. He helps the daughter of a deranged, imprisoned Spike Milligan free her father and… hell, I can’t remember the storyline, but it involves Harvey Korman (Lord Love a Duck, voice of the Great Gazoo on The Flintstones) as a character named Count De Monet, and in my second favorite joke of the movie, Brooks tries to run down a forced-perspective hallway.

Bunuel did it first:

“Coming attractions” finale features a cute Jews In Space trailer, a premonition of Spaceballs.

Cameos by Moon Over Parador director Paul Mazursky, Diner director Barry Levinson, Hugh Hefner as himself, freshly Oscar-nominated John Hurt as Jesus, Jackie Mason, and an uncredited Bea Arthur.

Jacob has many kids. His favorite son was killed by animals (bible scholar Katy tells me he’s not really dead) so Jacob is in mourning. King Hamor’s son wants to marry Jacob’s daughter Dina (after kidnapping/raping her), but Jacob’s not responding to requests nor is he acknowledging any of his children. Meanwhile, his brother Esau is lurking with his warriors. Jacob’s sons kill all of Hamor’s people (including Dina’s would-be husband) and there’s gonna be a three-way showdown, but Jacob comes to his senses in time and his clan goes off to Egypt where they’ll presumably find his not-dead son.


I also dug the flashback stories in the middle… and Jacob’s climactic nighttime battle with God. There’s lots more that I did not get. Found the movie hard to follow, but I think a passing familiarity with the bible (maybe the book of genesis) would’ve helped some. Was nice to watch anyway, with all the great desert locations, color-coordinated outfits and completely decent actors, a welcome change from the film-fest screeners that have become my constant sorrow.

Albino musician Salif Keita, whose music I’m not all that into:

Of the lead actors, Salif Keita (Esau) is better known as a musician (he composed for Yeelen), Sotigui Kouyaté (Jacob) and Fatoumata Diawara (Dina) costarred in Sia, the Dream of the Python a couple years later in Burkina Faso, and Balla Moussa Keita (Hamor) appeared in Sissoko’s Guimba the Tyrant and a bunch of Souleymane Cissé films including Yeelen. Hamor is also the guy I would least recognize if I saw him again, unless he was wearing that coiled-white-tube getup.


Helpful bit from the distributor: “Based on the book of Genesis, chapters 33-37, the film follows the bitter rivalry between brothers Jacob and Esau and the resulting cycle of violence, with Sissoko mixing relevant allusions to African history and culture into the Biblical tale.”

NY Times called it confused and rambling. “Complicating matters is the involvement of Hamor, the leader of the Canaanities, when his son Sichem abducts Jacob’s daughter Dina (Fatoumata Diawara) and rapes her, then falls in love with her. In the most disturbing scene, a temporary peace is negotiated when Hamor accedes to Jacob’s demand that the Canaanite men be circumcised, and the obedient Canaanites glumly line up to be circumcised by a knife-wielding blacksmith.”


Sissoko: “In the Bible, there is a fraternity which does not stop conflict: we love one another and we fight. This is more and more apparent in the world today, in Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and in northern Mali. The same enmities existed amongst the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions. … In our farming and herding societies, people reinforce the rivalry between the nomads and farmers: the situation is analogous with that at the beginning of time.”

Movie was written by a French theologist. Sissoko only made one film after this then became Mali’s minister of culture. According to wikipedia, he’s off the government payroll as of late 2007, so maybe there’ll be another film soon.

Katy, here’s the link I told you about.