It’s never a simple task to celebrate radical aesthetics inside a gallery, or to preserve something of their true power. After all, when artists position themselves as outsiders, at odds with the systems-that-be, the works they create don’t fit easily into a commercial space. And context can sometimes compromise content. This is the conundrum at the crux of an intelligent, elegant exhibition at Miguel Abreu Gallery dedicated to the work of filmmakers Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, two of cinema’s most uncompromising counterforces. The exhibition runs concurrently with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and is accompanied by a publication of their collected writings. It’s a thrilling moment for Huillet and Straub fans, even as this welcome occasion reflects something uneasy about the times in which we live.
Over the course of their partnership, which lasted from the mid-Fifties until Huillet’s death in 2006, they made more than thirty films together, in a collaboration so entwined that they came to be known simply as Straub-Huillet, a hyphenate that sharply cut down any notion of a single auteur at work. At a time when the French New Wave busied itself creating films in the long shadow of Hollywood, Huillet and Straub were Marxists who pursued a radical aesthetic that could ennoble audiences rather than manipulate them. Their films were populated by untrained actors working off strict scripts, many of which were adaptations of creations by left-wing writers and composers including Friedrich Engels, Bertolt Brecht, Marguerite Duras, Heinrich Böll, Cesare Pavese, and Arnold Schoenberg. The actors performed in a style devoid of the usual theatrics, without artificial emotional displays. It may come as no surprise to learn that Huillet and Straub’s films have been described as austere, difficult: Their preferred choice of long shots, a locked camera, and minimal editing means that time passes in their films not unlike it does in the world — slowly or quickly, depending on the quality of your attention.
It’s their attention to attention that’s so beautifully captured in Pedro Costa’s 2001 documentary, Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? Costa filmed Huillet and Straub as they edited Sicilia! (1999), one of their great later works, which they adapted from Elio Vittorini’s anti-fascist tale from 1941, Conversations in Sicily. Costa keeps his camera tight on their editing table’s playback screen, so what we see is Huillet and Straub’s raw footage stopping and starting, as we listen to them quarreling offscreen about the edit. At one point, the image freezes on a mother and son standing in front of their family home, hugging each other. “Did you see that?” Huillet asks. Her hand enters the frame and taps the screen, pointing to something in the shadow of the doorway. “A butterfly,” she says. “Yeah, I saw it when we were shooting,” Straub tells her, “but I forgot about it.” Film can memorialize even the tiniest events, drawing our attention to what might otherwise be left unseen, a virtue that Huillet described, in a 1997 interview, as “a question of surprise…surprise to
discover things in daily life, which we
do without noticing them.”
The show at Miguel Abreu is largely inspired by the filmmakers’ devotion to this sort of attention. Here, we are invited to look longer at the films of Huillet
and Straub — to notice the texture and nuance of their images and understand better the precision with which they worked. It’s a tender exhibition, designed to introduce the uninitiated to their
singular world. Alongside densely and colorfully annotated pages from the filmmakers’ workbooks, shooting diagrams, scripts, and shot lists, curator/organizer Jean-Louis Raymond also presents two moving-image works and stills from a
selection of their films.
Those stills — made by transforming single frames into silver halide prints and mounting them on aluminum — are the most intriguing and puzzling part of the show. Why arrest moving images in this way? The images were chosen with particular attention to figures in landscapes; some of them operate as portraits, or as documents of moments, while others are presented in series, echoing the shape of strips of celluloid. Thirteen sequential frames pulled from Not Reconciled, or Only Violence Helps Where Violence Rules (1965) propel our eye from five nearly identical images of a shop woman behind her counter to seven of a man walking away from camera through a city field. These stills represent half a second of
edited film, and it’s a lovely experience to stand before stopped time, to suddenly focus on details such as a man’s left foot rising and falling while the world around him seems to move not at all.
All of the stills are gorgeous, glossy,
and utterly mesmerizing. They are also for sale, and will now presumably circulate in the world as works of art. Unlike a photograph, a still never rests; it will always point to the whole work from which it was taken. What does it mean to transform radical cinema into objects with undeniable art-world aura? Does their injection into the art market change the way in which we understand the work? (It must be noted that Abreu is also selling the films.) If nothing else, this choice tells us something about the realities of what it takes in this cultural moment to support the “difficult” artists of the world — which is, ironically, a moral and aesthetic dilemma one might wish to see turned into
a film by Huillet and Straub.
‘Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet: Films and Their Sites’
Miguel Abreu Gallery
88 Eldridge Street
Through June 19