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The Dialogic of the Bastard

by Pedro Henrique Ferreira



          It is somewhat significant that Cesare Pavese's Dialogues with Leucó begins with the character of Cloud, the nymph of Greek mythology, speaking to the audacious Ixion about a stony law that set a limit on men. The Italian neorealist writer, famous for his descriptions of agrarian Italy, was criticized by his peers at the time of the book's release in 1947 for, eschewing the rule of colloquial regional language and the material description of peasant or worker life in the post-war period - the "national-popular realism" that the Gramscian left of the time advocated -, showing a somewhat romantic taste in emulating conversations between characters from Greek mythology, an abstract and imaginary terrain. It was the same critic who couldn't see how the problem of the limits of concreteness were part of Stromboli (1950), Journey to Italy (1954) or The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), among other Rossellinis, even though Pavese made clear his maxim of "reducing myths to clarity," giving them body and meaning, stripping them of hermeticism. The sentence is, therefore, a kind of inaugural summary. Well, some thirty years after the book's publication, Danièlle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub partially took up their dialogues in From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979), posing us a similar problem of the human limit and impotence in the face of the numinous, of concreteness versus metaphysics. It is recited already at the beginning too, through the same phrase intoned by the Nymph, in a closed shot, to Ixion. Not before showing us a very brief communal shot of the two, the only one in the whole film where we see a Goddess and a Human in the same image: the Cloud at the top of the tree and, stationed before her, an Ixion wielding an axe as if ready to cut her down. After that, the limit. The impossibility.

          The "cloud" as sign is the liminal point of representation in the tradition of Western perspective artificialis; its shapeless, gaseous, nebulous nature does not allow the materiality of drawing and contour a possible emulation. At the same time, it, curiously, has always figured in painting since the Renaissance as a challenge, the element of transcendental mystery that breaks the scientific order that grounds this kind of optical truth. This is because, at bottom, it consolidates as "open" the system that it contradicts itself (Hubert Damisch). The white brushstrokes in an almost impressionistic way on the background of Correggio's Madonna with the Child and the Infant Saint John escape the rigor of proportions and volumes precisely to enunciate Giordano Bruno's infinite space contained in the algebraic representation of perspective; they remind us that behind the optical studies of real proportions there is a belief that what one discovers of reality is its mystery. In some ways, it is the same problem of the concrete representation of the Gods and Myth that Straub/Huillet evoked in From the Clouds to the Resistance, and also in at least a handful of other of their films.

          Much has been written about a "materialist" impetus in Straub-Huillet's style: the conception of the scene from a fixed place and height of the camera in space-an important coordinate for regaining a sense of unique point-of-view, circumscribed in the physical presence of the apparatus in front of the mise en scéne, and the images rooted in this eloquent "being-there"; the declamatory tone in the interpretation of texts by Goethe, Holderlin, Vittorini, Pavese, etc, that prevents the actor's adhesion to the character as much as the dramaturgy's adhesion to the word, with the meticulous work of intonation that never distances the spectator from the material "origin" of the text [in Antigone, by Sophocles, in Holderlin's translation, as adapted to the scene by Brecht (1992), they make us go through the genealogy of the text that gave birth to the film, as a gesture of insertion of the translation in the dialectics of history]; the insistence on the use of only direct sound and the disjunctive editing, which erodes the full spatial-geographical sense and allows gaps between one shot and another (more than mere ellipses, it makes us see the suture in moments of dialogues and shots-versus-plots) giving us to see the essential "difference" that records captured at different temporalities produce - the difference that the montage in continuity of classical cinema and its chimera of the "omniscient narrator", in principle, would always be willing to hide - in feature films mostly shot in the open air, where this passage of time gains more robust emphasis; a statuesque composition and a form of angulation that makes human bodies more voluminous, like concrete blocks in the midst of space. Thus, the "work" of adaptation and realization is evidenced in the product from which it results. These tactics are usually associated with a certain antispectacular minimalism and a Brechtian pedagogy of the dialectical image, which preaches an unlearning to approach it more freely and allow the revelation of "an elusive smile”.

          But this description that perhaps guaranteed them a specific place in the history of cinema, associated to the extreme cinematographic radicalization and politicization of the post-68 moment, when such strategies gained utopian-revolutionary airs and produced a counter-current tradition in modern and authorial cinema, they perhaps also omitted another side of the duo that has nothing modern, iconoclastic or "deconstructive" about it. One that is less Brechtian and more classicist and holderlinnian, still experimental, it is true, but more abstract and fictionalizing, elegiac, instead of the documentary concreteness and the record of the resistance effort of the subject matter that is usually spoken of. I am not speaking only of his references to ancient Greece and Rome, nor of Empedocles, Antigonas, Julius Caesar, Othons, Bach, etc., nor of the recent attempts to turn him into a John Ford of political modernism (although, in a way, they are like that - see Dalila Camargo Martins' or Tag Gallagher's text), but rather of artisans whose style brings together a tense and particular dialog between matter and spirit, nature and civilization, myth and history. The side of authors who, like Pavese, reduced everything to materiality with the conviction that, even so, somewhere there would still be clouds left.




          One of the biggest box-office hits in German cinema in the first half of the 1950s was a heimatfilm called Grun ist die Heide (transl.: Green is The Heathe, 1951), directed by Hans Depp, at the pioneering Berolina, a production company that would be responsible for moving the most popular genre in the country during the period of reconstruction and economic miracle. After the trummerfilms ("ruin films") that showed a devastated Germany during the Allied occupation, the scenery was transplanted to one of optimism and escapism - the rural forests and their regional communities. The mythical place was supposed to represent an originary nation, peaceful and inviolate from the lack of civilizational direction, and in which the Germanic people could forget what had happened and rid themselves of their traumas; the forest that has always been a privileged theme in German culture as a place of healing and/or conversion (be it Goethe's, Heidegger's, or Hans Steinhoff's The Young Hitler Quex, 1933). In the first image of the film, a group of music players walk freely and joyfully through the moors, as mythical and full as Ireland or John Ford's imagined Old West. We soon discover two important things: first, that the countryside is a place under reconstruction, and that vegetation and fauna are being replanted and created, rather than an originally untouched place; second, that the local population is all made up of migrants and exiles, that there are also no original people. The forest in Grun ist die Heide is, in the narrative itself, the nature and community imaginatively produced so that the sense of identity of an imploded country could be reborn, in the West German historical period not infrequently called "reconstruction". It is also not long before we meet the villain of the film - an anonymous hunter who, at night, suffers from a compulsion to hunt animals and thus unwittingly threaten the dream in process.

          It was this kind of reactionary imaginary where the heimats of the 1950s rippled - the myth of civilizational communion and the celebration of nature as the ground zero of individual and collective reconstruction - that Neuer Deutscher Film set out to tear apart. In Fata Morgana (1971), for example, Herzog reminds us of the illusion of the desert landscape, taking the Romantic myth that he will again evoke in the dreams of the exiled protagonist in Kaspar Hauser (1974) as the moving illusion of delirious beings; landscapes that he picked up from another Casper, the romantic Friedrich. The weird, anti-social, migrant loner, stripped of a sense of unitary identity that was his sore spot in Grun isto die Heide, or at least a situation dramatically felt in post-war Germany in Helmut Kautner's films, is strongly thematized and reconnected to his romantic genesis by a handful of Wenders' films, by Uwe Brandner's I Love You, I Kill You (1971), etc. Straub/Huillet's association with the problems of New German Cinema and its relationship to Germanic culture are often diminished, in part, by the statements of the authors themselves who, seeing the advocacy of a strictly and radically modern cinema being undertaken by Kluge and co, could identify little with it. In another, because it is difficult to commune filmmakers eradicated from France, and who also extended a significant part of their cinematography in Italy, to specifically national issues or style.

         But, besides the fact that forests figure in many of their films, this same "foreignness" in a dialectic of shock towards society - not rarely a "son who returns home" - is also thematized in the couple's work (and not only as a mere biographical self-reference of their cinematographic wandering) - in the Empedocles of The Death of Empedocles (1987) in the man who returns from Sicily! (1999), in the perambulating driver of History Lessons (1972), who seems to have left a future Kiarostami film prematurely to encounter the narrative of another migrant Julius Caesar, and in Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), in which, as has been written before, the genius playing solitary in one shot is juxtaposed soon by another of the space and audience for which his music was being produced. This similar character is the protagonist of the second part of From the Clouds to the Resistance, a drink from another of Pavese's books, The Moon and the Bonfires: the "Bastard" who returns to his homeland after exile. The Bastard returns to the village, wanders the fields nostalgic for the landscapes, and notices a devastated land. What was once a communal experience has been lost. The remnants of fascism are there between the lines, like the Nazi survival denounced in Non-Reconciled (1965). Peasants may live in the each-for-all they have left, like the young worker in They Don’t Wear Black Tie (Leon Hirszman, 1983). The sparks of confrontation with the masters quickly turn into insanity and loneliness. The end of a utopian project of resistance. The coup de grace of political modernism. Madness and resistance? Like the man who sets himself on fire to get out of inertia in Nostalgia (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983)?

          The sine qua non condition of the meaning of his wandering through spaces is a memory. Pavese's "Bastard" remembered the past of the rural community in the interwar period, while Straub-Huillet's recalls resistance to fascism. But he also remembers, in fact, Pavese's "Bastard." He is also a spectatorial metaphor: what do we remember when we see the fields? What does a new fable (the second part of the film) remind us of the previous one? And what does an image, reduced to its deepest material status, remind us of another that came before, also at the height of its isolation in the chain of discourse? The operation seems key to Straub-Huillet's cinema. And it is this intangible act of memory that makes the monument of the Gods rise again from the death of the flesh: the final image, a beautiful empty field at sunset, inert and paved, like everything in the couple's cinema. The account of a woman murdered during the resistance tells us that her body lies there. Above the fields, more imposing than the body, the sun is setting in a dawn sky. Perhaps, perhaps, also some clouds, in backlighting, in the upper part of the image?




         We can talk a lot about the process of materialistic rarefaction in Straub/Huillet and their dislike for any kind of trompe l'oil; their resistance to the symbolic layer of things or also to the way they distill the filmed elements until they strip them of a signification, leaving only an uncloped signifier that puts us in the interstice vacuum between two things - what is and what that can also be - in short, the word and the thing. We can also insist that the juxtaposed shots in different temporalities, or the actors mechanically reciting texts, does not guarantee us fictional immersion and warm naturalistic diegesis, and this reveals to us the truth of what cinematic dramaturgy always, by nature, is: actors replicating written gestures and uttering phrases that are not their own. This is the Straub/Huillet of symptoms and deconstructions. But this seems little to me. This - the distance of the suture - is not the one that "Bastard" can't travel. When, at the end of From the Clouds to the Resistance, we observe the field where the body of an anti-fascist was buried, and a voice off narrates to him the account of the memory, there is no separation between thing and meaning, but rather, on the contrary, the act of attributing meaning to a dead landscape. It is resignification through a memory that lies there. When in Othon (1970) we see modern Rome in the background, or when in History Lessons, the driver drives through the present corridors of the ancient senzalas of which the Roman minstrels spoke, this does not mean only that asynchronous historical times coexist, nor that a genealogical knowledge is provided to us. The field is there, like the ruins of Rome or the tenements. But the matter goes beyond its earthly status because it is coupled to a memory.

          The pedagogical "lesson" here is the same one he teaches us when he puts one actor doing recitation, and then, in the next image, he puts another, also doing it. It is true that both images claim their genesis as the fruit of an actual 'spokesman', who statutorily emphasizes his presence - the flesh of the body, the glow of the light, the noise of the voice. But then we remember that what the second spokesman speaks is still a fictional response to the first. That between the irreconcilable registers of the performances of Cloud and Ixion, there still resides a fiction that gave origin to the text. It is a simple thing: in cinema, the material layer always insists on "meaning". Therefore, what "ties" two images (or an image and a word, or the present body of the actor and the recited historical word) is not "dialectics", the result of difference, the clash of oppositional tensions (even though they exist), but the element of similarity, the fact that a sentence said by one still responds to that of the other. It is dialogue.

          Let's go back to the first scene of From the Clouds to the Resistance: the brief joint shot between Cloud and Ixion that disappears never to appear again. We begin already in the rupture, in the difference (as Baudry said, cinema always begins there, in fragmentation). Gods and humans are now separated in planes-and-contra-planes that do not even harbor the hope of a false common geography. Only angels have wings, Hawks said. We - humans - are on earth. But the real miracle is that, for some crazy reason, the two races are still together, still hold a recondite memory of the inaugural moment. In the other's response, we remember the previous one's line. This is why the two films in one ‘dialogue' with each other. Cinema, Epstein's 'polytheistic' machine, insists, still and always, on making meaning. It buries what it films, but also makes it survive in eternity, in the clouds, where only gaseous matter sustains the weight of gravity.

April, 2023

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