Straub-Huillet's Too Early / Too Late & Chantal Akerman's News From Home
About a year ago I had an idea of what it is that I want to capture in my poetry; the phrase that came to my mind was "the thin experience of the smell of rain". By which I mean actually conveying what rain smells like, removed from any emotional connotations the idea may have. Perhaps obviously, this is difficult. The phrase "the smell of rain" is already loaded with a sentimentality that I have no interest in. That sentimentality is the evocation of not the smell of rain itself, but of the act of smelling rain, which connotes with it a rainy day, looking out the window while curling up with a good book and a cup of tea, etc. etc. Aside from the questionable aesthetics of the imagery, the problem lies in the language pulling the reader away from the fundamental point, what rain smells like, towards all the pre-loaded cultural material that we are expected to associate with the smell. One phrase in and we're already in a Folger's commercial. The thin experience, then, is an approach to conveying the smell of rain that, in avoiding linguistic literality, ends up conveying far more tangibly. This is of course the definition of poetry, a use of language to convey something inexpressible through a conventional use of language. This essay is about film, but I use this example to put forward a common misunderstanding of the Real in art, one crucial to these films. The misunderstanding is that the straightforward is literal or uncomplicated, that by simply avoiding the fantastical we are dealing with reality. In fact, all information resides within a normative web of connotations, and the straightforward does little more than content itself with not disturbing that web. To reach the Real, the thin experience, it is necessary to disengage from that web. That process is far from simple.
On the surface and, to be fair, beneath it as well, Chantal Akerman's News From Home and Straub-Huillet's Too Early / Too Late are very similar films. Each consists of landscape shots with voiceovers of someone reading a text: in Akerman shots of New York are accompanied by letters written to her by her mother, and with Straub-Huillet the first section is images of France with a letter by Freidrich Engels on the state of French peasantry before the revolution, largely made up of excerpts from the Cahiers de Doléances, the second is shot in Egypt with text by Mahmoud Hussein regarding peasant uprisings in that country. The camera only pans in straight horizontal lines, when it does at all, rarely in Akerman and more frequently with Straub-Huillet. There are no dolly shots, the camera only moves when on a vehicle, some of the time with Akerman, only once with Straub-Huillet. All the sound in Akerman was dubbed later, including the ambient noise, nothing was dubbed in Straub-Huillet, including the speakers. Akerman never notably deviates from this formula, Straub-Huillet do deviate slightly. And so, both films have their differences, of course, but are remarkably similar overall. These are the superficial facts of the films, neither holds any real surprises beyond this description. Nothing "happens" in the shots, the texts themselves are mundane.
The immediate question that arises from this is "why?" Both films take as given the abundance of sight, the wealth of information contained in a scene even when nothing is happening. Or rather, exactly when nothing is happening. To quote Straub's oft-cited quote of D.W. Griffith, "What the modern movie lacks is the beauty of moving wind in the trees". If someone on the screen is, say, running from the police, our attention is drawn away from the wind in the trees. By reducing the visual information of the film to the basics of a setting, watching the films becomes an experience like looking in real life, of enjoying a view over a field or out the window of a car. Still, more or less, were the films silent, decontextualized from the directors and their recurring interests, there would be very little to differentiate the films aside from city vs. country. At this point the films are already reaching for the Real, but cinema is cinema, it is not and can never be real. These long shots of landscapes, while less abstracted into the verisimilitude of reality that traditional cinema presents, already become unreal by forcing your eye into a "meditative state". While it may be similar to watching the landscape, a camera's view of a landscape is not watching a landscape. The camera's attention never wavers. Ours does. The visual is insufficient in encompassing the reality of the images. Hence the texts. Through a dialectic between text and image a problematic of space emerges, and it is here that the films finally diverge in important ways.
News From Home: This is, obviously, a personal film. The letters were written by Akerman's mother while the director was living in New York, the shots are from where she would go on walks. This is not to say it is a sentimental film. If anything, it is defined by distance. Distance from her mother, physically and intimately, distance from the scenes, inasmuch that she becomes the voyeur through filming, an observer and not a part of the city and its people, distance from her own experience of the city, in her unread replies to the letters, the distance of five years between when the letters were written, and the making of the film about the city where she no longer lives. These distances, however, are all united in the central point of Akerman herself. The problem of the film then is Chantal Akerman, present in her distances, an elliptical self-portrait. Chantal Akerman is not contained in any of her identities in the film: daughter, struggling young artist in New York City, even as the filmmaker behind the camera. Her I is another. The film, though experientially about the streets and subways of New York and Akerman's mother's letters, is precisely about that which we never see. A person is not the sum of facts about their life, but what it is that they are remains obscure. This is the problematic of the film, the problem of the self. Having pushed away the concrete facts of her identity, we are left with the still vibrating question of "Who is Chantal Akerman?" which remains unanswered, necessarily.
Too Early / Too Late: In clear contrast, Straub and Huillet are never personal, always political. Their concern is with the land. The images reflect the places in the texts, the present of the landscape reflects the past in the texts, the two parts of the film reflect each other, Too Early reflects Too Late. These reflections, while not negating each other, do modify our perception of each element in a way that prevents them from becoming overdetermined. For example, what would this film be without the texts? It would be reduced to romantic meditations on the beauty of nature, maybe even a problematic voyeurism of the "simple charm" of Egyptian fellahs. Likewise the texts taken independently are simple accounts of class struggle, which in its own right is liable to be romanticized. Each without the other draws the mind away from the center, the landscape. The places of the film are situated within a history, likewise the texts are taken out of the past and given a modern context on which to pivot our perception of them. And so on with the film's parts recurrence of the same revolutionary narrative, the peasants revolt too soon, succeed too late. These pairings, however, do not reduce their beauty, only the excesses that come with ignorance, an incomplete image of the subject. This subject, finally, the land, brings together in this presentation the reality of these places, the spirit beneath the dirt that bristles at the injustices carried out on it. In her summary essay of Straub-Huillet, (Not Only) for Children and Cavemen, Claudia Pummer calls the land in the film a tomb. This, however, only goes halfway. In fact there is a resurrection, a celebration of the ancient indignance that oppression always breeds. As Cezanne says in another Straub-Huillet film, "This rock once was fire."
We've established, then, the central difference between these two films: one is concerned with the identity of the filmmaker, the other the identity of the land. But what are the implications of this? How, from these differences of concerns, do the films diverge into very different works in spite of their similarities? It would be a mistake, certainly, to label either film as fictional or non-fictional, but regardless Akerman's film is more of a "documentary" than the Straubs'. It is a personal document. Out of a car window, in the center of a subway car, or simply from the stillness of the camera contrasting the activity of cars and pedestrians, the camera becomes conspicuous. The mind turns to the actual act, what passerby thought about this woman standing still on the street with a camera, something that happens perhaps fleetingly in Too Early / Too Late, but too briefly to impact the experience. Moreover, in a similar vein, New York has aged, rural France and Egypt far less obviously so. News From Home is a time capsule of the 70s, again turning our mind away from the image itself to think about that old car, those old clothes, the old Hell's Kitchen, and so on. Not directly Akerman's fault, of course, but every decision is a part of the work, and we cannot see the same film as the one from 1977, where the scene would have been normal. This self-reflexivity of setting and content makes the film "experimental" in a way that Straub & Huillet are not. But such experiments simply take one away from the images at hand. Herein lies the issue of making this film a document: the precise personal coordinates create a distance between the image and the viewer. We are not seeing New York, we are seeing Akerman look at New York. We see Egypt, we see France, we see the wind in the trees in these places. There could be any number of analogies of difference, Akerman is photography to Straub & Huillet's landscape painting, or even field recordings versus electroacoustic improvisation (field recordings are documents of listening, EAI provokes one to listen). Which is not to say that any of those methods are bad, or that News From Home is a lesser film. It is only a question of what ends suit the means of the format. In the end, landscape shots suit themselves less to the moral of the story being "life as a young artist in New York is hard but exhilarating" than to "revolution lives in the trees, the rocks, the very dirt beneath our feet". More bluntly, I don't see New York when I see the film. And if I don't see it, why am I looking?
After this compare-ackerman as identity makes one "see" her with the camera, is anchored in the present (70s), the personal now - straubs - "pure" camera, landscape in itself, not dated (this is partially due to issues of choice, but choice is never irrelevant), by difference between historical & presented images unearths a now which is neither "now" nor "nostalgic" but historical materialism, truth of a place, potentiality of a space, for beauty, for revolution...
straubs- fabled effect of "seeing a tree" post film, of eliciting "real" experience of a tree (Leuco), green of the earth glisten anew, repetition of difference
thin experience-art that reaches towards the real-straub, eai (opposed to field recording, sort of ironically)- a way of minimizing the space between real & virtual- instead of filling your mind with images of elsewhere, you are filled with the perception of the now- granular, detail, movement. related to their interests in workers/peasants: earthy, ties to rhythms of weather, farming, ritual, kittens, simple clothing... necessary conclusion of marxism, anticapitalism. there is no space between one's life and one's art, a good reason to not make work about one's life... (it must penetrate and it must take root [planning])
chantal ackerman (not as a whole?) (like field recordings) by tying it to the actual present things become elusive, dated, tied to the present and not in-itself. (smell of rain has connotations on its own) though her work goes through the personal to an investigation of the personal itself, the references are still personal and therefore tethered. her camera seeing a room is Her seeing a room, not the camera seeing a room... is this critique "male"? she is more dramatic, long form, s-h is more momentary, engrossed in shot itself (prob not true)
experience, natural (s-h, eai) vs document of experience, real (chantal, field rec)
memory-noticing of ambient information-wind in trees: in living we create systems to organize information, a moment of reality must be incited, by "shock", not simply presented. dropping the veil of fiction into the real draws out more real than a presentation (Because that presentation of the real is in a system, we must work our way out, cannot presume our outsideness) e.x. documentary is fictive, presents a narrative argument, chooses some reality to the exclusion of others (wang bing as fiction filmmaker)
autobiography vs research/facts/fiction
photography vs painting
text vs image- each removes the romanticism of the other- revolutionary romanticism & bucolic romanticism
alienation (brecht) "land as tomb" fails to grasp the "activity" of the film, rather the "spirit" of the land is recussitated
the true revolution is born anew every day