PRINT October 1978

Modernist Cinema: The History Lessons of Straub and Huillet

LONG THOUGHT A HIGHER THING than history, poetry in the 19th century begins to seek a ground in history. Poetry was the higher thing, for Aristotle, because it can express the universal, whereas history is bound to the particular. A historian, he explained, is obliged to tell us about a sea battle simply because it happened, little connected as it may be with other events which happened elsewhere and which have to be included in a historical account. A poet, on the other hand, can leave out the sea battle if he doesn’t think it relevant to his subject, licensed as he is to set aside particulars in order to make the right connections and get at the essentials. In this view, advanced in the fourth century B.C. and still widely held, art occupies a privileged position apart from life, a realm of beauty and truth above life’s confusions and contingencies.

But only at a time when life was simpler, when the connections between things were more readily apparent, could one decide with Aristotle’s certainty that the sea battle need not be taken into account: art’s claim to the essential, ideal coherence it might attain in exhibiting just what is relevant depended on the intelligibility of life. In the 19th century, with the industrialization of Western Europe, life started to become more complicated than it had ever been before. Already in Dickens’ London and Baudelaire’s Paris we encounter the shifting and opaque surface of the modern big city, the city of industrial capitalism, crowded with strangers where we continually meet (in Baudelaire’s words) “the unexpectedly emergent, . . . the passing unknown.” That has been a characteristic modern experience, the rush and diversity of particulars which we can neither fully assimilate nor safely disregard. Photography was invented, in the mid-19th century, to record those particulars, and around the same time the realistic novel was devised to set them down. It became important to record and set down the particulars of modern life precisely because their meaning is less accessible: one has to pay more attention to the surface when it isn’t so clear what lies behind. Referring the meaning of things to a higher order as the art of the past had done, invoking a divine system or ideal scheme that would explain the world, no longer carried conviction in the modern situation: now art had to bring out that meaning, produce it, at the ground level of history.

A higher order would supply the answers, but from the ground, one must continually ask the questions, without assuming a privileged vantage point on the nature of things. A modern artist may still, like Aristotle’s poet, decide to leave the sea battle out of his work, along with most of the world. But if he is serious he won’t pretend to certainty that his choice is the perfect one, that the sea battle, or any of the innumerable particulars omitted from his work, may not, after all, be relevant. Beginning in the 19th century, and more and more as we get into the 20th, events all over the world need to be taken into account as possibly having a bearing upon any matter at hand. One must put everything into a film, Godard has said, although of course one can’t: what one can do is acknowledge all that is left out.

The serious modern artist, aware as he is of omitting from his work much that may have bearing upon it, will want his audience to notice the omission. He will want to make his audience conscious that these are but his choices, his activity in producing meaning through the arrangement of materials, rather than attempting to efface that activity as if his choices were ideal and his medium transparent. Questioning the world, he will question the means he employs to conduct that questioning. Just as a modern scientist no longer assumes that the energy or momentum of a particle has an ideal existence unaffected by his measurements, so a modern artist will acknowledge in his work the interaction of the observer with the thing observed, the way his devices affect the result. In the world of our modernity, “not only the result,” as Karl Marx wrote, “but the road to it also, is a part of the truth.”

The modernist impulse “to make it new”—the continual challenge to established conventions which has taken place in advanced art over the past century—is often regarded as a pursuit of formal experimentation for its own sake. Modern art, in the view of many of its champions and detractors alike, is held to be more abstract than the art of previous centuries, more exclusively concerned with form at the expense of content. But the Cézanne who took such pains to be faithful to his perception of nature, the Joyce who gave such a detailed account of the life of Dublin, the Brecht whose theater would help change the world can hardly be called formalists disdainful of content. All three are formalistic, to be sure, in the prominence they give to form in their work, in their insistence that we examine their procedures of arrangement. They lay bare the device, as the Russian formalists say, they draw attention to the process by which an artist’s materials are put together and made to yield meaning—paint applied on the canvas in a certain design, and so on. Formal devices are not an end in themselves for these modern masters who expose them precisely as a means to meaning.

“The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name,” Ferdinand de Saussure wrote in a famous passage, “but a concept and a sound-image”—a signified and a signifier, as the Swiss linguist went on to call them. This was a bold reversal of the old model which had abstract words referring to concrete things: instead the signifier is now material, sensory, and the signified it refers to is conceptual. We may likewise reverse the common assumption of a more abstract modern art and argue that, on the contrary, modern art has been more concrete than the art of the past in the way it has tended to assert the materiality of its means. Surely the old masters were no less concerned with form than modernists have been, but their concern was with exhibiting, in the finished product, an ideal unity of form and content, a perfect adequacy of signifier to signified. What distinguishes the modernists is not a neglect of content for the sake of form—no serious artist can be guilty of that—but an acknowledgment of form as a mediation of content, an emphasis on the signifier coming between us and the signified.

Because the photographic image is peculiarly close to reality, constituting a direct reproduction of what was there before the camera, the fact that our experience of that reality is not direct but mediated is often disregarded, as if the camera could virtually put us in the presence of the things it reproduces. In a photograph or a movie, it has been argued, the very appearance of things in the world serves to convey their meaning: a photographed tree is a real tree to which we supposedly respond in the picture as we would in life. But the tree we see photographed has been framed within a rectangle and rendered in two dimensions according to rules of perspective which the camera automatically applies: built into the photographic process are the rectangular frame and monocular perspective conventional in Western painting since the Renaissance. This is not to deny the reality of the photographed tree—its fundamental difference from a painting in being a piece of the world, mechanically reproduced—but to insist that what we have before us is a picture all the same, a framed flat image cast in the scheme of a Renaissance painting, not the reality we would perceive firsthand.

For long stretches in History Lessons, a film made in 1972 by Jean-Marie Straub and his wife and collaborator Danièle Huillet, the camera is inside a car that a young man drives around the streets of Rome. We get a documentary view of the city and hear its sounds recorded on the spot. Yet we are rigorously discouraged from the illusion that this is the city as we would perceive it if we were riding in that car. As the car wends its way around different avenues and alleys, in emptier and more crowded places where it speeds up and slows down, getting caught in traffic and sometimes stopping or backing up, the camera all the while maintains a fixed position in the back seat looking out toward the front. Without any cuts or pans, or even the slightest wavering, the city is photographed from that fixed viewing point inside the moving car, through a kind of grid constituted by the two side windows on the left and right of the screen, the windshield at the center, and an open sunroof at the top. We are made conscious of the perspective imposed from a single viewpoint, as we are of the unchanging frame, that gridlike demarcation of our view: it is like watching the set pictorial scheme of a Renaissance painting carried around the city streets and applied to the diverse actualities there encountered. This is a baring of the device, of the process by which the camera turns reality into a picture.

For being aware of the picture we are not any less aware of the reality. It is an image that we watch, acknowledged as such, yet not to be regarded as a pure image conjured up out of nowhere. We retain a vivid sense of the city streets and the people in them, of the source of the images in an actual place where the camera was, even though we are conscious that watching the image is not like being there ourselves. We are denied the illusion of reality without being allowed to forget the fact of its photographic reproduction—the fact that this is a picture taken of reality, not a firsthand experience of the streets of Rome but not a self-contained design apart from life either.

Rather than dematerializing the image, as if it were transparent to reality, or the reality, as if the image constituted a realm of its own, Straub and Huillet materialize the commerce between the image and reality peculiar to a medium which is both pictorial and documentary. The camera is identified with that other machine carrying it around, the car, as equally subject to the constraints of being in the world, with limited access to a concrete historical situation. Whereas a Renaissance painting exhibits, as if through an ideal window, a world arranged into the higher order of a designed whole, here the pictorial scheme is equated with the material windows of a car out in the streets; it is grounded in an actual world which is not arranged within the conventions of a picture.

The first time D. W. Griffith used a close-up, breaking a scene with the unprecedented insertion of a shot showing just an actor’s face, the Biograph Movie Company is said to have objected on the grounds that the audience would feel cheated if it got less than a full actor for its money. We may laugh at the stupidity of those early movie producers, who were soon proved wrong by the great success of the close-up, but their objection was not without its point: why should an audience accustomed to getting a whole scene on the stage consent to being shown, on the screen, just a small fragment? Because that fragment is what is important, the answer usually goes. Griffith inserted the actor’s face in close-up at a moment in the action when the expression on that face needed emphasis and enlargement. Still, it was Griffith’s emphasis, and he was asking the audience to go along with him, to agree that it should look at just that, his choice of what to show. It may have gone along because his choice seemed right dramatically, but it was in fact accepting a new convention, the granting to the filmmaker the license to frame in a shot what he saw fit, calling attention to that and leaving out the rest. That face on the screen, which was all that Griffith let the viewers look at, they agreed to take as being, for the moment, all they needed to look at.

The frame had served as the conventional enclosure of a painting, establishing within four edges the separate domain of an image complete in itself. Surely nobody in the audience watching Griffith’s close-up took it for a complete image: its effect depended on keeping in mind the larger scene of which it was a part. Before a painting we are to concentrate on what is contained within the frame; at the movies we are to keep in mind the area lying without.1 Breaking down a film scene into a succession of shots, with the camera closer or farther away, in one place and then another, designates each image on the screen as only a section of an implied larger space extending beyond the frame. We are to grant the existence of the rest, lying outside our view in the space off screen, and consent to our not being shown, at least not for the moment, the things we grant to be there. No longer an enclosure for the whole, the space of all there is to see, the frame in the movies became a convention by which to single out the significant part, marking out the space of all that we should see.

In his valuable book The Technique of Film Editing, Karel Reisz gives the following illustration of the breakdown of a scene into shots for a more effective presentation. In the first shot we see a man sitting on a chair, taking out a cigarette, finding no matches on him and then, from his chair, looking around the room—which is mostly off screen—until his gaze comes to rest on some point outside our view where we are to understand matches have been spotted. Then Reisz proposes to cut to a shot of the matches where they were spotted on a table across the room, with the man now off screen until, having gotten up and walked across, he enters the frame, picks up the matches, and lights his cigarette. Like Griffith’s close-up, each of these two shots is intended to show us the right thing, just that section of the scene where the relevant action is taking place. We don’t need to see the rest of the room while the man is in his chair looking for matches, nor do we need to see him walk across once he has found them, since the cut to the table with matches on it comes at the right time, just when the center of interest shifts from the looking to the finding. The first shot sets up a situation which the second brings to a conclusion with the lighting of the cigarette. Two partial views which, even if added together, omit much of the room and most of the man’s walking across it, these two shots would still show us all that seems necessary, with a beginning in the first shot, a continuation in the second and then an end—a complete action presented with visual, but no dramatic, gaps. Anything visually omitted we are to take as being of no major dramatic importance—an implied background, with much the same function as a stage backdrop, to the action happening in the space within our view.

These two shots are a simple example of the kind of shot arrangement conventional since Griffith: the treatment of the screen as a dramatic space where, in each successive image, the action is unfolded against the background off screen. Griffith’s development of editing is said to have freed the cinema from conventions of the theater, which, of course, is true if one means the imitation of the theater in primitive movies where each scene would be played out within a stage like area before an immobile camera. Yet the kind of editing Griffith developed was a new cinematic version of the same basic dramatic convention: the area shown on the screen, variable as it may be from one moment to the next, is at every moment nonetheless designated, like the fixed area of the stage, as the space containing the action.

Cinema is said to differ from painting or the theater in being an art of partial views; yet, in most films, the audience is not meant to consider the partiality of the views, the choice to show this particular aspect of things and then that among others equally possible, but to accept each shot as determined by dramatic necessity. The fragment of the visual field shown in each shot is to be regarded as a part lacking nothing essential to the whole, fitting exactly into the unfolding scheme of a complete action. With the screen treated in this manner, its four edges still function, like the frame of a painting, as the boundary of a separate domain: even though a space is implied outside each image, inside the space of the succession of images an enclosed system is established where each part submits to a higher order of the whole.

Let us examine the familiar procedure known as the “shot-reverse shot”—or, in French, champ contrechamp—used to render on the screen a scene of dialogue between two characters. An exchange of shots, back and forth, matches the exchange between the two characters, focusing on each speaker in turn, or on the reaction of the listener, with the camera placement in each case more or less corresponding to the place occupied in the scene by the opposite character. It is often supposed that this constitutes a shift back and forth between two different points of view on the situation, making us alternately adopt each character’s way of regarding things—which would be rather disconcerting if it were true, and which would open to question which is the right way of regarding things, something strictly undesirable in conventional filmmaking. But the shot-reverse shot, on the contrary, is designed to enforce an unchanging point of view, a single way in which we are to regard the situation.

In the elementary form of the procedure the camera occupies, in turn, nearly the same position as each character. Standing close together, the two characters will be shown in alternating eye-level close-ups, each over the other’s shoulder, or with the other entirely off screen. Talking across some distance—say, one at an upstairs window and the other down in the street—two characters will be shown in alternating long shots, looking upward at the window and downward at the street. This scheme, however, is seldom rigidly applied: variations are permissible when warranted by the dramatic situation, which very often takes precedence over the characters, physical location in determining the camera placement in shot and reverse shot. In a romantic scene, for example, it may be deemed appropriate, throughout the exchange of shots, to keep both lovers framed together, and have each one in turn appear in three-quarter view next to the other in back profile; two people arguing, by contrast, are likely to be framed separately, maybe in increasingly closer shots corresponding to the increased intensity of the argument rather than to any change in the location of the arguers; a police officer interrogating a suspect, for another example, may be shown in profile and the suspect in frontal view, so as to point up the relationship of the questioner to the one being questioned. Yet, whatever the variations, the conventional shot-reverse shot strictly adheres to certain rules governing the orientation of the audience with respect to the scene. Briefly put, the purpose of these rules is to insure that, in the reverse shot, the orientation established in the shot will not actually have been reversed.

If in no other tradition of dramatic performance have the actor’s eyes enjoyed the peculiar importance we have given them in the West, nowhere in Western drama have the eyes played such a major part as in the movies. In the arrangement of shot and reverse shot, a central consideration is the line along which the eyes of the two characters meet. Now, the camera angle in each case must not coincide exactly with that eye line, or else the character would look straight at the audience, but it mustn’t deviate too much from the eye line either, or else the audience would become aware of a discrepancy between its view and that of the other character. Moreover, once the camera has been placed on one side, it mustn’t cross over to the other side of the plane defined by the eye line and the vertical, or else, in any shot taken from the other side, the apparent direction on the screen of each character’s glance would be reversed (filmmakers call that “cross the line”). Soon enough the audience would find its bearings and recognize that the characters didn’t suddenly switch places in the scene, but such momentary disorientation is to be avoided by the filmmaker whose aim is the acceptance without question of the perfect adequacy of the shot. The audience is to be spared any effort of reorientation which may lead to reassessing its stance toward the depicted situation.

Throughout its alternation in the scene from one character’s side to the other’s, the camera is to stay on the same side of both characters, never crossing the plane of their confrontation. As a corollary to this “180-degree rule,” the two characters are assigned to fixed opposite sides of the screen: whenever the two are shown together, one will invariably appear on the left facing right and the other on the right facing left. Even when only one character is shown at a time, it is deemed advisable that each should appear at least a little off center on his assigned screen side, with a space left empty on the other side to signal the presence of the other character in that direction off screen. It is permissible to have the character appear screen-center, but not over on the side opposite to that assigned him, with the empty space on the side away from the direction of his glance at the other character. That would tend to draw the audience’s interest away from the glance, toward what may be found off screen in the opposite direction, in the world outside the conversation—just as a camera angle too far removed from the eye line, making it impossible to attribute the view to either character’s perspective, would tend to draw the audience’s perspective outside the conversation. In the alternation of shot and reverse shot, any consideration of the real alternative to the way things are presented is strictly discouraged; any shift in point of view is effectively excluded by the conventional rules. The reverse shot is not a reversal of the shot but its perfect complement: the two shots interlock and together enclose a space of the conversation where the audience is comfortably installed. It is basically the same point of view we get in both shots—the point of view, so to speak, shared by both characters along the eye line.

In History Lessons, the car rides around modern Rome alternate with conversations about Julius Caesar that the young man we’ve seen driving the car has with a number of ancient Romans. The first Roman he talks to is a knowing banker, who gives him the inside story on (to use the title of Brecht’s unfinished novel on which the film is based) the business deals of Mr. Julius Caesar; then a Latin peasant, a veteran of conscripted service in Caesar’s army, tells a different side of the story. After another car ride, the young man talks to a jurist, a plebeian risen in life who admires Caesar for his championing against the patricians the democratic tradition of the Gracchi; then a poet, reclining on a chaise lounge in a terrace by the sea, expresses disdain for the dirty business of politics, likening the Senate to a marketplace. The final conversation, after a third car ride, is again with the banker, who, from the position of one who stood to profit, expands on the dirty business Caesar was up to. From the first time we see the young man, in a modern suit, sitting on a garden bench next to the banker in his Roman toga, all illusion of the reality of these Romans is indeed destroyed. Playing an alienation effect is intended, making the viewer aware that these ancient Romans speaking in German are in fact impersonated by actors, whose rather flat delivery of their lines further makes evident the fact that they are reciting a written text.

But haven’t the actors in this version of Brecht’s novel taken too literally the author’s advice (invoked by Straub in an earlier film) that the actors should acknowledge that they are quoting? Certainly an uninflected recital isn’t the kind of acting Brecht had in mind for his theater, but then the passages from his historical novel quoted straight in the film aren’t dramatic dialogue either. Are we to regard the young man as a student taking lessons in Roman history from teachers dressed up in togas for the occasion? But what are we to make of these teachers whose different standpoints on the subject are impossible to reconcile, of these lessons which are fragmentary and full of information difficult to assimilate? Our wondering how we are to respond is the proper response to a film where, rather than suspending our disbelief, we are continually to question what we see and hear, and to reflect on its meaning.

Our first view of the young man and the banker is from an oblique overhead angle behind the bench where they are both sitting, the young man seen from the back, screen-right, turned to face the banker, and the banker in back profile, screen-left, gazing straight ahead into space. A cut to a closer view of the banker comes quickly, as if manifesting our curiosity about what this ancient Roman is doing here; again he appears screen-left, with the young man off screen to the right, but with the same oblique angle maintained, markedly distinct from the young man’s perspective. Then the camera, as if unsure of what angle to take on this Roman banker who recalls Julius Caesar in his days as an ambitious young lawyer, crosses over to the front side of the bench and holds a large close-up of the banker, now shown screen center, though still obliquely, in an overhead front profile. The next shot is more nearly frontal and closer to eye level, showing the banker screen-center from the waist up—a more conventional view, as if the camera were, by now, more comfortable with him. This shot is the first so far which would be passable in Hollywood as a shot alternating with a reverse shot of the young man, though here the banker is not facing the young man and no reverse shot interrupts this long-held shot. At one point during it, however, the banker, as he disparages those generals who boast that the grass no longer grows where their legions have set foot (“You know, from one of those grasses bread is made”), suddenly glances at the young man for the first time. With the darting of this glance, off screen to the left (the implied place now of the young man) a flash of life comes to the banker’s hitherto impassive face. This brief first meeting of the eyes, in the first shot of the banker from an angle anywhere near the young man’s perspective, has on us what may be called an involvement (rather than an alienation) effect. For a moment we are less detached, more drawn into this impossible conversation with a ghost from ancient Rome.

Like those who tell us they found a Brecht play moving “in spite of his intentions,” many of those committed modernists who swear by the alienation effect have failed to grasp that the alienation is only effective as a curb on some involvement, that little purpose is served by pulling us back where nothing is drawing us in. Certain avant-gardists seem to think the job is done once the “deconstruction of the medium” has been carried out, but the medium is automatically deconstructed by simple incompetence—bad acting, for example, as a reliable producer of alienation effects. To be sure, we are never drawn into believing that the banker in History Lessons is a real Roman. Yet we come intermittently to regard him as a possible Roman or a possible banker, a modern counterpart suggesting what a banker might have been like in ancient Rome. Certainly the actor playing him looks like a crafty banker—an actual one, not a caricature in the manner of Eisenstein. Implausible as they may be as Romans, the actors in History Lessons all look quite convincing as people of a definite occupation and social standing, the actor’s physical attributes vividly evoking in each case the appearance of a banker, a peasant, a jurist or a poet whom we can imagine encountering in life. Dwelling on the material presence of the signifier—the actor—makes us aware of a discrepancy but also of a coincidence with the character signified. The alienation, like the involvement, is a matter of degree, and the degree may vary considerably as we are led to reassess our response.

On the banker’s glance, a cut to the young man’s reaction would have involved us further by confirming the scarcely established eye line. But instead the banker resumes his vacant gaze straight ahead, and we may come to question why we should even assume that the young man, who so far hasn’t said a word, is still there, off screen, attentively looking at the banker from the same place on the bench where we saw him briefly in the initial shot. (Later, during a stroll in a garden, only the young man is shown in a prolonged traveling shot which follows him steadily as he, like a student replying to the teacher, tells the banker the story found in the history books of Caesar’s kidnapping by pirates. Here, too, a sustained withholding of the other character from our view opens to question the convention of his presence off screen: we may doubt whether the listening banker, whom we don’t get to see but who is implied by the young man’s addressing gaze, is actually there walking alongside him in the garden.) In the initial shot of the two characters we may have taken the young man as our point of entry into the scene, as, so to speak, the representative of our modernity in this peculiar confrontation with ancient Rome. But for a long while we are denied any further glimpse of him, any sense of his response as something upon which to base ours. So we are left on our own to find our bearings as the camera continues its ruminative exploration of the ancient Roman from a succession of different perspectives.

Having gone around from a back profile of the banker to a front profile, to a nearly frontal view, the camera keeps circling him in three more held shots, each a successively closer view from an angle successively higher and more sideways—a near reversal, now on his other side, of the progression in the three previous shots. The camera angles now, going around to the side away from the young man, are so dissociated from his perspective that we may come more or less to forget about his presence as we concentrate on the banker, who seems to be addressing no one in particular, and who has many interesting things to say about the man he refers to as “C.” Our alienation from the ancient character lessens as we become less aware of the modern character sitting beside him, and more absorbed in the insider’s account of Caesar’s career. As the banker keeps talking, we are drawn, if not exactly into suspending our disbelief in the character, or even our mistrust in the truth of his statements, at least into listening with puzzled fascination and entertaining the possibility of this somehow being a firsthand account of the facts. A measure of the degree of our involvement is that, when the camera gets all the way around to the banker’s other profile, shown screen-right in an overhead close-up, the reappearance into frame of part of the young man’s body, screen-left, comes as something of a surprise, rather as if we hadn’t seen the modern character before, and the alienation effect of the incongruous encounter with the ancient character. The oblique overhead angle in this close-up, barely from the front side of the bench, is maintained in the following long shot of the two characters, a near reversal of the view from behind in the initial shot, which brings to a conclusion, as the banker comes to a pause in his monologue, the interrogative circle of camera angles.

Now the young man speaks for the first time. He is shown in a sudden close-up from below, looking wide-eyed and eager to learn as he asks a question about the democratic party in ancient Rome. His glance to the right, at the banker off screen, is returned by the banker’s glance to the left in the next shot—a close-up of him as he replies to the question. Now the banker, in this first exchange of dialogue between the two characters, gazes steadily at the young man for the first time, with the camera angle on the banker—in this first exchange of something like shot and reverse shot—not far from the eye line now established. But the two characters, each glancing at the other off screen in the conventional opposite directions, appear each on the wrong side of the screen, according to the rules, leaving a conspicuous empty space in the direction away from the other character. And the shot of the banker continues to be held, with no further reverse shot of the young man even as he asks several further questions. In the next shot, which is the prolonged camera movement alongside the young man walking (a kind of reverse shot, from eye level, except in a different place), he continuously appears again on the wrong side, screen-right looking off to the right. Our involvement in the conversation, increased by the exchanged gaze and by the fair proximity of the camera angles to the eye line, is checked by sparse intercutting and by the empty space pointing away from the other character.

Back from the stroll in the garden, the banker sits down on the bench again, with the young man now on a chair facing it. Now the two characters, more directly facing each other across a more comfortable distance, come to be shown in shot and reverse shot approaching the conventional, the young man screen-left looking off to the right, the banker screen-right looking off to the left, as if each character, having taken his time, were now settling on his assigned side. But the young man is shown only briefly, as he says his one line of dialogue for the remainder of the scene, which continues at length with the banker’s account of Caesar’s part in what, according to the banker, was behind the incident with the so-called pirates (who were really just merchants)—the struggle over control of the Mediterranean slave trade. As the banker goes on talking, his gaze all the while directed at the young man off screen to the left, several momentary blackouts keep returning to the same shot at an indeterminate later point, with a slight abrupt change in the light suggesting a later time of day, a slight abrupt change in the banker’s face and a discontinuity in his statements suggesting perhaps a response to some remark we haven’t heard or some expression we haven’t seen on the young man’s face. It is as if, once the two characters have been shown in conventional shot and reverse shot, the reverse shot of the young man might just as well be skipped and a section of black leader inserted instead.

The deconstruction and partial reinstatement of a conventional device is a characteristic strategy in the work of Straub and Huillet. Fortini/Cani, which they made in 1977, centers on a book, I Cani del Sinai (The Dogs of the Sinai), written in response to the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967 by the Florentine poet and journalist Franco Fortini, who now in the film reads aloud from his book of ten years before. At that time Fortini, a Communist and a Jew, undertook a defense of the Arabs against the pro-Israeli bias of most of his fellow countrymen and especially of his fellow Jews; his book is a polemic from a Marxist standpoint and also an elucidation of how the author came to this position from his own background as an Italian Jew. In one long section of the film, the same shot of Fortini is maintained over a series of momentary whiteouts marking transitions to his reading of different passages from his book: he appears in profile, screen-right, his gaze fixed downward, on the book off screen below the bottom edge of the frame. When he comes to a pause in his reading, however, he looks up and stares straight ahead, off screen to the left, with the empty space screen-left now drawing our attention in the direction of his glance, as in a conventional shot preparing us for a cut to a point-of-view shot through a character’s eyes. Then comes a cut to the base of a public monument in Florence, on which we can read the inscription commemorating the patriots who liberated Italy in the last century. We get an eye-level view of the base, not facing head-on but from an angle to the right, and with an empty space screen-right, as in a conventional point-of-view shot indicating the presence off screen to the right of the character shown looking from that direction in the previous shot. Although we may get that impression for an instant after the cut, this monument in the city couldn’t be what Fortini is looking at from the porch where he’s sitting in a country house. The expectation is raised and then frustrated that we would share his perspective in this shot.

The shot continues to be held, now with Fortini’s voice heard over it, as he resumes his reading, coming in time to a passage which refers to the monument. When he was a boy in Fascist Italy, his free thinking father used to take him to that monument to the Italian liberation, and Fortini came to notice the mark left on the steps of the monument by the Masonic triangle which had been there before the Fascists removed it. As Fortini reads this passage, the camera moves down to the steps, where the triangular dent in the stone can still be seen: a movement which indeed evokes a glance downward, through the eyes of someone turning to an object that has come to his attention. We do get a kind of point-of-view shot after all, a reinstatement of the device: neither what Fortini is looking at now, nor a flashback to the boy then, but something like the recollected point of view, by Fortini now, of the boy with his father then.

After a lecture I once attended on Baudelaire and Freud, I heard the objection, voiced on the way out by some professors there, that it was naive to attach much importance to sexuality in Baudelaire, when it had been conclusively established that the real subject of his poetry is the writing of poetry itself. This emasculation of Baudelaire is an instance of what may be called the fallacy of self-expressive form—the notion that, with modernism, art comes to be really about nothing but itself, any other subject being merely a pretext for art’s self-reflection. Such esthetic narcissism, embodied as it has been in many works passing for avant-garde, shouldn’t be confused with the reflection, in genuine modernism, upon the means of art’s transaction with reality. As Straub has said, it is necessary but not sufficient to bring under scrutiny the devices of the medium. For the devices must still be put to their function as instruments of meaning, serving to deal with the subject matter of life. Straub and Huillet call attention to the film medium in the process of employing it to conduct a larger scrutiny. Their films are about filmmaking, to be sure, but in the course of their being about something else: their real subject is history, they are history lessons all, one of the lessons being that we must attend to the means of our access to history.

Driving around Rome serves the young man as his method of conducting a scrutiny of the city: like the sequence of camera angles around the banker, the winding, exploratory path the car follows in the streets (sometimes returning to a place gone by before) traces a kind of interrogative circle. The car ride is the young man’s means of access to the reality of the city, the film of the car ride, ours; the discrepancy between his means and ours is made manifest in the film. Yet there is also an equation between the instruments employed, between the car and the camera affixed to it, moving with it through the city along exactly the same path. The car, physically there amid the traffic in the streets, is made into a metaphor for the camera, equally a concrete part of the reality it serves to explore. Just as the car is limited to the available pathways, and restricted in its motion along them by the surrounding traffic, so too the camera is necessarily limited by the material circumstances under which it operates.

Obviously the camera needn’t have been limited to the particular path followed by the car, but any other course the camera might have followed would still have yielded only a particular sequence of partial views. Moreover, the analogy between the car and the camera—different devices with a different effect upon the resulting experience—implies a broader analogy between the car and any other device through which one gains access to a concrete reality. Whether a documentary of modern Rome or an actor dressed up as an ancient Roman, a satirical novel by Brecht or a sober scholarly treatise, any approach taken to history must be recognized as itself a part of history, inevitably affected by the material circumstances under which one drives a car, writes (or reads) a book, makes (or watches) a film. Everywhere in the films of Straub and Huillet we are made conscious of the activity of filmmaking as itself inscribed in history—just as the mark of the Masonic triangle is inscribed in the steps of the Florentine monument.

The traces of history, the marks left by the past in the present, are a central concern in the work of Straub and Huillet. The mark left by the Masonic triangle in the stone, the memory in Fortini’s mind of his having gone there as a boy with his father, the account he gave of that memory in the book written directly after the Six Day War, the sound of his voice reading that passage from his book in the film made ten years later, the accompanying image of the triangular dent still there: all these signs of that removed triangle, in various contexts and with various connotations, are brought to our attention together at one moment in the film. We are led to compare them with one another, the image on the screen with our sense of the mental image from Fortini’s boyhood, the words read aloud on the soundtrack with our sense of the words at the time of their writing, the printed or the uttered words with the remembered or photographed image. The signs of the past are seen to take on a new meaning in each new situation in the present—including our situation at a showing of the film as spectators invited to make our own connections. (Fortini’s description of his father in some ways reminded me of my own father, a connection which is peculiar to me, but not irrelevant to a film which encourages each one of us to examine what we bring to it.) Straub has described Moses and Aaron (1975), his and Huillet’s film of Schoenberg’s opera, as a comparison among three concrete historical periods: the time of the Biblical events, the time in the early ’30s when the opera was written, and the time when the film was made. Every film by Straub and Huillet may be described as a document of documents, a juxtaposition of traces from different times in the past, concrete pieces of evidence to be compared with one another in the present.

In The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968), the actor playing Bach is a musician mostly playing the music that is the chief trace Bach left us of his existence. Rather than the man in some dramatization of what he was like then, the music itself is the rightful protagonist: the music performed by musicians now and recorded direct, grounded in this particular performance of it taking place before the camera. Unlike a concert, however, the film demands that we also consider the original ground of the music in the life of the man who composed it in 18th-century Germany. Even though we remain aware that the players are contemporary musicians, they wear the wigs and costumes and play the instruments of Bach’s time in actual old churches and rooms; even though not much is reenacted of Bach’s life outside the musical performances, the narrated chronicle of his second wife Anna Magdalena tells about family matters, money problems, the endeavors and frustrations of her husband’s job as a musician. The film becomes a kind of dialogue between Bach as he survives in his music and Bach as he lived and worked. We get a sense of the materials Bach worked with, the difficulties he faced, the concrete circumstances under which he composed the music we are hearing—even as we recognize that in this enduringly beautiful music he was able to transcend those often troublesome circumstances. Bach’s music also is used by Straub and Huillet in other films as a symbol of the possible transcendence of one’s situation, a magnificent reminder that human beings need not accept their circumstances as given but can work to overcome them.

The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp (1968) opens with an extended traveling shot along a dark street on the outskirts of Munich which is a gathering place for whores waiting to be picked up by customers driving by. This shot remains silent for awhile; then suddenly we start to hear Bach’s Ascension Oratorio on the soundtrack, a strikingly incongruous musical accompaniment that continues through the second half of the shot. The silent shot documents the sordid reality of the street; the addition of the exalted music does not, of course, change the street that we go on seeing, but it registers as an assertive choice exercised by the filmmaker against that reality, a refusal to let it stand as it is. At the end of this short film, a young woman who may have been one of the whores we saw in the street begins a new life married to a black man; he speaks to her in lines of poetry, a German translation of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. When the couple arrive at their new home, her pimp is there waiting, but she takes his gun from him and shoots him forthwith. Then the camera follows her to a window, and the film closes with the brightly overexposed image of the trees outside, accompanied on the soundtrack by more of St. John’s poetry, recited by her, and by a section of Bach’s music played again.

The film, one might say, begins with the darkness of prostitution and ends with the light of redemption, but the prostitution is a documented reality and the redemption a manifest contrivance which we are not to take as an accomplished fact. The shooting of the pimp is deliberately made unbelievable; the beauty of the trees does not cancel the ugliness of the whores’ street; Bach’s music and St. John’s poetry are remnants of the past which do not provide in themselves an answer to the problems of the present. A feeling of transcendence is nonetheless evoked, but transcendence as a goal not yet achieved in the present as it was in the past by Bach and by St. John. The pimp, we are led to recognize, has not yet been shot, nor is the whore yet married: the shooting and the marriage are not realities but symbols of the kinds of actions that can be taken against intolerable realities. Bach and St. John are not offered as an answer but enlisted in opposition to that reality: they are symbols of the kind of answer we must find for ourselves in our time as they did in theirs. These traces of the past are evidence that an answer can be found, pointed reminders that the present can be changed.

Straub and Huillet are no less concerned with the missing pieces of evidence, the things that have been forgotten, the traces effaced by time. In one section of Fortini/Cani, the camera inspects the countryside near Florence in a series of slow, extended panning shots (interrogative circles too) around places where large numbers of Italian partisans were massacred by the Nazis during the Second World War—pretty landscapes where no trace is left of the blood spilled there. When the last of these shots goes around full-circle and keeps going over the same ground we’ve seen before, enough time has passed since we saw it, owing to the slowness of the panning, that we have to make an effort of recognition: after only a few moments we have already started to forget. Not Reconciled (1965) deals with the effort Germans must make to remember their history in this century, with their general failure to recognize that they are going over once again the same ground they went over before at the time of the Nazis and of the Kaiser before that. In this film, too, the camera pans slowly around the space of the present, searching for traces of the violent past. When Schrella, an anti-Nazi militant who has been in exile since the 1930s, returns to the street where he had lived in Cologne, the camera pans full-circle around the utterly changed street and stops in front of his old house, where, according to a child from the neighborhood whom he consults, no family named Schrella ever lived.

A “lacunary film” is Straub’s term for Not Reconciled: a film in which the gaps, the omissions, are no less noticeable than the inclusions and no less important. “Tell what, boy?” asks Robert Fähmel in the abrupt opening line: tell what about his experience under the Nazis, when he was roughly the same age as the adolescent boy to whom he’s talking now? Tell what about the German past, in what connection to the concerns of the present? asks the film implicitly throughout: the question is built into the fragmentary, dislocated arrangement of the largely retrospective narrative. The main characters are Schrella and the Fähmels, three generations of a Rhineland family prompted by his return to delve into their history. Out of a long story spanning half a century, we get an agglomerate of fragments, bits and pieces of the past recollected by the various characters in conversation or reenacted in flashbacks to Nazi and to Kaiser Germany, with sudden disconcerting shifts to different characters or to a different period, and with no clear links provided among the tangled pieces of retrospection. Hence the missing pieces carry as much weight as those included—the weight, we feel, of all in the past that has been forgotten or repressed and yet continues to bear upon the present.

Usually we find it easier to comprehend our past than our present, for we have the advantage of hindsight and are better able to see the whole picture looking back. But hindsight, in its tendency to see things as over and done with, is apt to yield a consoling delusion when the past in fact remains unresolved. In Not Reconciled we are denied that advantage, denied any long perspective from which to sum up the past. Instead we must confront, one by one, the particular fragments we are offered, rather as if we were inspecting the contents of an unfamiliar room for information about the life of its occupants, drawing such inferences as we can from miscellaneous items accumulated over the years and now encountered all together. Our view of the past in Not Reconciled is not of a chronology of progressing events, successive stages on the road to an outcome, but of a simultaneity of remnants, miscellaneous items all deposited in the present. The occupants of the room are the German people, and they must themselves take stock of its contents, the items from the past determining the shape of the present. No outcome has yet been reached, the film implies, from which to look back at the past and see clearly what it has all amounted to: the German past is entangled in a present which is a continuation and a reenactment of it, and its meaning must be sorted out amid the confusion of that present, through such an effort of collective recall as the unreconciled characters undertake. The outcome is up to the German people, whose coming to an understanding of their situation is the first step toward changing it, to be followed by their taking action against its perpetuation, in an endeavor to make the room into a better place to inhabit.

Not Reconciled portrays the process of coming to such an understanding. The only action that is taken against the situation is rather ineffectual. The character who takes this action is Johanna Fähmel, Robert’s somewhat crazy old mother, who had gotten herself in trouble during the First World War by publicly calling the Kaiser a fool, and whose equally vocal opposition to the Nazis had necessitated her being put away in a mental asylum to save her life during World War II. Now that Johanna, expecting to plead insanity, decides to shoot, during a parade of war veterans, one of the reinstated Nazis in attendance, she’s not sure which one among various deserving candidates. When she goes to a greenhouse to get the gardener’s gun for the shooting, a frontal outside view of the shut greenhouse door gives us at first an impression of flat space, until she opens the door and walks inside the surprisingly deep greenhouse, entering well into the background, into the unsuspected depths of a space which feels as if she were excavating it.

In her craziness, which causes her to mix up past and present in her mind, Johanna is better able than the other characters to detect the pattern of perpetuation underlying German history—better able, as the image of her entering the greenhouse implies, to penetrate the surface and get at the bottom of things. Her penetration into the depths yields a gun, and she proceeds to shoot a prominent government minister, but he’s not seriously wounded. “I hope the great look of astonishment will not disappear from his face,” comments her husband Heinrich in the last line of the film, at a family party for his 80th birthday, which becomes also a celebration of Johanna’s act of protest. The camera pans over the members of the Fähmel family, now (except for Johanna) all gathered together for the first time in the film, and continues to a window, to the bright closing image of trees by the Rhine outside, accompanied by a section of a Bach suite heard on the soundtrack. As in the similar ending of The Bridegroom, the Comedienne, and the Pimp, we get a sense of redemption here, of a transcendence of the situation, even though we are conscious that little has been accomplished as yet. All Johanna managed to do was put a look of astonishment on the enemy’s face, not much of a change in the reality the gun was aimed against. Yet her action is invested with symbolic resonance as a gesture asserting her consciousness, her refusal to accept things as they are, pointing to the kind of action that must be taken so that the German people can be redeemed.

The young man’s second conversation with the banker, which concludes History Lessons, differs significantly from the first in treatment and implications. The setting is the same Mediterranean garden as before, with the banker seated on the bench again and the young man on a chair across a table, which is how they remain throughout the scene, steadily facing each other. On the table there is a pitcher of red wine, which they are sharing in an afternoon drink: this is a friendlier and more comfortable occasion, it may seem, than the young man’s earlier visit. We begin by getting something pretty close to a conventional shot-reverse shot: a frontal view of the banker, screen-center, looking off to the left, followed by a profile view of the young man, screen-left, looking off to the right. Moreover, this is a mode of shot-reverse shot conventional in scenes where one character, or interviewer, seeks information from another: the young man, like the interviewer he resembles, is shown in profile, whereas the banker, the one giving the answers, is shown frontally. The profile tends more to direct our attention off screen, the frontal view to become more the center of attention. We may notice here, however, that the pitcher of wine—cut off halfway by the left edge of the frame in the shot of the banker, halfway by the right edge in the shot of the young man—marks a kind of boundary between the two shots, which are thus seen neatly to divide space between the two characters, with no area of overlap: a hint that they may share little in common but the wine. Although they are sitting near each other across the small garden table, the young man and the banker are never framed together during this second conversation, and the persistently separate shots of each character haven’t even any area in common with the shots of the other character. Each character seems to be in his own camp, as if a rift between the two were tacitly coming about. After a while we lose sense of their physical proximity, especially since the scale of the shots changes, getting closer to the banker and farther away from the young man—as if he were putting distance between himself and the banker.

During their earlier meeting the young man asked several questions, but (aside from the stroll in the garden, when it was his turn to answer a question) he was shown only briefly. During this meeting, where he asks no questions, says nothing at all, he is shown as regularly as the banker. In alternating long-held views of each character, the young man’s silent reaction is given as much importance as the banker’s statements—even more importance, one might say, since in the succession of shots the young man comes to be shown more and more frontally and the banker more and more in profile, as if the two were gradually exchanging roles as interviewer and interviewed. Certainly the young man no longer gives us the impression we got earlier of a naive student seeking to learn from the teacher; he looks no less keenly interested in what he is hearing about Roman history, but his expression seems stern now, his gaze penetrating rather than trustful.

By the end of the scene, as he listens to the banker’s gloating description of a particularly dirty business—Caesar’s subjugation of rebellious Lusitanian mountaineers whom he brought down in large numbers to work as slaves in profitable silver mines—we may read something like hatred on the young man’s face. “My confidence in him proved well founded,” says the banker about Caesar in the last line of the film. “Our little bank was no longer a little bank.” Right after the first conversation with the banker, the young man talked to the peasant; right after the jurist, to the poet: in each case one account was opposed by another from a different point of view. No other account follows the second conversation with the banker, but he’s not really allowed to have the last word: his account is opposed by the barely contained anger we detect in the young man’s stare at him. In a way, this is again a reinstatement of a familiar device, the reaction shot, the prompting of a response in the audience by cutting to the reaction on a character’s face.

Our response here, however, is much more complex than the sharing of a character’s feelings in a standard reaction shot. We can’t be sure of what the young man is feeling, we can only conjecture, which leads us to examine our own feelings in relation to the scene. The progressive reversal of the initial shot-reverse shot, so that the banker in profile comes to seem like the interviewer, and the young man in full face like the one being interviewed, does more than simply direct our attention to the young man’s reaction: it implies that he must react, turning the banker’s narrative into a kind of question put to the young man. He had started out as the student confronting history, and history ends up confronting him, as it were, challenging him to take a stand on the basis of what he has learned. Taken into the banker’s confidence over sips of a doubtless excellent wine, with a sumptuous villa becoming visible in the background as the camera turns to the banker’s profile, the young man is invited into a complicity with the exploiters which he appears to repudiate—about which, in any case, he must make up his mind, for or against the banker and all that he represents. The young man’s silent anger might be our projection, but his loss of innocence and gain of responsibility are a certainty.

Like Not Reconciled, History Lessons portrays the process of a coming to consciousness, a process in which we are led to participate. We may have noticed, during the young man’s last car ride, the recurrence of Communist posters on the walls of the Roman buildings along this route, an indication that perhaps he has come to a Marxist standpoint, or is contemplating it; whether he has or not, his face exhibits a new look of understanding in the final conversation, and his stance toward the banker seems clearly to have changed. Our having to ponder his reaction, in the context given it by the allusive shot arrangement, presses us to ponder our own reaction, to decide where we ourselves stand. We must, the film implies, develop our own anger at the banker, rather than simply share the young man’s; for (as Mother Courage explains to a young soldier in Brecht’s play) a long anger is required, an anger based on reflection rather than on the emotion of the moment. We may almost expect, by the end of the film, that the young man will get up from his chair and shoot the banker—the burst of Bach music on the soundtrack following the banker’s last statement feels indeed like a shot—but we are aware that this ancient Roman has long been dead, that now the enemy is to be found in his modern counterparts, lurking in the streets of contemporary Rome.

If modernist art is problematic in its very nature—because it seeks, not the simple discarding of old conventions, but the questioning even of those being employed—modernism poses a peculiar problem in the case of films. The modernist movement was well under way in painting and poetry when D. W. Griffith was just beginning to develop the elementary conventions of cinema. Great as he was as an innovator, he was no modernist: instead of making something new in an old medium, he was exploring a new one, and fashioning it for rather traditional purposes. Yet the new medium, in the mobility he was the first to give it, seemed to promise a new way of seeing better suited to modern experience. “Cinematic” has been a word often applied to the modernist procedures of such works as Ulysses, although it’s hard to imagine from which films (The Musketeers of Pig Alley?) Joyce could have drawn inspiration, and although most films that have been made since Griffith have not lived up to the promise of a new art that would keep abreast of a new age, but have lagged well behind the other arts in dealing with modern experience. For some, it is precisely the newness of films that exempts them from the modernist imperative to make it new, their freedom from the burdens of tradition enabling them to be the last traditional art, giving us the old-fashioned pleasures of a good story plainly told. For others, on the contrary, films are to fulfill their potential as a modern art in the avant-gardist eschewal of storytelling and the pursuit of visual abstraction in the manner of modern painting.

Abstraction, however, has not been the goal of modern painting, but a concomitant of its undertaking to lay bare the formative procedures of the medium—the way a painting is put together out of shapes and colors arranged by the painter on a flat surface. Photographic images, unlike painted ones, are put together largely automatically: turning them into abstractions may lay bare a mechanical process, but not any formative human arrangement through which the medium is made expressive. Moreover, photographic abstraction works to dissemble a fundamental fact of the medium: the presence in the world of the things reproduced by the camera. Reality is not an illusion in a photographic image, at least not in the same way that it is in a representational painting: rather, one might say, it is part of the materials out of which the image is constituted.

Near or complete abstraction is, of course, an option available to the filmmaker, though I would argue that the purely pictorial resources of cinema, even with the added dimension of movement, are poorer than those of painting and unlikely to produce abstractions any more visually gripping than a kind of moving wallpaper. It isn’t my intention here, however, to dissuade anyone from a predilection for moving wallpaper, but to point out that avant-garde films given over to purely visual patterns, whether made in France in the 1920s or more recently in America, have little to do with genuine modernism.2 The effacement of reality in abstract films is simply an alternative convention to the effacement of the camera in standard films. If in one case we are asked to pretend that the camera wasn’t there and to look at the picture as if it were just like life, in the other we are asked to pretend that reality wasn’t there and look at the visual patterns projected on the screen as if they had no other source but in the filmmaker’s head. Admittedly, this alternative convention is harder for most audiences to accept in a film of any length, but its unquestioned acceptance is nonetheless what is demanded by the film abstractionist, to whose pristine vision we are to surrender ourselves.

It is a common avant-gardist misconception that the illusion of reality is the chief adversary against which the modernist challenge has been directed. Except for very small children, nobody watching a Hollywood movie or a representational painting or a naturalistic play believes he’s watching reality. What is expected of the spectator in traditional art is surely not that he should mistake it for the real world but that he should take it as an ideal surrogate, satisfyingly coherent and complete within the realm ruled by its conventions. So long as he’s comfortable with these conventions, his awareness of the artificiality of this realm, of its discrepancy from reality, won’t hold back his involvement in it, his “willing suspension of disbelief.” The obvious artificiality of slow motion, for example, hasn’t prevented its gaining general acceptance as a cinematic convention, regularly used in commercial films, and television commercials, to connote instant lyricism. The more extreme distortions in a film by Stan Brakhage have a similar lyrical aim and similarly invite the viewer to give in and become attuned to them: he may refuse the invitation, but not because anything in the film qualifies or calls into question the unbridled expression of Brakhage’s soul. By contrast, the justly celebrated use of slow motion during the climactic boys’ revolt in Vigo’s Zero for Conduct achieves not only a truly lyrical effect but also a truly modernist one in its sudden interruption of the hitherto naturalistic presentation of the scene, turning a spontaneous-looking pillow fight into a strange and exalted ceremony. It is not any device in itself, but the questioning of the device, that constitutes a modernist procedure: in Vigo’s scene the two incongruous modes of presentation hold each other in check. The use of nonnaturalistic devices is not a certification of modernism, or the use of naturalistic ones a disqualification from it.

In Jean Vigo we have the interesting case of a filmmaker who has won praise from avant-gardist admirers for his imaginative experimentation, and also from realist-minded ones for his earthy naturalism. Yet his films are neither slices of life nor flights of avant-gardist fancy: rather they are instances of the characteristically modernist conflation of materiality and formalization. The basic materials of cinema are images and sounds mechanically constituted from their source in reality: to disregard or dilute that reality for the sake of the pure image may be a visionary approach but it is not a modernist one, and not one that was pursued by Vigo or Buñuel or Eisenstein or Dovzhenko, to name several of the men who first succeeded in making the new medium into a truly modern art. Their work is at once more strikingly artificial than we are used to in films and also vividly real—more emphatically arranged and more solidly grounded in the physical world. These artists, in their different ways, all apply an assertive formalization against the weight of a concrete reality; they all compound naturalistic and nonnaturalistic devices so as to produce a conflict in our experience of their films—and thus an active rather than an acquiescent response.

To their names I would add that of another great filmmaker, Jean Renoir, whose impulse, in his ground-breaking work of the 1930s, was largely naturalistic, yet who, in his own gentler way, was as thoroughgoing a modernist, though he hasn’t been recognized as one.3 A chief reason why he hasn’t, I submit, is that the cinematic devices which he lays bare, the conventions he opens to question, are peculiar to a medium whose attributes remain insufficiently understood. What usually passes for modernism in films is what, in the avant-garde, reminds some people of modern painting, or what reminds others of modern literature in Bergman or Fellini. Renoir has been a major influence on the subsequent development of genuine modernism in the film medium: on Antonioni, who refuted the neo-realist tenet that reality speaks for itself by exploring the different paths the camera can follow in the attempt to make it speak; on Godard, who more boldly and broadly than anyone before him took apart the diverse artifice of films while rescuing it for his purposes until, around 1968, he apparently decided it was beyond rescue; and on Straub and Huillet.

It is not out of the official avant-garde, but out of this checkered tradition of modernist cinema—of Eisenstein, Renoir, Dovzhenko, Godard—that the work of Straub and Huillet has emerged. In many of their procedures one may detect the distinctive influence of their predecessors: of Renoir in their insistence on direct sound, of Dovzhenko in their often having an actor remain still holding a telling gesture, of Godard in their mixing pointedly implausible fiction with documentary veracity. More important than any particular procedures, however, is what may be called a dialectical spirit which Straub and Huillet carry forward from their predecessors. What all these different filmmakers have in common, setting them apart both from Hollywood and from most of the avant-garde, is their refusal to enforce the acceptance of any mode of presentation—any consistent way in which we are to respond—and their endeavor, instead, to bring their formative activity under our scrutiny, having us entertain the alternative and ponder conflicting ways of regarding things.

Gilberto Perez


1. In modern paintings which have challenged the convention, and also in paintings by such old masters as Brueghel or Rogier van der Weyden, the image seems to be cut off by the frame rather than wholly contained within it. But the frame still marks the boundary of the visible: what lies outside can only be imagined, whereas in the movies it can be brought into view. Even if we don’t in fact get to see the things off screen, the continual possibility that we may affects our attitude toward the film image.

2. Nor is it my intention to relegate to the category of moving wallpaper all films associated with these avant-garden. Within this area of cinema, too often either championed or condemned as a whole. I believe it’s important to make distinctions—between, for example, the estimable ambition and accomplishment of a Hollis Frampton and the triviality of Ken Jacobs’ esthetic narcissism.

3. Such a naturalistic procedure in Renoir as his use of direct sound, for example, with the noises recorded in an actual place getting to be as accentuated as the dialogue, serves both to increase our sense of reality and to dispute the conventional primacy of the dialogue over the rest of the soundtrack. Renoir continually challenges the fundamental convention of cinema, the ideal adequacy of the shot as a view of the action, by having action of central importance take place in the background of his shots—which in his films is no longer a conventional background to the action in front—or spill out of the frame into the space off screen—which in his films is no longer a conventional implied background to the action in view. A more extensive discussion of Renoir in this connection may be found in my essay, “The Narrative Sequence,” The Hudson Review, XXX/ 1 (Spring 1977).