What Is a Political Film? On Straub-Huillet’s Poetics of Hylomorphism

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  This text was written after studying hylomorphism with a group of philosopher-friends at Nesin Mathematics Village in Şirince Turkey in early September 2018. Thus, I thank Austin Gross, Jordan Skinner, Matt Hare, and David Bremner for prompting me
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  10/12/2019What Is a Political Film?https://www.sabzian.be/print/39101/8 Published on Sabzian  (www.sabzian.be) 24.07.2019 What Is a Political Film? On Straub-Huillet’s Poetics of Hylomorphism Bojana Cvejić 2019“Things don’t exist until they have found a rhythm, a form. The form of the body gives birth tothe soul. I’ve said it a thousand times. There was this Thomas Aquinas who discovered that, andas he was Neapolitan, he knew what he was talking about. When someone says: “Yes, the form,it’s the form, the form, never mind the idea.” That is a sell-out. It’s not true. You have to seethings clearly: First there is the idea. Then there is the matter [matière] and then the form. Andthere is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! The idea, that’s what Eisensteinhad when he organized his sequences. He had his montage of attractions… Then there is thematter. He has to determine the duration of the shots he has stringed together, that is the matter.What we are doing here is the idea that was on paper, the construction of the film, and then wework on the matter. We work with a matter that resists us and you just can’t cut anywhere youlike between shot. […] And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter […]gives rise to the form. […] The same goes for a sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, thecracks, all the geological layers in it. He just can’t do whatever he wants.”Jean-Marie Straub in  Où gît votre sourire enfoui?  (Pedro Costa, 2001) In the famous scene of Pedro Costa’s portrait of the working couple Straub-Huillet, Jean-Marie Straubexplains his view on cinematic form: there is first the idea, then comes the matter, and the form is only athird instance, which results from the matter’s resistance to the idea that tries to shape it. MentioningThomas Aquinas, the “Neapolitan” who “discovered” the relationship between form and matter, Straubreferences hylomorphism, Aristotle’s doctrine of being and knowing that preoccupied medieval scholasticsand Thomas Aquinas in particular. According to Aristotelian hylomorphism, everything that exists, whichis substance, is a compound or composite of matter (hulê) and form (eidos, morphé, schema, rhuthmos). Togive a brief account of the expanse of hylomorphic framework, form unifies some matter into an object,form is polis and citizens are matter, and form is to soul what matter is to body. “Form” and “matter”seem quaint compared to “form” and “content”, the pair of aesthetic categories that have beendomesticated in the common parlance thanks to expression (“form” and “content” of expression). When we speak of form and matter, as opposed to form and content, we consider genesis to be likeindividuation, something is generated in nature or composed in artifice through a form that individuates, orin other words, differentiates matter. Hence, there are several reasons why Straub-Huillet’s films should beregarded as hylomorphic (matter-form) compounds in the tripartite scheme (idea-matter-form) drawnabove and not in expressionist terms. For starters, a certain formalism is distinctive for Straub-Huillet’scinematography, in general because of the permanence of a style they are admired or despised for. In aquarrel, characteristic of the role of the raging ideological spearhead of the duo that he plays, Straub rejectsformalism. Formalism is arbitrary when it arises from the free will of the artist who thinks they can decideon it. Instead, he insists on the primacy and obligation of matter, as if his method should also be regardedas historical-materialist, according to which artistic material harbors history from within. In Straub’swords, matter’s resistance to idea is like a class struggle, which is dialectically resolved in a form. If Straub-Huillet’s films should be best described as matter-form compositions, or audiovisual objects, doesthe third term – idea – engender a  political  cinema? To remain rigorous, as Straub-Huillet’s films are, let usfirst look at what is matter and what is form in their operation and try to think along with their poetics. Firstly, Straub-Huillet’s operation foregrounds matter. Matter is music in Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach [Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach]  (1968), live performances of entire compositions that make upthe bulk of the film, each one shot in one single take in mono sound system. (The same applies toSchoenberg’s opera  Moses und Aron [Moses and Aaron]  (1975).) Text is also matter in all their films, as it 12  10/12/2019What Is a Political Film?https://www.sabzian.be/print/39102/8 is used unmodified from a literary work, either in entirety, or as a part, but never cut-up or adapted. Spaceis found matter, often a result of a long search for a place in which the scenes should be set (drivingthousands of kilometers to find the right clearing for a scene, e.g. in  Der Tod des Empedokles [Empedokle’s Death]  or  Moses and Aaron ). The matter of space is “respected” through direct sound (no dubbing),because the relationship with what is heard and what is seen is preserved, sound also being matter. Thedistances between the speaking actors are carefully calculated by the shot so that the spectator wouldn’t befooled. Another element of matter are the people that appear in their films. The decision to work withnon-professionals rests on two reasons. Non-professionals are found, or often chosen for the language,dialect, and place to which they belong. As such they are the living part of the matter that the audiovisualobject must preserve; hence, they are not asked to act a role that would require transformation intocharacter. Straub-Huillet prefer to work with non-professionals (the “not-interesting people”) to workingwith actors (the “beautiful people”), because “they bring solutions that none of the ‘beautiful people’would have imagined since they’re not trapped in a present mentality” (Huillet). As yet another elementof matter, movement pertains to light, often the found natural light of the place of shooting, which theydon’t interfere with. Movement is also carried through the gestures of the non-professional actors withinthe shot, but there it verges on becoming form. Forming amounts to directing qua composing a film. Contrary to the weight that editing bears in the filmapparatus, most of the composition, as a kind of preliminary editing, occurs on the shooting set for Straub-Huillet. A record number of takes per shot attests to this claim, for even when they have reached theversion deemed as good, Straub-Huillet record one or two additional takes of the shot just because they aredifferent. This means that they don’t satisfy themselves with what they could get from the live situation of playing in front of the camera, like the directors that will count on the magic of editing. Editing appears asa minimal interference, or else it would distort the living matter they are trying to preserve. Prior toshooting, a long process of rehearsals takes place, whereby directing comes to the fore. Shots are stagedwith actors, who have learnt the text. The short statement titled  Nicht spielen, rezitieren , captures theformal principle with which the actors begin learning text: “…we didn’t ask the actors to ‘perform’ theirtext in any particular way, but ‘to recite’ it, like a very precise score.” Huillet explains that they showedactors how “they could extinguish themselves”. When the actors succeeded at that, they asked them to“develop something, to go out of themselves [Huillet]. When they reached that point, they had tointernalize it [Straub].” The actors internalize a text — the resistance of which speaks through them. Theyare instruments on which the text is played and formed: An actor is a body that exists and expresses itself when one has the impression that what is beingsaid isn’t even clear to the actor, and that what is said has many meanings and not the same thatone wants to impose on it. The actor has become a kind of sleepwalker. That is difficult work. Ittakes a lot of time and patience, on both sides.The kind of work that it takes can be gleaned from Harun Farocki’s documentary of the rehearsals and theshooting of Klassenverhältnisse [Class Relations]  (1984), based on Kafka’s  America . Straub, more thanHuillet, frequently interrupts the actors and then tries to illuminate the text. If there is any psychologicalinterpretation that is demanded of the actors, it is in service of the plot and the ideas that Straub interpretsfrom Kafka. The effect that he asks for can be reduced to a shifted accent on a word, for instance,“  Auftrag ”, which he explains laconically:  Auftrag  is an important word in Kafka. Sometimes, this requiresthat he demonstrate the melody of the sentence for the actor – the infamous Vorspiel  that directors aresupposed to refrain from if they are to allow actors to find their own form. A similar procedure is at workwith the gestures, as Straub explains here: Initially, he [the actor] reads the text over several weeks without even moving his butt out of the chair.Then we tell him: now let’s try it standing up. And then, at a certain moment, when he stares blankly off into space, we tell him: that doesn’t mean anything, why? And then suddenly he raises his eyes and we sayto ourselves: but there it works. Afterward, we try to shift it sometimes on a syllable, on a letter, or a word,or on the beginning or end of sentence. This, this takes place well before all the spatial prep work. Mise-en-scène results from a two-way movement of individuation,actor [matter] èç  director [form] ê 345678  10/12/2019What Is a Political Film?https://www.sabzian.be/print/39103/8 scenewhich seems standard for directing and even commonsensical. However, the difference that Straub-Huilletbring to this process is that they start from an “extinguished” actor, a person that has disindividuatedthemself, in that they suspend the individualization that for a professional or even wanna-be actor acting arole or building a character entails. Once they have internalized the text, the constraining form of thematter of the text will come out as the resistance or friction that it produces on the body of the actor. This iswhere the individuation of the actor begins. As Huillet explains, their actors are working people, who showup at 6 p.m. after their day job, exhausted. “Therefore if things work out it’s because they really want themto, they want to discover something else.” The discovery for the actor isn’t the form imposed upon them,but the composition that arises in the matter-form compound, in the singularities created through theoperation. In that sense, it is a collective discovery of the film, of its actors and directors. In a critical revision of hylomorphism, Gilbert Simondon discusses the example of molding a brick. Hisrevision posits individuation as a process in which two half chains of the operation join from oppositesides, from matter and form at once; how clay as matter is formed from swamp to a plastic material ->, andhow the mold is formed from an abstract volume to the shape of the future brick <-. The main difference in Simondon’s version of individuation lies in the role that form (mold) performs onmatter (clay): the form of the brick isn’t imposed but completes the process of deformation internal to clayby interrupting or stabilizing it according to a definitive contour. In this operation, matter isn’t passive: clayis plastic, it contains and transmits force. Force is the third element added to matter and form: it marks theencounter between matter and form as one of a reciprocal exchange of force, in which a series of changesoccur. Individuation is complete when the matter has taken form, when all molecules of the clay havereached an equilibrium (a state of internal resonance). (informed) matter èç  (mattered) form  ê matter-formWe are talking about cinema here, so is directing actors like molding bricks? How could an actor stand inplace of clay or brick? An actor is a different kind of matter than the clay of a brick, for the obviousreasons that clay has an invariant set of properties which in molding gives a calculable, stable form. Ascene with actors can never be envisaged, planned and realized as in how a brick is made, because theoperation of the making of the scene entails people talking back, and all that is being expressed in thatmoment live. In that sense, living actors are more active matter than clay and thus give a larger scope of differences. Even if rehearsals and repeated takes are designed to stabilize the form, only singularitiesappear. This is best proven by the extraordinary precedent, that is, Straub-Huillet produced several copiesof the same film, different tapes with minute differences in their film, in their fight against Benjamin’scondition of the mechanical reproducibility of a work of art. They refuse to deliver a definitive copy. Afilm in several copies testifies like a document to the liveness of matter that is preserved in the matter-formcompound.Apart from liveness, externalism is another formal principle that “liberates” Straub-Huillet’s films to “live”in history. In other words, by carefully shaping an externalist standpoint, the directors are composing anaudiovisual object that should exist beyond their ideas and intentions. Externalism begins with theaesthetic attitude that Straub describes as follows: The job for me when preparing the découpage  is to achieve a state that is absolutely empty so thatI’m sure to be absolutely devoid of intention, to be stripped of intention when I’m shooting. I’malways in the process of eliminating all intention–personal expression. That’s the purpose of the découpage . Stravinsky said, “I’m well aware that music is incapable of expressing anything.” Ithink the same is true for a film. In reality, we don’t know what a film is. A film is not there to tella story in images; it’s become obvious in the meantime; neither does a film exist to showsomething – an establishing shot doesn’t pay in a film, except very rarely; nor is a film there toexpress something, feelings or something else. Nor does a film exist – although I’m notabsolutely certain – to prove something. In order not to fall into one of these traps, the work of the shot découpage  consists in destroying from the outset these different, expressive temptations.Then and only then can you accomplish at the filming stage a real work of cinema. 9101112  10/12/2019What Is a Political Film?https://www.sabzian.be/print/39104/8 As if it wasn’t authored from the epistemic standpoint of Barthes’s death of the author (for example, inMallarmé or Proust), the work of a film enjoys an autonomy that verges on underdetermination. Indifferentto the goal of convincing the spectator of anything, the least of its raisons d’être to be attributed to a certainmessage, the work of the film is like a document from the past, even when regarded in the present that it iscreated in. What else makes up the form of the hylomorphic audiovisual object? We have mentioned direct sound as matter earlier. However, no dubbing is also a formal principle, sinceshooting with direct sound acts as a constraining form. As Straub notes: “When you film in direct sound,you can’t allow yourself to mess around with the images: you have blocks of a certain length, and youcan’t use the scissors any way you want, for pleasure, for effect.” Dubbing was a popular post-productional device in early postwar cinema, also characteristic of some national cinematographies thatrefused subtitling. It is part of a form and a style that Straub criticizes harshly. A dubbed film is an international product, something stripped of words, onto which each country grafts itsrespective language. Languages that don’t belong to the lips. Words that don’t belong to the faces.But it’s a product that sells well. Everything becomes illusion. There is no longer any truth. In theend, even the ideas and emotions become false. […] The international aesthetic is an inventionand weapon of the bourgeoisie. The popular aesthetic is always an individual aesthetic. The interviewer, Enzo Ungari, then concludes: “For the bourgeoisie, there is no art that is not universal.The international aesthetic is like Esperanto.” We return again to the preservation of the living matter,this time formulated as the particular. A political film starts with the particular. Or as Straub put it:“Political films start with realism. The kind of realism which, Brecht says, starts with the particular, andonly once well rooted in it rises to the general. He said: “Let’s start with the unique item, buttonedup/linked with the general.”What is distinctive about Straub-Huillet’s film as a matter-form compound is that it is a  political  film – notas a genre, but in a peculiar understanding that amounts to Straub-Huillet’s conception and operation of cinema. We have already seen the particular of realism, which is part of Straub-Huillet’s definition of apolitical film. If we are to follow this definition, then there are three more ideas that Straub argues for in hisanswer to the question what a political film is. “There is no political film without morality, there is nopolitical film without theology, there is no political film without mysticism.” These ideas stand innegation of the present state of things. Morality is in crisis today, because “it is replaced by cynicism.Cynicism on the walls, in slogans, commercials… You could even go further and call it the liquidation of public morality.” The idea of theology isn’t unrelated to Straub’s argument on morality. As Straubcontends, peasants have invented gods, and the ensuing monotheism meant that “it is very difficult to dealwithout gods”. Again, the solution is cynicism, “an ersatz  society, on every level: water, air, feelings,morality, God, everything” amended by “sociology and shrinks to replace confession.” What “theology”does for people is help them “shun phony feelings, [and install – B.C.] the practice of sentimentality andpiety”. Thus, it is theology in the oblique sense of Charles Péguy’s words – “I am not pious, said God” –which can be retraced in Straub-Huillet’s  Moses and Aaron, The Death of Empedocles  (after Hölderlin’splay), even Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach . About the third idea, that of mysticism, we are left towonder and guess: should we regard Straub-Huillet’s faith in history, and therefore, the way that they try toredeem it, as a kind of mysticism? Are Straub-Huillet’s heterodox readings of Bach’s and Hölderlin’s placein history mystical? Is it mystical to side with Benjamin’s (in fact, Paul Klée’s) figure of Angelus Novuswho turns his back to the future in order to awaken the dead, recoup the past and thus redraw a present inspite of the storm of progress?The answer to this question is not simple. In fact, it requires that we return to the matter-form compositeand reconsider it in political terms. Are texts only chosen and dealt with as matter? Straub: We address ourselves to texts that offer us resistance. We try to test them out; we makeaudiovisual objects out of them, which consist of movements, movements within a visual frame,movements of light and sound. We are more interested in the music than the ideas. Godard ismore interested in the ideas than the music. But how do they choose a text? Is there an idea underlying such choice? Different texts yield differentmusic. Using literary texts, or other textual forms, like musical scores and documents, often serves themaking of a portrait of either a figure (e.g. Johann Sebastian Bach, Paul Cézanne), a region in a historical 1314151617181920212223  10/12/2019What Is a Political Film?https://www.sabzian.be/print/39105/8 time (Lothringen, or German Lorraine), or a point of view expressed in a work of literature or music(Kafka’s  America , Hölderlin’s  Death of Empedocles , Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar ,Schoenberg’s  Moses and Aaron ). Their choice points to a view on a history which is dissonant with thepresent. When Straub-Huillet describe why a figure or a text drew their attention, it is always because theyread something irretrievably lost in it for the present time. Thus, Bach is chosen as one of the last individuals in the history of German culture in whom there doesn’t yet exist adivorce between what is called an artist and an intellectual; you find no trace of romanticism inhim – we know what in part resulted from German Romanticism. There is not in him the slightestseparation between intelligence, art, and life; neither is there a conflict between sacred andsecular music; in Bach, everything exists on the same plane. For me, Bach is the opposite of Goethe. Hölderlin was solitary when he expressed his concern for Germany on the threshold of modernity, headingfor industrial revolution, a modern nation-state and progress, and this is why Hölderlin and his poetryinterests them. For Straub-Huillet, Hölderlin turns to poetry as that which “should give the children of theearth the courage to turn their backs on so-called progress, so-called science – the courage of therevolution, which according to Benjamin is a tiger’s leap, not into the future, but into the past, a tiger’s leap“ under the open sky of history ”. In several interviews, Straub aligns with Benjamin’s redemption of the past. This serves him as a criticaldeparture from the ills of the present time, primarily regarded through capitalist growth and the futurehijacked into a present of which people lose sense. The method of their political films is to restore thememory of particular moments in the past, which could shed a critical light on the present. We will cite alonger passage here to illustrate this claim: Now I want to add one thing to my three earlier points [morality, theology, mysticism – B.C.] andsay that there can be no political film without memory. By memory I mean that you have to take afirm stand against social democracy, reformism and all that junk, because the only truth thesepeople refuse is the fact that there ever was a past, that things were different. They are completelyanti-Marxian: the Marxian method  par excellence  consisted of searching all the way back to theAssyrians to find out how things were different, what had changed. And Marx was going furtherand further as he grew older. On the other hand, social democracy keeps taking flight into thefuture; people don’t even have the right to experience the present time anymore. They’re beingtold that progress must go on, that there is no alternative but to rush down into the abyss of progress until disaster takes place. Growth is infinite, it can’t be stopped. […] Therefore welive in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ and all that preceded us was necessarily not as good. Thisis exactly what Walter Benjamin rebelled against when he said that revolution is ‘a tiger’s leapinto the past.’ So a political film must remind people that we don’t live in ‘the best of all possibleworlds,’ far from it – something Buñuel already said – and that the present time, stolen from us inthe name of progress, is going by and is irreplaceable… That the price people must pay, whetherfor progress or well-being, is far too high, unjustifiable. […] So we must come back to whatBenjamin said: revolution ‘is also reinstating very ancient but forgotten things’ (Péguy). Filmsthat make you feel this way are political films. The others are truffe , scams. Cinema is political if it is capable of preserving a living matter and thus restoring history in the memory of the present. In that sense, we can extract the hylomorphic schema from Straub-Huillet’s operation of apolitical film as follows: 1. Out of a critique of the present, Straub-Huillet address themselves to a past which, if redeemed,would change or revolutionize the present. 2. Here, the critique is the formal principle that leads them to history as the matter ( hulê  ). Thiscan be Sicily as it has been lived in the 1960s, the German Lorraine during WWII or thecommune of Italian peasants after WWII. It is hard to say what comes first, whether it is thememory of the history (matter) that provides the critique of the present (form) or the criticaldeparture from the present (form) which makes them search into history (matter). 24252627
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