Nearly twenty years after Harun Farocki paid homage to the profound influence of Straub/Huillet’s cinema by filming their exhaustive rehearsal process during preparations for the shooting of their film Class Relations for the documentary Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work…, Pedro Costa captures their equally exacting process of editing their feature film, Sicilia! in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?. Indeed, as Farocki’s film intrinsically captures the filmmakers’ working methodology through the framework of his own recurring themes of automation and systemization of processes (even as they apply to the human process of creativity), so, too, does Costa’s film illustrate the particularity of their methodology through his own characteristic preoccupation for capturing the allegorical in the quotidian. Curiously, inasmuch as both films capture the rigorous and deliberative nature of their creative process, it is only through the complementation of both films that the nature of the Straubs’ collaborative process begins to truly emerge – a portrait, not of inequitable roles of visionary and confidante (as implicitly suggested in the Farocki film as Huillet’s role during rehearsals is seemingly reduced to that of advisor and clap board simulator), nor implementer and consultant (as illustrated in the Costa film where Straub is shown to be the intrusive, occasionally tangential, gregarious observer – and comical counterfoil – to the more focused, serious-minded, and methodical Huillet who is editing the film), but rather, as equally creative contemporaries with instinctively defined, yet interactive roles throughout the filmmaking process: one, more conceptual and abstract, the other, more pragmatic and methodical. Ironically, this tumultuous, often colliding process of interactivity itself between theory and application, idea and implementation reflects the complex, yet delicate alchemy of the medium itself, a creative struggle that is articulated by the roguish Straub’s impassioned commentary on the subordination of form over idea in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? that is integral to the realization of their aesthetic.
The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I’ve said that a hundred times. …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 see things clearly: First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! …And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter, and the struggle with the matter, gives rise to the form. And the rest is just filling material. …The same goes for the 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, the cracks, all the geological layers in it. He just can’t do whatever he wants.
This intrinsic “struggle with the material” that defines the process of creation also serves as an allusion to the hidden smile of the film’s title. In an illuminating sequence during the editing of a train conversation scene in Sicilia!, Huillet attempts to convey an actor’s unarticulated, knowing smile – an illustration of his realization that a passenger seated across from him lied about the nature of his employment – by finding an appropriate intercutting image from their brief exchange. But how can this uncaptured, hidden smile be revealed when the facial expression itself does not manifest in the any of the shot footage? Poring over each frame in search of the indefinable glint in the actor’s eye in search of that fleeting image that betrays his disbelief to no avail, their strategy is then to abruptly truncate the shot at the final syllable of the passenger’s staccatoed delivery such that the consequence of the lie does not dwell on the prevaricator’s image – and implicitly suggest his deliberation over the ramifications of his own statement – but rather, on the delayed response of the listener to suggest his evaluation (and dismissive deduction) of the passenger’s seemingly incongruous statement. It is this process systematic refinement – a struggle with the intrinsic properties (and inherent limitations) of the given matter to create implication through elision that is also reflected in Straub’s subsequent exposition on the aesthetic evolution of their cinema.
Most of us begin with a cliché – not always, but most of the time – and that’s fine but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of a discovery, showing a mountain without the window, without anything. A torn curtain. Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer’s imagination instead of opening it up and you say to yourself: ‘Yes, after having filmed Mount Thebes in Moses and Aaron, after having filmed Mount Etna, Mount Sainte-Victoire, why add another one?’ And so you renounce slowly. Then one fine day, one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of reduction, only it’s not a reduction – it’s a concentration and it actually says more. But you don’t do that immediately from one day to the next. You need time and patience.
As the filmmakers alternately engage in recounting personal anecdotes, gentle natured marital sparring, and professional ruminations over their collaborative cinema, what emerges in Costa’s reverent and understated portrait is an affectionate, humorous, and indelible image of profound kinship and creative symbiosis – an idiosyncratic, modern-day love story that fuses passion with politics, creativity with conviction – told from the privileged intimacy of irascible, enduring romantics, intellectual peers, social activists, obsessed cinephiles, ageless idealists, and innovative, mutually-inspiring artists.
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