On Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet

EmpedoclesMax Nelson at n+1:

IN 1988, THE FRENCH-BORN DIRECTORS Jean-Marie Straub and Daniéle Huillet hosted a conference at a Paris film school. Before the assembled crowd, they explained with the help of labeled diagrams why they had chosen to shoot a sequence for their film The Death of Empedocles (1986) in a particular way. The scene shows the title character, a heretical pre-Socratic philosopher, standing in an outdoor clearing and addressing a group of five Sicilian townspeople, including the two oligarchs responsible for his exile, who stand arranged in a straight row opposite the philosopher and his young disciple. At the start of the scene, the white-haired Empedocles is fixed in a tight medium shot, from mid-chest up, looking like a talking bust. Leaves and ferns flutter behind his head. As he delivers his speech, we watch him contort his lips to best expel each syllable:

Even as a boy my pious heart
Avoided you who soil all you touch;
My pious heart, intensely loving, clove
To sun and ether, all the messengers
Of our grand nature intimated from afar.
For surely even then I felt it, I feared,
That you would bend my heart’s free love
Of gods to some obnoxious servitude.
That I would treat all things as you treat them.
Begone! I cannot bear to face a man who
Abuses holy things as stock in trade.

When Straub and Huillet cut to a wider shot of Empedocles’ two main accusers standing side by side, they too seem frozen in space. All their energy is concentrated in their facial muscles as they articulate the text’s sharp consonants and rolling vowels. Watching these shots, what’s striking is the variety of movement Straub and Huillet have purged from their images—all the cinematic devices that have been “avoided” on the suspicion that they will “soil” the shot or “bend” it “to some obnoxious servitude.”

more here.