November 30, 2006


What is COLOSSAL's surrealism? For me it is too early to say, there's work to be done. There are many factors, even down to its spatial organization that could bring one to call it surrealist. It's also a matter of decoupage. Certainly it is a "hallucination that is also a fact" (Bazin). In the films long recollections where the past and present seem to shift in mid-sentence or in the grand pauses that take up whole chunks of the encounters, there is a dream-like tone and each scene begins (and sometimes even ends) with an "out-of-order" chink for the penny-slot of meaning. But this quality is not the sole domain of Ventura's consciousness, as singular as he is. He and Costa and the cumulative effect of everyone encountered are much more generous. "In this world's structure, dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth" (Walter Benjamin, "Surrealism" 1929).

There is something else underlying Ventura's encounters with the people of Fountainhas and it's something he carries with him wherever he goes. It's something white walls and new monstrosities can't erase.There may be some indication of what Ventura is carrying in John Ford's GRAPES OF WRATH, two films with many affinities.


When Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) sets off at the end of GRAPES OF WRATH it's as if he contained the destiny of the human family to be a community, as if he were setting off as a witness and a realization of that dream at once. He aims to simply be present, not even to take action. To be "all around in the dark" as he says in his famous dialogue with Ma Joad. "To be in the way guys yell when they're mad. In the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready..."

Tom Joad learns from Casey (Carradine) why he gave up preaching: "a preacher's got to know. I don't know. I gotta ask." The gentleman Ventura, in Costa's true record of a tenament gentleman, often doesn't even ask - he is present, he listens and he says what he knows. Tom Joad recollects Casey's words: "Fela ain't got a soul of his own, but little pieces of a big soul. The big soul that belongs to everybody..."

By the time Tom Joad orally passes on these words above, the words of a friend literally beaten to death by a system, he has suffered the material loss of home, of work, of family, and he has suffered the material and spiritual tragedy of "people living like pigs and good rich land layin' foul". Ford's film shows the Joads doggedly tricked and exploited at every turn while trying to get work and find a home. The Joads find in every outskirts camp and every job the impossibility of "eatin' stuff they raise, livin' in houses they build." This constant laceration and the feeling that all humanity has been scarred is carried by Ventura as well and confirmed by the people who tell him their stories. This yearning for purposeful work in one's own interest as opposed to proletarianization is repeated several times by different people in COLOSSAL YOUTH. One of them is temporarily selling toys out of a large plastic bag. Later the same man (?) tells Ventura about his life and work from a hospital bed. A scene of prostrated confession, as in so many Ford films (an illness or wound nursed with feelings exposed in THE LONG GRAY LINE, HORSE SOLDIERS, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, DOCTOR BULL).

As Tag Gallagher points out in his very lucid (if less loving) chapter on GRAPES OF WRATH, in this film Ford focuses on the effects rather than the causes of the Joad's disenfranchisement. But the causes are at least within reach from the step by step presentation of the exploitation. This is only partly present in COLOSSAL YOUTH where the effects of the effects have already been long contemplated. It's closer to trauma, but also wisdom.

In GRAPES, when there is time (!), this traumatic wisdom comes across in vignettes between Tom Joad and the people he meets, people often ducking the cops; just kicked out of somewhere or about to be. These people relate what has happened to them in ricorsi (a term used by Gallagher to describe instances of "reliving" in Ford and Straub/Huillet). Though COLOSSAL's vignettes are vast and make up most of the film, the ricorsi of both films reverberate, one overlapping the other as they are approached or departed (like the vibrating bottle in Ventura's room as he paces). Just momentary stasis in GRAPES; prolonged stais in COLOSSAL: both squating down in some barely lit temporary place, both transitory.

"Twilight makes even very clear handwriting impossible to read" - Goethe

In both films the camera is often below eye level, about waist high. The compositions are wide angle but planar rather than spatially deep. People and things rarely move toward or away from the lens -- they move in, from side to side. Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões (I've yet to find details on Simões contribution) sustain an extremely low lighting scheme that Ford and Gregg Toland only occasionally hint at in GRAPES (extraordinarily enough however). According to one Portuguese review, COLOSSAL was lit entirely with natural light reflected off of nine different mirrors Costa came equipped with. The lighting of both films is natural and abstract at once. In Michael Sicisnski's extremely sensitive review of COLOSSAL he reminds that "Costa's hieratic lighting effects were possible [because] his subjects were living with holes in their ceilings").

Daryl Zanuck tacked on the ending of GRAPES as it is, with Ma Joad's epilogue speech. Ford intended to end it with Tom Joad setting off...

In Gallagher's view Zanuck's ending "virtually destroys the films trajectory toward inevitable disintegration/revolution, in favor of perserverance/abidance."

The above still frame could be right out of one of the more Fordian scenes in COLOSSAL, where Ventura, his daughter and another man stand outside their home, nearly in salute, to watch a funeral procession off screen (THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT). But what is this image's context in GRAPES? It's the last shot of Muley's flashback recollection of the destruction of his home by the Shawnee Land & Cattle Company.

Destruction is seen in Ford's film whereas in Costa's it is mainly heard through a complex off-screen sound construction. In Ford's film the demolition is seen as enacted by a "Caterpillar" (not unlike those used by Israel to bulldoze the homes of Palestinians). Ford does a brief montage of Caterpillar tractors in the middle of Muley's flashback to show the volume of the destruction of homes ("for every one [tractor], there was 10, 15 families throwed right outta their homes"). The montage is of tractors -- not tractors destroying homes -- therefore in a different film this montage may have been a hymn to socialist construction or, to be more up to date, a cry against the construction of something horrible like a McDonald's or ill-conceived like a liberal-bureaucratic-reformist housing project. The potential of a thing to be constructive or destructive.

If the below still frame showing Henry Fonda walking through a skeletal doorway (with a tire hanging on it and the sky above) looks a bit like surrealist painting, those signs among him are more expressionist in context, considering that Joad (Fonda) has just been told that the outskirts camp they've been staying in is going to be burned down by contractors. Earlier the contractors came to the camp looking for workers but some of the workers were wise to the contracter's tricks. The only way the contractors can get the cheap labor is by the desperation of burned out refugees.

Above, the "agitator" (conscious worker) flees the cops through a doorway. The "agitator" flees because he beat a cop that tried to shoot him. The cop missed the "agitator" hitting a woman bystander instead.

Andre Breton called his novel NADJA "a book with a banging door". Costa seems to always mention doors and doorways. For him they are something fearful and something hallowed. It's where fiction/reality may be discovered or where the reality/fiction may bar itself from you. Ventura and Lento hang their hats next to a door banging with the wind and cold. In one of the first few shots of COLOSSAL Ventura approaches a dilapitated building, shakes the hand of a man standing by it's doorway, and they both wait outside. Loud banging and screeching are heard. One level of the noise drops and another man comes out of the building through the doorway -- a friend of Ventura's who will share lunch with him in the next scene.

The scenes between Ventura and Vanda in her room are the convergence of old and new. Vanda repeatedly mentions the brand-name of diaper and Ventura does not comprehend this; Ventura, (witness to past times of palpable solidarity and community) is attentive in silence while a TV yammers on for attention and domination; we watch Vanda's constant and mortal coughing and her million songs of experience next to her daughter's quiet youth and song of innocence.

As COLOSSAL proceeds and it is evident that Costa is mixing the naturalistic gait and words of Vanda with Ventura's more stoic exchanges, Vanda and her room begin look like a mixture of Walter Brennan/Monument Valley and one of Godard's TV documentaries. Ford often mixed acting styles and tones (MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE LONG GRAY LINE, 7 WOMEN), contrasting the colloquial and homespun with the grand responsibilites and fates of a new landscape. And Godard has been one of the only ones to convey and critique the din of domestic TV presence by means of the cinema, to discover the labyrith of social relations created by a blarring TV (NUMERO DEUX, FRANCE/TOUR/DETOUR/DEUX/ENFANTS).

As these articulations intermingle in Costa, it raises the issue of modernism and traditionalism (over and underdetermined in both Godard and Ford). I must leave this to those who are much better at distinguishing such things, where they need be distinguished. As both issues have bearing on the perceived "enterability" of Costa's work I must say that distinguishing is probably less important than engaging with the subject (which this post may show, is hard to do in it's absence). Costa has taken huge amounts of time to do this himself. Some critics are so cynical they consider Costa's practice a kind of MacGuffin (David Walsh). His films can be dismissed with a few words like "for a small fan-base". (The first half of that Goethe line is: "Whoever wants to accuse an author of obscurity ought first of all to have a good look at his own inward self and see whether it is really light in there.") . Meanwhile, whole countries are turned to dustbowls by global capitalism. Like the Straubs, Godard, and even Gehr before him, Costa is charged with elitism; but (as Gilberto Perez points out) what could be less elitist than making films with means that anyone could take up (16mm in OTHON [Straubs], a pocket 16mm camera in NOONTIME ACTIVITIES [Gehr], video in HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA [Godard], video again in IN VANDA'S ROOM and COLOSSAL)?

In GRAPES Ford repeatedly shows the Joads together or singly approaching or being approached by people ostensibly offering help. Often these are wolves in wolves clothing but speaking with the modesty of sheepherders. Their methods and tricks are exposed (the economy of effects). Even Ford's New Deal camp director seems suspiciously dispassionate, a simple bureaucrat (he emphatically shows no reaction to some of the Joad children's hijinx with a camp toilet).

In two succinct sections, Costa shows some skepticism toward a welfare agent offering an apartment to Ventura. There is a vacancy in this housing project and the agent has a clipboard telling him it is meant for Ventura. Ventura goes to see it; he stands in this completely empty room with white walls -- walls that seem to try to blot out the past that saturates every other encounter. Costa/Simões completely wash out the windows to the outside world.

When Variety called Ventura a "vacant guide", they not only missed everything made visible by Costa and Ventura as he stands in this abstract white room, everything Ventura carries with him, but they may have also succumbed to the State's notion of "occupancy" (the housing project). The white walls "have spiders" as Ventura points out. The apartment is not big enough for all of his children, Ventura tells the agent. The room looks like the end of 2001 (Kubrick). But will Ventura grow old and die here (in minutes, seconds, years?). It should be reiterated that the struggles of Ventura and the other inhabitants new to the Casal Boba housing project are ongoing.

In one amazing eye level shot in COLOSSAL (like GRAPES the camera sometimes changes to eye level when the authorities are around) Ventura is being led around in the new apartment by the welfare agent. The agent opens a door and they enter an empty bedroom. The door is slowly self-closing however, soundless and sterile, giving Ventura enough time to briefly take a look then slip out before it closes. Ventura goes off-screen, effectively closing the door to the agent who is still inside the empty room glorifying the beneficence of the housing project to himself. These scenes inside the new apartment are Costa's sharpest and most biting.

November 17, 2006


In these possibly overlong notes on COLOSSAL YOUTH in the absence of much dialogue or a chance to see it again, I have ignored much of the film to emphasize a few small bits. Another film, ZVENIGORA by Dovzhenko, also came to mind after the CalArts screening; it too uninhibitedly leaps from era to era, deals with time, roots, sons, fathers, whole peoples, stubborness, destruction, and the designs of the state versus the folk -- and it does it with urgency and unabashed texture, like COLOSSAL.

As Mark Peranson has said in Cinemascope (Number 27, Summer 2006) the youth of "youth on the march", the COLOSSAL YOUTH, are represented in the film by Vanda's young daughter; she's barely in the frame throughout the film and all the more stronger for it. It's a Renoirian idea that explodes in the final shot. Vanda asks Ventura to watch her young one while she goes out to do some housecleaning work. The next shot, on which the film will end, is of Ventura lying on his back in Vanda's bed, one leg crossed over the other in the air, Vanda's daughter in the extreme lower right hand corner of the frame creating a tension, standing dormant her small subtle movements. "You must give the feeling the frame is too narrow" (Renoir). The young one remains silent in Ventura's presence, as she did during her mother's long soliloquy. Considering Ventura's "function" in every other scene -- dutifully listening to others, orally passing on the poetry of his love letter, roaming on his feet, etc. -- this silent scene between Ventura on his back and the young one half out of frame raises the question of the fates of both without naming it, without designating it's future terms. It reminded me the last shot of WAGONMASTER by Ford, of sudden progeny: a pony climbs a hill, fade out.

My only concrete discovery in all of this is what most certainly must be an Ozu reference of Costa's in the final shot. Either that or an astonishing coincidence. Looking back at RECORD OF A TENEMENT GENTLEMAN by Ozu, I find in Ozu's final shot almost the exact same crossing of the legs in the air as Ventura's in COLOSSAL's final shot-- not to mention the same tension of youth and uncertain future:

November 11, 2006

Brecht, looking cunning and shifty, steps in front of the armchair I'm sitting in and, pretending to be "the state," says, with a sideways leer at an imaginary client: "I know -- I'm supposed to vanish."

Walter Benjamin
28 June 1938

November 6, 2006

Klaus Volkmer and his collegues at NEW FILMKRITIK have compiled an astonishing tribute to Danièle Huillet online. It includes (in German) :

-an excerpt of an interview with Straub/Huillet about their personal/historical/cinematic history, from Les Inrockuptibles, 1997.
-an achingly heartfelt appreciation of their work and presence at the Berlin Film Festival 1987 and of their editing of OPERAI, CONTADINI -- by Vincent Dieutre of Libération.
-a facsimile of Pedro Costa's letter to Danièle and Jean-Marie around the time of the release of OU GIT VOTRE SOURIRE ENFOUI?.
-a rememberance and an account of Danièle's funeral by Jean-Pierre Gorin (in english).
-more rememberances by Harun Farocki, Johannes Beringer, Peter Nestler, and Michael Girke.

It also contains the Viennale poster, in the original German language (translated below) and an english translation of Ventura's recited love letter in COLOSSAL YOUTH, passed on to Lento, a most precious thing to all who've seen the film:

Nha cretcheu, my love,
being together again will make our lives beautiful
for another thirty years.
As for me, I will come back full of love and strength.
I wish I could give you a hundred thousand cigarettes,
a dozen of those fancy dresses,
a car, the little lava house you've always dreamed of,
a three-penny bouquet.
But above all else,
drink a good bottle of wine,
and think of me.
Here it's all work.
We're over a hundred now.
Did my letter arrive safely?
I still don't have anything from your hand.
Maybe I will soon ...I’m waiting.
Every day, every minute,
I learn beautiful new words for you and me alone,
made to fit us both, like fine silk pajamas.
Wouldn’t you like that?
I can only send you one letter a month.
Still nothing from you.
Maybe some other time ...
Sometimes I'm afraid of building these walls.
Me, with a pick and cement,
and you, with your silence ...
A pit so deep, it swallows you up.
It hurts to see these horrors
that I don’t want to see.
Your lovely hair skips through my fingers
like dry grass.
Often, I feel weak and think
I’m going to forget you.
[ ... ]

(Klaus tells me this is the 5th and one half repetition, version, of the letter as it is recited in the film.)


Also, UNDERCURRENT has published a series of beautiful texts in memoriam. Here is a conceptual revue :

(...) letting the living live, letting what once lived, speak.

(...) Letting what once lived, speak and appear, somewhere. People and things may not be in their place, but they are in a place.

(...) people and reality do not give up to the camera. The people are always looking out of the frame, they are always escaping, out of allegiance to this system that Straub-Huillet's Brechtian cinema constructs and displays, whereby the actor remains in his/her own skin even while adopting the garb of another: without claiming, falsely, to be at home in this garb.

(...) Films that enact a displacement that seems timeless: I know the word rings false in the context of a discussion of this famously "materialist" cinema, but if I'm driven to use it, it's not out of a desire to associate Straub-Huillet with any facile postmodernist practice or to enshrine their works within a bourgeois pantheon of a-historical masterpieces. What I wish to do is to point out that their films provide a space apart, a space free from all the shit in the world and in the movie theaters; and that one of the qualities of this space is a certain permanence.

A timeless displacement, in that so many of the usual marks of the contemporary are absent in these films, and when the contemporary appears, the Western, late-capitalist contemporary (as in the shots of city streets in The Bridegroom, the Actress, and the Pimp [1968] and Too Early, Too Late), it shows a side that is turned away from a proprietary or preprogrammed gaze: it becomes a field of signs that are so firm and solid they are no longer signs of anything; they no longer mean what their owners meant them to say. Perhaps all cinema is like this, I was about to write; but of course I was dreaming. All cinema should be like this: that is more like it. The crystallization of the sign, of the present, as in Chaplin and Lang.

(Chris Fujiwara, Resistance)


(...) not necessarily known is the politics of each gesture, the sharp, visceral sensation, as much as the ripened reflection, of that which in each instant brings oppression, or refusal of oppression. With Danièle Huillet, this knowledge and this instinct belonged to the order of the evident. And provided much of the light that radiated from her face.

(...) the division of labor also is theirs, and in the service of no one, it's not economic or even intellectual; it's a matter of sensibility.

(Cahiers du cinema, Materialist Filmmaker)


(...) Whether they went through an actual wedding ceremony or wound up living together; whether they considered having children; whether it was inaccurate or precise, impolite or perfectly okay to refer to them as "the Straubs": these are all basically questions about how they defined themselves in relation to society. And the fact that most of us don't know the answers points towards a larger uncertainty about whether they were true bohemians or eccentric traditionalists (not necessarily the same thing), or some combination of the two.

(...) part of the strength and value of their work has always been tied to the way it goads us into asking such impertinent, materialist questions, regardless of whether or not we accept the challenge of answering.

JMS: Besides, it's an elementary device when you have one who is not an actor to have something with distracts him. Renoir does it better than anyone, and Brecht too for that matter....

JMS: For ten years I have been trying to film someone facing the camera and I've never succeeded. It always angers me in Godard's films to see people photographed facing the camera. I told myself, I'll do it one day and I'll do it differently.


DH: This Land is Mine, "Renoir [Laughton!]"

(...) it's worth recalling that the first Straub-Huillet film that the New York Film Festival failed to show, their sixth, was Fortini/Cani (1976), another color landscape film - apparently rejected because the festival organizers feared demonstrations from the Jewish Defense League due to its pro-Palestinian text.

(...) I'm still tantalized by Pedro Costa having told me in Buenos Aires in 2004 that they were spending much of their free time translating plays by Shakespeare into Italian - simply for the sake of doing so, because they were so unhappy with the existing translations.

(Jonathan Rosenbaum, Place(s) of Daniele)


(...) but what remains quite vivid in memory is the attention Straub and Huillet directed toward every inquiry.

(...) The nature of each question was itself questioned, its subtext probed, each question seemingly taking twenty minutes or more to answer as it was put beneath the strong spotlight of their analysis. The rigor and intellectual tension of the work we had just seen was as wonderfully manifest in its makers. Here was evidence of an absolute incarnate stance of commitment from which I, like so many others, have drawn invaluable sustenance across many years.

JM quoting BB: "What will remain of our towns - the wind."

(...) the flooding sense of bereavement has pervaded all activity and clearly is being felt by many friends and many strangers alike.

JM: "To what good?! (I film)"

(John Gianvito, From Yesterday Until Tomorrow)

(...) That's the Godardian part of Huillet and Straub's achievement, long before Godard himself got there: bringing together, in the montage of the concept and the rhythm as much as of the shots or the image-sound juxtaposition or the levels of a frame-composition, two things that are indeed very far away from each other: a chirping bird, say, and the Brechtian run-down on the superstructure of the Roman State.

I find that I can remember every single screening, exactly and vividly, like a sensation upon the skin, of the Huillet-Straub films that I have seen across twenty-five years: I recall where I was, what time of day it was, who I was with, in a way that I cannot for any other filmmaker.

(...) what works a strange magic is the calmness of the positioning, the recitation, the gesturing of the "non-professional" (strange term in this context!) actors in these fields, on these roads: a labor but also a joy, in a sublime, perfect world that is everywhere strangled and murdered but still ever-present and possible ...

(Adrian Martin, Curiousity/Exigency)
(these two texts could be seen together on large posters at the festival cinemas of the Viennale, 2006. QUEI LORO INCONTRI was shown to a theater of 200 spectators there)

Ripe are, dipped in fire, cooked
The fruits and tried on the earth, and it is law,
Prophetic, that all must enter in
Like serpents, dreaming on
The mounds of heaven. And much
As on the shoulders a
Load of logs must be
Retained. But evil are
The paths, for crookedly
Like horses go the imprisoned
Elements and ancient laws
Of the earth. And always
There is a yearning that seeks the unbound. But much
Must be retained. And loyalty is needed.
Forward, however, and back we will
Not look. Be lulled and rocked as
On a swaying skiff of the sea

Friedrich Hölderlin
Third Version
First Stanza
trans. Michael Hamburger


Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.

Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.

Karl Marx
Comments on James Mill
Éléments D’économie Politique

Geschichtsunterricht/ Leçons d'histoire/ History Lessons - 1972 - Straub/Huillet

J'écoute - 2006 - Giulio Bursi