It's a useful habit of vainglorious artists and authors to deny their artistry and authorship, in the works and out. James Joyce declared he wasn’t a genius; didn’t even know Greek; and suggested that masturbation, while writing, was the way to unleash his inner poet. Ezra Pound claimed remembrance as a “minor satirist who contributed something to a refinement of language.” Orson Welles, whose films all tell of men who attempt authorship of the world around them, nearly ended his career with F For Fake, a film about authorship’s folly. F For Fake, in which Orson Welles plays Orson Welles as a magician who claims he’s invented the documentary the audience is watching, professes the artist as a tool for art, and the greatest art as plagiary—of instinct, of art, of the actual world. “For whatever is truly wonderous and fearful in man,” Welles’ original, Herman Melville, wrote, “never yet was put into words or books.” It’s hard enough to play God—harder, as Melville, Pound, Joyce, and Welles all do, to represent and echo divine power within the limits and terms of material reality, the practicalities of Ulysses raising his mast (Melville, Pound), small towns raising bell-towers (Welles), lonely men raising their cocks to salute lonely girls on the beach (Joyce), all to the heights of God. Pound’s
“I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.”
leads straight to Jean-Marie Straub’s “Nature has ten million times the imagination of the most imaginative artists.”
As religious art's always (if not exclusively) been genuflection, Le streghe, les femmes entre elles, 21 minutes long, is about Straub’s ultimate genuflecting: to the mysterious powers of women over men, immortals over mortals, nature over people, all taken from a Cesare Pavese dialogue in which Circe confides to a friend what mortal, what a man Ulysses was. Gradually it becomes clear, if not to her, that she’s in love, like a Hawksian heroine whose never needed the feeling, not for a weaker man than her, but for the fun of it anyway. Immortality gets boring. Circe spends the time trying to figure out what makes mortals laugh and what makes immortals laugh, while her friend chides her for not turning Ulysses to swine. “Before fate, mortals laugh,” Circe posits. “And after. But not during.” Immortals, though, laugh during fate; it’s their blessing and curse that they’ve got nothing to fear, that everything gets forgiven, that loves never last. The tone is pure Renoir: Circe, like any Renoir character, laughing at her fate. The love will pass, as it has for Ulysses. Mortals can have a trajectory to their life. But it takes an immortal to show how time is fleeting.
Circe, laying as still as a statue in a position of immortal repose, claims no more control over herself than her director claims control over what he films. Straub could be the closest thing in movies to Joyce, who set up Dublin’s first cinema, since Vertov. Both are rigored in the belief that there is objective reality, a series of facts, events and lights and sounds, particular to one time, and one place as discerned from another, and that these are the artist’s material that he forms with his imagination. The artist must not alter the content—lighting and sound and set design, for Straub, are totally naturalistic, determined, when he shoots in nature, only by God. The form, however, what parts of reality he chooses to represent and how he chooses to perceive them with the tools of his medium—the moments he chooses to show, where he chooses to show them from—is his own. Their refracted Homer fairy tales, Ulysses and Le Streghe, are based and bounded in such structures.
Straub’s form in Le streghe is the same as his last film, Le genou d’Artemide, also from Pavese. Two immobile characters in the woods talk to each other about love at opposite sides of the screen, in an establishing shot. Occasionally Straub cuts to a close-up of one, but from the exact same angle as the first shot, as if Straub were blowing up a detail—thus, in genou, because one guy has his back to the camera in the opening shot, when he talks, there are only close-ups of his shirt and neck and back of his head as shadows of leaves flick across them. After the dialogue, Straub allows a few 360 degree pans of the camera in different locations in the woods to finally show it in three dimensions, to search for something that isn't not there. And finally, the camera stops on something that isn’t there: a grave, in genou (life not there), while a stream, in Streghe, gives almost the film’s only physical movement as the water disappears off-screen.
Like so many of Straub’s films, Le streghe is built on absences and after-effects: the absence of a departed lover with only the lonely, emotional wake (impossible not to see these movies as tributes to Danièle Huillet, Straub imagining her posthumous dialogue to “mortals resigned to their memories,” but no need to either); like the absence of sun seen anywhere in the film, while the sunlight grows on the grass, till half the screen’s washed out in white; and the usual ellipses in the montage, because Straub has recorded each shot separately in direct sound, so the close-ups seem to come from a different time than the establishing shots, and do. The characters exist in the continuum of the film; the nature around them exists in the continuum of the reality originally filmed. But the effect of Straub’s reminder that this dialogue of immortals is set in a particular place and time in the world we live in, is at least twofold.
First, this continuous dialogue, filmed at different, particular times, seems as though it could take place in any time. Immortals aren’t necessarily glued to time; here, they appear in modern dress. Other filmmakers—Murnau, Malick, Ray, Ford, Walsh—who show men in the natural world show them as phantoms, ephemeral, passing through an eternal paradise that can’t sustain them but they might echo for a moment. Straub shows the opposite: nature as ephemeral, light and shadows rising and falling, while the human gods rest eternally fixed. Their dialogue could take place yesterday or 3,000 years ago. They deliver their lines as if in incantation, like oracles—Circe’s the sibyl, wanting to die but unable, and this is Straub’s Waste Land—as if passing judgment on a time they don’t belong to. The whole scene could be a staging of the battles Circe had with her conscience while she was sleeping with Ulysses (but no man, it’s suggested, has ever been so good in bed).
Second, the time breaks as the two respond to each other make it seem like they’re talking to themselves, rather than continuing a dialogue. And they almost are: Straub films Le streghe frontally, straight at the actors, laid out next to each other and staring at the camera; one of them could be much further back, but because the scene’s in two dimensions, there’s no way to tell. Stuck in place, like cut-outs pasted onto the woods, the girls seem like souls trapped in bodies and only able to express themselves in their booming voices (the steady voices from Straub-Huillet have turned operatic). There’s no physical connection; only late does the friend even look at Circe, but she looks in close-up, isolated from the scene, filmed at a different time, as though the rest of it mightn’t even be there. Straub films the close-up of the friend to show her head popping up among the trees at bottom right—a parody of her dauntlessness and righteous morality—while Circe fills the screen from left to right. Again the effect’s of two statues trying to find a connection.
Straub’s resolute not to show them in full-bodied, human three-dimensions; he takes his establishing shot as a tapestry that he can only give close-ups of; he takes his girls, as he takes his guys in genou, as flat screens for the light to play on. And the light effects, as though heaven breaks on Circe as she talks, are beautiful. Streghe’s obviously a portrait of exile: a girl apart from time, apart from her companion, apart from her memories, apart from civilization, apart from her lover, apart, in Straub’s 2D framing, from the woods she’s in, apart from the camera filming her, which can’t penetrate her space, but only enlarge details. But like so many immortals, she looks exiled to paradise, not Murnau’s amber waves of grain, but our backyard if we stood and watched it. And her dialogue plays as an attempt to recover it all, to become human and alive.
Streghe’s a dead man’s ode to life. In the end, Straub’s camera turns, if not to enter the space, to open it, and ends on an image of a tree by the stream. Straub’s suggested he thinks metaphors are useless—his films, particular to particular times and spaces, show events that only represent themselves—but he's still a panegyrist: out to show off Nature’s imagination and ideas. The last shot, which moves and stops, shows a tree stuck in space and a river free from it, resituates the film’s underruning dialectic between immortals and mortals, statues and nature, art (Circe’s the original artist) and life (even Circe’s art, like Kane’s, only gets a brief claim over it), between shadows and light, still shots and pans, theater and movies, bodies and souls, love and sex: stasis vs. movement in all of them. The immortals are planted like trees. Odysseus was as passing as a stream or flood of light. Nature has ten million times the imagination of the most imaginative artists, but it takes an artist to show it. Really funny, really sad, Streghe's got to be Straub’s masterpiece, or one of them; like Circe, he’ll move on, and won’t.