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A glance at Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s “Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach”

Artifice is a kind of death, and also a new form of life, as, of course, art is about life (as much as certain objects are about life’s abstraction into—pace Gilles—concepts, precepts and affects). Jean Marie-Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Chronik der Anna Magdalena Bach is a fugue-film. This is redundant, unavoidable. Themes and gestures repeat, reverse; arrangement is, at all events, an obvious directive; Manny’s shallow terms never felt so apt. Ostensibly an archive, this chronicle, always at an angle, does not document (much less represent); rather, it labors. The print screened at the Walter Reade earlier this year bore its own history, adding specks of time and worth and motes of travel onto the image. The highlight, or flecked-flicker, happened late: a shot angled past trees to the sky, held to allow the world’s passage a punctuation, molded into a luminous marble of pops and cuts, amplifies then abates then lets loose into near-cacophony of near-hurt, as if the image were rejecting itself, not just you.

While it would be easy to attend to the obvious (all that music, all those wigs), that shot of the trees, and its fellow twin shoreline interstices, as battered in the form we encountered, continue to tickle my imagination into gear for a variety of reasons—the most obvious is that they stand outside the rest of the film. Indeed, for a film this open, most of it “happens” indoors.

But even here we see an opening, a way out, in the bottom of the frame. The image exposes a negative space, a foreign corner, that continues to attract the eye, to tease it with a possibility beyond this crowd of fake, rigid hair and perfect posture. Frames are arbitrary, but we may move them: the camera in this Chronicle is mostly static, privileging “observation,” but occasionally it will crawl forward to focus—or slink backwards to expand—the field; the deft edits from cathedral to choral space—linked by an eye-line, or out into the outdoors at the close of a composition, to settle a movement—are obvious (though often hidden, or simply unnoticed) abutments dictating a space and its limits; narration over everything as a means to “situate” is a lie, or red herring; and music—so much music—arranged and recorded live, one-take, acting as the only (how else to say it but) true document, or true set of circumstances, that remain. Even at the end of the film, Bach stands before a window, hardly looking at anything, touching a pane as if illustrating his failure to transcend himself, where death begets art and history is effaced, left behind. It’s only in his absence that we now know him, or ever have known of him.

Throughout the film, it appears that piece after piece that Bach composes (and gets paid for) is commissioned after a loss, to be played as hymn. There are some works made simply in praise, but, even then, these are often located in this chronicle aside another lost Bach child. Or, a quick cup of gold is a compromise for the king. It’s all work. It’s all mediated, too: announced by our eponymous narrator, then heard, then sometimes seen engraved or notated (ink often smudged), if not played live, or over a landscape drawing (which Straub-Huillet then match or rhyme with a scanned sheet of music seen scrolling past to the left). It becomes apparent that music, like any form of communication, despite intentions to sublimity, builds into a language; that is, it’s another order of tools and rules for navigating our worlds. The fugue repeats, only different, as a precursor, it seems, to improv: the strain to find “it” (always mysterious and eager to shuck tethers) here in hand or at foot, or in voice.

How I find it terrible that this beautiful thing cannot be seen with any decency: there is a DVD, sure, but it looks bad, as Straub himself notes (ahem, declares), and for some reason you can watch the film on Netflix’s website for the time being, although, as my screengrabs attest, that looks like hell, too. What’s great is that, despite all that dirt, a film such as this only improves on celluloid. I didn’t care that the print we saw was marred by time; quite the opposite. It invites the viewer even more, paradoxically, by reminding him/her that this material remains, so long as we pay the right people, a tangible medium—an object to plain hold (not just behold) with your eyes. If it shows up near you, be prepared, as Girish notes, to listen to some Bach (and we mean it: a lot of Bach) and be prepared, of course, to fall into it. Don’t go for a lesson. Go to see and support the light. As happy as this thing is to stand tall without you, your gaze helps history and beauty and curls and organs (both bodily and piped-chordal) project anew.

“as if the image were rejecting itself, not just you.” YES. Thank You. I couldn’t’ve phrased it more concise. I was perplexed by this film when I saw it (via Netflix), off-put even, but like many great works of art, I came to appreciate it only in retrospect. The more I realized that I couldn’t get certain images out of my head, days, weeks, months later, it really introduced me to a new way of thinking about cinema. It was one of the key films (in tandem with my discovery of Claire Denis & Bruno Dumont) that really got me thinking about cinema as a medium where memory is king. Memorable images specifically. The more memorable a film is, the more it’s thought about, talked about, thus the longer its shelf-life in the collective unconscious of society. There’s more to this theory, but I’d rather not divulge… Excellent post (for a fascinatingly memorable film.)

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