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A Straub-Huillet Companion: "History Lessons"

Influenced by film comedies, the famously austere and serious movies of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet can also be rather funny.
Christopher Small
A Straub-Huillet Companion is a series of short essays on the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, subject of a MUBI retrospective. Straub-Huillet's History Lessons (1972) is showing on MUBI from June 6 – July 6, 2019.
In her autobiography, Toby Talbot of New Yorker Films writes of a party she attended at the apartment of Bernardo Bertolucci in Rome in 1966. She remembers that “everybody was drinking wine and beer, smoking pot, dancing, having a ball.” Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang. Bertolucci turned to the Talbots and then jumped to his feet. “Shhh-hh,” he hissed at his guests. “Get rid of the pot! Put the drinks away. The Straubs are here!”
If there is a single basis upon which both detractors and admirers of Straub-Huillet can agree, it is that the duo were utterly serious in their mission. I’d bet these same people would go so far as to say that, judging from public appearances alone, the Straubs lacked a sense of humor altogether. Never mind Jean-Marie’s own penchant for mischievous declamations and clownish public appearances (Danièle often played the straight man). He once asserted that “we make films so people can walk out of them.” Another time, he stated that Carl Dreyer being unable to make a film in color proved that society itself “was not worth a frog’s fart.”
Despite their own frequent acknowledgement of the massive influence of Chaplin, Lubitsch, Luc Moullet, and Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on their work, very few people have attempted to seriously investigate the comic lineage into which the pair place themselves, perhaps because to do so would seem on its face to be an enormous provocation.
It is pretty obvious that in the seventies this impression developed in no small part because of just how prominent their pugnacious adaptation of Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Julius Caesar (dryly retitled History Lessons) was in “structuralist cinema” programs on college campuses across the United States alone.
In the film, an unnamed young man tours Rome and conducts interviews with toga-clad members of ancient Roman society on the subject of “C,” meaning of course Julius Caesar. It plays like Citizen Kane shorn of any of the flashbacks that bulk out that film: here, it is all exposition, reminisces, impressions. Interspersed through these sedentary discussions are a series of randomly protracted car rides through the city, all recorded in unbroken takes from the backseat of the young man’s Fiat 500.
From this brief description alone, I’m sure you can see why structuralist-minded academics in the seventies had a field day.
I have always found it ironic that it was History Lessons that sealed Straub-Huillet’s reputation for implacable humorlessness for good. Throughout the film, there are a number of broad gestures on the part of the Straubs that I find absolutely hilarious. Not least among them is the rather lowbrow gag that rounds out the film: that is, cutting from the bloviating banker Mummilius Spicer to an explosive zoom into the Fontana del Mascherone, which features a fat-faced stone icon spewing rainwater from its mouth.
Another zoom earlier in the film sends up the very idea of an “establishing shot,” a format that History Lessons’s pseudo-mockumentary feel would suggest is part-and-parcel of the staging of these kinds of one-on-one re-enactments.
We are on a boat. The sea rocks it quite violently, and consequently the handheld camera sways back and forth. The throw-away quality of the image is shocking at first, given Straub-Huillet’s well-documented obsessiveness about their staging. Then, as if to throw this in our face further, the image queasily zooms in on the shoreline, becoming more illegible still as the rocking is accentuated by this wild push-in.
In another scene, Straub-Huillet move through seven angles on Spicer’s face, along quite literally an 180-degree axis, as he speaks to the interviewer. As if to confound our expectations further, these images vary in distance to the subject, beginning in medium-wide shot, then alternating at random between medium and close-shot and jumping to the next position with no discernible relationship to the man’s words. A sense of humor—a knowing acknowledgement of the idiosyncrasy of their style—would seem to be the only explanation for these decisions.
Whenever I see History Lessons, it is hard not to think of “Creature Comforts,” Aardman Animations’ famous five-minute contribution to the Channel 4 series Lip Synch. There, as in History Lessons, at least part of the joke is the mixture of a laughably fixed camera position and a jolting disconnect between speech, setting, and speaker. In both, the interviews take place in rigorously determined settings with a subject already humorously embedded at their center when the scene in question begins (like the writer Vastius Alder in History Lessons who faux-casually rests in a multi-coloured deckchair, his hands folded behind his head as he speaks).
What comedy there is in Straub-Huillet’s films emerges as a result of their eccentric formal tastes. For instance, in their 1969 adaptation of Othon (discussed in the last piece of this companion series), characters ancillary to the immediate action appear as if from nowhere when it is their turn to speak, weird moments that are the natural by-product of Straub-Huillet’s Lubitsch-like belief in the primacy of sound over image.
Here, two characters discuss a subject at length. They then look up at something off-screen. Straub-Huillet hold on their face for a moment, then cut to what they are looking at: another character has appeared just a few feet away, Batman-like, waiting to deliver their lines. In their films, as in Lubitsch’s, sound often “leads” the image, creating these weird moments. Needless to say, part of what is so funny about their appearance is that it is never clear just how long these people have been standing there, just off-screen. Any good gag (or idea or "image") worth its salt leads with the aural and takes a roundabout route to the visual.
One could argue that Straub-Huillet’s method often functions like a good joke. There is a build-up—a unadorned pan around a valley in rural Italy, for example—and the punchline, the moment you “get” the idea—when, say, you understand that this was the site of an historical massacre of leftists. While such macabre and sincere gestures are very much not funny on their face, their one-two structure bears the unmistakable mark of a comedic formal influence.
History Lessons’ famous driving sequences seem to build to visual “punchlines.” By virtue of the austerity of the staging—staring at the back of a person’s head as he drives—you are forced to scan a busy frame filled with lots of extraneous action at its edges. These scenes’ hypnotic slowness lulls you into tiny dramas that form in a natural concert with the car’s journey along the streets. When to cut away is apparently determined by adhering to the rhythms of these small bits of business.
In the first of these sequences, Straub-Huillet move to the next scene just as the first real piece of drama spawns unprompted from the untouched material of the journey. After such a long period of quiet driving with no indication of intent, as a viewer you become acclimated to the aimless rhythms of the trip and, as a modern viewer looking back at these images, enjoy the unfiltered view of Rome c. 1971. Then the young man has to stop in a narrow street as a car coming the opposite direction slows down ahead of him. It is the first trace of drama: we feel the inevitable frustration we would if we were actually driving the thing. He sticks it in reverse and backs up. We wait, unconsciously drawn to the first sign of conflict. A line of cars thanklessly trundle by. He accelerates and begins to wind down the street again. Only then do the Straubs mischievously cut away, catching us in the act.
In another, the young man weaves the car through the city streets, dodging groups of disinterested citizens going about their business with a quintessentially Italian disregard for traffic. Again, Straub-Huillet only relent at the moment a minor occurrence grabs our drifting attention. A group of geriatric old ladies potter around in front of the car, stopping both our impassive driver and another frustrated man opposite waiting angrily for them to shuffle away. Shortly thereafter, the scene changes, calling attention to the moment.
I find that such winking awareness of the act of fiction-making is embedded in Straub-Huillet’s funniest films. Small, self-conscious, and spontaneous gestures stimulated by some aspect of the process nod knowingly to the audience.
One such exciting moment in History Lessons sees an errant leaf drift down from above and land in the sitting young man’s lap as he is summoning up the will to speak, intruding upon the carefully established scene in question. The vacant pauses that sit on either side of the dialogue in Straub-Huillet films situate it—as well as the speaker—within the space itself. They are an important aspect of their way of working. In this case though, the leaf breaks the spell into which the actor playing the young man has been lulled. He looks down at it and then cheekily glances off-screen, presumably looking to the Straubs to for assurance as to whether he should continue. He then smiles out of the corner of his mouth before speaking.
That Straub-Huillet leave moments like these in the final film betrays a respect for a spontaneity of reaction that their rigorous preproduction planning would seem to belie. Indeed, Straub once said that only with preparation and intense rehearsal could true spontaneity occur, which at least to me sounds not that distant from the wisdom of a great comic.
Similarly, their obsessive concern with cutting to the exact frame to make a scene “work”—often at a point at which no other filmmaker would think to cut—makes me think of Jerry Lewis’ admission that it took him days of pacing his office to find the funniest frame to cut from a boss yelling “HE WHAT?!” to an airplane taking off in the famous gag from The Bellboy.
Like all great comic filmmakers, the Straubs disregard the logical conventions of much of the cinema. They also make an ass of the formal ideals that much of non-commercial cinema is in thrall to. And like a Tex Avery, a Frank Tashlin, an Elaine May, a Harry Langdon, or indeed a Jerry Lewis, they brazenly stretch the formal limits of their work to an obtuse breaking point that is quite honestly pretty damn funny in itself.

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