screened Sunday August 6 2007 at Anthology Film Archives, New York City IMDb

Sadly this was the only film I caught from the Costa retrospective. Recently Cindi asked me if I had the same amount of free time I had back in ’03 when I watched virtually all of the Ozu films at the Walter Reade retro, which director would I devote my attention to, and Costa immediately came to mind – I deeply admire his choice of subject matter and medium, and the necessary resourcefulness he deploys in bringing aesthetic innovation to both. Fortunately as we entered the screening room who but Pedro Costa was there in the lobby, talking to Robert Cargni, who is surely the most ubiquitous Philadelphian at New York movie houses (though Sam Adams may give him a run for his money). Cargni introduced me to Costa (much the same way that he introduced me to Ernie Gehr a few months ago). Costa struck me as a soft-spoken, self-effacing man, who seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say, under-informed as I was, having only seen one film of his. I shifted the topic to Straub-Huillet and told him that I was eager to glean insight on the couple from his films, as I’ve found them quite challenging, as they almost always seem to require pre-existing knowledge of the source text upon which their film is based. To that Costa rolled his eyes and said “You better not tell that to Straub, because he believes the opposite!”

All the same, my impression when watching Straub-Huillet films is that they seem to make them for themselves more than for anyone else, and having spent nearly two hours virtually with Straub and Huillet thanks to Costa’s terrifically spare and direct film, my opinion hasn’t wavered. Listening to them go back and forth at length about which frame upon which to cut to another shot, launching into various theories to support their respective preferences, I found the differences to be microscopic at best and unapparent to most viewers upon watching the results. Only by being privy to such discussions could I realize what values they laid into their aesthetic decisions in the course of making their films. But that only goes to support my first opinion — that it’s difficult to appreciate these films without an instruction manual. I have problems with their direction of actors, which to me feels largely artificial and emulates the limitations of Bresson’s technique with few of the benefits. I think I react to Straub-Huillet the same nonplussed manner that my friends who dislike Bresson react to his films.

So credit Costa for taking spartan, dimly lit footage of their editing sessions and somehow turning it into a vivid, insightful and ultimately haunting testimony, not just to an important creative duo, but to the creative process and the community that gives it life, in this case a community of two. I got many of the same feelings and sensations from watching this film as I did from Colossal Youth. Straub fits all too easily into the emerging Costa mold of the garrulous, vaguely solipsistic character who indulges in long babbling monologues (there are a number of them in Colossal Youth as well), as the monotone set design (here, predominantly shadows) seems to reflect his psychological isolation. Straub’s long-winded theorizing often verges on puffing into so much hot air, while Huillet earns more sympathy as she busies herself tirelessly winding the editing deck back and forth. But clearly the two need each other like yin and yang.

As in Colossal Youth, this world-weary isolation is given an Odyssean dignity by Costa – figures lurking in shadow darkness have a paradoxically obscure yet monumental presence. You get this sense of joining two people momentarily on their lifelong journey through aesthetic innovation, a journey in which they find themselves largely alone with each other, regardless of their reputation, and they alternately rail and resign themselves to the fact that they and they alone share the same vision, though there are several moments in the film that they too seem worlds apart in what they want to do with the most miniscule of cuts. Somehow the work holds together and holds them together. For all of its sparse, unromantic treatment of the filmmaking process, this is one of the most romantic films about filmmakers I’ve seen.

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In-depth observations by Doug Cummings, Acquarello and Daniel Kasman – who also has a great overview of the Costa retrospective