“...Then one fine day you realize that it’s better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of reduction, only it’s not a reduction; it’s a concentration and it actually says more. But you don’t do this immediately from one day to the next! You need patience. A sigh can become a novel.” So says Jean-Marie Straub in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? Logical that this film (centered in Pedro Costa’s oeuvre) delivers on Straub’s observation: originally planned as an episode of Cinéastes de notre temps and ostensibly a film about how Straub and his late wife Danièle Huillet edited pictures together, Smile builds something magical and immense from its miniature, material means. This is a film about film, of course, but it understands film as a conversation—about searching, about understanding—as an opportunity for philosophy, we might say—and how all these elements build a working picture of marriage, too. It’s Costa’s version of the romantic comedy. And it works.
Initially wary of the project (and of public exposure in general), Straub and Huillet eventually granted Costa entrance into their world (of work, of marriage) after Jacques Rivette endorsed the younger filmmaker’s cinema. (Rivette is often quoted: “I think that Pedro Costa is genuinely great.”) Costa shot Straub and Huillet for five weeks, employing only a handycam (that he operated) and a boom for sound (held by a friend), as the married filmmakers edited their 1998 film, Sicilia! Most of Smile is a two shot of Huillet at the Moviola editing table, looking and pointing at its screen with her back to the camera, while Straub paces in and out of their workroom’s door to her right, talking non-stop to whatever audience he has until his wife gets him to shut up—to stop performing—and pay attention to the work at hand (at her hands). The screen and the doorway are ways out of the room, different approaches to the world; but they both let light into the room as well. This simple, dialogic rhyme structures the movement of the film, and the dynamic of the Straubs’ marriage. Straub moves and talks endlessly (if not in circles, then back and forth) while Huillet plays it cool, laconic, authorial. He gets at the world with words while she arranges an order, or form, for things in pictures and sound.
The sounds here, like the pictures, are basic and stark—there’s Straub’s grumble and occasional cough, Huillet’s scissors cutting film, the film rattling when sped through the flatbed, the flatbed humming—and they create the intimate space of the film as much or maybe more than Costa’s (or Straub/Huillet’s) dark, hidden images. The sound is the action. The conversation is the film: a process of uptake, of linking, of assembling. Of course, this extends to the conversation between sound and image, too. How these materials (Straub says matière, which literally means “matter”) fit together and speak to one another.
Costa derived his film’s title from a sequence wherein Huillet labors, back and forth across a few feet of film, to find an elusive moment when an actor (Gianni Buscarino), in an early train conversation with a policeman in Sicilia!, smiles but does not smile. At first Huillet says, “Look, it’s a smile.” By the end of the sequence she says, “There is no smile.” The editing process in between those statements is a conversation (between Straub and Huillet) about how to time the interaction on screen to illustrate this hidden smile—to show that Buscarino’s character understands the policeman has lied (about being a policeman) to him. A resolution comes from Straub, who calls film grammar a “subtle psychology”: cutting just after the policeman’s lie to the silent, stalemated Buscarino gives him time to think on screen, to show him working out his judgment, before speaking again. So even if he does not smile, his understanding is implied. Later in the evening, when I saw this scene in its finished form in Sicilia!, I noticed the pause, I remembered this sequence from Smile, and I, like Huillet, saw a glint in Buscarino’s eyes that may or may not actually be there on film.
Like all Straub/Huillet films, Sicilia! is an adaptation of a written text; this film from Elio Vittorini’s Conversations in Italy. I have not had the time to read Vittorini’s book but that hardly seems necessary, despite the alien look and feel of the Straubs’ film. The primary, perhaps key, distinction I see between the book and the film lies in their respective titles. A book is a being of words, a film a being of light and sound. So, to foreground the word, the Straubs added the exclamation point (which Costa echoes in punctuating Smile with a question mark): language is an action—and a space—here (just as it is in Smile). I felt parodied, I giggled to myself: it’s a film explicitly about conversations! All Buscarino does, ostensibly, is talk to people.
Sicilia! follows Buscarino’s unnamed character (il figlio, the son), freshly returned to Italy from New York, starting at the docks by the shore, as he journeys by train to his home town. Once home, Buscarino talks with his mother (Angela Nugara) at length (they meet, she cooks, they eat) about their memories of his and her youths, how their memories differ, how you enter a memory by telling its story, and what there is to prize in recalling past stories. In the final segment of Sicilia!, Buscarino talks with a knife sharpener about all the things that make the world a “wonderful place,” even though the knife sharpener laments not having enough things to sharpen, enough things with which to cut at the world—one might say, to sharpen the view of the world. When editing this scene in Smile, Straub says something about how most people look to heal themselves, to put ointment on the wounds the world inflicts; but for him (and for Huillet, one imagines), filmmaking is not ointment. Straub and Huillet (and Costa, too) are out to rend the world open to view. Sicilia! ends with the knife sharpener and Buscarino listing tools, things used to make or break the world, things used to concentrate our understanding of the world. They could easily be talking about the tools a filmmaker uses. It’s through Straub/Huillet’s editing, that meticulous process Costa articulated, the cutting of images and sound, the reduction, that rhythms and patterns and echoes form.
Early in Smile, Straub asserts that “The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I’ve said that a hundred times.” But—and here I agree with Zach Campbell—the Straub/Huillet cinema, as much as I can tell from one film, cannot be deemed “empty” formalism by an attentive viewer. (The same should be said for Costa’s work, too, of course.) For the film is called Sicilia! and not Conversations in Italy: the conversations are about the country, about what kind of land births these conversations and these people; and the conversations are punctuated by a number of long shots of the country: a silent landscape shot looking out of the train as the land overcomes the water in the distance rhymes with another from the other side of the train later, a slow pan across a valley to a town and its cemetery is repeated three times. William Lubtchansky’s high contrast black and white photography manipulates shadows the same way Straub/Huillet manipulate Vittorini’s words: both make the space of the film tangible, and present, however alien the framings or the enjambed delivery appear and sound. For in Sicilia!, as in Smile, as in all Costa’s films, the soul is immanent, not transcendent.
As I finish my writing on this series of films, these two works have proven the most difficult to honor because so much of their beauty lies in their words, their conversations. I worry I did not attend to the content that the form structured. For instance, I cannot recall, fully, Danièle Huillet’s lovely, pithy, mysterious line about oranges (something about their smell and film and marriage) late in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? I’ve tried paraphrasing it again and again and each time I’ve failed to do it justice. But, for all the notes I take after a film, I do not think I shall start taking notes during a film—at least not during a first screening in the dark of a theater. This makes a project such as this difficult, yes—especially since the only Costa films currently available on DVD are Region 2 copies of Ossos and Casa de lava—but not impossible. It’s just that sometimes that world out there asks you to do things, to be a part of it, and that can get in the way of the solitary practice of writing.
Named after Anton Webern’s 1911 “Six Bagatelles for String Quartet,” the 18-minute video “6 Bagatelas” offers six unused “scenes” from Costa’s time shooting Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? that Costa assembled “mostly for Danièle.” Not a trifle but knowingly slight, the short is composed of much shorter takes than the feature, one lasting only long enough for Straub to interject, “Good weather,” with Huillet retorting, “What good will that do me in here?” Unfit to stay indoors forever, Costa continues the couple’s movement out of their editing suite and ends “6 Bagatelas” in a green garden. Once again, this scene is dominated by Straub as he rails against Hollywood (echoing his desire for reduction-as-concentration) and Communist asceticism (echoing the idea that the S/H films all affirm living in the world). Luckily, a kind somebody has uploaded the scene to YouTube for our viewing pleasure. Delight in how they walk out of frame, into the rest of the world, but the laundry—white sheets drying on a line above Huillet, much like the Moviola screen above her head in Smile—keeps calling Straub back. Fitting that Huillet has the final words on screen: “We’re not going to spend all our time hanging clothes on the line, then taking them back down, and hanging them back up again…” She might as well be saying, “We’re not going to spend all our time making movies, thinking movies, doing movies; we’re going to go live a bit, too.”
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent editor of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy. He will be graduating college, finally, in 2008: he’s excited.