Difficult? Moi?

I'd like to draw your attention to the excellent comment by "Steve" reacting to my posting on These Encounters of Theirs, the Straub-Huillet film. He raises the fascinating question of what makes a filmmaker "difficult," a label that I placed on Daniele Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub without a moment of hesitation. Indeed, I suspect that when you ask film people to name a difficult filmmaker, they would be one of the first names to come to mind.

(Let me state immediately that I mean filmmakers whose works are difficult to understand, assimilate, respond to, rather than filmmakers whose work is so loathesome that they are nearly impossible to tolerate. I mean Straub-Huillet, not Tony Scott. Clear?)

But what is it about their work that is difficult? What is a difficult film? If I read him correctly, I would agree with Steve that Brakhage and Snow are not inherently difficult; if you go to one of their films expecting a conventional narrative, yeah, you'll be disconcerted, maybe baffled. If you go with a firmer sense of what you are about to see, the result should be somewhat different. I suspect that the closer to pure abstraction a non-narrative film comes, the easier it is for a viewer to absorb and even enjoy it. Just on the simple level of presenting visually appealing or stimulating images, non-narrative films are probably somewhat easier to assimilate. That's my gut feeling and I may very well be wrong. I would hope that someone with a greater familiarity with experimental film -- Daryl, are you listening? -- wold step in and rescue me here.

Nope, I think an audience finds a film difficult when it comes with a set of expectations conditioned by years of moviegoing and familiarity with genre, narrative conventions, etc., and is faced with a film that seems to have no relation whatsoever to those expectations. And if they come to a film with no particular expectations, then they are unwittingly carrying with them the expectations ingrained by years of watching films made in the style of Classical Hollywood discourse (or whatever label you choose to give it), which is, to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes, Cinema Degree Zero. Not so much an absence of style -- quite the contrary -- but a baseline from which everything else ascends/descends. The storytelling method is derived in large part from the 19th-century novel, with an especially keen affinity with naturalism and realism.

With that paradigm as the point of departure, audiences are naturally going to be overwhelmed/bored/irritated/confused by filmmakers like Straub-Huillet who interject lengthy takes of landscape, or Tarkovsky whose approach to narrative is more like that of a lyric poet than a 19th-century novelist, or Bresson whose approach to actors is so utterly stripped of conventional "psychology." And so on and so on.

By the same token, such an audience is unprepared for the work of a documentary filmmaker like Johan van der Keuken, who makes unusual demands on their powers of concentration and memory, or Chris Marker who refuses to tell them what the "correct" answer is to the questions his films pose. (It's a lot easier to allow yourself to be manipulated by someone like Michael Moore who has all the answers and all the questions and whose films function primarily as appeals to the self-righteousness of their audiences.)

It might be said, then, that "difficulty" is in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one's ability to step away from the traditions of film storytelling (both non-fiction and fiction) and to be open to something radically different.

Now I have to admit that after writing on film for almost 36 years (my first published film piece dates from March 1971), I long since exceeded my threshhold of endurance for conventional narrative unless it is very, very good. So I eagerly seek out films that other people might, justifiably, find "difficult." (It's also part of the same perversity that led me to wear the uniform number 13 on my softball team for over a dozen seasons.) Several years ago I was watching Kieslowski's Blue and I came to a startling realization: it is possible to make a good film in which there are long stretches in which nothing "happens" and that "nothing" may be the most telling and powerful event in the entire movie. Obviously, as a long-time enthusiast for Straub-Huillet (among others), this wasn't really that big a surprise, but something about the way Kieslowski manipulates screen time and the relationships between his characters struck me more directly and deeply than ever before.

So who are "difficult" filmmakers? There are, I think, some names that will turn up on any such list. I would agree with Steve that there are some Straub-Huillet films that are easier to respond to immediately than others; Class Relations may not be to some people's tastes, but I think its virtues are apparent, likewise Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. But I think even the smartest of us had trouble with their first viewing of Not Reconciled, and I will happily admit that, although I really like These Encounters, I know that I would need to see it a few more times (and read the Pavese) to begin to come to grips with its structure. Similarly, I love Bresson, but I certainly can understand people who don't.

My list of "difficult" filmmakers, in no particular order:

Straub-Huillet, Godard (from the Dziga Vertov films on), van der Keuken, Bresson (particularly the later films), Marker, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, Amos Gitai, Sokurov, Ken Jacobs, Stan Brakhage, Philippe Garrel, Marguerite Duras, Dziga Vertov . . . .

That's off the top of my head. The one thing I notice, looking at the list, is that this is also a list that includes several of my favorite filmmakers.

Make of that what you will.


Steven said…
You do read me properly. Of course. Snow's masterpiece La Region Centrale can scare off an audience for its length over three hours and its focus on landscape instead of narrative, but if you sit there I do not think it is that difficult to get into the film and see what it is doing to representation of the natural being fliltered by the constantly moving camera. I do agree with you on most of the filmmakers but I would probably add, Tarkovsky, late Dreyer and maybe even Kiarostami and Antonioni. What many of these filmmakers share and this what excites me and George is the way that the films move from narrative to the contemplative and back. I remember telling some friends after I saw Sicilia at the NYFF finally areal movie in which one is given room to think and realize that the filmmakers are thinking also. This of course drives some audience members mad because they are not otls what to think and there is too much empty spac and time. I have to admitt to never being bored by Bresson and still being fascinated by the films since I first saw them in 1973 and 1974.
There is another aspect of difficult films which thye seem to be unreadable because we are lacking knowledge and have to know it to understand it. This is true with some of Straub/Huillet's films though I probably disagree with George about Not Reconcilled. Seeing the film made me want to read the novel absolutely but also watch the film again and again. Straub abd Huillets films demand to be on VCR. The reason why we seem to know outside knowledge to understand the later type of difficult film is that they contain the sensory overload of late Godard and knowing the citations is way to slow down the bombardment for understanding. This type of ilmmaking is not at all new and a strong example is Vertov's magnificent Man with a Movie Camera. The need for outside information is related to another kind of seemingly difficult film which has a private language which has to be decoded to understand. On David Bordwell's great blog, he recently writes of the avant garde blogbuster of Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle as a work which gives you through ancilary devicdes such as books, websites a way to read the film and a work with an Hollywoodized sheen that gives simple pleasures but takes away from the rougher stronger pleasures of the artisanal avant-garde of Ernie Gehr and Lewis Klahr.
Steve Elworth