Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968)

If you’re going to watch this film, get prepared to listen to some Bach. No, seriously....let me explain. Most composer biopics are interested in “dramatizing” the life of the artist and its struggles, and scoring that drama to the composer’s music. The opposite happens here: Bach’s life story is intentionally “de-dramatized” and the music is placed upfront and center, and occupies most of the screen time.

Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the directors of The Chronicle Of Anna Magdalena Bach, stage some 25 Bach pieces or extracts, each of them as a single-scene long-take. What’s more, the camera’s often static, and soon you realize that there’s nothing to do but immerse yourself in the music and its flow. By not breaking up a musical performance into multiple shots, they preserve the unity of each musical piece, not allowing the music to devolve into a merely “accompanying” function.

What I find most interesting about this film is that it’s simultaneously both documentary-like and self-consciously artificial. By embracing these two (seemingly) diametrically opposed natures, the film finds one nature in the other: documenting involves artifice, and vice versa.

Documentaries purport to “document”. This movie goes one step further: it documents by means of documents. The greatest document that Bach left behind was his music. We see “authentic” period performance renditions of Bach’s music, juxtaposed with other documents: title pages of sheet music, notated scores, letters, citations, formal decrees, engravings and paintings of the period, city maps. Not all these documents are necessarily “authentic”: Anna’s diary, which is the basis for the voiceover that runs through the film, is fictitious, but constructed from letters and records of that period.

And yet, consciously complicating this documentary fidelity is an overt and forceful artifice. The musicians are shot from unusual angles that call attention to the framing, and even though musical performances begin with static shots, the camera suddenly tracks toward or away from the perfomer(s) as the scene ends, disrupting our calm “observation” of the performance. Compositions jump out at us with their slashing diagonals, and as a wonderful affront to the most basic demands of verisimilitude, Bach never visibly ages through the entire film.

Reminiscent of Bresson is the deliberate withholding of drama. Anna’s voiceover is matter-of-fact, evenly reciting events and details so that the banal and the tragic are shockingly juxtaposed. (She bore Bach twelve children; eight of them didn’t live past age five.) Discontinuity is commonplace, disrupting any dramatic arc we might wish for. At one point, a door bursts open and a boy announces: “The vice-rector has committed suicide.” It is the first and last time we ever hear of this “vice-rector”.

One of my peeves in movies is the way (non-)musicians are shown lazily faking it. I’m no literalist, but I think there can be something dignified and graceful about the work of playing music, especially as expressed through (1) human hands, and (2) the human face. When Sean Penn leans back on a bed and picks out “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” in Sweet And Lowdown, or when Romain Duris makes a nervy stab at a Bach toccata in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, their body language and movements and yes, fingerings, feel true, even though we know that the actors are non-musicians who were coached to get the passages right.

Some of the most satisfying moments here are watching Gustav Leonhardt's hands move as he conducts the ensemble, or his fleet fingers at the harpsichord, or his feet and hands as they control the pedals and stops of an organ. It reminds us of the labor of music performance. Ravel once nailed the sound of the harpsichord (“two skeletons copulating on a tin roof”), but watching Leonhardt play it—as opposed to just hearing him play it—adds a new subtlety of appreciation to the experience I wouldn’t have thought was there.


Blogger girish said...

Part 2 of Dennis' Altman appreciation.

February 23, 2006 8:10 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach poses a question regarding Cassavetes.

February 23, 2006 8:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Mubarak on Philippe Grandrieux's La Vie Nouvelle.

February 23, 2006 8:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Moistworks has to be one of the coolest mp3/music blogs out there.

February 23, 2006 8:16 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I've seen little by Straub-Huillet: just one other film, Sicilia! (1999), which was excellent too.
I hear the Bach film is their most accessible.
I'm a Cezanne nut and would love to see the film they made about him. Or anything else by them, for that matter.

February 23, 2006 8:21 PM  
Blogger Dennis Cozzalio said...

Girish: It probably is their most accessible. I saw a run of Straub-Hullet films in college 25 years ago, but Bach was the one that made the strongest impression on me. I remember the distinct sensation, having been so immersed in the music, as you describe, that I had a extremely tactile reaction to the frame and what was contained within it, as if suddenly it had gained a third dimension and truly was a window that I felt I might actually pass through in order to enter the film's "action." A brilliant, singular film. Thanks for writing about it and stoking the fire in me to see it again.

February 23, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

And yes, you can, Dennis. It's on DVD, which is how I saw it.

February 23, 2006 9:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I'm sure you all know about it already, but a reminder never hurt:
Robert Altman Blog-A-Thon Weekend courtesy of Matt Zoller Seitz.

Matt's new post asks for "scenes or images that branded themselves onto your imagination".
Writing about Emmanuelle In Bangkok he confesses:
"A formative sexual influence, I credit this movie with speeding me through puberty much sooner and instilling me with a sense of the dintinction between porn and erotica (which is beautiful to look and is as much about situations as it is sex and skin). Because of this formative early encounter with Emmanuelle -- the first so-called “adult” movie I ever saw -- brightly lit, purely mechanical hardcore porn starring women with implants has never turned me on. If I can’t have real bodies and artful photography, I’d rather watch The Cartoon Network."

February 23, 2006 9:07 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

This sounds absolutely remarkable - and thus it's now on my Netflix queue, right after all the Altman and Ferrara movies for the upcoming blogathons.

February 23, 2006 9:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David, There's something about Straub-Huillet's films that force you to fight them a little bit (just the two I've seen, anyway).
We are normally so unaccustomed to long static takes of musical performance in biopics (not to mention paucity of close-ups) that here you start getting antsy even though the music is great. You fight the film for a while, then you give up, and submit to it on its terms, and then it starts to open up for you.
And I suspect that this process is very much conscious and purposeful on their part.

February 23, 2006 9:54 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Forgot to mention one of the coolest things about this movie.
It's recorded live, no post-sync dubbing. And played by real musicians, albeit in wigs.

February 23, 2006 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Thanks for this, Girish. A fantastic post. I've heard of this film somewhat tangentially and have not seen it; but as both a fan of film and of Bach, I think it might be right up my alley. Gonna have to Netflix it. (Nice nod to The Beat That My Heart Skipped -- Duris' attempt to learn and perform the toccata was both invigorating and taxing.)

Recently, I've been listening a lot to The Well-Tempered Clavier, particularly a recording by pianist Angela Hewitt. I recommend it if you're ever in the mood for the piece; it's smart and almost scholarly, but hardly cold -- about as musical and as pure as I've heard for that music.

February 23, 2006 11:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, it did occur to me while writing this post that this film would be right up your alley.
Thanks for the Well-Tempered Clavier tip. I'll look for it at my local library. I don't have a recording of that. My Bach listening usually boils down to the well-loved but familiar: Brandenburgs, orchestral suites, Goldbergs.

There's also a 20-minute making-of featurette on the DVD that's fascinating. We hear a lot from Straub, and never from his wife, Huillet. She just watches him as he speaks, with equal parts admiration and bemusement.

February 24, 2006 6:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You probably know this already, but Aaron's quiz is now on Fridays.

February 24, 2006 6:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

K-Punk on Chris Marker's Grin Without A Cat.

February 24, 2006 6:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Definitely worth mentioning again:
Acquarello has been filing a flurry of reviews from "Film Comment Selects" in New York.

February 24, 2006 7:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I'll be in New York for spring break week to coincide with this.

February 24, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The Siren asks:
"[W]hen was the last time seeing one movie gave you a better understanding of another one?"

February 24, 2006 8:22 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

FYI, there's no indication on the usual French DVD sites, but Cinéma 10 is the Straub/Huillet edition, complete with a DVD of En rachâchant and Cézanne in impeccable prints. No subtitles though.

"The Siren asks: [W]hen was the last time seeing one movie gave you a better understanding of another one?"

On a related train of thought, I just remembered that Straub/Huillet's Not Reconciled definitely helped in getting acclimated to the structure of Harun Farocki's Between Two Wars; only later, after reading the Elsaesser book on Farocki did I find out that he expressly made the film as a kind of dedication to the Straubs.

February 24, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

I have only seen under the simpler title of Othon. Bach is now on my Netflix queue. Cinematical also mentioned the Altman blog-a-thon.

February 24, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

I must have a gremlin that goofs up my tags!

February 24, 2006 9:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"...Cézanne in impeccable prints. No subtitles though." So near yet so far....I'll just have to wait patiently for the big screen.

February 24, 2006 10:38 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

Great write-up for this one-of-a-kind masterpiece, Girish. So many things can be said about the film which I don't think I can do justice to right now. The film definitely has an indescribable sensuality about itself, and I think the sloooww pans across space plus the sublime 'documented' music creates an exquisite tension, if that makes sense. Also there's Anna Magdalena herself, her slow movements, the Bressonian capturing of hands (I remember such a scene occurring around a staircase of some sort, but I could be confusing this with another Straub film), her voice!, and all the other voices in the film - whether voiceover, on-screen, or offscreen, all coming together with the text of the letters and manuscripts and of course, the music, which never stops.

I'd like to see that Straub interview included on the DVD. From what I've read in interviews and elsewhere, he's usually very vocal about his influences and/or favourite filmmakers. He's called John Ford "the most Brechtian of all filmmakers", and admires Renoir, Mizoguchi, Moullet, Godard, Lang, among others.

February 24, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

You bring up so many great points, Mubarak.
That's a wonderful statement for Straub to make about Ford. I'll have to think about that one.
There's a Richard Roud book on Straub that's out-of-print and (alas) going for sky-high prices at Amazon.

February 24, 2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh and Mubarak--which other Straub-Huillets have you seen?

February 24, 2006 11:55 AM  
Blogger Mubarak Ali said...

I've seen a few of their more famous short films - Not Reconciled, Machorka-Muff, En rachâchant, Every Revolution Is A Throw of the Dice, along with the great Too Early, Too Late, a dvd-r of which was projected onto a big-ish screen at a fellow cinephile's place last year. A thoroughly frustrating and exciting night!

There's another out-of-print book on Straub/Huillet, though this one's available online: Barton Byg's Landscapes of Resistance. I've yet to sit down and give it a proper look, but from the bits and pieces I've read, there are passages from Roud's book quoted.

February 24, 2006 10:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow. I didn't realize entire books were available on-line like that. Thanks for the link, Mubarak.

February 25, 2006 12:24 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Man, this sucks: Harvey gobbles up Wellspring.

February 25, 2006 12:26 AM  
Blogger Peter Nellhaus said...

You may find this amusing.

February 25, 2006 9:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And David just sent me this.
I can't believe no one ever brought it up during the SHOWGIRLS blog-a-thon.
(Be sure to check out Nomi's blog while you're there.)

February 25, 2006 11:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael Guillen has put up an Altman appreciation.

February 25, 2006 11:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

One of those great links-laden music posts at Culturespace.

February 25, 2006 11:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Got any suggestions for Darren about buying a turntable?

February 25, 2006 12:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Some upcoming-DVD news courtesy Jaime Weinman.

February 25, 2006 4:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter on Jerry Lewis.

February 26, 2006 7:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Terence Rafferty on Blue Velvet in the New York Times:
"The central question of "Blue Velvet," voiced with winning bluntness by Jeffrey, is "Why are there people like Frank?" Frank, played with insane gusto by Mr. Hopper, is such a one-of-a-kind monster of obscenity that the line might make you laugh: Are there people like Frank? But it's a sincere question, because in Mr. Lynch's imagination there are. Frank is, when you come down to it, a child's vision of adulthood, the cartoon embodiment of all the things a curious kid might picture grown-ups doing when they're on their own and out of sight: they do drugs, they curse a lot, they have parties with incomprehensible friends (like this movie's indelibly weird Ben, played by Dean Stockwell as the epitome of suavity), and, when the opportunity presents itself, they have fast, loud, ugly sex."

February 26, 2006 8:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Anthony Kaufman's blog.
Each Friday, he's been recommending a new indie/foreign theatrical release to catch on the big screen.

February 26, 2006 8:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow. Nice guest post by Mark Anthony Neal at Soul Sides. Not to mention mp3's to go with.

February 26, 2006 8:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

For a while, Amy Taubin has had an online-only column at Film Comment.

February 26, 2006 8:15 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I do feel awkward having written about a film with Darren McGavin last night and reading that he died this morning. I am adding some stuff to my piece.

February 26, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Speaking of Darren McGavin, I'm reminded of Jean Shepherd's films. (In addition to A Christmas Story, I'm thinking of all the television stuff which doesn't, alas, seem to be on DVD).

February 26, 2006 9:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Harlequin Knights has links to a bunch of cool YouTube videos.

Nitpicking: "Shoplifters Of The World Unite" is clearly lip-synched by Morrissey because there are harmonized guitars on the tune and Johnny Marr isn't playing them all by himself on the video.

February 26, 2006 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"...Cézanne in impeccable prints. No subtitles though." So near yet so far....I'll just have to wait patiently for the big screen.

I wouldn't hold your breath with respect to the subtitles. Straub and Huillet refuse to allow this (or their recent film Visit to the Louvre, which utilizes the same Gasquet text) to be subtitled, as it would mean placing text over the paintings.

April 15, 2006 12:59 PM  

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