James Quandt is the Senior Programmer for TIFF Cinematheque. He has curated hundreds of directorial retrospectives, national surveys and thematic programmes that have contributed to the interest in and revival of forgotten masters and films, has been with TIFF since the launch of TIFF Cinematheque (then called Cinematheque Ontario) in 1990, and prior to his current role, Quandt worked as Film Programmer at Harbourfront. From 1985–1990, Quandt assembled all the film programmes at Harbourfront and curated several series for other film institutions, including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Canadian Film Institute.
I’m thrilled & honoured to be able to interview Quandt on the occasion of TIFF offering their Straub-Huillet retrospective, titled “Not Reconciled: The Films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet” that begins March 3rd.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
James Quandt: Equal inheritance from both.
2) What is the best thing about what you do?
James Quandt: Programming films I love that I hope others will also admire.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
James Quandt: I am passionate about art (all periods from early and Renaissance through modern and contemporary) so I visit galleries and museums and travel to see art exhibitions; my other passion is classical music, again all periods, from early and baroque through classical and contemporary. New music is a particular enthusiasm.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
James Quandt: Patience.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
James Quandt: Reading.
6) As a programmer with decades of service to tiff, the film-viewing public and the world at large, do you prefer to be an invisible part of the process, or do you expect to be drawn into conversations like this one as a teacher & scholar whose knowledge can inform our viewing?
James Quandt: Invisible. I hope my introductory essay will encourage some people to discover these majestic, difficult films, but others have far more knowledge and understanding of their work than I. The best possible primer on Straub-Huillet is the new volume edited by Ted Fendt, published by the Austrian Film Museum.
7) Please explain the significance of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, both for their achievement and their influence.
James Quandt: Their achievement is immense, in a career that has spanned many decades and produced a vast number of both features and short films. More than any other director I can think of, aside perhaps from their mentor Robert Bresson, Straub-Huillet remained intransigently committed to a singular, fiercely political vision and an aesthetic or approach whose severity derived from their own moral clarity. It is paradoxical that, again like Bresson, their particular, unyielding style should have exerted such a wide influence, but a list of contemporary filmmakers who have in some way been inspired by the duo includes dozens, ranging from the Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa to the American film essayist John Gianvito.
8) Please unpack some of possible meanings of the epithet “Not reconciled” in the Straub – Huillet retrospective, and what we should be looking for, as we watch their films.
James Quandt: “Not reconciled” is an apt term to describe Straub-Huillet’s absolute refusal—through their art, their production methods, and their sometimes incendiary statements—of a world in which the powerless remain ever so, solidarity is hard won, and political iniquity prevails.
9) Please reflect on the Marxist-materialist element in Straub and Huillet.
James Quandt: Theirs is a Marxist-materialist cinema, in which class is always a cardinal issue, as signaled by the title of Class Relations—tellingly renamed from its source, Kafka’s America.
What other biographers of Bach would focus so relentlessly on his art as work, and his struggle to secure positions and payments?
10) In your essay you comment upon an apparent contradiction, at least in the critical response to Straub- Huillet, where some remark on distancing elements as you’d find in Brecht, while others see an immersive impulse. Are we over-simplifying in seeking to push them to one pole or the other, or is there another way to reconcile those polarities?
James Quandt: Straub-Huillet repeatedly refuted characterizations of their cinema as one thing: severe, difficult, Brechtian, cerebral, etc. They truly had the utopian belief that their films could (and should) offer emotional, immersive experiences, and appeal to the everyday filmgoer, not just intellectuals.
11) Please discuss the highlights of the Straub – Huillet retrospective, both as far as the well-known / famous films are concerned but especially the obscure gems.
James Quandt: The comprehensiveness of the retrospective is staggering, given that so few of their films have been individually available—at least in good copies, with English subtitles.
A parenthetical aside
(By the way, you might be interested to know that the copy of The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach that is circulating in the tour at other venues is a DCP of the English version they made simultaneously with the version you saw.)
For the many who have asked me what their most accessible films are, I cite the Bach film, Sicilia! (a personal favourite), Class Relations, the programme of their early films (Machorka Muff, Not Reconciled, and The Bridegroom, The Comedian, and The Pimp) and the heart-bruising programme of shorts that includes Le Genou d’Artemide. The use of Mahler’s “Der Abschied” is devastating in the latter.
12. A film of Moses und Aron, Schönberg’s unfinished opera, is the film in this retrospective that I anticipate most eagerly, that I’ve heard called the most perfect film of any opera ever made. For the opera-lovers and those intrigued by this exploration of Zionism, please comment on how Straub – Huillet approach the work and how it fits into their body of work.
James Quandt: I love the two Schoenberg opera films; Von heute auf morgen actually reveals a kind of Lubitschian lightness of social-marital comedy that is very surprising. Moses and Aaron, of course, is much thornier. They were determined to make it for many years, and attempted to make it as authentic as possible, shooting in a Roman amphitheatre. Oddly, I find operatic elements in many of their other films—dialogue delivered as sprechtstimme, for instance. I recently published an article about how, though totally spoken, the dialogue in Sicilia! can be heard as operatic roulades, arias, etc.
13. Do you have a favourite film or favourite director?
James Quandt: I am currently working on a visual essay about Robert Bresson’s final film, L’Argent, which I think is perhaps his greatest. So, for the moment, it’s the one.
TIFF Cinematheque’s Not Reconciled: The Films of Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet runs from March 3 to April 2. Curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque, this first ever Toronto retrospective assembles dozens of their features and short films, many of them to be seen in the city for the first time. Sunday March 12, the screening of Moses and Aron includes a live performance by Against the Grain Theatre.