Too Early/Too Late (1980), the latest installment in “Not Reconciled“, TIFF’s Straub-Huillet retrospective, is aptly titled for at least a couple of reasons. As a study of revolutions co-opted or hijacked by others, the title is about timing. But the title –which appears in four languages as you see in the image (German, English, French & Italian) –reflects the film’s cross-cultural ambitions.
Political as the film is, we are less in a realm of ideologies and advocacy, and more in one of tranquil meditation. They might have titled it The Tao of The People, or perhaps Glorious Peasantry, even if those titles sound all wrong (and have nothing to do with their very dry & contained sense of style). The emphasis on beauty and stillness reminds me a bit of Reggio’s Koyaanisqaatsi (1982) a hypnotic film from roughly the same period. I can’t help thinking that Too Early/Too Late influenced Reggio, who made this, the first of a trilogy of films (perhaps best remembered for their time-lapse effects + music by Philip Glass) just after Huillet & Straub made their film.
There’s an unspoken subtext, that probably didn’t need to be mentioned in the 60s or 70s, namely the thinking of Marx & Engels. Revolution, they said, was supposed to begin with the proletariat, with the peasants, the workers. These are the classes needing a change, wanting to overthrow their bosses.
Or so goes the theory. This is what I feel underlies this very tranquil film, the whole question of the workers / peasants rising up. On the surface we’re watching people, while we hear political commentaries, first two short pieces from Friedrich Engels followed by another longer text from Mahmoud Hussein concerning Egypt. We begin with a dizzying shot, a highly impressive chunk of film literally showing revolution, as we orbit in a traffic circle around the Bastille in Paris. And in this study of futility, no wonder we begin with an image where we don’t get anywhere but go in circles. Yet we do zero in on the land and the people. When the focus shifts to Egypt we are given an even more intimate glimpse of folk along the road or on the river, complete with their families, animals, fields, and all the sounds one hears.
Imagine that you were to venture out into the country, and then settle down to observe for ten minutes, twenty minutes, even an hour. You’d be calm and peaceful, while becoming immersed in all the sounds of wind and water and trees and birds, plus the various machines and even music (if you’re near a mosque with a singer whose voice carries across the landscape) that surrounds you. Framed with the two texts, one might wonder how anything could ever change, could ever achieve the hoped for revolution.
And of course we come to the last portion of the film, and it abruptly shifts into newsreel footage, black and white reminders of the way it really played out in Egypt: not a proletarian revolution at all. We see charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, briefly glimpse Anwar Sadat. I can’t help thinking that for Huillet & Straub, they must have felt disappointment if not outright despair: but of course, they assembled these images. While revolution is the promised utopian goal in Marxist thinking, there is a decidedly dark sense of futility to the last part of this film, very much like the negativity captured in the title. In whatever utterance in whatever country it appears to always be the same, that revolutions get hijacked by military or oligarchs of one shape or another.
That sad reality is balanced by the true focus of the film, which isn’t change but the enduring fact of the people. It is the material reality of the peasant / worker class, a beauty that endures regardless of who might rule these people.
In the wake of the GOP – Trump victories in the USA, as the rich appear to be on the verge of securing an even tighter hold on their wealth, this film has an especially poignant edge to it.
“Not Reconciled“, the TIFF retrospective of films by Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet runs from March 3 to April 2.