Schönberg and Sicilia: two more from Straub /Huillet

Tonight’s installment of TIFF’s retrospective “Not Reconciled: the films of  Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet must have seemed like a remarkable opportunity to James Quandt and the team assembling the schedule.  Each film is almost exactly an hour long, a pair of films that appeared consecutively, and perhaps the two most dissimilar in the entire retrospective. Of course they paired them up.

  1. From Today Until Tomorrow (from Von heute auf morgen) (1996), a one-act comic opera by Arnold Schönberg came first.
  2. Sicilia (1998) followed, described in the TIFF program guide as:
    “a four-part “road movie” that follows Silvestro, an immigrant who is returning home to the island after 15 years in America” based on an anti-fascist novel from 1939 that was banned at the time.

I shall address them as two separate films, but first want to address what TIFF gave us.  Each film can be seen as a critique of the whole question of genre especially as understood in the world of popular cinema, straddling categories.  Because they’re only about an hour long they preclude themselves from a commercial release, even before we consider how commercial a twelve-tone opera might be, comic or otherwise.  Sicilia too would be puzzling to the average viewer who might not know what they’re seeing, in its tonal ambiguities: which I’d consider good.

In other words forget the usual objectives of a commercial cinema, to create a product and to make money.

But genre is sometimes nothing more than a handle, a lifeline for someone trying to climb out of the dark place that is the average theatre.  Genre can be both pigeon-hole and pigeon, both the classification into categories, but also a series of attributes and descriptors.  In these two instances I think one is better off staying away from such questions, as they only lead one astray.  We’re better off in the here and now of the film in front of us, trying to discern what’s being exhibited, rather than trying to develop a set of expectations based on the genre we think we’re seeing, that might lead us to expect certain sorts of outcomes.

So watching this opera unfold, I am convinced that it needs to be staged more often for performers to have a better idea of how to make it work: meaning, how to make it successful as a comedy.  If you consider that singers come up through school singing arias from Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, or Handel, and then when trying to do an opera, have a sense of the style and may even have experience of the music in their voice.  And then there’s Schönberg.  I saw online that Von heute auf morgen has only been staged a couple of times EVER.  As with Moses and Aaron, screened by TIFF last Sunday, this adaptation in no way resembles realistic drama, as the singers tend to stand and deliver, rarely even making eye contact with one another.  This might be a Brechtian device (as in: whenever Leslie sees something puzzling that makes no sense, he tries to justify it via theory), given its similarity to how the singers were posed and prevented from interacting like real people in Moses and Aaron (although if you can tell me how real people interact when they’re singing at the top of their lungs, please give me a call).

I want to mention a brief Facebook conversation I had with Topher Mokrzewski, who played & music directed the twelve-tone excerpts sung by Adanya Dunn before the two Schönberg films last Sunday.

I said:
i wonder, do we need a second generation of 12 tone, to tteach us how to do COMEDY and IRONY?…..it’s great for tragedy and pain, but also, should be able to portray love and sexuality…i’m still waiting   😉

Topher said:
I just wish someone would write anything funny!

After tonight’s film, I see two issues.  Part of the problem is just practicing and performing this repertoire more often, because this rep is hard to do.  Dunn and Mokrzewski were wonderful together last week.  But what about this comic opera?  Can it be made funnier somehow, perhaps by a gentler handling of the singing & playing?  I couldn’t help thinking that heavy metal tends to do everything with the volume set to 11 (as they said in This is Spinal Tap).  Not all Schönberg is quite that extreme, but I wonder: are performers having too much fun wailing and blasting their way through, when they need to show some delicacy and lightness of touch: as Topher showed us last week..?  Or maybe the composers need to hold back, by all means employ the twelve-tone palette but use more restraint, subtlety. Stop using dissonance the way a heavy metal band uses their guitars.

Sicilia leads me to a book I will have to obtain, namely the novel that the film is based on.  I read in TIFF’s programming guide, that the film comes from Elio Vittorini’s 1939 novel Conversations in Sicily, banned by the Fascist government.

Angela Nugara in Sicilia

Angela Nugara in Sicilia

Where the opera shows Straub & Huillet being so faithful to the composer that they seem to kill the humour in the opera, a curious sort of battle between man and woman, Vittorini gives them what they always seem to want, namely a site to celebrate humanity and class struggle, seen from an oblique angle. This is not a book about revolution, sharing much of the dark tone of futility I spoke of in last night’s film Too Early / Too Late.  Life can be celebrated even when one is poor.  We get this from several angles, the different vantage points of the people encountered in the journey, a series of dialogues.  As in History Lesson the film goes back and forth between different sorts of dialogue and other calmer sorts of cinema, tranquil imagery setting up some intense bursts of language, sometimes resembling opera without any scoring.  This is an amazing little film, a piece of art that makes me want to go back, to see it once more.  Alas I wonder if I can get my hands on it.  There are a few little snippets on youtube, and no sign of it in any library I know of.   But I’ll have to explore further.  My only option may be to find the book and pray that the growing reputation of Huillet & Straub leads some distributor to make the film available some day.

Here’s a beautiful segment, to close the film.  The man with what resembles a bicycle is a sharpener, and although the subtitles aren’t English, it’s stunningly musical in its composition & execution. I don’t really miss the translation, as it brings my focus to the composition, to the rhythm & the performance.  The sense of futility I spoke of comes up in a conversation where they speak of sharpening cannon, rather than scissors or knives, and payments to cover bread, wine & taxes.  They close with a fascinating exchange of abstractions: reasons for joy, reasons to love life.  In any language they are unmistakable.

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4 Responses to Schönberg and Sicilia: two more from Straub /Huillet

  1. James Quandt says:

    Many thanks for your ongoing, insightful commentary on our Straub/Huillet series. I was especially thrilled to see that you love Sicilia! as much as I do. I have seen the film a dozen or more times, but it is always new and astonishing each viewing, and the ending never fails to move me to tears. (Talk about reasons for joy!) There is a fascinating documentary by Fitoussi about the shooting of the film that shows Straub rehearsing and rehearsing and rehearsing the knife sharpener to get just the right physical movements and cadence of vocal delivery. Last night’s pairing was an experiment (perhaps better on paper!) for several reasons: The two films were made one after the other, both obviously in black-and-white and in the (increasingly obsolete) Academy or 1.37 aspect ratio, which make them both quite literally misfits; both have themes of marital discord and infidelity, and involve a struggle between a man and a woman: husband and wife, son and mother; and, I would submit, Sicilia! often seems like a spoken opera, with its oddly cadenced dialogue seeming like little arias, roulades, etc. I do detect a latent element of Cowardish / Lubitschian comedy in the Schoenberg (and puzzle over that weird incursion of the gasman!) but you are entirely right in suggesting that the comedy doesn’t come through (her delivery is kind of terrifying, with those feral teeth and popping eyes, where he seems more like a Herbert Marshall type). There is indeed a good DVD of the film, paired with the Bach film, but it is a UK import so Region 2. In any case, thanks again for your great commentary!

    James Quandt

    • barczablog says:

      Wow thanks for the good news (about availability)!

      I worry sometimes that I am going on too long, and indeed at one point I contemplated making two separate posts, as each hour-long film inspires massive commentary. I have so many different responses, both to the discursive content (of each) and the semantics / dramaturgy / strategies for filming etc. I made that one tiny remark (” intense bursts of language, sometimes resembling opera without any scoring”) that could have been more, but alas this is my first viewing and so I am hesitant to try to make much analysis when I was stimulated on so many levels through all my senses.

      I put in my tiny dialogue with Topher Mokrzewski because I think that this opera can be saved by a more skillful presentation. Alas, in adapting it for the screen, Schoenberg is already being asked to make a big hurdle, if he is then saddled with an interpretation that is so busy with the accuracy of the music-making that it misses the tone, you’re screwed, pardon my French. The discovery by people like Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski, that opera is drama and theatre above all, is one that needs to be re-discovered in every era. What I see with Schoenberg is that the music is so prohibitively difficult to execute that it makes it very hard to interpret dramatically. What Topher & Adanya accomplished was remarkable, but so very different from the way that the music was done in Straub-Huilet’s Moses & Aaron & again in Von heute auf morgen. If I must blame anyone it’s musicology, a discipline that has been slow to recognize the interdisciplinary of opera, mistaking it for a musical discourse when it’s a hybrid of words & music, theatre in several media. Pynkoski for example liberates opera with his emphasis on theatricality and movement (in his baroque & rococo productions), a liberation that alas hasn’t yet been offered to modernist scores, that still languish in the dungeon of imperial music, that fails to recognize the need for flexibility & expressiveness. OH and i am sure that in a theatre that opera is much funnier, but the close-up of her big-theatre histrionics is also a problem, one we’ve seen before when a camera moves in close on someone whose acting is conceived for a big theatre, not the intimacy of a close-up. I wonder if Schoenberg will ever get a chance to be vindicated: but he needs a champion (are you listening Topher?…but you’re busy of course)

  2. James Quandt says:

    I forgot to mention one other connection between the two films: their austere, one-set interiors as the setting for the male/female struggle …

    • barczablog says:

      Indeed! I was thinking too about the antecedents, as there’s a virtual genre at this time in opera, in works that are like wars between the genders (thinking for instance of Bluebeard’s Castle, Florentine Tragedy, Il tabarro, and many more if i stopped to think about it). The big scene of Sicilia –as in the photo–with the mother does invoke that struggle even if it was so operatic. I had thought to expand upon notions of what we mean by operatic, in these extended solos, the voices that seem to speak /sing as if for the pleasure of making and hearing their own sound. Singing is a vocal deixis, a taking of space in the aural realm. Those guys (the row of them) on the train seemed to be doing that, just taking their space and enjoying the sound of their own declarations, a very manly thing i might add (if you compare it to the macho shouting you get from hockey night in canada). But I find this older version of maleness much better, saner, more balanced.

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