Dutch masters~Frans van de Staak's Rooksporen and Johan van der Keuken's Face Value

A) The scene takes place in a room that looks like either an office room or a school classroom, with sunlight coming in through a closed window. Several men and women are talking. The man and woman in the foreground are standing, the man and woman in the background are sitting in folding chairs, and as the frame swings and shifts, it becomes apparent that they have been placed strictly for the composition. It looks as if they are rehearsing the performance of a play in front of the camera. Except for one man in a suit, the others seem to be wearing normal clothes, but they are wearing neutral or inconspicuous colors to match the cream or white walls, suggesting that they have been chosen. One by one, they seem to be talking about a certain woman with long hair, dressed in purple, who is being interrogated by a man in a suit in this room. But these words, while describing details of the woman's behavior, sound abstract and self-reflective, describing nothing about the woman, nor about themselves. The woman is drawing in the next room with a crayon in her hand, and each time the man asks her what she is drawing, a different picture is shown, and the description of the details is repeated without it leading to anything...

B) The shot is a close-up of a half-naked man and a woman in a white shirt, lying on a white-framed couch in the not-so-strong sunlight, staring at the camera against a background of green trees swaying in the wind. Sometimes aware of the camera, sometimes not, they embrace each other, their hands caressing each other's cheeks and breasts in a series of jump cuts that seem to have been shot with a handheld camera. From off-screen, a man's voice slowly pauses to check his words, "After the surgery and treatment, I have my strength back. I have to work..." he said. Suddenly, mixed in with the off-screen voices, he turns to the cameraman and says, "This reminds me of the man and woman in my photo book Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The woman's face appears on the screen, followed by a voice saying, "When Ed was diagnosed by the doctor, we knew he didn't have long time. But despite his suffering, we became much happier. The camera focuses on them in the distance, looking up at the greenery in the background.....

Two dutch filmmakers, Frans van de Staak and Johan van der Keuken, met each other for the first time at the home of Daniel Huillet (who sadly passed away recently)(1) and Jean-Marie Straub, and found that they were actually living only a five-minute walk away from each other in Amsterdam. (2) They both passed away in 2001, less than five months apart, one after the other. Staak was called by Straub "the sole heir of Dziga Vertov"(3) (Straub-Huillet dedicated Toute revolution est un coup de des (1971) to Staak*, and their method of multiple readings of Mallarme's texts is a reference in Staak's works (4)). Johan van der Keuken first attracted attention as a photographer with Wij Zijn 17 and Paris Mortel Retouche, and as a filmmaker he was praised by Serge Daney in Cahiers du Cinema, who said, "JLG, JMS, and JVDK should be added".

They are friends who have left conversations, and because of their relationship of musicians (Bernard Funeking, who often composed music for Staak's films, is the trombonist of the Willem Breuker Collectief, who wrote music for Keuken), once wrote reviews for each other on De Onvoltooide (1980, Staak) and The Master and The Giant (1980, Keuken). And they made masterpieces a decade later, A) Rooksporen (After the Smoke, 1990, Staak) and B) Face Value (1990, Keuken).n 2001, on the European festival circuit, Johan van der Keuken selected Rooksporen for "15x15" an event for which unknown films were recommended by 15 filmmakers, and its relationship to Face Value was already mentioned by Hans Beerkamp. However, when we compare the two films in more detail, we can see that they go beyond the fact that they take completely different approaches to images, and that they offer unexpected freedom by critiquing the obviousness of the combination of "face and words," which is generally the simplest and most common kind of image that we, the viewers, work with on a daily basis.

First of all, B) Face Value is a collection of portraits of European people living in the era of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the Gulf War. In what Keuken himself describes as one of his most challenging works, it is a collection of interviews with people from all walks of life, famous and unknown, in random places such as Amsterdam, Marseille, Berlin, London, Prague, etc. (For example, the scene in B) is an interview with a man who was born and raised in the same city as the film. For example, the people in scene B) are the friend to whom the film is dedicated, Mr. and Mrs. Ed van der Elsken, the photographers of Love in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. Eighty-five percent of the film is close-ups, and while the subject matter is diverse, the film is like a representation of what Europe was like in 1990.

Jean=Luc Godard once said that "Van der Keuken organizes his images like a symphony or a concerto, while Frederick Wiseman studies public places and makes classic documentaries" (5), and Keuken himself also said:

A face, a series of faces: it is a trajectory. And words, sentences, slogans, fragments of conversation, opinions, experiments, fragments of music, environmental sounds, factories, mixing of voices into radio, voices mixed with music, clear voices, incomprehensible voices, stuttering or tearful voices, voices raised to song: that is the other trajectory. And the visual line and the ear line often develop their own movements, sometimes merging into the other. Both of them obey the laws of their respective compositions with special movement dynamics, but they will be brought together from seeing the approach, the distance, the constant tension between them, colliding and coming together. Information about the soundtrack will be categorized by thematic demands. Thus, in one aspect, all voices speak of the future, but there is another place and meaning, another memory, another "faraway country and foreigner. In one phase where the female voice predominates, there will be a male voice. In one case, death dominates in the background of another love. ...It's an orchestration of voices. The text must bring meaning and at the same time constitute a kind of music. The combination of image and text must also be music. Regarding technique: sound and image will often be recorded separately, sometimes even during conversations that have nothing to do with the recording situation. I was also able to collect sounds that I came across somewhat haphazardly. As for the sounds, they are always fragments of various lengths, connected in a montage. However, the images and sounds would not always be recorded separately. At the most critical moments, they are synchronized and the disconnect between the two is removed in an instant." (6) (À propos de «Face Value» écrit par Johan Van der Keuken en Mars 1988)

The separation of image and sound described here and also seen in the scene mentioned in B) probably stems from Keuken's roots as a photographer, i.e. the relationship between the photograph and the accompanying text, more like the photo story in Elsken's book than the film. Moment's Silence" is an early short film that simply shows fragments of the landscape and people of Amsterdam in 1960-1963 without any explanation, but already its silence and rhythmic movement speak of the difference between photography and film without any narrative. Or, reminiscent of Cocteau and Clouzot, in the 1962 film Lucebert-Time and Farewell, the film about his friend-poet and painter of COBRA member, Lucebert reads his own poem against the saxophone roar of Coltrane's Chasing the Train. And the work is projected in fast-cut black-and-white images, the relationship between music and image seems to form a counterpoint of motion and stillness: the movement of the descriptive brush and Ruchibert's face at the creation of the picture, the backward movement of the studio at the beginning and the fixed screen of the sculpture near the end. Serge Daney says, " He [van der Keuken] shoots like Charlie Parker or Bud Powell plays ... like a saxophone. He plays every frame quickly. Pan is the theme, decadrage is the riff, recadrage is the chorus, ..."(4)

In Face Value, the separation of images and sounds makes it possible to organize each element more freely, although Keuken's camera concentrates on people's faces and his framing is limited to their surroundings. Randomly chosen fragments constitute counterpoints in literary and semantic contexts and sometimes beyond them. In first scene Keuken himself appears after the children wearing costumes and playing, and he says "I can not see without lenses (glasses) ..." the white makeup and dazzling lighting of a female dancer who starts dancing in the cabaret, and immigrant worker 's dark skin and shadow continues, a happy couple of weddings appears after an old man who is disappointed with disease, and the bustle of right wing in Marseilles was followed by lines of people who silently contribute to the Polish Jewish cemetery. Farewell and meeting, death and birth, singing and tweeting, light and shadow...it is because the wave light shimmering in the shadow of the deep ocean is even impressive by the musicality of such counterpoint. Perhaps because the disease of Keuken himself, it became hard for him to carry the camera for a long time and to fix the shots and framing constantly stable, and stacking of short cuts makes you feel the tension of capturing the subject. Body and skin coming up through fighting sports like Indian martial arts appearing in Het Oog Boven de Put/The Eye Above the Well (1988) and like Thai boxing in Amsterdam Global Village (1996), ( which is ubiquitous element to the Dutch films in general, even in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995) and Hollow Man (2000) that were made in Holywood we can find the character), is strongly exposed through the anonymity of the person caused by separating image and sound, and because of the formal limitation as capturing faces (in this case the risk will be further increased) , Furthermore, the attitude to leave the uncertainty of the truth to imagination of the audience. In Face Value, beyond the meaning, the strong sensuality of hug of the couple and of the mother holding her child in her arms comes from the freedom supported by the musicality.

For Frans van de Staak, on the other hand, the relationship between the body and the frame is a more rigorous and fundamental element: the great short film Sepio (1996), which we were able to project at new century new cinema vol. 1, inherits the extreme self-imposed constraints of the late Robert Bresson's formalization, and uses it to encounter the world. Bresson's late films, which were rejected even by the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, from Une Femme douce (1968) to L'Argent (1988), aimed to make each composition, which was completely controlled, as close as possible to a painting, and to reveal the world at the very moment when its completion collapses. We can see this, for example, in the back of Dominique Sanda's knees as the man who suddenly realizes his love on the bridge in Une Femme douce clings to her when he returns home, or in the subtly overlapping posteriors of husband and wife across the bars in L'Argent. In contrast, Staak uses a girl to film her daily gestures of washing, painting, and cooking, and like Bresson, refuses to privilege the face through framing, but records the sensual moment when the framed body, hands, and feet meet uncontrolled nature and time. A single cut of chocolate melting in a pan is filled with a surprising moment of suspense where the controlled movement of the hand meets the dissolution of the form.

In A) Rooksporen, the actors (some famous, such as Johan Reysen who plays in Jean=Luc Godard's Je vous salue Marie (1985), but many are amateurs) appear one by one in front of the camera in a room, give their impressions of a woman, and walk away from the room. As they leave the room and walk away, the cameraman moves to follow them for a while and finally sees them off. Meanwhile, a man and a woman are at a desk in a room adjacent to a larger room. The woman is being interrogated by a man in a suit, but the reason for the interrogation is not made clear. This interrogator looks like a detective, a judge, or a psychiatrist, but his identity is not clear. No, the 26 men and women who testify about the woman are not told what kind of people they are. They all wear clothes that can only be described as "everyday clothes," but their body shapes are not distinctive, and their occupations cannot be identified. The testimonies about the women do not form a solid image. The woman, on the other hand, is drawing with a crayon, the kind of drawing that could have been done by one of the COBRA members, but it does not lead to a solid image and looks different each time it is taken. Whenever she is asked by her interrogators what she is painting, she responds with something like "Heart of Water" or "Cry for Help". Then one witness says, "After all, what are we waiting for?"

Rooksporen, a film based on an unperformed play by Lydie van Marissing, has none of the verisimilitude of a so-called trial film. At first glance, it even looks like a filmed rehearsal of a stage performance. In fact, people's testimonies to the camera are shot in various sizes, from close-ups to long shots. They often deviate from the portrayal of the woman's impressions, and even become like a monologue caught in a hallucination. But is this a mere relay of a play? The only answer to this question is no. The rhythm created by the repetition of narration and silence as people testify and leave the room, the repetition in terms of sound that is released from the airtightness of the room as each shot is connected from indoors to outdoors, and the monologue of the woman who answers the questions around the desk with the interrogator gradually accelerates and becomes longer and longer, even close to a murmur. However, unlike Bergman's films, the setting and the content of the dialogues are not entirely clear, and the audience cannot feel at ease in projecting themselves into the characters. Moreover, there is no reassurance that the film is at least "about love" as in Jacques Doillon's films (although Doillon's films of the 1980s should be discussed again as modern films based on the premise of theater-cinema=documentary of theatral representation+time and space ~ from last epoc of John Ford and Carl Dreyer to Straub=Huillet, Rivette, Oliveira...). What are they? We don't know who they are or what they are talking about. Furthermore, there is no overly beautiful composition or lighting on the screen. When everything is ambiguous and unstable like this, one senses only the eerie rhythm played by the film. It is gestures, dialogue, and silence.

Staak says, "Without biographical details and verifiable anecdotes, the question of who a person is remains undecidable. They exist by the power of their immanent presence and/or the mystery of their words. But the presence is not self-evident, like the moment when a walking interrogator suddenly vanishes in a jump cut. On the one hand, the nondescript images are frighteningly abstract, even ghostly, but on the other hand, they capture the viewer with a raw and powerful force. The faces and words of these people, as well as the anonymous faces and words of the people in Face Value, are unmistakably recorded in time, captured by camera and microphone. In Rooksporen, however, the musicality is something that the audience must truly reach through the continuity of the bodies and spaces of the anonymous performers. It is something that we are supposed to be most affected by on a daily basis, but because we cannot see it, how easily we substitute it for what is present, and how easily we are satisfied with talking about it. It can be said that France van de Staak, with his self-production and almost minimal budget and number of people, was quietly making films of a genre that no one had ever done before. It is tempting to dream of showing the complete works of this extraordinary filmmaker, but in this age when people are so easily manipulated by names, let alone by what is actually there, will we ever be able to "discover" his films?

(6 November 2006, thanks to Manuel Asin)




(4) Liberation, 2 mars 1982


*In an interview Straub said about The New Ice Age/De nieuwe ijstijd (1974); "It is a film which seems at moments almost to use the means and methods of capitalist oppression and television but seems to invert them into something which is a critique. Brecht said, Lenin not only said different things from Bismark, he also said them differently. Yet this is against the idea of using those methods. Johan van de Keuken has precisely proved to me that you can't be dogmatic. When you work responsibly, you can go very far with opposing methods."
https://kinoslang.blogspot.com/2018/05/straub-huillet-talking-jms-jean-marie.html (thanks to Andy Rector)


©Akasaka Daisuke