Flicking through a book my son got out of the library last week called 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I came to the year 1982. Bladerunner, E.T, Gandhi are all there of course, but the first 'movie' you come to for that year is Trop Tôt, Trop Tard by Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet. The half page entry for this film (Too Early, Too Late in English) was written by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who calls it 'one of the best landscape films', making me wonder if perhaps he could write a book called 1001 Landscape Films You Must See Before You Die. His entry in the book is reproduced in full online, so I will quote its description of the film here:
'The first part shows a series of locations in contemporary France, accompanied by Huillet reading part of a letter Friedrich Engels wrote to Karl Kautsky describing the impoverished state of French peasants, and excerpts from the “Notebooks of Grievances” compiled in 1789 by the village mayors of those same locales in response to plans for further taxation. The especially fine second section, roughly twice as long, does the same thing with a more recent Marxist text by Mahmoud Hussein about Egyptian peasants' resistance to English occupation prior to the “petit-bourgeois” revolution of Neguib in 1952. Both sections suggest that the peasants revolted too soon and succeeded too late. One of the film's formal inspirations is Beethoven's late quartets, and its slow rhythm is central to the experience it yields; what's remarkable about Straub and Huillet's beautiful long takes is how their rigorous attention to both sound and image seems to open up an entire universe, whether in front of a large urban factory or out on a country road.'
None of the landscape footage in the film is particularly picturesque, it just seems to record the countryside as the filmmakers found it. This unprepossessing muddy track, for example, appears just over an hour into the film, in the Egyptian section. The camera slowly pans across fields to this point and stays motionless for almost five minutes as a few figures pass, going about their business. The view is fixed. You cannot turn around to see what a noise off screen might be or look more closely at something in the foreground. As people slowly approach you are almost forced to wonder what brought them here at this particular moment, about their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
The length, form and sequence of shots in the film seems almost arbitrary, so when this one ends at the point that an aeroplane can be heard overhead, you wonder if you should hear this as a symbol and a reminder that there is nothing 'timeless' in this view, or simply regard it as another chance element of the soundscape. The shot that follows this is another long take, this time from a vehicle travelling along a road. Watching this reminded me of recent experiments in slow television, although these have been much more glossy and set in landscapes with clear visual appeal. The rather grainy 16mm footage of Too Early, Too Late is sometimes reminiscent of Shoah, which I wrote about here last year. Landscape in these films has to convey authenticity, both in the moment of its filming and the political history it has passed through.
In 2011 Staub was interviewed during the Egyptian uprising, which seemed to add another layer of meaning to the film. The opening exchange does not auger well: 'Céline Condorelli: I only have three questions for you. Jean-Marie Straub: That’s very good, because I don’t have anything to say about this film.' However, Straub does have some interesting things to say, e.g. about the reasons for juxtaposing as 'a diptych' the French and Egyptian footage - 'to compare places that in France look deserted with places that in Egypt are full of life and people.' I will conclude here with three quotes from the interview, pertaining to landscape.
CC: [...] How does one choose the appropriate position for the camera? JMS: That is the least one can do when filming…. You need to go there and walk around. Walk around a place or a village three times, and find the right topographic, strategic point. In a way that one may be able to see something, but without destroying the mystery of what one sees… but this isn’t specific to this film, this is the case in all our films.
JMS: [...] There is an element of fiction, but it comes from the place itself. When you see a donkey passing by chance, and of course this only happened for one take, pulled with a rope by a man, with a woman sitting on it… of course this becomes mythological. Things like this cannot be anticipated, and are the gift of chance. But of course you need to have enough time, margins, and space for things like that to occur.
CC: But does the topography speak, can it have a voice? JMS: Well cinema is, or should be, the art of space. Even though a film exists only if that space is able to become time. But the basic work is space. As Mallarmé said: “Nothing will take place, but the place.”