I am woefully unfamiliar with the work of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, having only seen Tombée de nuit sur Shangaï, her contribution to the Portuguese omnibus O Estado do Mundo (State of the World, 2007). Thus, it is with considerable enthusiasm that I anticipate this weekend's welcome launch of the Akerman retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), running January 3 through February 28, 2009.
It's keenly appropriate that this retrospective should be within a museum setting given Akerman's recent gallery installations, whereby she has given a second life to several of her earliest films. Cognizant of that creative evolution, SFMOMA's retrospective focuses on the films—the raw material—that Akerman has recycled in her installation work; notably, her documentaries D'est (From the East, 1993) and De l'autre côté (From the Other Side, 2002)—reconfigured into installations in 1995 and 2002, respectively—and her two other nonfiction videos, Sud (South, 1999), and Là-bas (Down There, 2006). Rounded out by some of her better-known earlier films, including her critically acknowledged masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1974), SFMOMA's selection tracks with the March 2004 Akerman retrospective mounted at REDCAT in Los Angeles (though, unfortunately, San Francisco does not have the benefit of Bérénice Reynaud's erudite stewardship). Doug Cummings did a fine job of dispatching to Film Journey from the REDCAT retrospective, as did Scott Foundas for the L.A. Weekly. Their guiding insights to Akerman's films are invaluable.
In his November 2008 Artforum essay, Malcolm Turvey has finessed the creative permutation of Akerman's oeuvre from theatrical screen to gallery space and observes: "Akerman's unique spatiotemporal sensibility, honed in her remarkable films of the 1970s, translates well into the space of the gallery, which she has used to great effect to amplify certain core features of her practice." Turvey then performs an admirable service of bullet pointing these "core features." His essay comes highly recommend for its working grasp of Akerman's evolving aesthetics.
Along with the customary biographies to be found at Wikipedia, IMdb, Icarus Films, f-films, They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, Film ReferenceArtforum piece, there have been two major books written on Akerman's work. The first, Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman is the Southern Illinois University Press reissue of the first true collection of essays devoted to Akerman, edited by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster and originally published by Flicks Books in Britain. Reviewed favorably by Michael Rowin for Film Comment, Rowin states the collection "opens up the auteur's work for the newcomer, while casting light on hidden corners of it for the enthusiast", touching upon "Akerman's complex search for, and expression of, identity, as well as her preoccupation with recollection and history."
One of the contributors to that collection, Ivone Margulies, next authored Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday, published by Duke University Press. Nothing Happens was favorably reviewed by Acquarello for Strictly Film School who wrote that it "provides a comprehensive examination of the minimalist visual imagery, deliberate pacing, and recurrent themes of disconnection, wanderlust, isolation, and longing that define Akerman's intensely personal cinema." An excerpt from the second chapter of Nothing Happens—"Toward A Corporal Cinema: Theatricality in the '70s"—can be found here and Rouge has published Margulies' essay "La Chambre Akerman: The Captive as Creator." Of related interest, Ricky D'Ambrose's interview with Margulies for Tisch Film Review provides an essential purview of Margulies' familiarity with Akerman's work.
Between Turvey's Artforum essay and Tisch Film Review's interview with Margulies, certain essential descriptions of Akerman's aesthetics are pronounced. First would be her adherence to a "tradition of dedramatization" pursued by directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. As Turvey explains: "Dedramatization does not mean the absence of drama. Instead, conventionally dramatic occurrences coexist with what theorist André Bazin famously referred to as the 'microaction' beloved by the Neorealists…. The mundane is treated with just as much significance as the dramatic, thereby 'ruling out the slightest hierarchy,' as Bazin put it, between the two. Akerman pushes dedramatization even further than her cinematic forebears, fully reversing traditional narrative hierarchy and focusing on microactions." As Margulies equally argues: "Akerman's boldness as a filmmaker lies in her charging the mundane with significance." Akerman proposes what is dramatic and non-dramatic by way of a dedramatized vocabulary.
The reversal of "traditional narrative hierarchy" is likewise achieved through a tension struck between storytelling and the long take. Margulies queries: "What does the sensibility of the long take constitute? What is it that you're paying attention to once you're in front of a long take? Why are people interested in that?" She conjectures that what's interesting about telling a story through using a long take is that it creates a tension, a suspense, and Akerman has her own rigorous way of framing and suspending this tension. Or as Turvey phrases it: "The long take coupled with dead time produces a feeling of anticipation: The viewer waits for something significant to happen, and becomes acutely conscious of that waiting."
Said rigor—which one could argue is predominantly structural and visual—involves a homogeneity of purpose and a means of concentrating the mundane through the minimal. In this sense Akerman is not really a realist or naturalist filmmaker, but more a hyperrealist and an anti-naturalist. Especially in her films from the '70s, Akerman eschews analytical editing, montage, close-ups and shot/reverse-shot sequences in favor of long-shot framing and deep focus, and thereby retains a homogenous texture to her films, wherein—as Margulies describes it—"Everything seems to fit perfectly. It's not extraneous. There is a concreteness to it, there is a kind of object-like quality."
Whether or not these early films of Akerman's are minimalist is perhaps not as compelling as how they are minimalist, since the mileage on minimalism varies. One of the things that interests Margulies about minimalism is the "phenomenological engagement of the spectator—the way in which you're drawn, precisely because you have these very simplified shapes in front of you." Simplicity, rendered as a repetition of action and the minimization of detail captured in the long take, expresses Akerman's rigorous excision of the superfluous. "What is this repetition about?" Margulies asks. "It's almost like the Jewish joke, the structures of Jewish jokes, which have a lot of listing, enumerating, accumulation."
Said rigor also incorporates compositional symmetry. Turvey observes that—by placing her camera at the same height perpendicular to the setting, coupled with numerous camera movements at a slow pace—Akerman "creates a high degree of stylistic consistency, sensitizing the viewer to subtle motifs, symmetries, and repetitions." He extrapolates: "Symmetrical frame composition, with the camera placed at the same height perpendicular to the setting, creates a noticeable rectilinear patterning from shot to shot as well as a high degree of uniformity, sensitizing one to subtle changes over time." Turvey concludes that the sum effect of this style of filmmaking can be described as "objectivity without omniscience. These films impart an almost tactile sense of what it is like to observe, from a respectful distance, the people and places they record and the concrete sights and sounds one would experience in doing so. Yet most other information is withheld, underscoring the limits of what one can discover through perception alone." On a related note, Margulies recalls a film enthusiast who actually measured the physical film of Jeanne Dielman and discovered that it was exactly halfway into the film that all of the interesting things begin happening in the "plot." Though she doubts Akerman was conscious of this, she nonetheless insists that it's "pretty staggering" that "these shifts take place in a film where symmetry is so important."
As confidently as one can rely on the scholastic work of both Ivone Margulies and Malcolm Turvey to secure a working knowledge of Akerman's aesthetic enterprise, my tendency remains to allow the filmmaker to speak for herself. Akerman is generous and eloquent in three substantive conversations available online. The first is her conversation with Chris Dercon conducted in 1995 (replicated in the 2005 issue of Contour). The second is a transcribed Q&A exchange between Akerman and her students at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland in June 2001. And the third is her April 2004 conversation with Miriam Rosen for Artforum.
Speaking to Dercon, Akerman recalls that she was 18 when she made her first film Saute Ma Ville in 1968. "At that time succeeding on the market was not an issue. Godard, Rohmer and the others are all older [than] 60 now. They are physically and mentally tired. I am younger than them, but I am tired already. I sometimes feel I have reached the end of what I can do and what I can give. That is why it's so agreeable to work in museums. There is a playful element involved. One thing leads to another, it's a form of energy. That's why I like writing and doing other things than making films. …In the world of cinema money is all that matters. In a museum or when you are writing you don't have to constantly think about money."
Speaking of the tension built up through her usage of long shots, she describes the effect as "fictional" and states: "I want the spectator to have a physical experience, for him or her to feel time. Films are generally made to literally and metaphorically pass the time. But I want you to experience the time of a character. I don't want you to just go through an emotional experience, but also another kind of experience, like with music, that is unique because it is purely physical." [Emphasis added.] In her conversation with Mirian Rosen she further identifies "the tension between the continuity of the shots and the subjects and the discontinuity of the history underlying them." In her interaction with her students Akerman articulates the "tension between these things that I love to work with, a face like a wall where you can project, or a face that you think you can see inside." She also equated her usage of long takes with violence: "I think that my movies have a kind of violence in the way I use the time, a very subtle violence, and instead of being a violence of explosion, it's a violence of implosion. It's a violent act when I push a shot as far as I can until it is just unbearable, and then I give another shot and you breathe again. It's a violence done to the body of the viewer, because it's becoming a physical experience."
Confirming her films are anti-naturalistic and hyperrealistic, Akerman explained to Rosen: "Everyone thought, for example, that Jeanne Dielman was in real time, but the time was totally recomposed, to give the impression of real time. There I was with Delphine [Seyrig], and I told her, 'When you put down the Wiener schnitzels like that, do it more slowly. When you take the sugar, move your arm forward more quickly.' Only dealing with externals. When she asked why, I'd say, 'Do it, and you'll see why later.' I didn't want to manipulate her. I showed her afterward and said to her, 'You see, I don't want it to "look real," I don't want it to look natural, but I want people to feel the time that it takes, which is not the time that it really takes.' " [Emphasis added.] She adds later in their exchange: "You know, when most people go to the movies, the ultimate compliment—for them—is to say, 'We didn't notice the time pass!' With me, you see the time pass. And feel it pass. You also sense that this is the time that leads toward death. There's some of that, I think. And that's why there's so much resistance. I took two hours of someone's life." She summarizes by saying, "We sense time, so we sense ourselves. Face to face with an image, we sense ourselves."
This struck me as commensurate to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's reply when I asked him what was specifically Buddhist about his filmmaking. "Joe" answered: "The idea of living itself, I think, of watching movies. My films encourage the idea of self-awareness. To be conscious of yourself but, at the same time, try to get rid of the self. It's in conflict but it's not. You're aware of yourself, but at the same time you're just part of the universe; you're nothing. [Laughs.] To be able to be aware of this. When making a film, my films always encourage the audience to explore the movie but also themselves. Most of my films are talking about film watching. When you watch the film, you're aware of watching the film. Whereas in Hollywood films—and this is generalizing—you get into the story and you forget yourself. You get hypnotized by the story." He confirmed that watching a film would be like sitting mediation where you watch your own thought processes. "And you're aware of yourself. Like in the second part of Tropical Malady, once it shifts and you're five or ten minutes into it, you realize, 'This is a movie.' You realize about film. Suddenly you're not lost in the stream of narrative, you're aware of sitting and watching and your environment. This is the idea of awareness." Both filmmakers subvert narrative to pull the audience into the film's presence. By doing so, they both encourage attention.
In her exchange with her students, Akerman added: "That's narrative, but there's also something physical. I think what is more coercive is not so much what you can think about the narrative, but what the film does to you physically. Forgetting about the narrative. I know it's part of it but in a way there is something also abstract that works on you…."
and Turvey's the time of a character. I don't want you to just go through an emotional experience, but also another kind of experience, like with music, that is unique because it is purely physical." [Emphasis added.] In her conversation with Miriam Rosen she further identifies "the tension between the continuity of the shots and the subjects and the discontinuity of the history underlying them." In her interaction with her students Akerman articulates the "tension between these things that I love to work with, a face like a wall where you can project, or a face that you think you can see inside." She also equated her usage of long takes with violence: "I think that my movies have a kind of violence in the way I use the time, a very subtle violence, and instead of being a violence of explosion, it's a violence of implosion. It's a violent act when I push a shot as far as I can until it is just unbearable, and then I give another shot and you breathe again. It's a violence done to the body of the viewer, because it's becoming a physical experience."