I started to seek out current film and video screenings again. I tend to watch a fair bit of TV serial programmes, a few films and do seek out any moving image screenings in exhibitions. The latter have filtered into my own work in various ways, but I have rarely considered ‘entertainment’ films and TV series as part of my source materials (though I am conscious how much of the visual/ performative art that I encounter takes films as starting point).
I was aware of Akerman’s death in autumn but not really of her films, thought anything I read about her work at that time pointed towards her works relevance: the structural interests, extended shots, a focus on mother-daughter relationship and distance, notions of home (in presence and absence), the compositional framing of her shots (interior/ exterior); the resonances in her family of her parents’ having survived Auschwitz; and the inquiry into the day-to-day activities that constitute women’s lives and also how she turned the camera into the actor of her films. – A fairly extended list of theoretical, methodological and substantive resonances of my own concerns (though possibly in different constellations).
Her last film, No Home Movie, was screened as part of Glasgow’s Film Festival and I watched it on Saturday. I also managed to find several clips of her earlier experimental films online, a few texts as well as a pretty large set of her films in one of my friend’s film collections.
So, this post will be a first marker of her work; I can see it taking on a larger role and requiring several iterations.
Of her early films, the one that intrigued me most was Hotel Monterey (1972): how it solely focusses on the interiors of the hotel of the same name; many shots are static (both in position but also what is visible), others move. The framing, the composition and the palette of the shots are incredible (strangely, it is a strong Hopperesque palette… I need to investigate the actual film process and what film material did for colour). It is this film about which I read of how she turns the camera into the film’s protagonist.
My initial thoughts when watching No Home Movie and shortly after :
- the abruptness (even violence) of the cuts: a dark opening with serif fonts cuts into a wild, windy (gale-force like) scene, high-keyed with a tree in the foreground, a desert emerges once my eyes get used to functioning along the loud hiss of the wind on the mic. I start to be able to make out more and more details; see a road and a crossing on the far right distance. I observe the tree, trying to find patterns in the movements. The sounds remains dominant and disconcerting. Yes: this is not a home movie.
- Her mother appears in focus, there she is. I am immediately moved as to the daughter’s keenness and intent to make this elderly woman in her flat the centre of this piece of work; also knowing that neither of them is alive anymore.
- I notice the furniture, the outsides, notice that many shots are taken with a tripod; Chantal also occasionally moving across the camera. I seem surprised that she herself is my own mother’s age. So, I am watching two older women in this flat.
- The viewpoints are so familiar: through door openings, through curtains, lingering, then turning.
- Chantal’s voice is hoarse, deep and fascinating, I with my French would be better.
- I am touched by the affection that is displayed by both of them; in proximity but more so through the skype conversations; their humour.
- The skype conversations are the ones when her mother explicitly talks about the filming and makes it a subject.
- Her mother seems to have trouble eating: eating too little, not being able to eat; scenes of preparing food and sitting down for food are abundant.
- It is much later, that Chantal tells a new home help that it is because of Auschwitz that her mother is the way she is. I am disconcerted, wondered what way she was; and I realise that the trouble is the anxiety, displayed in the routines and rituals around food. Another carer says, picked up by the camera while Chantal is elsewhere, that Chantal doesn’t realise that she is causing the anxiety.
- The intersections of a desert trip (filmed at 90 degree angle out of a moving car), are fascinating as to throwing us back into the house, the flat, its confinement.
- The film was introduced by someone who works on Akerman and she comments how the extended shots not only capture everyday time on film but also in the experience of viewing: we, the audience, while waiting for the next take, are becoming aware of us watching, the time passing and thus realising our being alive in this moment. I had never thought of this effect of extended takes but very much realise this as one of the effects.
- The introduction closed with a ‘Shalom, Chantal’, which moved me to almost tears in its appreciation and finality. Similarly, the moment her mother had died seemed definite also; I would like to watch it again to try and discern the elements that made me think so.
- The closing sequences were stunning: a corn field growing in the Middle East, Chantal packing her bags, moving out of view (I can’t remember if the door closes), a still of the empty house with doors opening and views through into the living room and kitchen (see featured image of this post). And then a dark screen.
Elements to explore further:
>> the cuts and the transitions were remarkable; it was uncompromising, the final scenes were heartfelt and yet so violent in their statements; also how it cut to the dark screen and credits; and similarly how it opened from the dark screen onto the first scene (which is in the trailer but not in the order it was shown).
>> the use of static and moving camera was delightful: different aspects and purposes employed in these.
>> elements repeated: the car trip through the desert; in the house, the camera occasionally sought out a recliner on the grass below the balcony; tried out different framings for this, but it seemed to act like a pause, a resting place; different skype calls and the routines of noting the camera and exchanging affection between mother and daughter
>> eating and the rituals and anxieties around these
>> looking through and past people and objects: most of the frames were narrow, dense – one reviewer described them as claustrophobic (which I didn’t sense while watching).
>> how do conversations and being together relate to the space and the ways of filming?
>> having sought out the trailer and taking screenshots of the scenes to insert here makes me also realise how different it is to view these images as stills compared to still and static takes on the film — the effect of duration is crucial and I would like to explore how I can incorporate this to some of my own images: static stills that are durational in a manner that is solely up to the discretion of the viewer (i.e. how long they chose to look) but also is considered from my side as the author.
Time accumulates and repeats, it circles around tasks and routine not usually considered worth filming. This is what one commentator said for introducing the film just a few days after Akerman’s death:
We’ll be shocked again. Chantal’s films do not comfort. They jolt and they re-orient, they put you and me face to face with accumulating time, in whose shadow we live whether we know it or not. That’s the source of their terror and their great beauty—one in the same. (Gerard 2015)
J. Gerard (2015) Chantal Akerman will be remembered at ‘No Home Movie’ screening at New York Film Festival; http://deadline.com/2015/10/chantal-akerman-remembered-new-york-film-festival-1201568816/; 15 October 2015; accessed on 22 February 2016.