Goodbye Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)

Chantal Akerman, one of the most aesthetically fascinating and innovative filmmakers who ever lived, was reported dead today. This is a huge loss for the world cinematic community. Other websites and newspapers have already published numerous articles on Akerman’s life, broad overviews of her work, appreciations. I presume they will continue to do so throughout the day. Given how little known I thought she was, the ubiquity and volume of the memorials has been heartening.

Since the other bases are being covered more extensively and faster than I could possibly cover them, I’m going to limit this essay to exploring a single shot.

Dennis Grunes, the spiritual forefather of this website, claimed Akerman’s 1993 documentary D’Est was the 8th greatest film ever made. A nearly wordless series of shots of people waiting for things in places that are never specified, the faces or shadowy outlines of figures give what needs to be given in terms of context.

The shot I’d like to discuss, for those following along at home, takes place, at least in the copy of the film I have, between  31:05 and 35:45, right after this portrait:

This portrait goes on for a solid minute. The old woman’s head tilts slightly to the right. The television plays unclear hyperactive gray scale images as her head continues to very slowly tilt. The specters of the past and future are present but resist solidifying into anything like a point; the woman in the shot in some sense simply is-the sense of a haunting is brought out as just another thing in the room.

This shot is a master class in film portraiture, up there with the portrait shots in Tarkovsky’s Mirror, but it’s the shot after it I’d like to discuss-a long tracking shot taken, I presume, from a bus or a train.

The shot goes on for a while. There’s nothing clever in it; she wasn’t a filmmaker given over to cleverness. She didn’t need it. But for 4 1/2 minutes, with a remarkable smoothness that gives a paradoxical sense of stillness to a shot that technically never stops moving, she follows the surfaces of a town. Snow is falling and the camera, as it moves past it, makes it look almost three dimensional, haze and patient enchantment all at once.

When I first saw this I was mesmerized; I never walked through a snow storm or took public transit quite the same way ever again. I can’t say I learned any special intellectual point from it; I simply learned to see differently. Perhaps this is what film teaches us at its most sublime-to see. The world seems more dynamic for having been cast in genuine straightforward mystery. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers’ feet, the effortless complexity of Akerman’s eye patiently dazzles as my own eye learns the steps and by the end dances in unison, changed. She teaches by example, her own eye dancing the intimate simplicity of a tango with the buildings and objects and people she passes.

The silhouette of a man behind the bare trees that line the sidewalk walks somewhere. People go about business we will never know. Signs blink and sometimes mirror each other. Grunes claimed the film was about the Jewish diaspora; others have claimed it’s about the uncertain future after the collapse of the two-state power structure after the Cold War and the uncertain future thereafter. I’m not sure the best way to approach this film is with the presumption it’s about any specific thing. There’s a context, but context takes one out of the simple jouissance, a jouissance that is not simple joy, horror, or anything. It doesn’t play hard to get; I hesitate to call it mysterious as that would imply it actually is headed toward a resolution. This is not the case, despite the tracking shot running right to left.

The shot ends then cuts to a crowd of people waiting.

What are they waiting for? On one level, yes, the bus. But on the level the image is engaging us…we don’t know. They don’t know. And if Akerman knew she had the good sense not to tell us.

The world looks different than it did. That’s enough.

Rest in peace, Chantal Akerman.

12 thoughts on “Goodbye Chantal Akerman (1950-2015)

    1. DanLevine Post author

      Thank you! Glad you liked it. The film is available on DVD from Icarus video under the title “From the East”, not sure about streaming services.

  1. Corey

    I loved this film. My memories of it include a long tracking shot inside a train station waiting room. What was remarkable was how uniform the dozens and dozens of people looked. This was shot practically seconds before reunification with the West and what was so evident was the feeling of being on one side of a dam about to break. In this case, you could palpably sense Western consumerism licking its chops: ‘Look at these drably dressed people—and no one with a Walkman! We’ll fix that!’ RIP

    1. srogouski

      Interestingly enough I noticed the one guy in the film carrying a Panasonic bag. The unintended product placement almost felt like a welcome break from the uniformity.

  2. srogouski

    I thought this was an interesting film with some beautifully lit shots. But I also think that at some point the 360 degree panning got a bit repetitive. Compared to the opening scene in Bela Tarr’s Satantango, which conveyed a genuine sense of weirdness and dislocation, the long takes in D’Est at times seems like long takes for the sake of long takes.

    The strongest scenes for me in this film were the ones that focused on someone performing a definite action, the cello player, the women cutting bread and salami. The latter scene probably drew me in more than anything else in the film. I kept expecting her to cut her hand. When she didn’t, I realized just how much it played against my expectations.

    The 8th greatest film? I would disagree. Wings of Desire and the Double Life of Veronique both convey a more interesting sense of moving from east to west. D’Est was great photography. I’m not sure if I’d consider it a great film.

    I do find the idea that the people she filmed are ghosts intriguing. But Kieslowski and Wim Wenders did it better, if only because they had enough artistic integrity to make it obvious and enough imagination to make their ghosts beautiful instead of drab. Long takes tend to work best when they’re long takes of a face you want to dwell on.

    1. DanLevine Post author

      For me the repetition is part of the point. You either really sensitize yourself to small detail or you get really bored. It’s a sink or swim structure.

      1. srogouski

        I’ve actually seen enough ultra long films with lots of 360 degree panning shots to be a connoisseur. Nothing will ever top the buttfucking cows from Satantango.

  3. Pingback: Wings of Desire (1987) | Writers Without Money

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