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.