La Folie Almayer (2011)

Even though the Anglo-Polish writer Conrad was 38 years old when he left the British merchant marine to devote himself to literature, his first novel Almayer’s Folly is a young man’s book. A bitterly ironic story about a Dutch businessman in Borneo who sends his biracial daughter to a Catholic boarding school in the the hope of eventually passing her off as white, it is saved from being overly downbeat by its anti-colonial message, and rich, poetic language. While Almayer’s Folly is not quite as much of a masterpiece as Heart of Darkness or Lord Jim, the “young” Joseph Conrad was so far ahead of his time that today’s “social justice warriors” on social media might even call him a “white ally,” if of course a highly “problematic” one.

No social justice warrior would ever dismiss Chantal Akerman as “problematic,” partly because she’s arguably the greatest female filmmaker who ever lived, but mostly because so few people in the United States have ever heard her name. La Folie Almayer, her penultimate film, which she made 4 years before committing suicide in 2015 at the age of 65, has only three reviews at the Internet Movie Database. Sadly, it’s easy to understand why it’s not likely to find a popular audience. A faithful adaptation, and yet a radical deconstruction of Conrad’s novel, it comes at the end, not the beginning, the deep cold Winter, not the enthusiastic Spring of a long, distinguished artistic career. Akerman strips all the poetry off Conrad’s somber yet romantic anti-colonial meditation, and reveals, not only the delusional thinking of the white imperialist mindset, but her own despair. If Conrad’s novel is pessimistic, Akerman’s film is dark like clinical depression.

Like the young Joseph Conrad, the late Chantal Akerman deserves more attention, if only because her dramatization of the spiritually corrosive effects of white supremacy is so clear thinking and uncompromising. After a surreal, David Lynch-like opening,  we meet Almayer, played by longtime Akerman collaborator Stanislas Merhar. Almayer, who lives in a ramshackle house deep in the jungle — the film was made in Cambodia — is French, not Dutch, as he is in Conrad’s novel, but the basic outlines of his character are the same. He is a white man separated from his own people. Come to the far-East to make his fortune, he has ended up a prisoner in the jungle. A client of a shadowy entrepreneur named Captain Lingard, he has enough money to survive, but not enough to get back to Europe.

A few years before, in exchange for being let in on the ground floor of a gold mine deep in the jungle, Almayer had reluctantly agreed to marry a Malaysian woman named Zahira. Lingard has now returned for Nina, Almayer’s biracial daughter, in whom Almayer had invested most his of his hopes for the future after the gold mine failed. Why Lingard had wanted a European husband for Zahira is not entirely clear, either in the novel or the film, but the marriage has been a disaster. Zahira and Almayer hate each other. Now that Lingard wants a French, Catholic education for Nina the way he wanted a white husband for her mother, Zahira rebels. She grabs Nina and takes her into the jungle, trying to save her from the kind of forced assimilation to European ways Lingard and Almayer had attempted, and failed, to impose on her. But it’s no use. Almayer and Lingard chase them down like wild animals and ship Nina off to the city.

A decade later, Nina, now a young woman in her late teens, returns to Almayer’s compound. Almayer has not seen her since she was a little girl, his submissive relationship with Lingard  evident by the way he had not been able to get his boss to tell him the address of his daughter’s boarding school. Along the way back, she meets a young Asian man in his 20s named Dain Maroola. It is here where the differences between the “young” Conrad and the elderly Chantal Akerman become most evident. For Joseph Conrad, Dain Maroola becomes Romeo to Almayer’s Capulet, the vital young man who rescues the young girl from her imprisonment by the patriarchy. For Chantal Akerman, no man can rescue a woman from European imperialism and from the patriarchy, even if he is a young man of color who kills two white men, and escapes the police with the help of her mother.

Chantal Akerman may have had pale skin and blue eyes, but as the daughter of Polish Holocaust Survivors, strictly speaking, she would not have been considered white. In a long sequence, where Nina attempts to express to Dain just how miserable she was in Lingard’s Catholic boarding school, we begin to see the ambiguous feelings Akerman had towards being brought up as a French woman, raised in a country that collaborated with the Nazis. What makes La Folie Almayer a great film, both in spite of and because of its difficulty, is how it dramatizes a young woman who, at 17-years-old, is already dead, spiritually murdered by European imperialism and patriarchy. Unlike Conrad’s Nina, who declares that she’s in love with Dain and willing to die for him, Akerman’s Nina can’t return to the jungle, can’t be brought back to life by sex or romance. She doesn’t love Dain, she said, “maybe not yet, maybe not ever.” Just like Chantal Akerman, who achieved success as a filmmaker in her 20s, yet still committed suicide 40 years later, Nina’s body may survive for another 50 years, but she may never be able to feel genuinely alive.

Chantal Akerman became a casualty of the Holocaust in 2015. Nina, the daughter of Almayer, a submissive white dupe of empire and racism, has been condemned to walk the earth as a zombie. It’s interesting to think about what Conrad, who attempted suicide in his 20s, would have thought of Akerman’s adaptation of his first novel. My guess is he would have approved.

News from Home (1976)

A year after she released Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the 26-year-old Chantal Akerman returned to New York City, where she had lived for several years in her early 20s. Akerman, a French-speaking native of Brussels, and the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, spent the next several months with her cinematographer Babette Mangolte, wandering through Manhattan with a 16mm movie camera. The result of their labors was News from Home, a fascinating look at New York City in the 1970s.

News from Home opens with an extended stake of the Staples Street Skybridge in pre-gentrified Tribeca. Having lived in Tribeca in the mid-1990s, when the process of gentrification was well underway but not yet complete, I know the area well. I’ve probably stood on every street corner where Akerman and Mangolte filmed. I recognize most of the buildings, but News From Home feels like a report from another universe, or, better yet, the ghost of an old industrial neighborhood haunting the ghetto of the super-rich that Tribeca has become. It is by far the most compelling part of the movie, mostly because Akerman lets the camera linger on the lost history of the city. The lettering on the facades of the old storefronts and factories, the billboards and advertisements long forgotten, even the garbage littering the sidewalks, all of it felt like part of a word where I wished to spend more time.

Akerman and Mangolte also film in Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Midtown, and on the Upper East Side, but none of the footage they took uptown had quite the same magic of the early takes in Tribeca. The most frustrating, and yet intriguing, parts of News From Home take place on the subway. Akerman and Mangolte probably spend anywhere from a quarter to a third of the film standing inside various subway cars with the camera pointed, either at the doors, or straight down the middle. They make no effort to record the advertisements on the platform, or the headlines of the newspapers and magazines people are reading. Just about the only way you can tell it’s the 1970s is by looking at what the other passengers are wearing. At times, it feels exactly like a long subway ride. Having commuted from North Bronx to downtown Manhattan on the D-train, I found it tedious.

The more News from Home’s subway footage bored me, however, the more I began to wonder. How exactly did Chantal Akerman do it? While these days a filmmaker as reputable as Akerman could probably get a permit to bring a 16mm camera and a tripod on the subway, it’s hard to imagine her fellow passengers sitting so still, allowing themselves to be filmed without complaint. More likely they’d mug for the camera, ostentatiously duck under the lens to spoil the shot, or start yelling about how they were being filmed without their consent. Were people in the NYC subway really that much different in the 1970s than they are now? Or was Akerman, who died last month, some kind of witch who threw a spell over the 1-Train? Perhaps she just had a cloaking device. Or maybe she was already dead in the 1970s, a ghost floating disembodied between Houston Street and Canal Street recoding the passive, mournful faces of the, far more working-class, New York of the past.

All the time Chantal Akerman is filming her Manhattan street scenes, her mother, still very much alive, haunts News From Home. As the narrator reads the older woman’s letters, almost all of which end with the plea that her daughter write home more often, we begin to see Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in a new light. In Akerman’s earlier film, a middle-aged woman doted on her son, a morose, self-involved teenager she supported, partly by prostitution. We wonder how much of herself Akerman had projected into the young man, and how much the title character owed to her mother. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ends with a senseless act of violence. Jeanne murders a client with a pair of scissors. Akerman’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by the worst genocide in human history. She’s terrified that her 22-year-old daughter will meet a sudden, violent end in dark, dangerous, crime ridden New York City. We sympathize with Akerman’s mother. We also sympathize with Akerman. In other to escape the weight of historical memory, she has run away to America, a land with no consciousness of history. Yet compassion for her mother, whom she obviously cares about, means joining her under the weight of the not so distant past, sharing the torment, the survivor’s guilt, of someone who had seen the inside of a Nazi death camp, and escaped to see her adult child leave the nest. We begin to wonder if the subway cars Akerman spends so much time filming are a form of psychic prison, the deep, dark tunnel of a past she cannot escape.

Yet she does. The final ten minutes of News from Home are shot from the Staten Island Ferry, pulling away from Battery Park. Akerman’s camera dwells on the skyline of lower Manhattan — the ghost of the World Trade Center adding a dimension she could not have anticipated – her world getting more and more windy and spacious, memory fading into the distance as a flock of white gulls hover overhead. While we never actually see the Statue of Liberty, that gift from the French that has become a symbol of immigration to the United States, we feel its presence. A newly arrived immigrant in New York Harbor, Chantal Akerman has finally put the old world behind her. Her mother’s voice is gone. News from Home opened with her as the daughter of two Polish Holocaust Survivors. It ends with her as a newly-minted American.

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.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

How much violence does it take to maintain the status quo, any status quo?

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a revolutionary film on the most intimate scale possible. Running for almost three and a half hours, Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic from the 1970s is about as long as a film can get and still have a wide theatrical release. But it was made for just over 100,000 dollars. It has two main characters and a few extras. It’s set almost entirely in a small apartment in a drab, working-class neighborhood in Brussels.

Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig, lives with her son Sylvain.  Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, appears to be about 18 or 19. He’s a sullen bookworm. There’s no sign of a husband or father. We find out later that he died years earlier. Jeanne is an attractive, well-dressed woman in her early forties who sleeps with exactly one man every day, entertaining her client from 4:30 to 5:00 in the bedroom while dinner is cooking in the kitchen. We get an idea of Jeanne’s character after she pockets the money from a John, and puts it in a glass teapot she keeps on the table in the dining room. She goes into the bathroom, pours herself a bath, and cleans up. Then she disinfects the tub, scrubbing out any reminder of how she earns her keep and supports her son.

Jeanne Dielman is an obsessive compulsive. Everything about her life is so well-ordered, so circumscribed by repetitive behavior that the film, which takes place over three almost identical days, becomes a map of her soul. Tiny details of her behavior, insignificant variations in how she acts from day to day bring us inside of her troubled mind as surely as if we were a trusted confessor. On the first day everything is perfect. Jeanne sleeps with her John, washes up, and cooks dinner for her son. But even on the first day some things seem out of joint. Jeanne serves herself exactly the right portion of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, but gives her son twice as much as he can eat. We know immediately that they have an unequal relationship, that she desires his approval. We also realize that Sylvain, while he may be a sullen, unpleasant little killjoy also feels smothered by his mother’s attention. He’s probably close to 20-years-old yet she still buttons his coat before he leaves for school in the morning.

“You missed a button,” he says.

With one brushstroke, therefore, Chantal Akerman has painted a picture of a mother and son in a dysfunctional relationship. He’s both dominated and dominating. She’s both controlling and self-sacrificing.

On the second day, things begin to unravel. Jeanne burns the potatoes. She drops a spoon. She watches a screaming baby for her neighbor. Sound becomes as important as repetitive behavior. A dropped kitchen utensil, a loud child, a door slamming, Akerman so effectively mixes the audio levels that we, the audience, take on Dielman’s hypersensitivity to stray noises. We become unhappy. We wonder why her son doesn’t show her more attention. We begin to feel her weary dread at having to sleep with yet another man to earn her keep. How long can a woman her age go on as a prostitute? Does she have a backup plan. Did her husband leave her a pension. How exactly did her husband die anyway? We don’t learn much more than that he was a Canadian who served with the army in World War II.

“Getting married was just something everybody did,” she tells Sylvain.

On the third day, we wonder if Jeanne Dielman has ever done anything on her own initiative. Then we realize that she does everything on he own initiative. Like a great artist, she has isolated herself from the rest of humanity to work on her creation. That creation is a prison, for herself. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute she has hammered out the bars of her psychological cage, walling herself off, not only from the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, her unfulfilled life, the fact that she sleeps with a new, and almost always unappealing man every day, but from the very possibility of happiness or change. We also learn what she was so afraid of, the violence inside herself.

Back in 2011, when I was involved with Occupy Wall Street, I began to understand why a system as unjust as American capitalism doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The American ruling class has hundreds of thousands of militarized police, the biggest military the world has ever seen, and a well-developed system of propaganda and spying, but none of that would matter if working class Americans didn’t repress themselves. I decided that the only thing Americans value is their routine. It’s neither right nor left, but it does have political consequences. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, failed because people who supported gay marriage were able to paint them as troublemakers who wanted to get into other peoples’ private business. Occupy Wall Street failed because it threatened to make Americans think about class and revolution, to make them face up to how their 9 to 5 lives are never going to get their kids seven figure jobs on Wall Street. Indeed, the most damning accusation the media could make about Occupy Wall Street was not that it was a movement of socialists, but that it disrupted routine, that rat race people run with such dedicated tunnel vision.  Like Jeanne Dielman, Americans have built a cage of misery they will defend to the death against anybody who tries to liberate them.

On the evening of the third day of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jean Dielman, the kind of nice, unprepossessing middle-aged woman you would trust without a moment’s hesitation, commits an act of violence so sudden, so shocking, and so arbitrary it upends everything that came in the first three hours of the movie. We realize that Chantal Akerman has played a trick on us. By staging her tragic drama inside a drab apartment in working class Brussells, by focusing on so many insignificant details of a seemingly ordinary mother and son, she has somehow made us watch 3 hours of a horror movie without realizing we were watching a horror movie at all. The first three hours of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles have so much authority, paint the inside of Jeanne’s mind in such deceptively mundane realism, we have been fooled into thinking we were watching our lives, which, in a sense, we were. Jeanne’s victim, and liberator, her final trick, may not deserve his fate, but that’s what revolutions are like, messy, violent, arbitrary. Jeanne, not quite ready for her freedom, acts in the most unexpected way we can imagine, exactly the way we would have expected her to act.

The final ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles feel more like 10 hours. Jeanne is doomed. But if you sit patiently through the three and a half hours of her movie, Chantal Akerman will so completely fuck your sense of time that, in some odd way, she gives you the keys to open the door of your own cage. Whether or not you decide to walk out is entirely up to you.