Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.

A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on cinema

It’s been almost a year that I have seen Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a film I remember was very good, but I was reminded of it only when Franco-German TV channel ARTE showed it not so very long ago. But what is there to write about this film, a film that is only a part of a trilogy which, taken all three films together, is so much stronger than a single film? I therefore watched the other two films of Andersson’s “Living trilogy”, albeit I would probably refrain from using this description and use “The Human Condition trilogy” instead. Together, Songs From The Second Floor (2000), You the Living (2007) and A Pigeon make for an entertaining view on us as humans, on us as a society, of life as sometimes being completely absurd and we still follow it endlessly like that famous hamster in his wheel.

After having seen the first two films in that trilogy, I was annoyed that I saw A Pigeon before, so that the chronological development didn’t quite work out the way it’s supposed to. Nevertheless, I could see connections, contradictions, additions – all of that made the trilogy throughly interesting, especially if you have a dark humour and are willing to laughing about yourself. It’s difficult to write about three films in a single blog post, but I try to keep it as contained as possible.

I should start, perhaps, with the most obvious characteristic of the Living Trilogy: all films look the same. I’m not sure whether I have seen a trilogy of films before where everything seems to be the same. Even the characters look the same. Andersson does use different actors from time to time, but they’re always white. I mean, make-up white. They’re pale, exhausted, looking almost sick, half dead. The interior of their flats and houses makes you see (and feel) that time literally stands still. Andersson took a long time to complete this trilogy. Between the release of the first part and the release of the third part (all three films played at Cannes), there was a gap of 14 years. So maybe make it 18 years or so, between the conception of the first film and the release of the final part of the trilogy. This is slow, but it resulted in quality work. And while the years passed, life seems to stand still in Andersson’s work. This is ironic, of course, giving the title of the trilogy (Living), whereas it should perhaps be called otherwise. Or maybe this is the whole point? Maybe it is to show us that we’re running in circles and that we don’t really go anywhere?

The interior design of buildings in all three films is the same. Sometimes I would even go as far as suggesting that he uses the same flats for some scenes, shot from a different angle. This is what Béla Tarr used to do. If you watch his arthouse films from after Sátántangó (2000), you see a link between them all, which is not necessarily connected to the films’ narratives, but to where the films are shot. Everything repeats, nothing moves forwards. Andersson uses a very sterile environment, 70s or 80s style, cold. Almost exactly how his characters look like. The bars change, but the people who drink their beer there are more or less the same. And why do they drink? Usually to drown their sorrows, the ridiculous existence of humans in a world that is so absurd that it makes you laugh.

Andersson shows us this absurdity in slow, long-takes. Those who like Slow Cinema and have followed my slow journey on this blog know that cinematic slowness serves different purposes in different films. In Andersson’s, I find, cinematic slowness serves the heightening of absurdity. It really brings home how ridiculous life can be sometimes, or how ridiculous we can be in certain situations; such as when a man’s hand is stuck in a train door and everyone stands around and, rather than being concerned, they wonder how it happened, they remember their own accidents, they watch. They watch more than anything else. An accident becomes a sort of animal in a zoo that you simply watch. You gather around and you do nothing. This stoppage of time, this absurd watching, is reinforced by the use of a static camera. Andersson usually doesn’t move his camera. There are very, very few pans or traveling shots in this trilogy.

And in fact, Andersson reduces the aesthetics to a bare minimum over a period of over a decade. It feels very much like the development of Béla Tarr, who became more and more minimalistic in his approach to filmmaking. From Sátántangó to Werckmeister Harmonies to The Turin Horse, Tarr reduced the aesthetics more and more; less characters, more barren mise-en-scène, less camera movements, less dialogue. His films were steering towards an end. The same can be said of Tsai Ming-liang, whose last feature film Stray Dogs was, perhaps, his most minimalist film. Andersson, I feel, works very much in the same manner. Songs and You the Living were stronger in their narrative progression. If something wasn’t clear in one scene, he would usually show us what really happened or what the previous scene meant in the next scene. In A pigeon, Andersson fragments the narrative almost to an extreme. It feels more episodic than the previous two films, albeit everything does come together in the end. But there is a sense of fragmentation, of a fracture that disrupts the narrative flow. Is this a sign of trauma? Perhaps, given that the trilogy contains elements to the brutal reign of the Nazis.

Andersson’s trilogy is tragic and humorous. Albert Serra was the first slow-film director I got to know who used comedy elements in his films. Slow Cinema as comedy, as entertaining…Andersson goes there, too, but makes more persistent use of it. He does so in order to open our eyes, to hold a mirror in front of us and show us to ourselves. Perhaps it is not spoken about often in the context of Andersson’s films that the director uses a direct confrontation with history and the way we deal with it. The first two films show this explicitly; one character, a sort of hardcore rocker, wears a T-Shirt with the Nazi SS symbol on the front. You only notice it once he gets up from the bench, once his partner pushes him away because she no longer wants to see him. (Or does she?) It would go unnoticed if you were focusing on the frame’s foreground only. There is another scene in which a man, in an attempt to do the famous magic stunt, tries to remove the tablecloth at a big family gathering all the while keeping the (expensive!!) china service on the table. Once the table cloth has been removed, the table shows two swastikas. It’s still there, we haven’t finished with it. The Nazi past, the Nazi support, is still there; almost dormant and yet very present, if only one takes the time to look. Andersson encourages us to do so. I laughed about those scenes, and also about the 100 year old admiral who had been placed in a nursing home and receives high-profile guests for his birthday only to make a Hitler salute. In any other film this wouldn’t be funny, but Andersson has created a bizarre and absurd trilogy that you have no choice but to laugh. And this, I have to say, absurd reaction to things that should shock me made me reflect about where we are. I became the pigeon sitting on a branch reflecting on existence.

With Andersson’s work more so than with other directors I need to say that a lot of action is happening in the background. If you watch the films as usual, expecting things to happen right in front of your eyes (just as we expect it in life – we don’t want to look deeper than that), then you will miss a lot in the trilogy. It is worth taking your eyes of the obvious and look beyond the surface, both in terms of the framing and in terms of the narrative. It is in the background, underneath the surface, where life really happens. There is this wonderful trilogy The Human Condition by Masaki Kobayashi. Kobayashi’s trilogy speaks of what it means to be a human being. He focuses on our hearts, on everything that goes on inside of us. Andersson’s trilogy is a different take of the same thing, 40 years later. It is also about the haunting of the past. Whereas in Kobayashi’s trilogy, events were happening, Andersson returns to the effects of the past on our present society, our current politics, our current life. It is impossible to say that these two trilogies are the same. But there are similarities, extensions, additions. They are are different ways of making us see and feel of what and who we are. And yet, both trilogies are about the human condition.

The Living trilogy – do Andersson’s characters live, or are they dragged along? Do we ever move on, which is what living is actually about? The pigeon who sits on a branch reflecting on existence is the perfect metaphor for what the viewer is encouraged to do while watching Andersson’s trilogy. What does “existence” even mean? We exist, but do we live? Where does life start and mere existence stop? Are we merely passively watching life going by, suffering from the weight of our existence and everything it entails? Strangely enough, even though none of the three films is very cheerful, Andersson’s trilogy triggered optimism in my heart and in my mind. What exactly causes that, I don’t know. But I do know that the Swedish director has created a very effective trilogy about us, the living, hearing songs from the second floor all the while we sit on a bench reflecting on existence.

Osmosis – Nasos Karabelas (2016)

!!! This film is available on tao films until the end of March 2017 !!!

And there he stands, a ruin forgotten by everyone – and more so by himself than by any other. He isn’t moving, nor is he sensing anything.  

Nasos Karabelas’s Osmosis (2016) starts in a bleak tone. The deep male voice reminiscing about the self is captivating. Usually, it is images that don’t let you go, images which you must keep looking at. In Osmosis, it is the sound, the voice, which holds you captive. You cannot not listen. Karabelas’s piece is deeply philosophical, underlined with a minimalist mise-en-scène, which, at times, brings forth striking frames.

What is osmosis? It can be a process of absorption, a process of assimilation. What happens to the self in the process of assimilation? It may, by way of assimilation, become nothing. The person begins to feel lonely in a vibrant community because something of him/herself got lost in the process of assimilation. It is this loss that, to me, is very important in Karabelas’s film. I might sound contradictory when I say that the film is characterised by nothingness and emptiness while previously having mentioned the strong presence of a voice-over throughout. But these two don’t have to cancel each other out. On the contrary. The voice-over highlights emptiness, nothingness, the search for something, the burden of loneliness.

He stands on the threshold of nonentity like someone without sense of himself, disenchanted by everything within a world where nothing is lovable. He passes into death already dead, tasting all the abhorrence and the denial of living.

Karabelas said in an interview with tao films that he didn’t want to give answers with this film. He wanted to pose questions, and this he does. Osmosis is a film that despite its slow pace does not allow the viewer to simply sink into his/her chair. If you let the film happen to you and focus on the voice-over, you fill find your thoughts wander. It is not a film which you can simply “accept”. Osmosis needs to be dealt with, enquired, questioned.

The film’s aesthetics help with this. Karabelas uses a simple grey to black-and-white tone. The frames are empty. The unnamed protagonist is often only a dot in a vast landscape. Or a figure of sorrow in nothingness. At times, I even wondered whether he needed to be there, whether this destitute existence would have perhaps been stronger without him, to reinforce the idea of emptiness even more.

All he sees is distaste, and that disgusts him. He feels the anguish. But he’s always there, he can’t but be there. The wait makes him languish.

In a way, Osmosis could be a parable for the modern world experience. It is not a secret that people consider life today as bleak, full of problems, destruction and destitution. Of course, this isn’t a general sensation, but it does exist and it’s not rare. Karabelas explores this feeling very effectively and asks us to follow him through the mind of his protagonist.But who is this protagonist? Is he a man as shown in the film? Or does he stand for a much wider, much larger entity?

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.