Sunday, April 08, 2012

Screening Log: Chaos Reign Through Minimalism Edition

         Couple of notes before this week’s screening log. Over at Indiewire’s new blog dedicated to film criticism, I’m participating in Matt Singer’s weekly critic survey. Last week, I waxed on the problems of choosing my most egregious blind spot. Also, some of you may remember my commentary on Grantland’s “Smacketology” tournament regarding The Wire. Following his controversial comments against bloggers this week, Simon did a longer interview with Alan Sepinwall, where he elucidated some of his statements, and the showrunner included a link to my piece as one of the better responses to the Grantland nonsense. Peter Labuza is now David Simon approved folks!

-The Long Day Closes, 1992. Directed by Terrence Davies. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Girlfriends, 1978. Directed by Claudia Weill. 16mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943. Directed by Maya Deren. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art.
-Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975. Directed by Chantal Akerman. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art.
-About Elly, 2009. Directed by Asghar Farhadi. DVD projection at Film Society at Lincoln Center.
-Ruggles of Red Cap, 1935. Directed by Leo McCarey. 35mm projection at Film Forum. 

            I sort of had an idea of what to expect out of Jeanne Dielman, Chantal Akerman’s 3-hour minimalist* work of daily life gone madly wrong. The shots are straight on and never particularly dynamic. The lighting is natural, and never changed to emphasize something in the compositions. And the narrative never uses dramatic music to raise the stakes. But in doing so, the first half of Jeanne Dielman sets up a dynamic, an expectation, so when things start to go wrong, but only in the smallest of ways, I was on the complete edge of my seat, cringing every moment in which the world seemed ready to explode.

            For those who don’t know, Jeanne Dielman (full title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) follows a woman, Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig), over three days. She cleans, she cooks, she helps her teenage son with his homework, and she occasionally services a man for money. None of this is taken with any importance, but almost objectively. The camera never moves; it only cuts because Jeanne has walked into the next room. Not even Jeanne herself takes an emotional attachment to what she does—Even when her son describes the female orgasm.

            But once we become accustomed to the world, Akerman plays with out expectations, and puts us in a constant state of terror. The fear begins when Jeanne accidentally boils the potatoes too long. She races around her small apartment with the pot, unsure of what to do with it. How could something go wrong? How could order not stay affixed? Slowly, Jeanne’s life begins to unravel, but not through big moments, but through these small mistakes that begin to accumulate. She drops a spoon and has to wash it again. As she shines her son’s shoes, the brush jumps from her hand. And then in the film’s most devastating sequence, she can’t seem to figure out why the coffee tastes bad, and almost spills a whole bottle of milk.

            My heart stopped beating at that moment, which may seem laughable, but it shows how Akerman’s dedication to a minimalist cinema can make the smallest of moments devastating in a theater. Many people have been perplexed by the end of the film, when a client makes Jeanne orgasm, and she responds by stabbing him in the neck. During the final seven minutes, Jeanne sits in the dark at her kitchen table, the blood still fresh on her hand. A blue light (a police lamp of some sorts? We see it throughout the film) continues to flicker and run on her face. For this woman, order has been restored. 

            *I recently had a Twitter conversation where someone lumped this film in with the “slow boring masterpiece” genre of films like those of Bela Tarr. But I’m struck how different Dielman and Tarr are as filmmakers. Tarr uses the long take to let us to breathe in the world and essentially submit to what his characters’ existence must be. There’s no release in how he sees it. It’s all essential. Jeanne Dielman (I can’t speak to other works by Akerman) works in the way most film does—it creates a world, and then adds chaos to it, even if the chaos is small. In Tarr, chaos and nature are always in harmony. There’s no difference. In Satantango, we have to watch the child torture the cat for fifteen minutes, because the child needs that long to feel better. There’s no difference between how the film proceeds in minute 1 or minute 15 (or minute 340 for that matter). Tarr is about constant stagnation. The point is that just because a film is very long and features no to little narrative, they shouldn’t necessarily be linked together. 

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