Dis-moi pourquoi: Amélie’s got a gun, just like Patty – Lola Lafon conjures Hearst and illuminates a contemporary phenomenon

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak (Except translated citations, copyright Actes Sud)

“Heartless powers try to tell us what to think
If the spirit’s sleeping then the flesh is ink
History’s page will be neatly carved in stone
The future’s here, we are it, we are on our own
On our own, on our own, we are on our own.”

— “Throwing Stones,” lyrics by John Perry Barlow, songwriter for the Grateful Dead and visionary co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. (Click here to listen.)

“You know what your daddy said, Patty? He said, well, sixty days ago she was such a lovely child and now here she is with a gun in her hands.”

— Patti Smith’s cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” cited by Lola Lafon in “Mercy Mary Patty”

“Qu’on se moque pas de mon âme.” (Don’t mock my soul)

— Lola Lafon, “Mon Ame,” from the album “Grandir a l’envers de rien” (Growing up on the other side of nothing) (Recording here.)

“Je suis perdu, je suis revenu.” (I’m lost, I’ve returned)

— Lola Lafon, ibid

In memory of John Perry Barlow, October 3, 1947 – February 7, 2018, estimable prophet and cowboy poet who saw the Internet not as a mine but as a frontier.

(Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by making a donation so that we can continue this work. Please designate your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

When Arthur Miller decided to take on the witch-hunts in 1953, he set his play “The Crucible” not in Washington, where Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House “UnAmerican” Activities Committee were persuading Elia Kazan and others to “name the names” of alleged Communists who were then blacklisted, but in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where young girls had intoxified the justice system by accusing pillars of the community of afflicting them with witchcraft. It’s sometimes easier to study a modern phenomenon in what Barbara Tuchman has called “a distant mirror.” Now the Franco-Russian-Polish musician and writer Lola Lafon has written a novel that deftly addresses one of the most urgent (yet rarely posed) questions facing Europe today — what makes a young person turn against her own milieu? – while also looking more broadly at the myriad influences on (and power to resist of) the teenaged mind, by traveling back to San Francisco and the 1974 kidnapping, subsequent conversion, coercion, or brainwashing to her captors’ cause, and 1975 trial of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. The result is a transnational, transgenerational tale that sheds light on both epochs.

Recounted largely in the second person (unusual in French Letters, but a brilliant choice for her subject of the young mind; form meets function), Lafon’s “Mercy Mary Patty” is delivered with the same urgency as her songs. Discovered in a box of discarded CDs in front of my Belleville apartment building on the evening of November 12, 2015, Lafon’s 2007 album “Grandir a l’envers de rien,” Growing up on the other side of nothing, whose every song is delivered as a kind of Kaddish for the living, became the soundtrack of my personal system of survival in the fear-addled hours that followed the November 13 massacre of 130 innocents in the concert halls and stadiums and on the café terraces of Eastern Paris. It was as if Lafon’s plaintive cry (her voice recalls the North African Sephardic diva Natacha Atlas) and soul-piercing lyrics were simultaneously expressing my own existential fears and furnishing a balm for calming them as well as an escape hatch back to life. (“Mercy Mary Patty” is often punctuated like a song, Lafon using the comma as a one-size-fits-all sentence breaker-upper. This could be a deliberate stylistic choice, to match the immediacy of the message and the narrative voice.)

So when the Sofia, Bucharest, and Paris-bred Lafon went poaching in my own Northern California adolescence for material for her newest global adventure (her album also included a cover, in English, of the Rolling Stones’s “Paint it Black”), I was less resistant than I might have been to other French commentators, many of whom tend to paint the U.S. in two dimensions (I’m not saying States-based American commentators don’t do the same, in reverse), often getting basic facts wrong, and to scold its deficiencies while ignoring similar patterns in French society. None of this is the case here; Lafon the novelist knows my country like Lafon the composer knew my soul. It’s precisely, then, to confirm the authenticity of her recreation of the Hearst epoch in San Francisco – which I lived first-hand, as a younger contemporary of Patty’s – and support the perspicacity of her observations that before getting to the book I’ll set the stage with some context.

lafon small

Photo of Lola Lafon by and copyright Lynne S.K.. Courtesy Actes Sud.

Not only has she nailed the epoch, by exhuming this traumatic chapter of American and specifically Northern California history to ponder the vulnerability of, influences on, and resilient power to resist and rebel of the teenaged mind, Lafon has also helped me see the ramifications of Hearst’s example on my own (and thus presumably my peers’) adolescent rebellion and ensuing trajectory. And to understand how this pseudo-political kidnapping and the events that followed were almost inevitable in the ambiance of those times in the San Francisco Bay Area, which sometimes saw the altruistic revolution of the Sixties usurped for more mercenary ends. (If you think this ground has already been tilled by American Hearst biographers, what makes Lafon’s approach unique – and “Mercy Mary Patty” crucial reading — is the identification of parallels with the European young people joining the so-called “ISIS” in recent years.)

On February 4, 1974 — the day 19-year-old Patricia Hearst was kidnapped by the self-acclaimed “Symbionese Liberation Army,” lead by an escaped prisoner*, from her apartment near the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a sophomore — I was a seventh grader at one of the first alternative public schools in San Francisco, more worried about white-heads than Dan White, whose Twinkie-infused** November 1978 assassinations of fellow city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, nine days after the Jonestown massacre-by-Kool-Aid***, would cap the Helter-Skelter degeneration of some aspects of the Northern California counter-culture movement into the criminal perversion of its causes (and, in White’s case, conservative backlash), which accelerated with the SLA’s 1973 assassination of Oakland schools superintendent Marcus Foster (misspelled twice in Lafon’s book as “Forster”). Because we didn’t have our own cafeteria, our free school lunches were trucked over from another school in tin foil-covered trays, jostled into mystery meals by the time they got to us. We were big into science fiction and horror that year — “Planet of the Apes” masks were popular for Halloween, and my pals and I had thrilled to 13-year-old Linda Blair’s head-spinning turn in “The Exorcist.” (Another occupation of a young person’s mind.) But our favorite film was “Soylent Green,” in which a totalitarian future government has secretly solved the over-population problem by carting away undesirables and turning them into the processed food product of the title. So I just about lost my lunch one day when a comrade, unwrapping the foil to reveal a particularly unsucculent repast, pointed at the contents and proclaimed, echoing the final line of the movie pronounced by Charlton Heston as he’s being dragged off: “Soylent Green is people!”

The future that was in store for us turned out to be much more insidious, with polities and corporations more interested in colonizing our minds than our bodies. (When a radio journalist recently lauded Google’s “generosity” in pledging to set up free Internet literacy centers in France, I wanted to scream, “Our minds are Google’s Soylent Green!”)

It’s in this perilous terrain — that of the forces, pernicious and benevolent, at work to influence young people, and the juvenile mind’s capacity to resist — that Lola Lafon has pitched her narrative tent and deployed her story-telling and rhetorical flair, breathlessly navigating a voyage which stretches over 40 years and two continents. And which, in lieu of following a rigid pedagogical chart to a fixed intellectual destination, invites the reader’s active participation in the dialectical journey.

To explore what I take away as her uber-theme (I add the qualification because Lafon is not a polemicist but an archeological explorer and anthropological story-teller), she couldn’t have found more pliable matter than the play-dough that was by all evidence the mind of Patricia Hearst in 1974. And whose selection by the SLA to serve its propaganda purposes was anything but accidental; hadn’t Hearst’s grandfather, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”) cabled Frederick Remington — when the cowboy artist he’d dispatched to Cuba to cover a war reported, “No war here, chief!” — “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war”?

44.36.1-

Cover illustration by Frederick Remington for WR Hearst’s magazine. From the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum.

To promote its ideology, the SLA chose the ideal vehicle of Hearst’s own voice — that of a scion not just of American capitalism, but of one of its loudest clarions — delivered in a series of tape-recorded ransom messages, generously sampled in “Mercy Mary Patty.” (The SLA hadn’t kidnapped just Patricia Hearst, but the front pages of the Hearst media empire’s newspapers and magazines across the country…. and the entry into American households they furnished.) At first, Patty simply relays her captors’ demands, most sensationally a series of free food giveaways in the Bay Area. (If I was initially skeptical of the author’s figures regarding the high percentage of Californians who went hungry at the time, upon reflection I remembered that for the food giveaway at the Methodist church down the street from our Mission District digs, the line stretched around the block. And it wasn’t by gourmandise that my brothers and I had signed up for meals which sometimes resembled ‘soylent green.’ While we always had more than enough to eat, our lower Middle Class parents, separated and then divorced, were struggling. On my mom’s side, we qualified for food stamps.) (As if to demonstrate the resurgent relevance of Lafon’s portrait of American society in 1974 more than four decades later, the news program Democracy Now recently reported that Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget would slash $17 billion from federal food programs and prohibit using food stamps to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. They’ll be replaced with food boxes, evoking the dubious alimentation Hearst, in a later recorded message from Patty shared by Lafon, accuses her parents of providing to meet the ransom demand.)

If the factual kernel of Lafon’s tale is the shifting tone, spirit, and class allegiance of Hearst’s recorded messages, culminating in Patty’s decision to remain with her kidnappers and convert to their cause — whether she was a brainwashed, coerced, or willing participant in subsequent SLA crimes would be the central question of her 1974-75 trial for bank robbery (convicted, she’d later see her sentence commuted by President Carter and be pardoned by President Clinton) — the narrative nucleus is the mentoring relationships between three generations of French and American women. (Like the witch trials, the novel terminates in Massachusetts, in another milieu preoccupied with the development of young people’s minds, the all-female Smith College, where Lafon seems to have accessed the Hearst tapes while on a fellowship.)

Notwithstanding her title, which evokes a comparative link between Hearst and two Early American white teenagers, Mercy Short and Mary Jamison, captured by American Indian tribes they subsequently chose to remain with (she might also have explored the saga of Cynthia Parker, whose capture and preference to stay with the Comanches inspired John Ford’s “The Searchers,” as detailed in Glenn Frankel’s book “The Searchers: The making of an American Legend”), Lafon ultimately spends relatively little time with Mary and Mercy, focusing instead on her three 20th and 21st-century generations of protagonists: Neveva Gene, a Left-leaning feminist scholar from Smith spending a year teaching at a private girls’ school in the coastal Landes county of Southwest France, and from whom Hearst’s attorneys have commissioned a brief they hope will support their argument that Patty was a brainwashed or coerced participant in the SLA robberies; Violaine, an adolescent French girl Neveva hires to help her analyze media coverage of the Hearst case and above all the Hearst tapes; and Lafon’s stand-in as the narrator, who becomes part of the grown-up, outcast Violaine’s brood and travels to Smith in 2015 to meet the now septuagenarian and still militant Gene. (A student evaluation cited by the narrator notes the professor has been signaled five times for “apology for terrorism.”) Not that I’m complaining about the smaller role of Mary and Mercy; her portrait of Gene is so realistic — Lafon has her writing a book called “Mercy Mary Patty” — that I actually tried to look her up on the Internet. My suspicion is that as her story progressed, the author became so absorbed in the relationship between Neveva and Violaine (and the light it casts on her larger subject, particularly the formation of the teenaged mind) that she relegated Mary and Mercy to the second plane and let them ‘hijack’ the story — the true sign of an organic fiction writer. This spontaneity emerges most unpredictably when Violaine — presumably hired by Neveva because, as a contemporary of Patty’s, she might be expected to sympathize with her and speak her language — surprises her employer by contradicting Neveva’s own inklings (Violaine thus not letting the grown-up play her like a violin) to the contrary (and what she’s being paid to prove) and suggesting that Hearst was a willing conscript to the SLA cause. (Lafon terminates her book by dedicating it “to the Violaines” — in other words, to those adolescents who resist adult influence, no matter what quarter it comes from.) This after Violaine’s scrupulous auditing of the Hearst tapes, whose content is the most provocative feature of Lafon’s book, and whose criticism of Patty’s parents and their capitalist milieu I don’t remember hearing much about back then. (Given the conservative leanings of the local Hearst newspaper, run by Patty’s father Randolph, and its competitor, these aspects of Patty’s messages may have been suppressed or at least downplayed at the time.)

For much of the book Lafon explores her theme on (at least) two levels simultaneously: As we share in Violaine and Neveva’s analysis of the Hearst tapes and coverage — and assist at their passionate debates, in the shadow of the Landes dunes looking out on the Atlantic, over whether Patty was brainwashed or not — we also witness the 19-year-old French girl’s responses, sometimes yielding, sometimes resisting, to the influence of this American feminist somewhat out of place and viewed suspiciously in a rural French village in the 1970s, as she develops her own autonomous franchise. (Lafon might also be describing the rural Northern California community of Timber Cove amongst whom my family lived for a year in the late Sixties, particularly in the translated passage below describing the reaction in a local bar when Neveva relays an incident of American racism. When the upper grade teacher and principal of our little red school-house, Mr. Cash, held all the kids with brown eyes after school one day and all the kids with blue eyes the next, as a lesson on racism, he was visited that midnight by the rancher fathers of some of the children and told at gunpoint to get out of town. He did.) Rather than convincing her what to think, the American professor ultimately creates a safe zone — the antithesis of that in which the SLA held Patty? — in which her French prodigy is able to learn how to think.

One section of “Mercy Mary Patty” captures all these elements. It’s market day, and Neveva, her low-slung jeans revealing the band of her underwear, has just sauntered into the local bar with her charge in tow. The ‘you’ being addressed in Lafon’s second person voice (in the formal “vous” for the French original) is Neveva.

From pages 92 – 99 of “Mercy Mary Patty,” copyright 2017 Actes Sud:

When, on the morning of the 13th day, you announce that you’ve read something which has opened your eyes, no doubt your report will be finished tomorrow afternoon, Violaine is more relieved than you can imagine. Her only wish is to get back to the equilibrium of those first days, to be your little hand which cuts [the newspaper and magazine clippings], translates, and pastes. Instead of being the person who slows you down and annoys you and doesn’t hear the same thing you hear in [Hearst’s recorded] messages. You suggest going to the bar-tabac, a change of ambiance will help.

It’s noon, people are coming out of church, the church plaza is packed, Lenny [Neveva’s dog, whose sobriquet is right out of the ’70s; another sign of Lafon’s precise period authenticity] goes wild every time a hand is stretched out to him, exuberant and shy at the same time, a little kid who you never let out of your sight, you whistle and put an end to the social whirl. You dismiss all these pious church-goers out loud in English, tell Violaine to observe their holier-than-though airs, wearing their religion on their lapels, they’re so relieved to be in good standing with God. There’s no such thing as lost souls, just passive bodies — our own.

When you walk into the café, the men aligned along the counter rivet their eyes on you, Violaine follows in your wake, embarrassed to be embarrassed by you who are not at all embarrassed, your jeans just a little too big reveal the hemline of your panties, your sea blue pull-over emphasizes that you’re not wearing a bra.

This providential book, you read it all in one night, the [Stanislavsky] Method of the Actor’s Studio is the bible of all the big American actors, Robert de Niro used it for his approach to playing Travis McGee in “Taxi Driver” (Violaine hasn’t seen it, the film is banned for those under 21). [Yet another touch of period verisimilitude I can attest to; in 1971, my older cousin gave the budding 10-year-old thespian I was a copy of “The Stanislavsky Method.”] It includes an abundance of exercises to aid in character-building. And without a doubt, Patricia has become a character. And voila your idea, to envisage the entire saga like a story, a film! You’ll portray Patricia and Violaine can play, let’s see, Emily [Harris], of the SLA. Your assistant’s petrified refusal amuses you; what, Marxism isn’t contagious?!

“First exercise: Two words that define your character.”

“Alone,” Violaine suggests.

“Protected from everything. Oops, I used one word too many.”

“Too mature for her age.”

“Too many words, Violaine! Susceptible and superficial?”

“Secretive.”

“Typical teenager,” you fire back, sticking your tongue out at Violaine.

“A symbolic example.”

An example? Of what? Your assistant is talking nonsense, she has no idea, she’s simply repeating what the heiress says on the second tape. You admit that you’re perplexed, without doubt Patricia must have said “This is a symbolic example,” and Violaine must have understood “I am a symbolic example.” You’ll have to listen to it again later. Second exercise, write a letter to one’s character. How would a letter addressed to Patricia Hearst, college sophomore, be different from one addressed to Patricia Hearst, convict? One doesn’t change in a few weeks, Violaine protests, regretting all the same to find herself disagreeing with you yet once more. You continue to insist that we’re not entities with immutable identities, circumstances change us, does Violaine act the same with her parents as here in the bar, certainly not, but Violaine sticks to her guns, Patricia doesn’t really change over the course of her messages, she’d write her the same letter.

The waiter buzzes about you, when he serves you the glass of Armagnac the owner insists on offering — the American lady from the Dunes is spending the afternoon in his bar! — his fist brushes against your hair, Violaine whispers to you, “Il tient une couche celui-là” (He’s one sick puppy, that one), you don’t know the expression but it enchants you, you repeat it to the waiter who slinks away, the bar is full, the regulars just coming from the rugby match, teenagers putting off going home for the traditional Sunday lunch, you can’t hear anyone in all the hubbub, you step up to the counter to order a beer, you drink to the death of that bastard, Franco finally croaked the day before yesterday, you proclaim rather than simply state, “Those who are against fascism without being against capitalism, those who wail about barbary and who come from barbary, are like those who eat their share of veal then say calves shouldn’t be killed. They want to eat the veal but don’t want to see the blood.”

A young blonde man applauds you, Bravo, say that again but louder this time, so that everyone can hear, a couple approaches you and introduces themselves respectfully, their daughter is in your class, she talks about you all the time, you interrupt them, she should read Brecht, their daughter, voilà, the glasses are refilled and clinked, dirty fascists, then, in the midst of this mob, Violaine rises to her tippy-toes and whispers to you these words that she knows by heart, the phrase with which the SLA signs all its messages, “Death to the fascist insect who feeds on the life of the people.” You stare at her, amazed, she thinks that you’re going to make fun of her and apologizes, she’s read the words so often in the past few days that they’ve become embedded in her brain, but you take hold of her hand and execute a rapid, exaggeratedly ceremonious kiss of the hand, everyone whistles for you, you graciously acknowledge them as in the theater.

You insist on walking Violaine home despite her protests, It’s not like she’s going to get lost over 500 meters. Strolling along the path, slightly buzzed, you burst out laughing, recalling the perturbed air of a group of your students, seeing you drinking with the farmers seemed to scandalize them, you regale Violaine with your impressions of them, the way one can never separate those two from their desks in class, the sadistic books that one devours, the stories of girls on drugs, prostituted, beaten, locked in closets, raped, the passion of that one for Arthur Rimbaud, she keeps a picture of him in her wallet and sobs over his death, but she’s incapable of citing a single one of his poems. Arriving at the gate, you can’t seem to decide to leave, you ask about the purpose of the high thickets which hide the property of Violaine’s parents. It’s a question of tranquility, Violaine answers without reflecting. You repeat the syllables, “tran-quil-i-ty.” Your assistant’s parents are therefore insulated from all the terrible hullabaloo which rages around here — you indicate with a large gesture the forest and the scattered other houses. You crack yourself up with your own jokes, do Violaine’s parents have a special thermostat in their salon for perfect tran-quil-i-ty, with different gradations: “bored like a dead man,” “death-like silence….” Violaine, her keys in hand, doesn’t dare tell you that she’s cold, that around these parts the expression is “bored like a dead rat” and that her parents are waiting, the salon lights are on, if they come outside and find you both on the stoop, they’ll invite you in, and Violaine can’t think of anything worse than you meeting her parents, why do you have to endlessly analyze everything, you tilt your head and hoot at the sky, waiting for the theoretical reply of an owl which doesn’t come. As if it weren’t night, with the humid sand under your naked feet — you clutch your shoes in your hands, they clutch you — you start in on a recapitulation of the afternoon, it was groovy. You’ll go back to the bar next Sunday as promised with a Nina Simone 33 because you couldn’t find her songs in the jukebox. A propros, did Violaine notice what happened when you recounted how, during a Nina Simone concert, her parents had to give up their seats of honor to Whites and Nina refused to continue singing? Nothing. Nothing happened. Not a shadow of indignation.

The bar had never been so quiet. Violaine should remember it, this stillness, it has a foul mouth, it’s the silence of that which remains unsaid, those who didn’t flinch at the mention of concert seats being off-limits to Blacks thought they were abstaining from commenting but they said it all. In this café, everyone had chosen his side. There’s no such thing as neutrality.

Day 14

Your faith in Method Acting doesn’t last long, the following morning you don’t talk about it anymore. You complain that you have at the most two more days before you have to mail the report and you’ve only really just begun to write it up. You hole up in your room for most of the day, from the living-room Violaine can hear the tape player starting up, No one’s forcing me to make this recording, Patricia insists. A brief click, the lisping of a tape being rewound, “… understand that I am a, uh, symbolic example and a symbolic warning not only for you but for all the others.” When you find yourself with Violaine in the kitchen, you sip your tea without a word, no mea culpa and Violaine doesn’t dare bring up again Patricia’s expression that she therefore in fact completely understood, nor ask you who these others are, “all the others,” does she mean “warning” in the sense of an alarm or of a threat, of what is she supposed to be the example, Patricia…?

You’re expected in San Francisco December 15. There, like the other expert witnesses, you’ll be briefed on the potential attacks from the judge and the prosecutor on your credibility and your past. We’ll turn your revolutionary experience into an asset, the lawyer promises. Who could be better placed than you to know that, in these groups, you don’t find many 19-year-old heiresses who’ve never participated in a demonstration? That a lawyer whose universe is limited to Harvard and the circle of influential Republicans would harbor this type of certitude is hardly surprising. That you’ve shown yourself so sure to be able to prove him right is more intriguing.

But here at your side sits a skinny French teenager. Why listen to Patricia at all if you’re going to refuse to hear her?, she innocently asks you over and over. Her question, you also can’t allow yourself to hear it, you whose job is to prove that Patricia doesn’t know what she’s saying. You were right the day you hired her, Violaine understands perfectly well what you’ve given her to read, just not in the way you need.

From pages 108-112:

Day 15

Are you worn out by an experiment which is not turning out like you wanted, all these discussions in which Violaine continues to chip away at your attempts to prove that Patricia Hearst was brainwashed? Are you drained, between teaching every other day and writing the report, are you preoccupied by the prison sentence in store for Patricia if the Defense shows itself incapable of proving her innocence — or worried about seeing your reputation diminished, you who up until now have lived a dream life, the trial promises to be extremely mediatized, your defeat will be public, Neveva Gene couldn’t be bothered to come up with three measly lines to save Hearst. On this particular morning you usher Violaine in and swing open the door to your bedroom to reveal, carefully spread out across the carpet, a mosaic of Patricias. Ten tableaux, the magazine covers from Time and Newsweek. Ten attempts to forge a coherent portrait. One melting into the other, the covers overlapping and supplanting each other.

The cover from February 6, 1974, “SHATTERED INNOCENCE,” a Patricia bearing a wide grin, under the tender blue of a fixed horizon, her hair tossed and tussled by an ocean breeze, she’s wearing a boy’s striped Polo shirt. The cover from February 13, “WHEN WILL SHE BE SET FREE?,” with a pensive Patricia coiled up in a vast green armchair, her father with his back against the bookshelves standing behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder. The cover from March 10, “FIANCÉ TALKS ABOUT PATRICIA.”

Violaine gets down on her knees, careful not to displace the photos. Here’s the most recent one, you indicate the Time cover from April 4, 1974. No more blue, no more sky, but fire. The background of the image is red,**** like the fire of a nightmare which announces the color, red like the flag of the SLA in front of which she poses, her legs slightly apart, Patricia is 20 years and one month old, she wears a beret slanted back over her undulating auburn hair, the leather bandolier of an M16 rifle rumpling the khaki fabric of her blouse. A wide black banner splits the image of the heiress in half: GUILTY.

 

You tell a lacerated Violaine that what you’re going to listen to now is a bit shocking. The discourse itself but also Patricia’s tone, the way she talks to her parents. You propose to listen to the recording three times, once with the eyes shut, to take notes, and then to rapidly read the dailies from April 1974. Only afterwards will you talk about them.

Tape 4, broadcast April 3, 1974

“I’d like to start out by emphasizing that what I’m about to say I wrote on my own. This is how I feel. No one’s ever forced me to say anything in these messages. I haven’t been brainwashed, nor drugged, nor tortured, nor hypnotized. Mom, Dad, I want to start off with your pseudo-efforts to ensure my safety. Your gifts were an act. You tried to fool people. You screwed around, played for time, all of which the FBI used to try to kill me and the members of the SLA. You pretended you were doing everything in your power to get me freed. Your betrayals taught me a lot and in that sense, I thank you. I’ve changed; I’ve grown up. I’ve become aware of many things and I can never go back to the life I lead before; that sounds hard, but on the contrary, I’ve learned what unconditional love is, for those who surround me, the love that comes from the conviction that no one will be free as long as we’re not all free. I’ve learned that the dominant class won’t retreat before anything to extend its power over others, even if this means sacrificing one of its own. It should be obvious that people who don’t give a hoot about their own child don’t care anything about the children of others.

“I’ve been given the choice between: 1) being released in a safe place or 2) joining the SLA and fighting for my own liberty and for the liberty of all the oppressed. I’ve decided to stay and fight. No one should have to humiliate themselves to line up for food, nor live in constant fear for their lives and those of their children. Dad, you say that you’re worried about me and for the lives of the oppressed of this country, but you’re lying and, as a member of the ruling class, I know that your interests and those of Mom have never served the interests of the people. You’ve said that you’ll offer more jobs, but why don’t you warn people about what’s going to happen to them, huh? Soon their jobs will be taken away. Of course you’ll say that you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re just a liar, a sell-out. But go ahead, tell them, the poor and oppressed of this country, what the government’s getting ready to do. Tell the Blacks and the vulnerable that they’ll be killed down to the last man, women and children included. If you have so much empathy for the People, tell them what the energy crisis really is, tell them that it’s just a clever strategy to hide the real intentions of Big Business. Tell them that the oil crisis is nothing more than a way to make them accept the construction of nuclear power plants all over the country; tell the People that the government is getting ready to automate all the industries and that soon, oh, in five years at the most, we won’t have need of anything but push-buttons. Tell them, Dad, that the vulnerable and a big part of the Middle Class, they’ll all be on unemployment in less than three years and then the elimination of the useless will start. Tell the People the truth. That the maintaining of order and the laws are just an excuse to get rid of the supposedly violent elements, me, I prefer being lucid and conscious. I should have known that you, like other businessmen, you’re perfectly capable of doing this to millions of people to hold on to power, you’d be ready to kill me for the same reasons. How long will it take for the Whites of this country to realize that what’s being done to Black children will sooner or later happen to White children?

My name has been changed to Tania, in homage to a comrade of the struggle who fought with Che in Bolivia. I embrace this name with determination, I’ll continue her fight. There’s no such thing as partial victory. I know that Tania dedicated her life to others. To fight, to devote oneself entirely in an intense desire to learn…. It’s in the spirit of Tania that I say, Patria o muerte, venceromos.”*****

What’s brilliant about the above passages is the suggestion that Neveva Gene, a radical feminist scholar, is essentially being paid to prove that someone who has pronounced a discourse that echoes her own politics – who might have been one of her own students – must have been brainwashed. (Whence her direction to Violaine to note the *tone*; my own recollection is that Hearst spoke with a flat effect.) The other reason I’ve included the whole Hearst citation here is that it neatly signals the mirror with the cases of some of the French teenagers who have been hoodwinked into joining so-called “ISIS” – which, like the SLA, sometimes serves up a faux humanitarian discourse to dissimulate its murderous, nihilistic, and diabolical intentions.

From pages 139-140: (The “I” in the following segment is the narrator herself, now an adult after having in her turn grown up at the knees of the adult Violaine, now regarded as the village eccentric.)

I’m 37 years old, we’re in 2015, young girls are disappearing from their homes. They’re signaled at the borders, designated “S”******, inscribed in organizational charts, with graphics establishing the co-relations between them: Coming from the Middle Class for the most part, they range from 15 to 25 years old, and showed no signs in the preceding months of what was to come. The parents didn’t see it coming when they discovered, stupefied, the B-side of their children on the ‘Net, in video messages they ask accusingly, in monotone voices, How can we claim to be humanists when in the face of injustice we remain immobile, are we not guilty, with our indifference to the poor? Let’s admit it and say it out loud, they’re a warning. For hours and hours I watch the reportages, read and cut out the articles for no reason, without any particular end, pages and pages of questions, why these girls, to whom everything was permitted and that we now find on magazine covers, they stare at the camera, an arm flattening out their breasts dissimulated under a jumble of fabric. I send the articles to Violaine, the declarations by adults freaked out by these impenetrable young girls and who propose to ‘reprogram’ them in a few weeks. Violaine is initially skeptical, Patricia didn’t want to kill anyone, the SLA’s credo was humanist even if it failed, be careful about over-simplifications. We pick up our abandoned discussions, these editorials, 40 years later, employ the same words as in 1975, Could they be our daughters, our sisters, our friends? Violaine answers with a short phrase copied onto a visiting card: “What some people call ‘conversion’ or see as a sudden change isn’t one but a slow process of development, a bit like that of photographs, you know.” — Patricia Hearst (Tania).

Notes:

*Prison escapes were à la mode back then, the prisoners becoming causes celebres among the Left. In 1974 or 1975, our eighth-grade teacher would take us on a field trip to the trial of the San Quentin Six — prisoners who had tried to escape with “Soledad Brother” George Jackson, fatally wounded — and of whose defense committee she was the secretary. I still remember them entering in shackles. (Checking my memory on Wikipedia after writing these lines, I see that not only did I remember the episode correctly, but that the sole defendant convicted of murder, Johnny Larry Spain, whose cornrows I also recall, had his conviction subsequently overturned by a federal judge… because he had been shackled throughout the trial, the longest in California history.)

**In his subsequent trial for the Milk and Moscone assassinations of November 27, 1978, White’s attorneys claimed that his mental state was influenced by having gorged himself on Hostess Twinkies, a cream-filled junk-food sponge cake.

*** On November 18, 1978, false prophet Jim Jones and his lieutenants of the “People’s Temple” mowed down U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, who had just landed near the group’s “Jonestown” camp in Guyana to investigate, then forced 915 followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, thus giving birth to the expression “He drunk the Kool-Aid,” the modern version of “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.” Jones recruited in the poorest communities of the San Francisco Bay Area, and was popular among certain liberal politicians in the Bay Area.

**** The original French phrase, “le fond de l’image est rouge,” echoes the title of Chris Marker’s hallmark 1977 documentary history of the radical Left, “Le fond de l’air est rouge.” The American context of a Time magazine cover suffused with red and stamped with the word ‘Guilty’ is the polar opposite: Time was founded by the rabid anti-Communist Henry Luce.

***** At first I didn’t buy the numerous contemporary testimonies from adolescents cited by Lafon hailing Patty as a hero, notably the actual trial testimony from a young man who is more star-struck than terrorized after Patty and her comrades hijack his car and hold him hostage for a day; “They even let me keep the hand-cuffs!” But when I read Hearst’s recorded message above, I suddenly recalled an editorial I’d written for the Corbett Community School student paper the following year lambasting “Corbett Parent School,” Corbett being a parent-run collective which I maintained was more concerned with organizing the social lives of the grown-ups than the education of their children. (I also wonder if the SLA’s tactics, and its multi-racial composition, might have influenced the rainbow triumvirate of school bullies who decided one day to sequester me in a hall closet and requisition my allowance.)

******French authorities’ designation for individuals deemed liable to commit terrorist acts.

 

Degas meets Valéry at the Orsay

degas9 group of dancers smallTo commemorate the centennial of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), through Sunday the musée d’Orsay has organized an exhibition that juxtaposes paintings, pastels, and drawings from the Impressionist artist and others with “Degas Danse Dessin,” published in 1936 by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Accompanied by 26 hors-textes reproductions of Degas’s graphic work, the luxury edition was written by French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945). “Degas is one of the rare painters to lend the floor its own importance,” Valéry noted. “He has admirable planks. At times, he views a dancer from high up, and her entire form gets projected on the plane of the plateau, like seeing a crab on a beach.” Edgar Degas (1834-1917), “Dancers,” also known as “Group of Dancers,” between 1884 and 1885. Pastel on paper, 78.3 x 77.2 cm.  Paris, Musee d’Orsay, RF 51757. © Musée d’Orsay Dist. RMN- Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt. Courtesy Service Presse / musée d’Orsay.

The Ciphers of Chantal: Corinne Rondeau Plunges into the “Akermanian Night,” now at the Cinematheque

chantal dis moi smallChantal Akerman, “Dis Moi.” Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Text copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Except translated citation, copyright Editions de l’éclat)

For Nancy Kanach, M., and Katharine, teachers unafraid to call me on myself.

Like what you’re reading? Please donate to the Maison de Traduction now, by designating your PayPal donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or writing us at that address to learn how to donate by check.

While my main subject here is Corinne Rondeau’s new book “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” through March 2 Chantal Akerman is also the subject of a retrospective at the Cinematheque Française in Paris.

As an American who has always looked upon France as the Valhalla of Intellect and Reason, of Art and Culture, it’s been painful to hear the clarion call of Camus and Godard, of Dutronc and Brassens, of Pissarro and Cocteau, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, of Claude Cahun and Man Ray, of Renoir and Renoir, of Voltaire and Misia Sert almost entirely drowned out by the obsession with terrorism, Islam, and immigration which has dominated the public airwaves since the criminal massacre of 130 innocents on the café terraces and in the concert halls and stadiums of Paris and Saint-Denis of November 13, 2015. It’s as if, like their New York colleagues (Susan Sontag was a brave exception) after September 11, 2001 — witness the New York Times’s supine readiness to enable the Bush-Cheney chicaneries whenever the pendulum of “national security” was dangled before its eyes — French radio journalists have been infected with a kind of survivor’s syndrome which prevents them from analyzing events, be they cultural or civic, political or societal, outside of these paradigms. (Living in the East of Paris when and where the terrorists struck on November 13, I haven’t been immune to this syndrome, since that day often interpreting events through the prism of my own fears.) On Radio France’s putatively high-brow chain, France Culture, it’s gotten to the point where one is cumulatively more likely to hear the words Islam, immigration, terrorism, jihad, and their various derivatives than the words France and Culture, particularly on the news programs. The exceptions have been the world affairs program Culture Monde and Arnaud Laporte’s panel discussion “La Dispute,” which considers a different art form every evening. (Theater and dance Monday, music Tuesday, the plastic arts Wednesday, literature including comics Thursday, and film and t.v. series Friday, should you want to check it out, at 1 p.m. EST. Link below.) If all the knights and ladies of renaissance man Laporte’s critical round-table are informed, literate, engaged, and engaging — the best curating may be Laporte’s in choosing his team, over whose language he presides with the vigilance of a high school French teacher, making for a minimum of “voila”s — the intellectually exhilarating rhetorical perambulations, pirouettes, and sautées I look forward to following the most are Corinne Rondeau’s.

Droll, colorful, imaginative, incisive, complex without being complicated, erudite without being aloof, humble before the oeuvre and authoritative in the aesthetic background she applies to analyzing it, curious, exuding panache — in effect, the art professor of your dreams, and who confirms, in the best tradition of Clement Greenberg, Edwin Denby, Michel Ragon, Jean-Luc Godard, and Phillip Larkin, that criticism can be its own art form — Rondeau not only knows her material but knows how to sell her arguments. So when I heard that Editions de l’éclat had just published a 125-page essay by my critical chou-chou (whose previous book took on Sontag) on one of my cinematic cheries, the late Chantal Akerman, I couldn’t wait to turn off my radio and sink my mandibles into something that instead of feeding my anxieties promised to stimulate my intellect and my appetite for art.

As brain food, “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit” exceeds my expectations. Whether the author succeeds in fulfilling her announced intention, heralded in a cover citation from the filmmaker*, to analyze Akerman’s achievement not through the prism of biography but on its own merits, is another question.

Chantal portrait small                                           Chantal Akerman. Courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Since her October 5, 2015 suicide in a lonely Paris hotel room at the age of 65, which capped a 47-year career of creating films and installations that traverse fiction and documentary and transgress many other frontiers of form, sexuality, sentiment, genre, religion, race, nationality, economics, and cartography, Chantal Akerman seems to have become a cipher, with many of those who survived her (acolytes, colleagues, critics) seeing in her work and/or life (and chosen manner of dying) the manifestation of our own predicament or station (relative to  mainstream society and its mores) or proof of our own theorems. In my own case, I decided that Akerman’s suicide was a response to an indifferent mainstream media, welding her desperate act to that particular chip on my own shoulder; and/or the pained reaction of the reflective child of a Holocaust survivor to seeing Jewish schools in her Belleville neighborhood (once predominantly Jewish) in 2015, 70 years after the Deportation of 74,000 French and foreign Jews including 11,000 children, a scant 3,000 of whom returned from the camps, guarded by armed soldiers. An emerging female filmmaker who wrote to me after my first piece appeared on the Arts Voyager (reprised here,) seemed to identify with what she perceived as Akerman’s outsider alienation. A short movie the young woman made inspired by the Belgian-born director even aped Akerman’s sensibility and included a reference to the exploding oven of Akerman’s first film. For a while, images of the filmmaker took over the top of my correspondent’s Facebook page. Another young female cineaste I met at the after-party for a performance at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt shortly after the 13 November massacres wondered whether Akerman’s suicide was prompted by a premonition of the attacks; she didn’t want to be around to witness them. More broadly, some journalists mused that it was not uncommon for either children of Holocaust survivors or a child whose parent had just died, both facts true for Akerman, to choose to end their lives.  (When they speculated on Akerman’s suicide at all; ingrained French respect for the privacy of this choice — not atypical in a country without a right-to-die law — often trumped instinctive journalistic rapacity in the limited coverage of her death.) And of course the theme had popped up in her films, from the endearingly cloying debut short “Saute ma Ville,” produced in 1968, not long after seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou” (which ends with Jean-Paul Belmondo lighting the fuse of a head-dress of dynamite, a conclusion echoed in Akerman’s film, starring her), to “Letters Home,” the staged recitation of an exchange of letters between Sylvia Plath and her mother.

chantal saute smallChantal Akerman in her 1968 directorial debut, “Saute ma Ville.” All rights reserved and courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 17 at 5 p.m., on a program with “Le Déménagement” and “La Chambre.”

Without questioning her sincere, considered, and critically informed admiration for the work itself, after having attempted (the adjective is as much a comment on my own limits when it comes to digesting aesthetic theory – in French or English —  as on the complexity of her analysis) to masticate “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit,” I can’t help but observe that in at least one minor and one major way, Rondeau seems to have followed the same tendency as the rest of  us. Her vision of the work often seems to be guided by her own theories and pre-occupations, and not vice-versa — at least as far as I can see from the paucity (or opacity) of some of the celluloid evidence cited to support her arguments. As opposed to her radio adventures, in which she tries to find out what an artist is about and explain how well an exhibition does or doesn’t reveal the artist’s modus vivendi, here she sometimes seems to be trying to accommodate Akerman’s films to a theme of her own predilection: Night. (Or at least doesn’t always clearly explain  how it’s a central subject for Akerman.) And whereas in her aural expositories I feel like I’m standing next to Rondeau and riveted to an oeuvre I’m seeing through her eyes, here she sometimes leaves me idling at the entrance without the door code.

First, let’s get to the Jewish thing.

After announcing — with that citation* from the artist on the front cover — that it would be a mistake to  look for clues to understanding Akerman in her biography and that one should “look elsewhere,” Rondeau appears to ignore her own counsel in exploring the most obvious aspect of Akerman’s personal story: That she’s Jewish and the child of a Holocaust survivor. Thus she sprinkles a very short book with more tantalizing citations from Jewish philosophers than I’ve come across in France in two decades:  Vladimir Jankélévitch, Walter Benjamin, Gershom Scholem, Maurice Blanchot…. Not that I’m kvetching about discovering or re-discovering them! In a French societal context in which Jews are usually defined in relation to negatives (victims of anti-Semitism, the Shoah/Holocaust/Deportation, presumed loyalty to Israel no matter what its actions, controlling all the banks, Christ killers) or constrained stereotypes (if I hear France Culture refer once more to the particular vision of “Jewish American” writers, I’m going to choke on my Gefilte Fish) and which is so profuse it’s even diminished my own once hardy pride in this chunk of my DNA —  in this general ambiance which confines “Jewish identity” to these limited dimensions, it’s restorative to be reminded of a legacy which, immersed in Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen” and “The Promise” on a cross-country family trip in high school, once prompted me to ask my grandpa to arrange a belated bris (the non-medical, Jewish name-bestowing  part) and Cliff’s Notes bar-mitzvah once we reached Miami: The value Jews have always placed on scholarship and books, with an intellectual firmament delineated not by blind doctrinal adherence to the Word but by the spirit of Talmudic debate, not reserved to discussions of Halacha but extended to lay subjects. (Not a value exclusive to Jews; in Emile Ajar/Romain Gary’s “All of life before you,” an elderly French-Arab Belleville resident befriended by the pre-adolescent narrator clings to the Koran with one hand, Hugo with the other, as the last ramparts against encroaching senility.) So I thank Rondeau for reminding me that this is also part of my inheritance; if I can’t defend Israel, I can still take pride in Scholem’s comment, cited by Rondeau, about the importance of “transmitting the things which are without name.”  (A precept which certainly drove Akerman.) If Benjamin and Jankélévitch have been cited in other discourses here, even on France Culture (notably by the philosopher Michel Onfray), it has rarely been in a Jewish context. (And with Jewish delis, bookstores, and bakeries being supplanted by national clothing chains on the rue des Rosiers in the  heart of the Marais — Goldberg’s is gone, so forget about finding kischka in Paris — there’s no longer even a local equivalent of Williamsburg to remind me of these positive aspects of my roots.)

So I don’t begrudge Rondeau the references. It just seems that she wants to have it both ways:  to be able to claim that unlike the rest of us, she’ll be the one to finally analyze Akerman on the basis of her work and not her identify, and then to be able to freely cull from Jewish philosophers whose thinking illuminates Akerman’s.

Chantal Jeanne Dielman smallDelphine Seyrig in “Jeanne Dielman, 23, rue de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” 1975. Chantal Akerman. Copyright Janus Films and  courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 18 at 2:30 p.m., with Sami Frey’s ‘Making of” documentary screening February 25 at 5:45 p.m..

More problematic than this contradiction is that elsewhere in the book, the film excerpts that Rondeau cites to support her thesis are often fleeting, ephemeral, gossamer images devoid of any narrative framework or references. It’s as if she’s writing for a narrow coterie of colleagues who have already seen all the films in question, so that she feels she can dispense with plot description. (The book is dedicated to Akerman’s longtime collaborator Claire Atherton.) And yet even the most worldly of critics usually doesn’t assume his readers have already seen the work he’s writing about. When I discovered Denby, it didn’t matter that I hadn’t  yet seen most of the performances he was describing; I was enraptured —  he and other critics I read at the time helped me fall in love with dance and determined me to write about it. Rondeau’s radio commentaries (for example, during this episode of “La Dispute”)  have a similar effect on me. It doesn’t matter if I haven’t seen the exhibitions she’s discussing; her vision is so brilliant that it’s almost better seeing them through her eyes. If a written commentary can certainly be more sophisticated, even philosophical, than radio chatter, it shouldn’t be at the expense of clarity, which is often the case here. I sometimes feel like I’m lost in the middle of a rhetorical swamp with no sense of where it is on the map. (Even Godard, who doesn’t always deign to include even a summary plot description in his Cahiers du Cinema critiques, because his concerns are more profound and technical, still leaves  me  with a clear sense of where both he and the  film are going, even if I haven’t seen the work; in fact he makes me want to.**) And I’m no piker when it comes to Akermania. What Rondeau may not realize is that outside of Paris and New York, the films of Chantal Akerman are so rarely projected that more narrative context would have been in order. (Most of the friends I’ve told about her, including culturally literate intellectuals, even in France, have never heard of Chantal Akerman.  When “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was broadcast on TCM, it was from midnight to four in the morning. I found Akerman’s chef d’oeuvre in a library in East Fort Worth, Texas with a particularly curious librarian. But if I knew to look for her, it was because I’d been able to catch the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.***)

chantal almayer small“Almayer’s Folly,” 2011. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, screening the film February 12 at 9 p.m. and 22 at 9:30.

I’ve considered whether it might be my perception and not Rondeau’s logic which is too dense; whether her thinking might just be too complex for me to follow. Because translating an author usually forces me to probe her meaning in French so that I can do justice to it in English, I decided to try this for the section of “Chantal Akerman passer la nuit”  in which Rondeau zooms in on her uber-theme — “the night Akermanian” —  as she believes it to be manifest in “Almayer’s Folly,” a 2011 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel.  (I’ve respected the original’s structure in not breaking one long paragraph.)

“But confronted with ‘Almayer’s Folly,'” Rondeau begins on page 96, “it’s the spectator who must let go of everything he knows about [Akerman]. She forces him to not recognize her. It’s the climactic moment of her own treason, which is the absolute love for a body of work that we think we know by heart, of which we’ve already made the tour of the grounds, guided by its residents. But Akerman goes further. With the night of  ‘Almayer’s Folly,’ she doesn’t stop saying, without saying: take it to the limit like one lives, nothing less — let yourself be carried away. Then we enter into the night as in a film where we don’t understand anything, which mixes up time, putting the befores after the afters, not by disorder intended to destroy any and all continuity, but to thwart the slightest hope of putting any order in the grand upheaval of the night, of a life which offers moments of a crazy beauty. A beauty we don’t recognize, because beauty is recognizable by that which we don’t recognize in ourselves, the great stranger who sweeps up everything, to whom we grant for no reason, without reticence, all our care to abandon. There’s no beauty without hearing the call: abandon yourself. Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name. Abandon all causalities, chronological order, and assure the disorder — in other words, [engage in] hospitality: Make space for that which doesn’t have space, for that which we don’t recognize. Make space even when one doesn’t have space oneself; learn to displace oneself in the interior of one’s home, in the interior of one’s solitude as well, because the solitude is not solitude, it’s the power of the many. Open oneself to a film where it’s useless to try to resolve the leaps in time, the chiasms. Ever since ‘Saute ma ville,’ we know that the story happens also in the ellipses, but we never know what remains in the ellipsis.  It depends at times on the silence of an explanation, not to hide it, but because that’s how it is and that’s all. To love in order to welcome the disorder of life as it is; why put it all in order at the end, why do we all give ourselves the illusion of order at the end? Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story, at the moment when we’ve already departed. This is why we have passeurs [those who transmit us from one bank to the other, like the ferryman], rather than connoisseurs, not to restore order in the space of those who have departed, but rather to accept that which we don’t understand about their departure, to make a place for that which remains without response — the reason that it’s useful to make, to create space rather than a space. What we find is right there before our eyes, and what we sense is that it’s futile to exceed what’s given: beauty and strangeness, such  is ‘Almayer’s Folly.’ It’s no longer a visage nor a landscape with which we’re confronted. We find ourselves in front of a night equal to those rivers which flow down to the sea: the intensities of the night, tempest, storm,  wind, the reflection of the moon — what remains of the day when the Sun is behind us, when the soil displays our shadow, disrupting the course of the water, the course of time which a violent flurry can reverse.  Night creates its place out of that which we discard, if only we let ourselves be swept away by its currents. Grand nocturne of relentless sonic sensations:  the buzz of flies, the chirping of crickets, the diluvium rain which batters the water’s surface, the tremor of the rivulets in the wake of an embarkation, Dean Martin’s ‘Sway,’ Mozart’s ‘Ave Verum,’ the prelude to ‘Tristan and Iseault’ in constant replay. Relentless visual sensations as well: the blue and pink aurora of the morning and the black eyes of a disturbing, immobile, statuesque woman of a  melancholy beauty, the trace of the moon’s reflection which in the storm scrambles sight, the colored reflections from the lights of a ship which sails past without stopping, the reeds which bend in passing bodies in the jungle, stirred up by the wind which carries away all reason, screams, and the branch which shoots up from the water like the arm of a drowning man that one catches sight of twice, and that continues to float for how much time afterwards.

“Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained, ‘Almayer’s Folly’ is an immense film about the unbridled nature of night.”

And a bit later:

“Because memory can’t exist unless it follows forgetting. ‘Almayer’s Folly’ creates a space for forgetting so that memory can emerge from that which forgetting takes from disappearance. There’s the memory impossible to forget; now comes the forgetting impossible not to leave, because without forgetting, there’s no memory. And if we forget the Night Akermanian, all memory is sacrificed, as well as its call: Let go. One also needs time, a relatively long time, to let go.”

After translating this elegiac rhapsody, and then reading the translation several times, it’s not only clear to me that Rondeau loves Akerman, but that the critic has a visceral attachment to the filmmaker that few of us can aspire to. And which has helped her to find in “Almayer’s Folly” a key to understanding the role of cinema itself as preservational amber. “Grand nocturne which only displaces that which we leave behind, which we must also refuse in order not to be enchained” might apply to the art form more broadly and its relation to memory. (I even find a cautionary alert about my own nostalgic rapture for the past, often addled by a cinematic past I never had.) If it’s clear how the details cited in the passage above might lead to this conclusion, it’s less clear how Akerman uses them to illuminate the plot of “Almayer’s Folly.”  “Yet we don’t know the end until the end of the story,” Rondeau writes; after reading her lengthy discourse on the film, we don’t even know the story. It’s only after an expedition into the novel itself (being unable to see the movie) that I’m able to place some of the elements described by Rondeau – notably the uprooted tree branch which weaves in and out of Almayer’s view as it recedes down the river – in the scheme of the story itself. If I’m able to accord “the grand nocturne” a pass in this regard because of the powerful epiphany that comes with it, I’m less forgiving with more banal generalizations. For the little that Rondeau produces by way of examples from the work itself that prove this, general statements like “Yes it’s folly, but ‘folly’ is also love’s other name” might just as well apply to my last love affair as to Akerman’s film.

chantal autre smallDe l’autre côté,” Chantal Akerman, copyright 2001. Courtesy Cinematheque française, where the documentary screens March 1 at 7:30 p.m., on a mixed program with “Les années ‘80” and “Histoires d’Amérique.”

As if to confirm my impression that Rondeau loses something, clarity-wise, when she passes from spoken word to the printed page, the clearest section of the book is the one based on a previous discourse, perhaps initially delivered out loud in English, as it was Rondeau’s contribution to Westminster University’s November 2016 colloquium “After Chantal” (note the exclusive employment of the first name — another indication of cipherdom).  Here her theme relies on another film I’ve not seen, the 2000 “De l’autre côté,” but unlike with “Almayer’s Folly,” this time Rondeau’s theme — riffing on the film’s subject of frontiers and border crossings, here between Mexico and  the United States — doesn’t elude me. It’s as though the prospect of delivering her thesis directly to an audience (and an Anglophone audience at that) forced the author to be more lucid, as in her radio commentaries. Even in the part of her analyses focusing on a more ephemeral installation which complemented the film, “Une voix dans le dessert,” and which involved “putting a screen on the frontier between the United States and Mexico.” This time Rondeau does a better job of connecting the scenarios of the oeuvres in question with her theme of night, the night which can cloak the passage of the clandestine, the night in which a woman can get lost without leaving a trace, the night which frightens with its opacity, the night whose monochromatic canvas can also be evoked by the vast white sands of the dunes, the frontier between night and day evoked by the border and its barriers, the night which confounds nationalities, the night in which different nationals can exist simultaneously in multiple dimensions and articulated in different fashions (Rondeau refers to narrations delivered in different languages by Akerman) and through different mediums. And thus has better narrative footing for discussing Akerman, who constantly crossed and transgressed frontiers and borders in a multitude of manners.

When it comes to Akerman films I actually have seen that she discusses, Rondeau bats about .333. (In baseball terms, this is nothing to be ashamed of; Ted Williams territory, if you’ll forgive the side tribute to Jonathan Schwartz, the NYC institution who is Williams’s most consistent fan and another of my radio heroes.) She backs up her observation about the 1999 “Sud”‘s concern with traces (of the past and future) by describing Akerman shooting, from the back of a pick-up truck, the asphalt trajectory of and markings left by James Byrd, Jr. as he was dragged to death from the back of another truck. (What I remember most about catching the film at the 2004 Akerman retrospective at the Centre Georges Pompidou is my American date’s observation, on seeing one of the young white trash subjects: “I know that guy,” meaning she recognized the type.)

chantal divan smallJuliette Binoche in “Un divan a New York,” 1995. Chantal Akerman, all rights reserved.  Courtesy Cinematheque Française, where the film screens February 16 at 7:30 p.m. and February 19 at 5 p.m..

At the Centre Pompidou’s 2004 Akerman retrospective, I had the opportunity to exchange with the filmmaker following a screening of the French-language version of the romantic comedy “Un divan a New York,” in which Park Avenue psychiatrist William Hurt exchanges apartments with Belleville dancer Juliette Binoche, with both hilarity and havoc ensuing, as Hurt’s patients find Binoche a much more effective shrink while Hurt’s Paris adventure is sabotaged by ongoing construction on Binoche’s digs. (I could relate.) Having also seen the English language version of the film at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology Film Archives (where Akerman had her big bang upon seeing Godard’s “Pierrot le fou”), I just couldn’t wait to have her thank me when I stood up during the Q&A to declare how much I loved her movie. “I hated it,” she essentially responded; as I recall, mainly because it was a (rare) commercial commission.

So when Rondeau chides fellow Akerman acolytes who dismiss “Un divan a New York” for not being consistent with the rest of Akerman’s oeuvre, she’s ignoring that the filmmaker herself considered it the black sheep of her family of films.

As Akerman herself is no longer around to dialogue with, it would have been nice if for its retrospective on her running through March 2,  the Cinematheque Française would have invited someone who relates to her work on a deeper level than any other critic: Corinne Rondeau. Astoundingly, Rondeau was not among the speakers invited to introduce or debate Akerman’s oeuvre during the retrospective. When asked why Rondeau had not been invited, a Cinematheque spokesperson told me, incredibly, “her very fine book came out last October.” In other words, never mind the level of scholarship, authority, expertise, and erudition — in the limited scope of those running the Cinematheque these days, if it came out earlier than tomorrow it’s suddenly irrelevant. This from a *cinematheque*, where archival interests should prime.

Oh look! It’s Wednesday evening — when La Dispute focuses on the plastic arts, Corinne Rondeau’s fiefdom. At least I can look forward to my radio day terminating with more original stimulation than that with which it began (when a France Culture morning program theme announced as “a look at changing jurisprudence” fatally degenerated into yet another discussion of terrorism and jihadists). For this intellectual stimulation — justement for giving me matter to chew on that I don’t always understand — I thank the gods of cinema for Chantal Akerman, and even France Culture for exposing me to the exalting perspective and way of thinking of Corinne Rondeau.

*”No, no, certainly not…. I don’t believe one should look to autobiography [for clues], it puts you in a box,” a manner to say [Rondeau adds in the cover citation]: perhaps look elsewhere.

** “Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard,” Collection Cahiers du Cinema, Editions Pierre Belfond, 1968.

***If you don’t want to wait until the next time TCM broadcasts “Jeanne Dielman” at an hour you won’t be able to stay up to see it, Criterion has bundled its DVD package of the film with both Godard veteran Sami Frey’s “Making of” documentary and Akerman’s debut short “Saute ma ville.”