Chantal 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.
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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 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 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.
Delphine 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.***)
“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.
“De 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.)
Juliette 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.”