KITCHEN WITHOUT KITSCH
The lay of the land, in the Seventies film, is that there are two types of structure being practiced: dispersal and shallow-boxed space. Rameau’s Nephew, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Céline and Julie Go Boating, Beware of a Holy Whore are films that believe implicitly in the idea of non-solidity, that everything is a mass of energy particles, and the aim, structurally, is a flux-like space to go with the atomized content and the idea of keeping the freshness and energy of a real world within the movie’s frame. Inconclusiveness is a big quality in the Seventies: never give the whole picture, the last word. A distinctly different structure and intellectual set – used in films as various as In the Realm of the Senses, Katzelmacher, Nostalgia (the Hollis Frampton film in which a set of awful photos are presented and destroyed on a one-burner hot plate), the various short films of minimalist sculptors and painters – is to present a shallow stage with the ritualized, low-population image squared to the edges of the frame. Facing a fairly close camera, the formal-abstract-intellectualized content evolves at right angles to the camera, and usually signifies a filmmaker who has intellectually surrounded the material. In both cases, the strategy is often encasing a strikingly petty event: a nonviolinist scrapes away on a violin in a Richard Serra film; the limp Laurel-and-Hardy high jinks beginning Rivette’s Céline and Julie has one mugging charmer chasing another through Paris to return a book left on a park bench; Rameau’s Nephew creates linguistic/filmic systems using avant-garde types in low comic dress; and in Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher, two indolents gossip their way toward a reverse tracking camera – a startlingly handsome image encasing absurd, inane conversations. Each film picks up the current fascination with keeping things a little bit amateurish, as though that were an automatic connection to drollery and wit. In all the above-mentioned films, grandness and pettiness are blended in skeptical visions that significantly go against heroic careers.
The thing that strikes one about the early-Seventies Fassbinder Beware of a Holy Whore is the movement of both camera and actors, a kind of lurching serpentine of petulant drawling sounds, inside jokes, and minute-long temper tantrums. They’re all like flicks within a flux of sexual liaisons. Everyone is distracted, anxious: they’re weeping, betraying, at the level of two cents. Kurt Raab collapses onto the bar, exaggerated and whining, very melodramatic, “I can’t bear it!” The circular, 360-degree pan of a hotel lobby picks up bits of decadence from strays around the room: one girl saying she likes a Spanish light technician sitting nearby, another member of this desultory film crew saying to his new acquaintance, “I could help you if you came to Rome.”
Central to the Seventies dispersed movie is the lack of big statement (as there is in Citizen Kane, L’avventura). It is a profoundly rhythmic filmmaking, with a lot of lowercase observations, a brusque, ragged movement in Mean Streets and a ballad-like rhythm in Altman’s McCabe with its clutter of ideas about frontier life, starting with the individual-vs.-the-corporation problem, the bewildered love of a foolhardy romantic for a practical down-to-earther, etc. etc. What is picked up about the trudging, muttering McCabe character, with his derby and long overcoat, is a half sentence (“got poetry in me – ain’t gonna put it down”), a suspicious and balky glance. Centering upon a person or event is not involved. Céline and Julie Go Boating is a new organism, the atomization of a character, an event, a space, as though all of its small spaces have been desolidified to allow air to move amongst the tiny spaces. A bit like a Cézanne watercolor, where more than half the event is elided to allow energy to move in and out of vague landscape notations, Rivette’s slap-happy duo in a musical without music can’t be defined. Each is a series of coy and narcissistic actions. They appear out of nowhere, no past profession or character traits: at one moment Céline is a sober librarian, and at another she is a stage magician, suddenly a fantastic extrovert. Who are those people in the large Gothic establishment? A shaft of air encircles each bit of information about the two mysteries; things are deliberately kept uncircled.
The Straubs – Danièle Huillet and her husband – are the penultimate exponents of shallow-space filming: a very hard presentation of minimal visual information with the one major difference, that the composition is angled diagonally into the shallow space. While they move back and forth between grand spatiality (Moses and Aaron) and movies in which the subject matter is tight to the surface (History Lessons), the Straubs are always major spade-and-shovel workers in framing that places the material close to the surface, whether they are doing classical theater on a sun-baked Roman terrace or a long tracking on the Landsbergerstrasse in Munich’s red-light district, or staging a telescoped filmed play. Their Bach film is a breakthrough in filming an undramatized act: underlining the editing rhythm, a very programmed camera, and the geometry of groups: adding a documentarian’s respect for the subjects and asserting the most rigorous respect for a movie’s text ever perpetrated. The Straubs’ upfront framing is interesting in that it creates both a feeling of cement blocks and extraordinary poetry at the same time.
It’s also interesting here to mention Ozu’s far-earlier-than Seventies’ work with shallow-boxed frame innovations, using still-life interstices to do the work of an establishing shot, framing the most jagged husband-mistress conflict across railroad tracks as a two-dimensional emblematic design, playing out entire episodes in bars and modern “project” rooms so that every door frame, every crossover move by a snotty six-year-old, is schematized and abstracted into a perfectly poised, becalmed world view. Ozu, without drawing a heavy breath, predicted many of the conditions in upfront boxed movies: a limited cast, very domestic situations, abstract placements, the sense of people trying to break-out of or living within the rules, super-controlled direction.
The images of the wife and daughter waiting at the dinner table for Hans to come home in Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons had the same visual stillness and handsomeness containing suppressed nerves at the dinner table as the scenes with mother and son in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles: the same sparsity of dialogue, phrases like “Isn’t the beef better this week than last, I added less water this time” or “Don’t read at the table” or “I’ve received a letter from Aunt Fernande in Canada.” Each of Jeanne’s isolated remarks is responded to by a oui, a grunt, a nod, and each one preceded and followed by an uneasy but unaccented silence. This is Bressonian territory. But unlike the dinner-table scenes in Merchant, in this film one gets the entire meal: its purchase, preparation, consumption, the cleaning up of the table and washing of the dishes, all this conveyed through images of terrific clarity. Each step in this meal’s progress necessitates passages from kitchen to hallway, through doorway rectangles of flower-printed wallpaper and painted woodwork, the figure of Jeanne framed over and over as she moves from room to room, putting lights on and off, changing into and out of her work smock, her cardigan sweaters, her street coat.
A marginal life away from the progressing mainstream, with all the traditional forms and strictures, is chronicled with a static wide-angled lens, using structural traits first found in Warhol’s fixed-frame film (early Sixties) and developed in other repetitive films (Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, et al.) in which the space becomes spiritualized and proliferates ideas. The Dielman film – in which the spectator peculiarly becomes a coolly curious voyeur and jurist watching a case history – is often a breathtaking, crisp, and luminous example of shallow-boxed framing.
The drily pugnacious title (Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) is a giveaway on the movie’s politics and mental set. It suggests that Chantal Akerman, a shrewd young Belgian who is bridging the gap between the commercial film and the structural (every part, every shot is representative of the movie’s shape), has a passion for the factual, is not going to make the heroine, a field marshal of the kitchen (Delphine Seyrig), any more or less than what she is; has a contemporary yen for a blunt presentation of objects, spaces, proper names, and geography; and is concerned with defining a puritanistic and routinized woman in her space, describing her existence, how she moves from sink to table, her daily rounds in a one-bedroom, fusty flat. There is a definite respect for surfaces; a lot of this is Babette Mangolte, whose dead-straight cinematography, impeccably framed, is responsive to the cool hardness of a tile wall, the flat light cast by one ceiling fixture, the crisp whiteness of bed linen, light changing on a casement window. The movie is thoroughly a product of Seventies’ sensibility: the integrity of things as they already stand, the presentation of a text as a concrete object, and out-front admission of the means of production.
This still-life film – a genre painting by a Seventies Chardin (to quote Babette Mangolte: “a Forties’ story shot by a Seventies’ camera”) – is vivified by a welter of louder than natural noises on the sound track. What an inspired idea, to treat the sounds of the kitchen as music: sounds of pot covers, ladling, a kettle hissing, water running, splashing, sponge against pot, sponge against plate, plate against table. And in the image, there is the incessant turning on and off of lights by the penny-conscious Jeanne, the small intricacies of housekeeping, opening and shutting drawers, handing up scrub brushes, returning dish towels to their place, and replacing lids on pots. It’s a movie in which neither the heroine nor the director cuts any corners, except on dialogue. The only line spoken in the kitchen: “Did you wash your hands?”
She’s a logician who turns firm material into brilliantly sound equations: an industrious loner living a static existence is equaled by a space filled with noises; a life of routines going right, clicking, turn midway in the film into the same life of routines misfiring in little ways. The perfect symmetry of Akerman’s constructions operates also in the plot, in which an everywoman’s life is glued to a flashy red-light-herring idea.
A forty-year-old widow, mother of a dour son (obedient but pampered, like a fifteen-year-old de Gaulle) runs a matriarchal household without a wrinkle on the few bucks she makes from turning one trick a day. One might think that the luridness of the Simenon-like plot – that Jeanne Dielman is a prostitute, conducting her business in her tidy uptight bedroom once each afternoon, and that she scissors to death one of her clients on a mysterious postcoital impulse – came out of a pragmatic desire for more audience by a director whose heart belongs to the structural film but who wants more audience than a Gehr-Frampton-Sharits film gets at stray film clubs and college dates. But it’s just as likely that the sex-gore material is an extreme expression of the director’s radical feminism. Analysis of the luridness issue is further complicated by the fact there is an offscreen murder in which a near-corpse staggers into the frame in Wavelength, which has to be a big item in any structuralist’s background.
Jeanne Dielman is the persevering woman’s film, a conscientious mom forced into “the life” for the sake of son and income (before Seyrig’s performance: Ruth Chatterton, Dietrich, Bankhead, Constance Bennett, and Garbo), reconsidered by three sophisticated women of the Seventies. The three-pronged effort: a purified performance (Delphine Seyrig’s) sustaining one suppressed note; a mesmerizing colored image (Babette Mangolte’s) that uses the troublesome wide-angle lens to suggest the entirety of Seyrig inside each frame, from her chaste pumps to the flat lighting of a single ceiling fixture; and, using some of its heroine’s obsessive control on traditional detail, a feat of recall and engineering (Chantal Akerman’s) which rearranges this second-by-second tragedy so that it has a bold, electric frontality, very close to the effect in Mike Snow’s The Central Region.
Whatever image one has of Delphine Seyrig is bound to be involved with her haute-couture sinuosity, her graceful undulating body and voice. But the Seyrig of Last Year at Marienbad and India Song doesn’t even resemble the straight-up-and-down puritan, Jeanne Dielman: seduction is out here. The A-1 intent of this fugue-like movie is to divulge the molecules of moment-to-moment existence, the repetitious conditions of life: eating, sleeping, cleaning. Both Seyrig and Akerman nail this single-track woman into her condition of doing and redoing; her elevator trips, dishwashing, rising from bed in cold pre-dawn are magnificently fulfilled by a performance that doesn’t obfuscate the movie’s routinized, repetitious mise-en-scène.
It’s a resolute film that knows exactly what it wants. Its three makers are seemingly in perfect accord as to what they want to say about a tradition-pound treadmill whose back-forth, up-down existence is the phenomenological stuff of this movie, what other movies leave out. The hallway scenes – which take on a shoving force and awkward angularity as Seyrig’s one-track woman goes over the same tasks, errands, exits, and entrances – convey her driven state of mind. With its sculptural capture of hallway surfaces and the unchanging gaze of the factual camera, Seyrig’s force as a human metronome hits the spectator with the monotony and poignance of such a life. When this movie’s going right, it makes the spectator aware not only of repetitiousness but of the actual duration of a commonplace act. What’s wonderful is that we are made to feel the length of time it takes water to filter through in coffee-making, the length of time a sponge bath consumes, the number of spoonfuls it takes to eat soup, the number of steps from the kitchen stove to dining-room table, how many floors it takes the elevator to move Jeanne from her flat to the ground.
In the morning Seyrig-Dielman awakes to the alarm. She is buried inside the voluminous, white, linen-encased comforter which is like a tidal wave across the entire lower half of the screen. Next to this arctic white mass is a dark-looming wardrobe, and at the foot of the bed a window opens up into the room. Jeanne throws off the covers in one gesture, gets up and stands at the open window, looking out as she puts on her pale-blue flannel robe. She stands abstracted, still groggy, buttoning her robe. A hard, minimal space, with early-morning air wafting through a modern composition, thrusts each shape at the audience as though the surface of the form had been flattened and weighted.
Within this sharp, cold dampness (it is one of the few moments of distinct climate in a largely indoor film), Jeanne moves to the kitchen, beginning the elaborate start of the daily ritual, grinding the coffee, putting on the kettle, polishing her son Sylvain’s shoes, setting the kitchen table for his breakfast. The kitchen is like a shallow stage of black and white tiles and green curtains, a stage that has a peculiar still-shot-shallowness and seems estranged, cut off from neighbors, the rest of the city. As in Vermeer’s equally bounded painting, pettiness and grandness are blended in a seamless domesticity in which every item carries precise information and registers within a color that looks both slow and full.
Her traits are those of a monumentally efficient housewife, totally routinized, detail-obsessed. (A great example: she searches all over Brussels to match a button for a jacket.) Jeanne Dielman is brought up to a certain point of portrayal and then left an abstraction, a symbol of the repressed woman. Repressed in many ways: she can’t express herself in anything but formularized paths. She doesn’t know how to use language personally, and can only say things like “My son is a wonderful boy. I don’t know what I would do without him.” She serves the same meals in the same sequence each week.
Jeanne D., locked within her three-room flat existence, fits the conditions of a structural film to a T or a D. Her life unfolds in perfect mathematical inhale-exhale clarity, first running well and then at midpoint falling apart over the same routines. The conditions of a minimal underground classic – that the shape of a film be discernible in any single frame; that a single-camera strategy be the basis for the movie’s metaphysic and any situation within the film; that the repetitions of the camera, which is always obviously present, creates a spirituality; and that the field of examination be more or less static, durational, and unromanticized – couldn’t have found a better narrative than the one in which a life dedicated to perfection breeds its opposite, an apocalypse of sinister results.
The movie’s key is that it presents one full day as the handy heroine’s norm, and then shows it spinning out of control midway in the tragedy when the wooden Jeanne is jolted. Her attention, which till now has been exclusively focused on timing (her paid coital encounters are timed to fit into the act of boiling potatoes for her momma-regulated son’s dinner), is distracted by a new bedroom experience with her second day’s customer. Only after having seen a normal twenty-four-hour cycle does a spectator discern the signals of Seyrig’s distress. The potatoes burn because she’s washed the tub before taking the spuds off the fire; her hair is allowed to escape from its helmet-like perfection (“Your hair’s all tousled” is her son’s flat, Bressonian remark); she forgets to turn on the radio after dinner, and can’t concentrate on a letter to her sister Fernande. “No inspiration,” asks Sylvain from the couch.
With its still-shot vision and durational attitude toward recording chores in full, Seyrig’s ladylike stylization stimulates speculations of all types. Akerman’s probable reaction to such spectator-psychology work would probably be boredom: “O.K., if you want to find a polemic against the nuclear family, go right ahead.” But the fact is that the movie proves itself by generating intellectual action. It is no minor plus, the wealth of questions that are thrown up (Is this a diatribe against housework? Is it a Marxian examination of the isolated individual in an every-man-for-himself society?) to keep earnest eggheads ruminating long after its handsome image and flat sculpted shapes have disappeared.
In the background of its three artists are such prestigious Manhattanites as Robert Frank, Annette Michelson, Yvonne Rainer, Mike Snow, P. Adams Sitney, ad infinitum. These and other voices echo through this acute and impressive work: the look of the film, its geometric clarity (Ozu, Straub, Snow), the heroine’s psychology and behavior (Buñuel and Bresson), the script’s coexistence of respectability and prostitution (Belle de jour and Godard’s Two or Three Things): As in Buñuel’s El, the fetishistic handling of items that resonate sexuality gives a movie that is closemouthed and dour a lot of humor, intentional or not. Basically, three women are insisting that the conventional world of a woman be seen straight in a film that is stylistically somewhat domesticated, being a delta of the most influential style-content moves in the less straight film world – the one called variously as radical, visionary, avant-garde, or underground.
Partly it is the early Warhol gig: almost like a silent movie, no music, very little dialogue, a self-willed woman’s working is pinned by one unbudging four-to-five-feet-high camera. As in Warhol’s The Nude Restaurant or Bike Boy, a movie that is stylized from first to last moment makes a theater of the mundane act of Jeanne’s every chore. The final long extended glimpse of a staring Jeanne seated at the dining-room table suggests the final Warhol shot freezing an image of his sleeper.
The same strategy which presents Gustav Leonhardt playing an entire harpsichord piece within one diagonal camera setup in Straub’s Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach is used to present Delphine Seyrig making a meat loaf. In both cases what is presented has complete documentary integrity within a self-contained frame. A virtuoso of the harpsichord or mixing bowl is being allowed a full imprint or registration without types of filmic spicing (fancy mimicry, seductive camera shots, editing for impact or psychology).
Though somewhat pat in comparison to its fiercer influences, the Akerman revelation is a political thrust against the box-office hype of the straight press, which has convinced audiences that it needs Vito Corleones, Johnny Guitars, or Carries, constant juicing, dramatic rises and falls for its satisfaction. The audience has been brainwashed to believe it can’t stand certain experiences, thanks to the Mekas propaganda wheel as well as the media hypesters. Watching the luminously magical space of a washing-smoothing-cooking-slicing-kneading near-peasant is particularly provocative in that it suggests a workable parlance between the structural and commercial film.
(Film Comment, vol. 13, n. 6, November/December 1977, pp. 47-50)
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