Wednesday, May 17, 2017

No Home Movie

NO HOME MOVIE               B                    
Belgium  France  (115 mi)  2015  d:  Chantal Akerman

It’s been years now that I have started to film all over the place, as soon as I sensed a shot.  Without purpose really, but with the feeling that one day these images would make a film or an installation.  I was letting myself go, by desire and by instinct.  Without a script, without a conscious project.  From these images were born three installations which were shown all over the place.  This spring, with Claire Atherton and Clémence Carré, I put together some twenty hours of images and sounds still without knowing where I was going.  And we started to sculpt the material.  These twenty hours became eight, then six, and then after a certain amount of time, two.  And there, we saw, we saw a film and I told myself: of course it is this film that I wanted to make.  Without admitting it to myself.  And, as one says, the red thread of this film is a character, a woman born in Poland, who arrives in Belgium in 1938 to flee the pogroms and the horror.  This woman is my mother.  Within and solely within her apartment in Brussels.
—Chantal Akerman, Fall 2014

A different kind of film, shot over the course of several years, where Akerman was never clear what might develop.  There is no single narrative, as there are many narratives, where everything is open to the subjective perception and interpretation of the viewer.  With an inside as well as outside story that are equally heartbreaking, it’s hard not to think of Akerman’s own death as she prepares a story about the final days in her own mother’s life, using abstract and experimental film styles, though what’s likely to stand out for most is the extreme personal nature of the film, offering unique insight into the filmmaker herself.  Mostly taking place inside the claustrophobic confines of her mother’s apartment in Brussels, it’s impossible not to compare the mood and pace of the film with Akerman’s earlier masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce,1080 Bruxelles (1975), which was modeled after a young girl infatuated with the movements of her mother around the house, at times moving like an animal pacing back and forth, as if stuck inside a cage, making precise movements from room to room, where the swiftness and speed of foot can be traced to a single-minded purpose for each and every action.  Through the passing of time, there is nearly no movement now, as her mother sits at a table or in a chair, and can only be seen walking very short distances, where the sense of individual purpose and conviction are gone, as now there is a health attendant (Clara) at her side to help her eat and clean up after herself, where she is seen in a fragile and often forgetful state.  Akerman pesters her with questions from behind the camera, an energetic force to be reckoned with, as now she’s the one that moves around a lot, a globetrotter traveling from city to city, leading a busy life, while her mother in a self-imposed exile rarely leaves the home at all other than to take short walks.  Anyone who’s sat at the bedside of an ailing parent on the verge of death understands this process, as it can take days or weeks, but the end is near, where there’s a sense of anguish and despair about the inevitability of a certain finality that haunts us to the core, a feeling that’s hard to shake, even long afterwards.  While you may try to offer comfort and pay attention to them, it’s also clear that they sense your lurking presence, where in most instances you haven’t been there, sitting at their side, as you’ve been off somewhere living your own life, so this closeness and constant attention may not be familiar territory, making them uncomfortable suddenly being the center of attention, as it may bring attention to just how feeble and helpless they are. 

The worst part of being old and sick is losing one’s sense of independence, as in one’s mind, they can still be as capable as ever, it’s just the body that wears down, something no one wishes to dwell upon, but it’s a reality.  While the focus of the film is Akerman’s mother Natalia, the overly detached style is all Akerman, using a minimalist approach with no music, background information, or accompanying narration, with oblique shots of doorways, halls, and empty rooms, along with long shots that meticulously document the mundane aspects of everyday life, chronicling the final months inside her home, including the barren emptiness of her existence, while also concerned with providing a sense of time as it is lived by her mother, separated in distance from the rest of her family.  Reflecting a sense of dislocation and a yearning for closer contact, Akerman includes Skype conversations, where her daughter in Oklahoma or New York can communicate with her mother in Brussels, and though they don’t amount to much in terms of a developing storyline, it does reveal the degree of affection and personal endearment Akerman has for her mother, always sent with plenty of love and kisses.  Perhaps the most extended sequence is a conversation in her mother’s kitchen with Akerman resurrecting her mother’s history as a Holocaust survivor, a Polish Jew losing her own parents in Auschwitz, where the pogroms and targeting of Jews led to her and her husband eventually taking refuge in Belgium in the late 30’s.  It’s a subject Natalie has difficulty with, preferring not to talk about it, never mentioning her experience in the death camps, but her daughter has a charming way of probing the subject, reminding her that her father was a communist who refused to wear the Jewish star, who understood early on exactly what was happening, where it all feels so natural when discussed through a mother and daughter relationship.  To this end, the film opens with an extended shot of a tree in the desert somehow surviving harsh winds in a desolate climate, a metaphor for those surviving Jewish families who have somehow endured.  Tracking shots of an endless Israeli desert also provide much of the film content, including one of telephone wires stretching out into the distant horizon, a mammoth project in labor that was meant to allow people to better communicate with each other, while now they are nearly obsolete, replaced by satellite communications and cell phones. 

“All you have is time,” Akerman once told an interviewer.  “In my films you are aware of every second passing by.  Through your body.  You are facing yourself…You’re face to face with the Other.  It’s from this crucial face-to-face that your sense of responsibility begins … That’s my idea of ethics.  It’s why I want equality, always, between the image and the spectator.  Or the passage from one unconscious toward the other.”

Not everyone will like this film, which will have a significantly personalized effect, depending on the viewer, as it may be too spare and ambiguous for some, while overly chatty for others, yet movingly transcendent for a few, expressing a blend of melancholy and humor, the film is an intimate portrayal of everyday life in the Akerman family, filled with an enormous affection between mother and daughters.  As Natalie’s health declines, she is surrounded by more people, as Chantal’s sister Sylviane arrives to help, with both making their best efforts to keep her awake, knowing that any one of her brief slumbers may be her last.  Curiously, we see signs of her mother’s presence even when she’s not there, such as an empty backyard lawn chair that is shown repeatedly, disheveled beds that show signs someone is living there, or the sounds of a vacuum cleaner can be heard in empty rooms with no one present.  A pervasive sense of death is everywhere, looming in the emptiness of the quiet spaces, where at times we’re unable to tell if there’s even a person in the room, as all we hear is the dull drone of a television.  Natalie tends to doze off frequently, asleep in her recliner chair, where it comes as no surprise when she’s finally gone.  But the pace of the film changes, becoming quicker, darker, confused even, caught in enclosed spaces, trapped with no way out.  There’s an exquisite shot in bleached out color, completely overexposed, saturated by nothing but light, as it moves from the darkened room past the curtains to a door opening to the outside and flurrying away, like a spirit released.  After that shot, there’s little peace to be found, only an overriding sadness permeating throughout an empty room, with a lengthy, unbroken shot of the world left behind, with everything all in place, where behind the camera one can hear Akerman sobbing, a place where art and the personal converge into the same language, allowing it to linger, as if forever, but we knew it would soon be extinguished forever.  Natalie died in April 2014, where this film was released nearly a year and a half later, yet resonating even more fully is the knowledge that in October 2015 Chantal Akerman took her own life.  Apparently unable to come to grips with the idea that she no longer had a home to return to, no refuge from the storm, this last piece of film is the artist’s final message, where one can read all sorts of things into it, inviting reflections on themes of loss, absence, and the eternal exile of the scattered Jewish homeland, but mostly there’s an overwhelming sadness at the thought that our existence on earth is held together by such fragile threads, a tenuous grasp where at any time one can simply let go.  It’s impossible to understand the weight of that kind of grief, especially when most of the film is spent expressing such an enduring love, as it’s clear Natalie had a special place reserved for both of her daughters.  In her absence, Akerman could no longer live in the bleak emptiness of a world without her, allowing the darkness to force out all light, becoming exiled from the only living existence she knew, yet her films will live in perpetuity, like an eternal flame, providing faith for the abandoned and a voice for the voiceless. 

Completed a year and a half after the latter’s passing, the film is a companion piece to Ma Mère Rit (My Mother is Laughing) (still untranslated in English) that was published in 2013. The book is a chronicle of Natalia’s last months, after a series of health mishaps (broken shoulder, pulmonary embolism) that kept her confined to her apartment in Brussels under the care of a Latin American woman, Clara, after a major scare while she was visiting her younger daughter, Sylviane, in Mexico. Chantal, who teaches in New York and rents a flat in Harlem, comes and goes, spends a bit of time in Brussels where she tries to write. The film is a sort of anamorphosis of the book: we find these moments in No Home Movie, but spatialized, choreographed (as an echo, as so many have noted, of Jeanne Dielman), reaching out to us, thanks to the ever-structuring absence of reverse angle shot.

The bridge between “no home” (the shots taken là-bas, the absence), and “home movie” (conversations with Natalia at the kitchen table or in the living room, views of or from the Brussels apartment), are the Skype sequences, and they are also the most emotional, as well as the ones that reflect the most Akerman’s personality. As always, Natalia complains that her daughter “tells her nothing.” “I have nothing to say, I teach, I see my students, I eat, I walk the dog…” Then comes the moment to hang up: “I have work to do.” Suddenly the banal becomes precious. “A big kiss, Maman, now I am hanging up.” A few more words are exchanged. “Now I really have to hang up. I kiss you a lot.” More small talk. “Maman, I want to give you a big kiss.” Etc… She can’t hang up. Time is missing from time. Time is folding upon itself, and, subjected to the difficult task of compensating for the spatial distance, stutters, stumbles, bites its own tail, gasps for air, bursts out laughing, mocking its own nothingness. But tenderly. Because time is all they had, this moment flattened onto a small screen, knowing that the time would come when the screen would only reflect an empty space. And then two empty spaces. They both knew it. Maybe. Chantal knew it.

One day I even wanted to kill myself but smiling, and, above all, without forgetting to smile as if this was an inconsequential gesture.  And it was, since I survived.  I survived everything till now, and I have often wanted to commit suicide.  But I would tell myself I cannot do this to my mother. After, when she is no longer here.5

Of all the tributes and obituaries written on Akerman’s death, this one felt more profoundly meaningful than any of the others, by Willow Maclay, October 6, 2015,  Curtsies and Hand Grenades: Chantal Akerman  

As a 16 year old not-out-yet trans girl I had little reason to leave the confines of my bedroom. I wrote in journals about the pain I was experiencing in day to day life just by existing as a false version of myself, the gender dysphoria that seemed the permanently stagnate my every move, and the frustration of knowing that I had no real home to relax in either by body or through family. This intensely introspective period of my life saw my writing flourish at the expense of my mental health, but I figured out the type of person that I was supposed to be, and how I could go about accomplishing these goals of womanhood. I also saw my growth as a cinephile become a fixture of my everyday life. I wasn’t going to school, but every day I found something new in cinema to give me reason to wake up in the morning. During all of that time though I could never find something that so resolutely affected me in the way that Chantal Akerman’s movies did. The first movie of hers that I ever saw was Je, Tu, Il, Elle and I was struck by the first section where Chantal moves about her apartment writing about herself, and her ideas. This felt like what I was going through at the time. The interior space, the singular experience, the personal writing, the repetition. Chantal Akerman was filming something that felt like my life. I remember jotting down “I wish I could make movies like this” in my diary afterward. This experience kickstarted a love affair I had with her work that I’ve never had with any other filmmaker. 

In the late 2000s there really wasn't filmmaking or television about transgender characters beyond ridiculing those people or having them play corpses. Finding relatable cinema has always been a game of looking for subtext or tonality that replicates personal feelings. My queerness is insular and deeply ingrained in my body. I like to shed my skin when I engage with art and feel reborn into someone that feels prouder of who I am. The lyrics of Donna Dresch and Kathleen Hanna were scribbled all over my walls in places my parents dare not look. My little secret of who I really was, and books by Alison Bechdel brought to me tears, because she was wrangling with anxiety over herself that was a constant feeling for me as well. Chantal Akerman did the same things for me, but in cinema. Her interior worlds felt like they lacked freedom. They were jails. Being closeted was nothing short of demoralizing so to see something so deeply personal reflected in her hallways, small rooms and spaces inhabited by women not made for this world felt like my space. Akerman’s cinema was more of a home for me than anything I ever lived through up until last year, and her characters were versions of myself I could see existing.  

It has always been baffling to me that Akerman’s cinema has been described as detached, because I have the opposite experience with her work. I think back to that quote in Jeanne Dielman about her son not understanding, because he wasn’t a woman, and I think this experience could hold true for why her cinema has never been accepted into a generalized canon as much as it should, because film criticism is a field inhabited mostly by men. Akerman has always laid herself out there for the world to see. She is a deeply personal filmmaker whose cinema has always represented her life in some way. The holocaust is a running theme in her work, as much as her relationship with her mother, queerness, art, and movement. She could never be pinned down to one specific type of movie so she’s often worked in both narrative and documentary, experimental cinema, musicals, romance- and so much of it vital to her experiences.  

Even recently I have found my relationship with Akerman’s work expanding into new areas. I haven’t seen my mother in 18 months, and our relationship is fractured to say the least, but she sends me letters. She talks about the experience of losing me, and wanting to see me again. She is sad that she hasn’t seen me in as long as she has, but she knows I’m working towards living my life in a way that is representative of who I am. She always ends each letter hoping to hear back from me as soon as possible. She worries. I put on News From Home the other day in preparation for a piece on her now final film No Home Movie, and I was moved by the similarities between the way my mother and Chantal’s mother reacted to each of us moving away. They’re so very similar and it became apparent to me for the first time that maybe this is what a mother/daughter relationship feels like. It’s complicated and messy, but there’s a lot of love to be shared between us. I cried at that revelation. Akerman’s movies have always felt symbiotic- like they come out of some place within her that I feel personally connected to even though I never had the chance of meeting her. The type of effect she had on my life is nothing short of profound, and it has to ring true for other women.  

I woke up this morning to the news that she had passed, and from reports it was a suicide. I sobbed into the shoulder of the man who gave me a physical home over the woman whose cinema sheltered me in a cinematic one. I am gutted. I feel like part of my soul was removed when I heard this news. She felt like family. I miss her so much. 

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