This is a blog written last year (for Women’s Film and Television History Network), on the first screening of Akerman’s last film and its accompanying exhibition. Although the exhibition has finished, I hope this captures an idea of these intense films as the moving and powerful No Home Movie is released in the U.K.
The two-year retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s films, curated by Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts under the title A Nos Amours, had its last screening on Friday 30th October (2015) at the Regent Street Cinema, with her latest film No Home Movie (2015). Following Akerman’s recent tragic death, there was still a palpable sense of shock, and an appropriately emotional and dignified introduction was given by Akerman’s long-term collaborator and editor, Claire Atherton. She has been in London for the last fortnight helping to curate the NOW exhibition, the first complete showing of some of Akerman’s installation works, which is at Ambika P3, a gallery space at the University of Westminster (exhibited until 6th December 2015). Both the film and Akerman’s installation work are simultaneously revelatory and quintessentially Akerman and demand to be seen. Below, are some brief, first impressions.
The large, light space has been converted into something very subterranean and dark to suit the films’ projection and their emotion. In a mixture of single films, often with an audio commentary, and multi-screen installations, there is no single dimension, and the choices made in this report are idiosyncratic ones. In a piece entitled Maniac Summer (2009), a large-screen projects images including Akerman working in her flat, families playing outside in a park and a street scene. Along a perpendicular wall, the images appear to dissolve and deteriorate, turn to black and white, and, on the facing wall, coalesce into abstraction. Staying within that room over an extended period brings a shift in perception of time and space and a move beyond observing simple juxtapositions, and, in a very Akerman-like manner, the sheer intensity (if given time) breaks through to something much more experiential. The accompanying notes suggest this work fits with her commitment to exploring the legacy of the Holocaust: “looking for, and finding, traces, shadows, remnants” since, given the continent’s recent history: “what else should a European be sensible of?”. Her mother grew up in Poland and was imprisoned in Auschwitz, and in the work D’Est: au bord de la fiction (1995), a room is filled with rows of televisions, divided into groups of three, showing footage from Akerman’s journey across Eastern Europe. The filmmaker voices a poetic monologue in an accompanying video, about a journey through a history that no longer has a capital H.
The daughter’s relationship with the mother is everywhere in this exhibition as it is in No Home Movie (2015). During Maniac Shadows (2013), their outlines move across the beach – together and apart. Elsewhere, Akerman on screen, with the merest backlight highlighting her figure, reads from a memoir about her mother’s failing health. Her trademark warm, throaty, strongly-accented voice (pervading the whole exhibition) contributes to this piece’s emotion. And, as Akerman’s work has been concerned with many forms of grief, so this exhibition itself has become a site of loss, vividly representing her simultaneous presence and her absence.
Akerman’s mother passed away last year, and she is the central figure of No Home Movie, which also includes Akerman’s sister, Sylviane (who attended both the screening and the exhibition). Scenes capture aspects of family life with their ailing mother in her Belgian flat very realistically, with flashes of extremely relatable family tension between them. Abstract sequences from Akerman’s filmmaking travels punctuate the motionless camera witnessing daily rhythms inside the flat. Maman moves in and out of shot as does Akerman and also the home helpers; we watch the domestic routine – of course, this reminds us of Jeanne Dielman 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) but there are also echoes, here, of the relationship of News from Home (1976-7). We hear her mother’s rhythmic throat noise, an effect of old age but musical, comforting and quickly familiar. Akerman commands a multiplicity of tones: abstract, intimate, contemplative and dryly humorous. As J Hoberman says in a quote at Ambika P3, “Comparable in force and originality to Godard or Fassbinder, Chantal Akerman is arguably the most important European director of her generation”. I would like to finish with another stolen phrase from a young woman who sat next to me and cried many times during the film. She said it had shown her the dignity of being human. If only Akerman had been there, as planned, to hear the comments and sustained applause that greeted the final credits.
I didn’t think much of American Hustle, but I liked The Fighter and David O’Russell’s 1999 film 3 Kings. Joy seems to have had very mixed reviews and has been treated as almost an independent film with a reduced release. It hasn’t been a massive box office success and its IMDB rating reflects audience disappointment. I wondered about seeing it but it does feature Jennifer Lawrence in the lead and she’s always watchable. So, I ended up as the sole audience member in a tea-time showing in my local 300 seat cinema. The manager even came into the auditorium to see if I was OK and to offer me blankets for the cold. And it was cold. But I still had a good time.
I’d heard radio reviews and read press reports that this was a mish-mash – several films jumbled up etc. etc. But I thought it was totally coherent with great narrative drive and 124 minutes sped by. Perhaps I was simply mesmerised by Ms Lawrence? I guess the film is a form of biopic about Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and other products for her company Ingenious Designs and subsequently an important presenter on the Home Shopping Network. I knew nothing about this so I think I followed the narrative that Russell and Bridesmaids writer Annie Mumolo created without every worrying about its ‘fidelity’ as a biopic.
What did strike me was the way in which Jennifer Lawrence completely controls the narrative – and dominates every scene. Given the strength of a cast that includes Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd and Virginia Madsen (and later Bradley Cooper) that’s no mean achievement. At one point I thought to myself, “she’s got it” – the star image of the great female icons of Studio Hollywood. This could be Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford. I was pleased to find these thoughts echoed by Graham Fuller in Sight & Sound (February). As Fuller points out, Russell presents a strong woman without the need of a love interest (the suggestion of how she might feel about the Bradley Cooper is at the end of the film and doesn’t drive the narrative). There is a brief moment where crime/physical/judicial jeopardy is a threat but other wise she is Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce sans sex and crime – and still riveting to watch. What does drive the narrative is her dysfunctional family and the shenanigans of small-scale manufacturing as an entrepreneurial activity. Since the ideological discourse of the film is about entrepreneurs and the American Dream (with an anecdote about David O. Selznik and Jennifer Jones underpinning Joy’s determination to make it) I should feel antipathy towards the film, but identification with Joy takes over. Fuller is again on the money with his reference to Erin Brockovich and perhaps what is attractive is the class struggle embodied in the narrative. The time period of the film did not feel very specific to me, partly because Russell uses such a wide range of popular songs and music from TV and films. I was quite happy watching the film as if it was a 1970s blue-collar film. The factory that Joy sets up reminded me of various films, including The Pajama Game (1957) with Doris Day and, much more recently, the sweat shop in Real Women Have Curves (2002). Watching various trailers and online promotional features, it’s evident that Russell had the rights to a lot of music material, some of which he uses very well. I was most affected by his use of ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Buffalo Springfield, but also puzzled by the preponderance of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Is there some kind of commentary on Joy’s story in this?
I’m not sure why the film has been criticised for jumbling different genres. Perhaps it is the narrative strategy that allows Joy’s grandmother to have a voiceover narration or her mother to dominate the narrative at times via her immersion in soap opera worlds as a form of escape. Both these seemed fine to me as aspects of the influences, positive and negative on Joy’s story. The film is frequently referred to as a comedy. I suppose it is, but for me it was more like a melodrama. Two other thoughts that don’t seem to have got much attention elsewhere. One is the confirmation of the ‘women’s picture narrative’ via the best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) whose action at a crucial point saves Joy. The other is just to mention Édgar Ramírez, the Venezuelan actor who plays Joy’s ex-husband. I knew I’d seem him before and I later realised he was Carlos in the Olivier Assayas film about Carlos The Jackal.
I’m sure that there is a lot more to say about Joy and I would be interested in it as a student text – except it’s rather long at 124 minutes (though it isn’t too long as a narrative). In the third image above, you can get a flavour of the ‘overdetermined’ nature of Russell’s imagery. Having dealt with the opposition, Joy in her aviator shades, leather jacket and rough cut hair peers in a Christmas shop window in downtown Dallas. She looks at a Christmas display of a trainset with scenery and models as artificial snow falls from above the window (an interesting invention in itself). Joy is thinking about the world she created out of paper cut-outs, damaged in a row between her parents. I think it was Nat King Cole on the soundtrack and for me snowflakes always make me think of Citizen Kane. There are many commentators online who thought that Joy was boring. I despair.
Carol is a Christmas treat come early – but also a beautifully-made film that will endure. It’s an important film, not just because it’s a great love story which ends with at least the possibility of a happy outcome for two lovers, but also because it is made with such intelligence and love of cinema.
A great deal has already been written about the film and it comes complete with numerous interviews featuring its principal creators and actors so that we have a good idea of what director Todd Haynes was trying to do with Phyllis Nagy’s script. I don’t want to simply repeat what others have said so here are some personal observations.
My own reaction to the film was to be completely absorbed from the first frame. Is it really a 118 minutes long? There have been criticisms of the pacing but when each frame is so dazzling and the performances so strong we don’t need great pace as the narrative detail accrues so easily. If I had any expectations of what I was going to see they would have been about Highsmith as source material and Haynes as the re-interpreter of Sirk in Far From Heaven – both major pluses for me. The first realisation is that this isn’t Sirk. Haynes in his Sight and Sound (December 2015) interview with Ryan Gilbey suggests that Sirk takes a distanced, Brechtian view of American society in the mid-1950s, carefully using mise en scène to ‘display’ the structures of the middle-class world of the country club with bright colours and expressive lighting. By contrast Carol plunges us into a much murkier environment as the stills above demonstrate with their muted palettes of browns, greens and pinks. Often the characters are shot through rain-spattered windows, round corners and down corridors. The mise en scène constrains and traps the characters and we are ‘immersed’ in the narrative. This isn’t to suggest that the image is visually impoverished in some way. Sandy Powell is in charge of costumes and both the leads wear the clothes well. I’m going to have to watch Carol alongside Brooklyn to think about the different use of costumes for the same setting in time and place.
Carol is set very precisely over the Christmas and New Year period of 1953/3 with Eisenhower preparing for his presidency. America is still in the last days of Truman’s post-war recovery. The deadening conservatism of the affluent Eisenhower years critiqued by Sirk is still to come. Haynes’ partner in the visual project is his regular DP Ed Lachman (who was with him on Far From Heaven and the remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO). Lachman gives a fascinating account of his preparation for shooting Carol in a Variety interview. In particular, Lachman reveals the importance of a number of New York photographers of the period, shooting in colour. I spotted the obvious Edward Hopper homage but I didn’t know these photographers. One is Saul Leiter who died aged 89 in 2013. The image below shows the kind of shot which clearly influenced Lachman and Haynes.
Lachman reveals that:
. . . we actually looked at mid-century photographers who were photojournalists. A large part of them happened to be women, people like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt and then later Vivian Maier. These were photographers who were starting to experiment in colour. So that gave me the idea of trying to reference a visualisation of, let’s say, early Ektachrome, rather than Kodachrome, rather than colour negative. And that’s why the colours have this kind of coolness/warm mixture. I play with magentas and greens. The colour didn’t have a full spectrum the way colour is seen today.
I’ve tried to choose some images with bright reds from these photographers, partly because the vibrant reds of 1950s Technicolor/Eastmancolor melodramas are still there in Carol – and they stand out much more against the muted palette of the streets and rooms. Lachman and Haynes also decided to shoot on Super 16 filmstock, again in order to downgrade the bright colours of the Sirkian melodramas and to re-insert the grain which in modern digital photography can be artificially generated but never looks right. I did find the first few shots of the film disconcertingly grainy but I soon forgot about that. The screen in the cinema we attended was relatively small and I’m intrigued how the images would have held up on a bigger screen.
It should be apparent by now that as a visual narrative, Carol works superbly. The music works pretty well too, Carter Burwell’s score and the collection of early 1950s songs work to bring out the emotion of the different scenes. (You can find a list of the songs here.) Overall, I would call Carol a romantic melodrama. I found the romance completely convincing and the last scene stands alongside Nina Hoss in Phoenix as the ‘closing scene’ of the year for me. Both Blanchett and Mara say everything with their eyes – just like Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn.
Carol is still a melodrama and it’s also a ‘woman’s picture’. If it wasn’t for the ‘out’ lesbian affair, this could be a Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford picture with the husband who wants to take her daughter away from her as part of the divorce settlement and a ‘female best friend’ to talk things through with. Kyle Chandler as Carol’s husband ‘Harge’ (a name I’ve never heard before) is suitably ‘solid’– a very masculine figure who uses his heft in confronting Carol. At times he reminded me of Jack Carson who played a rather different role in the original Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford. Cate Blanchett plays Carol as a physically powerful woman, emphasised in some of the shots of her lying on a bed in those quite close-fitting early 50s dresses. She contrasts well with the slight and sensitive Rooney Mara as Therese.
Carol is more than just an updated, ‘modern’ version of a 1950s romance. The film couldn’t have been made in the early 1950s and now it has been made it puts Patricia Highsmith’s narrative firmly in the spotlight, demonstrating what is possible when talented people work with the best material and a real sense of purpose. C’est magnifique!
Here is what is in effect an ad for Varese Sarabande Records the company releasing the soundtrack. It gives a good indication of how the music creates a mood and how the cinematography described above works in practice:
This film by Mark Fell and Luke Fowler is a commission by the Pavilion and Hyde Park Picture House. The film was premiered at the Picture House on November 22nd: there will be further screening throughout the year. The cinema and the Pavilion have already collaborated on several art projects, revolving in some way round film and cinema. The audience was welcomed by Wendy Cook, General Manager of the Hyde Park, and Gill Park, the Director of the Pavilion. Gill commented that the Pavilion tends to works that ‘rub against the grain’, certainly the case with this film. Essentially the film is an example of montage – often rapidly changing and frequently discontinuous images and sound. The material in the film is worked up from an Archive project, including photographs, reports, minutes, publicity and associated materials, to which have been added, contemporary film, interviews and contemporary sound.
The Pavilion project was sited in the Park alongside the main Leeds University Campus and opened in 1983, and has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary.
The Pavilion was formed in 1983 with the stated aim of being the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography. Against a backdrop of heightened social, political and economic conflicts, the Pavilion set about turning the prevailing patriarchal image-culture inside-out.
The project has suffered ups and down, ‘a contested history’, and the loss of the original venue. That currently stands closed in the Park.
It took me a little time to get into the film but then it became increasingly interesting. The film uses 1200 black and white photographs from the archive filmed on a rostrum camera. Alongside these are a series of interview with artists who were part of or have some connection with the original Pavilion. And there are montages of material from the archive including local and more general material. And there is contemporary footage of people and places.
The photographs cover a range of subjects and settings: women’s’ activities, urban settings, the seaside, Yorkshire Gritstone . . . The parallel archive material is equally varied: minutes and such like from the early days of the Pavilion; posters and publicity; feminist leaflets and publications:
Most of the material is from the 1980s – and the local items bring back memories from that period: a shot through the window of the Victoria pub; the Hyde Park and University surrounds; a Punjabi teacher in Chapeltown; issues of Leeds Other Paper; The Video Vera project; the Leeds Animation Workshop . . .
The sense of what constituted The Pavilion and its significance relies extensively on the interviews. Each participant has selected a photograph [in one case two] from the archive. They describe this for the audience, though we only see the pictures tangentially. One participant commented on the difficulties she found in doing this.
These reminiscences include the developing work of the project: at one point an interviewee comments;
We really believed that working class women would come along and they didn’t.
Later the types of funding available favoured:
Working with the communities nearby – including Asian women and the children.
A central struggle against the objectification of women in photographic art produced examples of work in which young women were ‘demure, saucy and sexualised.’
The limitations of the industry reminded one interviewee that a woman always had
to work harder than anybody else.
The politics of feminism in the period are discussed. A young photographer commented when women criticised the work of another
I was scared of taking photographs of women because of that sort of comment.
And the politics of the colonized or imperialised countries raised questions about the autonomy of the subject, as a young woman,
someone who had little say in the photograph or how it was used.
An artist who presented a travelling exhibition of work shot on the Falls Road in Belfast recalled being arrested on the way to Rochdale and the exhibition being disrupted by a bomb threat.
The interviewees discussed theory, practice and important texts in the feminist movement. Laura Mulvey’s ideas get a mention as do the ideas and arguments by Selma James. I was intrigued by a reference to the ’Soviet Union’s first sexual manual.’ The journals and venues of the time appear, Radical Feminist, Who Needs Nurseries, The Other Cinema, . . . and the alternatives, The Kodak Girl ads, Marilyn standing over an air event, . . .
Towards the end there is a clip from the BBC Calendar in 1985 which offered a short profile the project. The presented welcomed ‘the ladies’: unperturbed they offered a concise description of the aims and work of The Pavilion.
The combination of different strands or changing or even competing images and sounds builds up into a strong sense of the ethos and achievements of the project. Given the ‘contested history’ there is amply space for audiences to assess and develop their own interpretations of this.
The photographs were filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera and much of the archive material is also from rostrum work. The editing of this with film and interviews builds up a complex tapestry of memories and meanings. There is a memorable shot of the camera person shot in a mirror.
Whilst the images are in a form of montage much of the sound is asynchronous. At times there is also accompanying music and rhythms. For this première the sound track was relayed directly into the auditorium with staff moving the speakers at different points. For audiences sound often lack the specific spatial sense one can gain from images: I found this particular technique imaginative and very effective.
The work of the research and production teams was headed by Mark Fell, an indisciplinary artist, and Luke Fowler, who frequently works in 16mm. This makes it a feminist project directed by two men, interesting but also contestable. Two of the participants did just this. At a few points we also heard the questions put to the interviewees and there were occasions when they also contested the nature of the questions themselves. These add to the rich complexity of the film. It also engages with the changes in the feminist movements that have occurred since the original founding of The Pavilion.
I was impressed both with the film and the presentation – I shall certainly revisit it. Happily there was a substantial audience to enjoy the evening. There are at least six more screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House in November and December. The actual film runs for about 70 minutes and is well worth the time spent.