Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday

Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday

by Ivone Margulies

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Through films that alternate between containment, order, and symmetry on the one hand, and obsession, explosiveness, and a lack of control on the other, Chantal Akerman has gained a reputation as one of the most significant filmmakers working today. Her 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is widely regarded as the most important feminist film of that decade. In Nothing Happens, Ivone Margulies presents the first comprehensive study of this influential avant-garde Belgian filmmaker.
Margulies grounds her critical analysis in detailed discussions of Akerman’s work—from Saute ma ville, a 13-minute black-and-white film made in 1968, through Jeanne Dielman and Je tu il elle to the present. Focusing on the real-time representation of a woman’s everyday experience in Jeanne Dielman, Margulies brings the history of social and progressive realism and the filmmaker’s work into perspective. Pursuing two different but related lines of inquiry, she investigates an interest in the everyday that stretches from postwar neorealist cinema to the feminist rewriting of women’s history in the seventies. She then shows how Akerman’s “corporeal cinema” is informed by both American experiments with performance and duration and the layerings present in works by European modernists Bresson, Rohmer, and Dreyer. This analysis revises the tired opposition between realism and modernism in the cinema, defines Akerman’s minimal-hyperrealist aesthetics in contrast to Godard’s anti-illusionism, and reveals the inadequacies of popular characterizations of Akerman’s films as either simply modernist or feminist.
An essential book for students of Chantal Akerman’s work, Nothing Happens will also interest international film critics and scholars, filmmakers, art historians, and all readers concerned with feminist film theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399254
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 228
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Ivone Margulies is Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

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Nothing Happens

Chantal Akerman's Hyperrealist Everyday

By Ivone Margulies

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9925-4



Time for the Everyday in Postwar Realist Cinema

Thus the most realistic of the arts shares the common lot ... reality must inevitably elude it at some point.–André Bazin

The everyday is platitude, ... but this banality is also what is most important. It brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived ... it escapes every speculative formulation, perhaps all coherence, all regularity–Maurice Blanchot

"Nothing happens": this definition of the everyday is often appended to films and literature in which the representation's substratum of content seems at variance with the duration accorded it. Too much celluloid, too many words, too much time, is devoted to "nothing of interest." The precariousness of this extremely relative definition is more than a matter of taste. If the word "boring" has little critical value, after World War II the phrase "Nothing happens" becomes increasingly charged with a substantive, polemical valence.

In the immediate postwar period in Europe, as social reality became a concrete experience of subsistence (as opposed to the more immediate life-or-death concerns of the war years), the everyday seemed a more-than-worthy subject. The quotidian of De Sica's or of Zavattini's neorealism, characterized by the discovery of heroism in anonymous, urban, lower-middle-class and white-collar protagonists, is, however, quite different from the quotidian of Rossellini's Louis XIV. And it also differs from the quotidian distilled from the answers to the loaded existentialist query, "How happy are you with your life?"–the question that Rouch and Edgar Morin ask in the series of interviews in their Chronicle of a Summer (1960). My interest is in the way some filmmakers negotiate the link between the banal or quotidian and the political, and in the shifts in discursive ground that allow for such different approaches to everyday life. Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, of course, figures as a major text in any consideration of the modernist approach to the quotidian. The label "Nothing happens," often applied to Akerman's work, is key in defining that work's specificity–its equation of extension and intensity, of description and drama.

The inscription of subject matter neglected in traditional film tends to involve a corrective thrust, a setting straight of the image bank: if conventional cinema contains too few positive images of women and ethnic or other minority groups, it becomes the realist filmmaker's task to represent these groups. The inclusion of such "images between images" begets a spatiotemporal, as well as moral expansion of cinema.

The interest in extending the representation of reality reflects a desire to restore a phenomenological integrity to reality, or to dig up some covert causal or psychological motivational structure. Haunting the interest in a repressed or unrepresented reality is the idea of a hidden totality. It seems intrinsic to the "corrective thrust" of realism, then, that the effort should fall prey to a form of essentialism. Realist films entail more than a "documentary" record of reality; as we analyze them, it becomes clear that they seek adequacy in two main functions: first, to act as visual, aural analogies with perceptual reality, and second, to fulfill a notion of representativeness.

This second notion (addressed in my discussion of type in chapters 4 and 5) relates most directly to the prescription that any event or character presented will have a social dimension. The requirement complicates matters interestingly in confronting the inevitable reduction implicit in any filmic representation: how is one to represent a general idea, collectivity, or moral through the always indexical and particularizing powers of image and sound? This question (theoretically and practically addressed by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and expressionist and cinema nôvo filmmakers, among others) becomes especially pertinent when the director wants to avoid making association and symbolic leaps, and to fend off an impulse toward allegory–as in, for example, the version of realism represented by neorealism, and in the films of Warhol and those of Akerman. What is of interest for us here is the way that a consideration of the "images between images" can shape a transformative realism as well as an alternate notion of type, invalidating the essentialist question of a reality prior to representation.

The emphasis on dramatic equivalence between major and minor events that Bazin finds in neorealism directly recalls the formal structure of Jeanne Dielman. Given the obvious disparities between films such as Umberto D (1950), organized by the conventions of analytic editing, and Jeanne Dielman, which resolutely avoids point-of-view structuring, one has to account for the particularities of contexts ('50s humanism and '70s micropolitics, for example) and styles (social melodrama and minimalist narrative) that set these dedramatized cinemas apart. While both projects equate the mundane and the dramatic, they can easily serve radically different agendas.

Typical of neorealist attention to the marginal discourse is a certain idealism. In Jeanne Dielman, Akerman disables romantic connotations by giving to the mundane its proper, and heavy, weight and by channeling the disturbing effect of a minimal-hyperrealist style into a narrative with definite political resonances. Her attention to a subject matter of social interest is literal–fixed frame, extended take–and so stylized as almost to be stilted. In this way, she denotes the idea of display itself; her cinema focuses hyperbolically on what Cesare Zavattini claimed as the main requirement of neorealist cinema–"social attention." Indeed, in Jeanne Dielman this focus is quite extreme. Hans Jürgen Syberberg, Godard, Roberto Rossellini, and Jean-Marie Straub and Daniélle Huillet, among others, have all interpreted the demand for "social attention" as interchangeable with a temporal filmic focus on a single scene, situation, problem; but the relentless frontality of Akerman's display of "social attention" still surprises.

Along with extended duration the quotidian is undoubtedly the signifier par excellence of the realistic impulse. The possibility of covering the events evoked by the notion of the quotidian is, as we shall see, the main lure for the realist desire. Indeed, with various different emphases, what marks the anti-idealist move in postwar culture is the privileging of everyday life. The accent on the everyday–on nonspecialized labor, private life, unstructured or extrainstitutional activity or thought–as well as on the underlying materiality and concreteness of cinematic elements, provides the traditional conjunction of modernism, realism, and politics.

In the period between neorealism and Akerman's films, the intrusion of extraneous elements, or of a different tempo (when the minor event receives an attention involving expanded duration), was shaped as a reality surplus, a reality effect. In the films of this period, a number of strategies clearly function to make the everyday and material reality the signifier of the Real: the temporal equality accorded both significant and insignificant events; the programmatic foregrounding of materiality and visual concreteness (Robert Bresson, Straub and Huillet, Akerman); the use of amateur actors (De Sica, Zavattini, Jean Rouch, Rossellini); the reenactment of one's own experience (Zavattini, Antonioni, Rouch); and the use of real, literal time to depict events (Warhol, Akerman). That the quotidian generally resists direct representation in conventional cinema allows it to promise a "reserve" available to the realistic impulse. This reserve is precisely what realist cinema's various attempts at literalness or verisimilitude offer. As Maurice Blanchot writes, at first, the quotidian is defined in the negative, as, most immediately, the slice of life that is usually considered unworthy of narration. Whatever escapes denomination as some other part of life–work, leisure, etc.–confronts narration with a stubborn "stationary movement." Yet this "unnamable" serves a basic function: "to participate in the diverse figures of True, ... in the becoming of what occurs either below (economic and technical change) or above (philosophy, poetry, politics)."

What interests me here is the variety of ways in which the "unnamable" concept of the quotidian attained importance between the mid '40s and the mid '70s, while accumulating different connotations, different nodules of expressiveness. Umberto D, Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1966), and Akerman's work all chart a period in which phenomenology, existentialism, semiology, the Annales school, and feminism all in one way or another claimed the everyday as their object (or banner).

Charting the Everyday in Postwar Europe

Between the mid '40s and the mid '70s, questions of social reality and the everyday took vivid cinematic forms to represent a new focus of the postwar period–the privileging of materiality, of concrete existence and of social solidarity. Those concerns were tied not only to a generic humanist feeling, but to a Marxist sensibility geared toward analyzing material conditions.

The general critical interest in foregrounding minor events and occurrences is worth examining. Henri Lefebvre was the first to instill the notion of everyday life with theoretical currency; a Marxist, Lefebvre published the first volume of his Introduction à une critique de la vie quotidienne in 1947. Annales historian Fernand Braudel's "The Situation of History in 1950" suggests, following the work of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, that history needs to go beneath the surface of political events. The analyses of a history developing in a slow-paced rhythm–the longue durée–as well as the careful study of the fabric of the everyday life become the material for a New History that develops into the seventies. And Bazin's writings on cinematic realism appeared during the same postwar moment, suggesting a shared interest in everyday life on the part of cultural historians, sociologists, and critics.

The quotidian in this discussion occupies a double space: it is both the utopian space of change (what Lefebvre calls the "festival") and the elusive other in need of disclosure. In its very indefinability, its dissemination in the social fabric, it is the core of revolutionary potentiality. It "emerges," Lefebvre writes, "as a sociological point of feedback with a dual character": "it is the residuum (of all the possible specific and specialized activities outside social experience) and the product of society in general; it is the point of delicate balance and that where imbalance threatens." The situationist Guy Debord addresses this point "where imbalance threatens" in his "Perspectives for Conscious Alterations in Everyday Life," a talk he gave through a tape recorder in the "Conference of the Group for Research on Everyday Life," convened by Lefebvre in 1961. There Debord talks about the "useless, vulgar and disturbing concept of everyday life": "What makes for the difficulty of even recognizing a terrain of everyday life is not only the fact that it has already become the ... meeting ground of an empirical sociology and a conceptual elaboration; but also the fact that it ... happens to be the stake in any revolutionary renewal of culture and politics." Perhaps it is its resistance to conceptual representation that leads everyday life to be "policed and mystified by every means," to serve as "a sort of reservation for good natives who keep modern society running without understanding it."

Debord wrote these words at a time when the everyday had become the ground of a continual revolution, when to consider the concept of the everyday "would imply the necessity of an integral political judgement." By May 1968, a suspicion of representation, and of any form of social representativeness, encompassed every institution, including that of art cinema. Raoul Vaneigem, for instance, a member of the Situationist International, claimed that "Godard is to film what Lefebvre or Morin are to social critique: ... [Aragon's or Godard's collages] are nothing other than an attempt to interpret "détournement" in such a way as to bring about its recuperation by the dominant culture."

Aside from a territorial controversy (as to what art can resist commodification), what is of interest here is the role of the quotidian as a space where noninstitutionalized practices can unfold. The utopian dimension of the everyday seems to lie precisely in its resistance to institutionalization. At the same time, of course, the very attempt to frame the everyday brushes against the conventional sense of everydayness as repetitious routine. The quotidian stands, then, both for material reality and for the impossibility fully to account for it, to represent it. Hence the desire to represent materiality either concretely, by exacerbating cinematic elements, or thematically, by inscribing the signs of this reality (banal events, mundane gestures, actions irrelevant to the plot), becomes the trademark of a realist impulse.

In historicizing the interest in everyday life, Lefebvre relates how, in the period immediately after World War II, the hopes for a "second liberation"–the "social change that was to follow ... in the footsteps of political liberation"–had miscarried: "The workers were being dispossessed of their consciousness and attempts to build a new society based on this consciousness had not succeeded." Moreover, the model for a "new society" had been thrown in disrepute by the identification of Stalinist socialism with totalitarianism. During the postwar reconstruction in France, economic and social regeneration were mistakenly taken as the "building of a new society." What was actually happening was an increasing social bureaucratization, a process that included the Communist Party. Given the polarization effected by the cold war, however, Marxist intellectuals had trouble openly admitting that both Stalinist and Communist Party policies were informed by totalitarianism, and geared their energy instead toward analyzing the failure of postwar revolutionary consciousness: alienated consciousness in capitalist society. This analysis demanded a rethinking of the vesting of revolutionary energies in a working class that noticeably shared the aspirations of the bourgeoisie.

The perception of a new postwar society led intellectuals to reformulate humanism, Lefebvre writes, in a way that "did not aspire to enlist rhetoric and ideology in the cause of a reform of superstructures (Constitution, State, Government) but to 'alter existence.'" It was this new humanism that animated existentialism in its more popular and widespread version, visualizing the everyday as a space of continual commitment and choice. In a way, then, the energy around the concept of the everyday was nourished by disillusionment and disappointment over the rampant institutionalization of power after the war, in the spheres of leftist politics and academia as elsewhere.

Lefebvre's revision of his inaccurate understanding of capitalism as a localized (affecting mostly the infrastructure) rather than a widespread force went hand in hand with the emergence of critical terms geared toward capitalist society as a whole: consumer society, the "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption" (Lefebvre, 1971), the "compartmentalization of everyday life." Earlier, romantic notions of the worker as bearer of revolutionary consciousness–because closer to the sphere of nonspecialized labor and therefore more prone to alienation–were gradually replaced. In a self-critique in his Everyday Life in the Modern World, Lefebvre remarked that "the theory of everyday life had become contaminated by a form of populism.... It implied both an obsession with the working classes ... and a philosophical obsession with the genuineness concealed within the ambiguity of experience" (my italics). To renounce the myth of the working class, and other exploited groups, as exempt from bourgeois or capitalist values was perhaps the greatest step toward the acknowledgment of, and direct confrontation with, the recuperating force of capitalist society, prompting an understanding of alienation that went far beyond the context of labor. Incorporating Hegel's notion of alienation as subjective misrecognition (minus that notion's idealist contours), critics could see alienation as implicated in the very formation of subjective consciousness.

It is significant that the simultaneous efforts to redirect attention to material phenomena and to the movement of consciousness, to a worldly situation and to individual commitment and choice, had everyday life as their shared ground. It is indeed the everyday that allows for the precarious marriage of existentialism and Marxism. For both, at their most generous theoretical stretches, daily life is the arena where consciousness (class or subjective) and material reality need to be confronted. A recurring myth, however, lurks behind every new conceptualization of the everyday: that of some essential truth yet to be represented. The perceptual horizons of this myth are sketched above in the link between theories of everyday and the "philosophical obsession with the genuineness concealed within the ambiguity of experience." In slightly different arrangements these words reappear promoting the necessary affinity of cinema and phenomenology.


Excerpted from Nothing Happens by Ivone Margulies. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Chantal Akerman's Films: The Politics of the Singular 1

1. Nothing Happens: Time for the Everyday in Postwar Realist Cinema 21

Charting the Everyday in Postwar Europe 24

A Realism of Surfaces: Bazin and Neorealist Film 27

From Surface to Structure: Barthes, Godard, and the Textualization of Reality 33

Beyond Cinematic Postivism: The Antirescue Cinema of Andy Warhol 36

2. Toward a Corporeal Cinema: Theatricality in the '70s 42

The United States in Real Time: Minimal, Hyperreal, and Structural 48

Quotation Reconsidered: European "Theatrical" Cinema 54

3. The Equivalence of Events: Jeanne DIelman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles 65

Excess Description: Robbe-Grillet and Cinematic Hyperrealism 69

Bracketing Drama: The Other Scene 73

The Murder, and, and, and . . . : An Aesthetics of Homogeneity 80

The Automaton: Agency and Causality in Jeanne Dielman 88

4. Expanding the "I": Character in Experimental Feminist Narrative 100

The Lure of Center in Rainer's Work: A Cautionary Tale 104

The Eroded Index: Liminality in Je tu il elle 109

An Alogical, Fitful, Evidence 112

"Here Is": Redundant Description 118

A Mock Centrality: An A-individual Singularity 121

5. "Her" and Jeanne Dielman: Type as Commerce 128

For Example, "Her": Godard and the "Natural" Sign 131

Jeanne Dielman: An Exceptional Typicality 140

6. Forms of Address: Epistolary Performance, Monologue, and Bla Bla Bla 149

Epistolary Performance: News from Home 150

Talk Blocks: Meetings with Anna 154

Postscript: The Man with the Suitcase and A Filmmaker's Letter 161

What is Wrong with Signing? A Filmmaker's Letter 166

7. The Rhythm of Cliché: Akerman into the '90s 171

Eight Times "Oui": Singularity in Toute une nuit 173

Night and Day and Night: The Cycle Revisited 182

So Let's Sing: The Eighties and Window Shopping 185

Echoes from the East: Histoires D'Amérique and D'est 192

To Conclude: It Is Time 204

Filmography 213

Notes 215

Bibliography 247

Index 263

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