Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Brian Huser: IOHTE

The San Francisco Bay Area is still home to a rich cinephilic culture nurtured in large part by a diverse array of cinemas, programmers and moviegoers. I'm honored to present a selection of favorite screenings experienced by local cinephiles in 2015. An index of participants can be found here.

IOHTE contributor Brian Huser teaches high school mathematics in Oakland, CA and holds a degree in film and media studies from Swarthmore College.

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD: The Story of Film
Chantal Akerman’s passing in October shook me like it shook so many of us. There’s nothing I can add to the impassioned and brilliant memorial writing that followed; I won’t try. I will try to convey what it was like to return to Jeanne Dielman the following month at the Castro Theatre.

I thought, wrote, and talked about Jeanne Dielman ad nauseam in college. (It even catalyzed one of my closest friendships of those years.) The film entranced me, and I often reflected on what made it so entrancing—about the experience of watching it. At the Castro, this experience differed from what I remembered. Delphine Seyrig’s gestural performance and the apartment’s dull-yet-sensuous surfaces still entranced; what had changed was that the film was newly tragic and terrifying. Jeanne appeared this time not just as an enigmatic laboring body, but as a character with a rich psychological interior, living out a story.

One image took on new significance. At the first day’s close, the film cuts to Jeanne sitting on her bed with her back to the camera. There is a brief, maybe two-second pause. For the first time, I sensed a premonition of the film’s distressing second half in that pause. I felt that Jeanne, too, had a premonition. Inextricable from this image’s new premonitory quality was its sudden resonance with other images from Akerman’s life and work: Ariane pausing to look at the sea shortly before (maybe) committing suicide in La Captive; Akerman telling interviewer Nicole Brenez that her depression had led her to spend too much time in bed.

I now understand that through this constellation of images, I sought to narrativize both Jeanne’s pause and Chantal Akerman’s death, conflating two inexplicable and terrible events, one actual and one fictional. Why? I had returned to Jeanne Dielman to mourn for an artist whose work has moved me; in subsuming what is inexplicable and abject about death, in providing coherent meaning, narratives reassure. I grasped at the bits and pieces of drama in Jeanne Dielman, and so they came alive in a way they never quite had for me, hence the film’s modulation into drama.

Jeanne Dielman, however, does not so easily accommodate that. The power of Jeanne’s pause is not any transparent window it provides into Jeanne’s psychology but rather its—the image’s, the pause’s—opacity. The question of what arrests Jeanne’s movement is irresolvable. Gesture, body, and vocal intonation are not presented solely in service of psychological depth, but persist as material-in-itself. When we crave coherent narrative meaning, we can project onto this material, but it remains, defiant of our attempts to subsume it. It asserts its particularity and its presence independent of any narrative.

This presence, too, reassures. Akerman’s cinema is a powerful footprint. Its sensuous tactility and its intimate, personal nature make it, perhaps, a uniquely powerful footprint. Isn’t there something ritualistic in sitting amidst an audience and communing with material traces of the past, embalmed in celluloid? Ritual is such a comfort in mourning.

Thanks to Brian Darr for generously offering me this space to write. I am indebted also to Ivone Margulies, whose scholarly work on Akerman’s cinema pervades my own sense of it. Those interested in Akerman’s cinema or in academic film criticism more generally should read her incredible book Nothing Happens. Finally, I am grateful to the Castro for programming Jeanne Dielman on 35mm at a time when I needed to see it.


  1. Always great to attach a countenance to such an impassioned commentary. Nice to meet you yesterday evening at the PFA screening, Brian.

    1. The pleasure was mine, Michael! Happy to see you again today as well.