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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, June 08, 2020

entry arrow10:00 AM | The Film Meme No. 44

[44th of 100]. Let me put down some things that might prove an obstacle to your watching Chantal Akerman's 1975 masterpiece. It is 3 hours and 45 minutes long. It is about a homely, middle-aged Belgian housewife named Jeanne Dielman. And the story consists of three acts, composed mostly of long shots, where we follow our protagonist going about her daily household chores: cleaning the house, mending clothes, cooking meals, and, well, hooking up on the side with gentleman callers for some extra income. [There's also a murder.] Sounds like a fun time, right? Truth to tell, the movie is not fun -- but it is totally absorbing. There is something fascinating about watching another human being go about his or her task in long, unbroken takes and in various degrees of concentration. I'm not sure why but apparently it's a thing: it's called "slow cinema," and it has found an unlikely popular niche. There's a TV show in Norway, for example, where millions of people have tuned in to watch footage of trains passing through landscapes, or boats cruising shorelines for hours and hours. Nothing happens, and that is everything. [Or does nothing really happen in "nothing"?] But to go back to the quotidian chronicle of Jeanne Dielman's thorough housekeeping, the faithfulness of the camera's absorption into her work soon begins to create a message. We have been brainwashed by our patriarchal culture to believe that the domestic sphere of life do not make for great narratives -- hence our canons of literature [or cinema] are usually filled with stories of men doing manly things, like going off to war or engaging in assorted manly conflicts, taking note of domestic stories only as tokens [hello, Jane Austen!] or as something to completely ignore, because not important. But here is a film that relentlessly offers only the details of housekeeping, invariably telling you, "Take note of this. Take note of this. Take note of this." Remember what Amy said to Jo near the conclusion of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women? Jo thinks that the new book she's writing will not create a stir: “Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance.” But her sister Amy wisely responds, “Maybe. We don’t see these things as important because people don’t write about them.” "No," Jo replies, "writing doesn't confer importance, it reflects it." And then Amy says, "I don't think so. Writing them will make them more important." And that brings me back to Akerman's film: her act of recording Dielman's domestic chores gives them a narrative importance in cinema. If we can go through 20 minutes of war carnage in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, we can go through three hours of a woman washing dishes. But Akerman is interested in doing more: she gives this domestic focus a double-edged sword. Because we actually soon see a woman trapped in a box, not allowed to be more than just a slave to the domestic life. And gradually the film becomes a chronicle of her breaking down little by little, and by the time we get to the end the story has become a tragedy. I love the complexities of this film. I didn't get to see or hear about this film until about 2015, when I was invited to a party by a friend, and her husband just happened to be screening this film while the party was on-going. [I know! Such a strange film to screen in a party -- but then again, I have marvelously strange friends.] I was hooked. Sometimes I screen the film, too, when I go about the task of cleaning my apartment, Jeanne Delmain's household chores reflecting my own. And it deepens with every viewing, teaching me about relevance, about interiority, about the significance of the mundane in our existence. What's the film?

For the introduction to this meme, read here.

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