Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Chantal Akerman and the Rejection of Identity Politics

This will necessarily be a fairly short post, as most of my information is coming from a highly reputable source a few stray lines on Wikipedia.  You see, I recently watched Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 magnum opus, Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, an uber-realistic depiction of a few days in the life of a Belgian housewife (it features a potato-peeling scene, the high drama of which would not be matched until the potato content in Bela Tarr’s and Agnes Hranitsky’s The Turin Horse (2011)). 
Now, it’s not hard to make the argument that Jeanne Dielman is a feminist film, or rather: a film with a feminist message.  It’s depiction of the quiet desolation in Dielman’s life is unambiguous and heartbreaking.  But I’ve always been skeptical about the political labels that get attached to art.  Can a work of art be black? Or feminist? Or gay? Alberto Manguel raised this last question in the introduction to his anthology of gay short stories, Meanwhile, in Another Part of the Forest.  In order for a story to be gay, he asked, does it have to have a gay writer, gay subject matter, or both? If it’s a story by a straight writer about a gay subject, is that a gay story? Or vise-versa? And what is “gay subject matter?” There is a similarly vexed question in the title of Eavan Boland’s recent essay collection, A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming a Woman Poet.  And what is the difference between being a “woman poet” and just being a poet? We wouldn’t speak of a “man poet” (except maybe Robert Bly, but I don’t want to speak of him period).  And by describing a poet of the female sex as a “woman poet,” do we not ghettoize her and reduce the appreciation of her work? Do we not trivialize her artistic accomplishment with these labels, which seem to suggest that the artists in question are not pure artists but must be seen in a political light?  Does not Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o diminish his own work by insisting upon its African character? Can’t it just be art, as in the case of, say, Vladimir Nabokov or Jun’ichiro Tanizaki?

Chantal Akerman has evidently been troubled by these same questions (or so Wikipedia teasingly suggests).  In the article on Jeanne Dielman, it states that “Akerman was reluctant to be seen as a feminist filmmaker, stating that ‘I don’t think women’s cinema exists.’” And that’s certainly not to say that women don’t make films.  But it says that these films are not fundamentally distinct from the films made by men, and that we would be wrong to ghettoize them.  Akerman has expressed similar concerns about the reception of her 1974 film Je tu il elle, whose female protagonist engages in an extended sex scene with another woman, which led some to label the film as an example of “queer cinema.” Well, Akerman is having none of that.  Take it away, Wikipedia: “According to the book Images in the Dark by Raymond Murray, Akerman refused to have her work ghettoized and denied the New York Gay Film Festival the right to screen Je tu il elle. ‘I will never permit a film of mine to be shown in a gay film festival.’” Now, unfortunately, the Wiki doesn’t elaborate anymore on this subject, but Akerman’s stance on the issue is quite clear: she clearly wishes to be an artist, first and foremost, and not a woman artist or a gay artist. 

I wonder how she would respond to the way Wikipedia has labeled her, as the categories in which her article appears include: “Belgian women film directors,” “LGBT directors,” “LGBT Jews,” “Women artists,” “Belgian Jews,” and “LGBT people from Belgium.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ethno-Brechtian Pomegranate Orgy: Sergei Parajanov’s Ashik Kerib

In all of world cinema, there can be few oeuvres as wonderfully strange and original as Sergei Parajanov’s.  The great Soviet filmmaker directed a number of films, the first several of which were  made under the constraints of socialist realism and which he would later disavow; he is remembered chiefly for four mind-fucking films set in the Soviet Union’s many non-Russian cultures: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964), set in the Ukraine and probably his greatest film; The Color of Pomegranates (1968), set in Armenia; and The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984) and Ashik Kerib (1988), set in Georgia and Azerbaijan respectively and co-directed with Dodo Abashidze.  Parajanov himself (né Parajanian) was born to Armenian parents in Georgia and spent much of his career pissing of the Soviet government by mining the rich, pre-Russian cultures of the Caucasus.  Parajanov’s lack of productivity during the seventies can be attributed to his persecution at the hands of the Soviet government, which imprisoned him on false charges of homosexual rape and propagation of pornography.

The government hated the bizarre and innovative style that Parajanov came to utilize in his movies, a style so utterly unique that it makes Tarkovsky look mainstream by comparison.  Following the logic of dreams and obeying the compositional traditions of Armenian and Persian painting, his films (especially from The Color of Pomegranates onwards) dispense with most considerations of plot and characterization, instead providing the viewer with a rich series of expressive tableaux and oneiric transformations.
I have just seen the last of Parajanov’s four great films, 1988’s Ashik Kerib.  The film follows the adventures of a pre-modern Azeri minstrel (or ashik) who must travel the country in an effort to raise money to win the hand of his beloved, whose wealthy father demands a dowry of precious metals, rather than the talent and good looks possessed by Kerib.  What follows is a series of dance routines, musical performances, allegorical encounters, and enough swirling color to freak out even the most jaded of LSD-consumers.

As is typical of Parajanov’s films, there is no effort to maintain any semblance of realism in Kerib’s adventures.  Here’s a “tiger” he has to confront:

And here’s the final shot of the film, which, like the camera in Bergman’s Persona or Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, insistently reminds us that this is a film and that it is governed by the rules of cinema, not reality:

As a side-note, I’d like to acknowledge the role of Dodo Abashidze in making this film.  In discussions of Parajanov’s last two films, they’re usually treated as being strictly Parajanovian undertakings, but Abashidze’s name precedes Parajanov’s in the opening credits of Ashik Kerib.  I don’t know what the distribution of labor was, but to ignore Abashidze’s contribution is to do him—and the films—an injustice.