It’s twenty years ago. My
conception of what it means to have a home is strangely mediated by the fact
that I’ve never known not having one, never had any home but this room, with
books lining the walls, my favourite ones placed so high that I’d have to stand
on the table to reach them, so they could be kept as far from the world, as
possible. I’m still afraid of the dark.
a grotesque Minnie Mouse nightlight plugged into the wall, its eyeballs white
and worn from running my fingers over it as though it could tell me what the
future might bring. I run my fingers over the Minnie
Mouse eyeballs once, twice, thrice for luck and I go to bed. I go to bed but I
have a nightmare anyway, and I shriek like I’m dying. My dad comes running and
he tries to calm me. What’s the worst thing that could happen, he asks,
reasonably, stroking my hair. A monster under the bed? I’ll kill it with this
magic sword. An evil wizard in the closet? We’ll say a spell to wish him away. The
worst thing could happen, well, it’s not really so bad at all.
It’s twenty years later. I’m supposed to be working, but I’m distracted, my lover is supposed to meet me at home, but they’re a half hour late, messy haired and callous, because they like to make me wait. What’s the worst thing that could happen , I ask myself absently, like my father taught me to, years ago, a method to calm myself. They could be dead. That wouldn’t be so bad, I think to myself, uneasily, but I know that’s not true. I check my phone because my hands feel too idle. Liz has posted on tumblr – Chantal Akerman has died.
worst that could happen
? The truth is that, while I sit
here, idle and expectant, someone that I love could leave me.
Chantal Akerman’s last film is titled No Home Movie. Home, what even is it. I’m not sure but I know I want it. But maybe that’s just it. Home is a matter of wanting things. It’s about futurity, about forcing desire into a shape in which there has to be a beginning, middle and end. ‘Going home’ necessarily means a journey. It means finding a place to rest after all the time you’ve been roaming. One can have no home, but the implicit suggestion is that everybody wants one, or should. No Home Movie . Say it out loud though, short and curt, and you’ll hear the contempt in it. Home. I don’t want it. No future. No home.
Chantal Akerman’s first film, is titled Saute ma ville , which literally means blow up my town. It was a film that taught me how to breathe. A young woman, played by Chantal, arrives home. She seems to be accomplishing a number of household tasks, she drags flowers by their stems haphazardly through her door, she gets out any number of household items seemingly just to put them to use, methodically, rigorously. She seems to be preparing for something but she doesn’t know what. As she works, she hums, a sharp, unpleasant sound piercing the banality of her movements. It seems absurd, the tension is suspenseful but only because you can’t tell if it’s supposed to be comic. She becomes frenzied, she looks in the mirror and tries to clean it but starts laughing, or crying, joyously, at herself you can’t tell which. There is a pitch that becomes unsustainable but the only person who lacks certainty about what is about to unfold is you. The protagonist, there’s something she knows in the brusqueness of her gestures. No home. She leans over the stove and lights the gas on fire. There’s a bang, then black. No home movie.
In her post about Akerman’s death, Liz quotes an article that speculates about the cause for Akerman’s death, and the speculation surrounding her potential suicide makes me queasy, a form too easily imposed on the feminine.
“Friends said that Ms. Akerman had been in a dark emotional state after the death of her mother last year, and that she had had breakdowns. She had recently been hospitalized for depression…
Liz asks a simple question, one impossible to answer –“Can we live?”
There’s a bang, and then black. But, can’t we live?
No, but somehow Saute ma ville remains for me a form for living. The first time I watched it, I sat back in my chair, I laughed, a loose, pealing noise, not from happiness but from relief at its total refusal. The thing is that for Akerman, everything – art, life, death, identity, politics, exists in entwined architectural paradox. But sometimes all of that can be evident in a graceful gesture of - Saute ma ville . Blow up my town. You will only ever get only what I choose to give.
Akerman films are also a form about living, but more than living, they are about living as waiting. They are about how living is nothing but an endless series of motions, they are about the instrinsic nightmarishness of the present tense. It snowed for a very long time.
The sparse apartments, and streets of Akerman are never abstract. Instead, they circle and caress the material conditions of the void, and say This is life but is this living? And the answer is no, mostly; and yes, sometimes. There is value in the painful emptiness of real time, small elations and stupors in the very fabric of it, its grooves and ridges. There’s intent and rebellion in the narrative arcs despite the unintentional drama of how life just happens. And I waited.
I’m waiting for my lover to come home, but they’re not yet here and I’ve moved on to imagining who I’ll call first when I find out that yes, they’ve been in a car accident, shorn apart by metal; yes, they were jumped upon by strangers and beaten to a pulp; yes, that is why they are gone, all, better seeming reasons than quite simply, they don’t want to come to me. I feel loose and unmoored, I can’t find the ground. I try to eat something but I can’t bear it - i can’t. I tear the tip of my fingernail delicately with my teeth.
Home? It’s always been the dream. With Akerman, we are always at home but it is never ideal. I watch Chantal in Je tu il elle , waiting in an empty room, sweetened only with the taste of sugar, too-temporary, too-transient. We are in Jeanne Dielman’s apartment, trapped by the stifling domestic, we are in her city, in New York waiting for News from Home , amidst the traffic and the crowds, we are in the stiff and yet languidly generous still life of La Chambre , we are in ancestral East Germany, D’Est . In every Akerman film, home sweet home is a void even if it remains the center of breath, the point from which a heartbeat begins to radiate.
Watching, what I feel strongest always remains what is unseen – some impossible place beyond – the unspoken claustrophobia of feeling, somehow, always not at home.
I’m hungry. I’m a nightmare, I’m crying and railing and collapsing into the weight of anxiety. I can’t find the rigid inside parts of myself that remind me how I’ll be okay. I can’t find a form. My lover finally arrives. They hold me and tell me to settle, as though I’m a cat. But I’m sharp and defensive like a razor, I turn my head. I’m hungry, I say and I leave the room. I eat granola but it’s not what I’m hungry for. Akerman’s women are always hungry. I’m hungry, Anna says, ins Les rendez-vous d’Anna before she finds another friend, another lover, even her mother to fill a void. I’m hungry, the narrator says, in Je tu il elle , when she visits her ex-lover after days locked in her apartment with only a bag of sugar. More, she says, after she eats a piece of bread spread with nutella, in big, consuming bites. In Jai’faim Jai’froid , two teenage friends careen through the city, careless and carefree. Nothing means anything. They smoke and steal innocently. The banal conditions of a teenage schedule, instinctive, immediate, hungry.
The architect, Richard Neutra was influenced by the pop Freudian psychology of the 1950s, fascinated by the way in which objects and layouts in Freud’s office were designed to aid free association. Neutra went on to develop influential architectural design based on psychoanalytic surveys he sent out to clients and sought to develop a relationship with his clients not unlike the transferential relationship of psychoanalysis. In an age where Freud’s psychoanalysis had become but more of like suburban proposition, it seems unsurprising that, like Freud, many of Neutra’s clients were unhappy women, who believe that his approach could create curative environments for them within which they could fill a void, houses to make them feel as though they were enveloped in the embrace of a lover. A Neutra house become an empathetic mirror, something that gave a woman’s life form.
I’m hungry, but I refuse to believe that the world could give me any form that could cure me.
Jai’faim, Jai’froid. Akerman’s women might be hungry but they aren’t searching for a form. They aren’t even looking for a time, they don’t cater to the whim of the viewer to find a frame, a narrative, simply because they don’t need one. Instead, what one might call the realism of these films is affective, dynamic, moves beyond. “Queerness is not yet here,” Jose Munoz cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia , “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.”
Akerman films are not here,
they’re like Jose says, always in the there and then, never fully in the present.
They’re half memory. What she presents is only a surface upon which to stage
the affective landscape of a past. They lose as much as they find. We see always what is ghostly, what is haunting the architecture of the living even as it remains banal. To work in the present tense is also to inherit
the stolid impressions of the past. Which is to say, Akerman films build with
loss, with how it feels to be famished. When we see the two women make love
in Je tu il elle
, it isn’t romantic. They’re kneading at each other, fighting, and
pressing and slotting into where they can’t and pulling against the sharp
melding of their bodies into each other. What they are building aren’t bodies, or
an erotic, or even romance. Rather, they shape and reshape with and within each
other’s hunger and loss, memory and desire, both individual and with what is older than themselves, an age, ages.
I don’t want to find a
correct shape. I don’t need a cure, or a form. Because Chantal Akerman taught
me that I can build a space that responds to my desire. That cuts, or revenges
or breaks, but also that nourishes and weaves and bends. Like Jeanne says, “I want to build an architecture to inhabit with you”. Something not home, but
then and there. Not home, but somewhere else.
No Home Movie.
nowhere to which we could belong.