Monday, November 16, 2009

Long Durations

Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) Slowly, Surely Peeling Potatoes, from Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975) (Source)

"Here you will learn an extremely important truth", writes Charles Fourier in his delirious Theory of the Four Movements (Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales) (1808). "[T]he ages of happiness last seven times longer than the ages of unhappiness, like the one we have been living in for several thousand years … For 70,000 years, therefore, you will share in the happiness which is in store for the globe; so you should take an interest in this outline of the future revolutions which your planet will undergo." Fourier's book, as much a criticism of current scientific thought as an alternate (and audacious) history of the planet, is a description of a true longue durée. Reading Theory of the Four Movements therefore requires a double commitment: in addition to buying in to Fourier's own quasi-historicisms, there is also the physical act of reading through the lengthy text. There is the time depicted in the book, and then there is the time required to read it.

I use the word "physical" here quite literally. Reading is not, for the most part, the most physically demanding of activities. No strenuous muscle work is required. The worst injury one can get is, perhaps, eye strain. Recall the opening moments of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1981), when the author asks the reader to "Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat." All that is required is the reader's commitment, and such commitment can take an unspecified amount of time. Yet there are some instances when such commitments can be physically exacting for both audience and performer.

With a running time of 201 minutes, Chantal Akerman's 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not any longer than some of the more famous Cinemascope epics. For her film, Akerman details three days in the life of the titular character (played by Delphine Seyrig) with careful and painstaking detail thorugh the use of long takes. The camera neither tilts nor pans, and in some instances, only captures part of the action. Each day, we watch as Jeanne boils potatoes, makes up her bed, kneads meatloaf, ignites a furnace, reads the newspaper, makes coffee, and (you knew about this already) having sex with paying clients. Combined with sparse dialogue and an almost complete lack of sound, Akerman infuses Jeanne Dielman with a figurative and literal flatness. For the most part, a muted color palette complements the lack of deep focus shots, and yet the overall effect is much like that of a stationary security camera, a static sentinel recording events as they occur in real time.

Yet as the movie progresses, Akerman only alludes to the repetition of daily routines. Only some of these are depicted in all three days, and those that are revealed later (such as Jeanne going into town to replace a button for a sportscoat) provide evidence of only the slowest accretion of time. The effect is to put the viewer in some amount of physical discomfort. As you watch Jeanne from the camera eye's vantage point, you start noticing small details such as the color of the grout in the kitchen title, the curves of a bedroom bureau, and even a porcelain dog statue in the dining room. The point is that the viewer has time—and lots of it—to notice these details. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles becomes an exercise in watching, an exercise that has to play out in a rough analogue to "real time" in order to achieve its maximum effect.

Stage Setup for Performance of Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) (Source)

If Jeanne Dielman demands much from the viewer, Steve Reich's well-known Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) can be seen as a work that demands much from its performers. The piece, which lasts about an hour when played live, is composed of 11 "pulses", each a small piece of music based around a single chord. Different instruments phase in and out of the piece. In one moment, high-pitched female voices accentuate the down beat. In another, bass clarinets enter with a low swell—a reedy doppler shift of sorts. The sonic complexity of Reich's piece has a temporal effect, as music critic Tim Page noted in Parallel Play (2009), his account of his struggle with Asperger's Syndrome. Page cites his review of Reich's Music for 18 Musicians as an important event foreshadowing his eventual diagnosis. Here, he remarks on the piece's temporal flexibility:
Minerva-like, the music springs to life fully formed—from dead silence to fever pitch. There is a strong feeling of ritual, a sense that on some subliminal plane the music has always been playing and that it will continue playing forever … Imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another. Or trying to impose a frame on a running river—making a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river (Italics added).
The above quote does bring to light some similarities between Akerman's and Reich's respective works (both which, coincidentally, were completed around the same time). Both capitalize on extended temporal horizons, much in the same way as Fourier's Theory of the Four Movements. Whereas Jeanne Dielman shows slight variations in daily routines, one gets the uneasy sense that Jeanne's routines have been occurring in perpetuity. You have to listen carefully for a similar sense of perpetuity in Music for 18 Musicians. Peel away the layers of voices, metallophones, and clarinets, and there you will listen to the constant, relentless poundings of marimbas and xylophones. Imagine how tired these performers must be. They have been playing for the past 56 minutes, but they could be playing on forever.

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