Thursday 23 May 2019

CINEMA REBORN - The Presentations (5) - Susan Potter introduces GOLDEN EIGHTIES (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France/Switzerland, 1986)

The Akerman We Love
Susan Potter introduces Golden Eighties
I am here as a fan of Chantal Akerman’s work, more than a deeply informed expert. The Akerman I love isthefearless and committed documentary filmmaker who can open her 2015 documentary No Home Moviewith a near four-minute shot of a tree being battered by an unrelenting desert wind, a mesmerising audiovisual image of endurance. It’s the young, experimental filmmaker who, 40 years earlier, in 1975 in Je tu il elle has the audacity not only to end her film with an extended, at times awkward and unnerving sex scene between two women, but to act in it herself. And it is of course the brilliant director of the feminist durational masterpiece of the same year, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles.
How do I reconcile that Akerman, the one that I already know and love, with the Akerman who made Golden Eighties (Window Shopping)? Like me, some of you no doubt have already encountered the sense of incredulity that marks some of the promotional material for the film, a sense of bewilderment almost, that Akerman not only made—but was even interested in making—a musical. 
Chantal Akerman 
From the late 70s Akerman herself was looking for ways to escape the burden of Jeanne Dielman. In a 2012 interview with Nicole Brenez she recalls: “They kept wanting me to remake Jeanne Dielman, but I wanted to spurn everything—spurn my father’s name, not repeat myself.”[1]In this on-going moment of reflection and re-evaluation since Akerman’s death, we should remember that this film is one of more than 50 works, feature films, documentaries, shorts, and installations that she made since the late 1960s. Yet it remains in some ways a hard film to place in thinking about her diverse body of work, and partly this is to do with the genre of popular entertainment it deploys, one that critics find hard to take seriously.
Some critics hate Golden Eighties. Robert Koehler in a now notorious survey essay published in Cineaste in 2016 described it as “dated and silly, a stiff copy of a Sondheim musical with soupcons of [Jacques] Demy, amusing but empty.”[2]Gwendolyn Audrey Foster—cited in Angelica Waite’s great program note—implies an instrumental motivation, suggesting that she turned to conventional forms and their promise of commercial success to fund her more avant-garde projects. Even those critics who argue brilliantly about Akerman’s work, don’t love this film or don’t think that it can sustain much critical attention on its own. Ivone Margulies in her book Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday (Durham: Duke University, 1996) only devotes around two pages to the film, reading it in relation to its companion film made three years earlier, Les Années 80(The Eighties), an experimental musical that is often understood as a precursor or even preview that documents preparation for filming the final version.[3]
Golden Eighties
I’m not going to talk much about the film now since you already have the program note, and the reference there to Stephen Shaviro’s 2007 essay “Clichés of Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Musicals,” as well as Adrian Martin’s 1989 review, which also covers the amazing production team that Akerman was able to bring together. They each reveal what’s distinctive about the film in its intensive and slightly off-kilter mobilisation of the conventions of the musical. And to say something more about this I would have to give away the ending! Rather, what I thought I’d do for the rest of this introduction is consider another way into thinking about this film in the context of Akerman’s body of work, and that is to ask what first might seems like a not-very-critical question: what or who did Akerman love? Her mother, deeply, yes, but also singing. As she said in Autoportrait en cinéaste, on shooting her 2004 film Tomorrow We Move, “I love singing. It’s what I love the most … We would sing, and then we would shoot. What a joy. Whatever happens I must not forget that. That happiness. It doesn’t happen so often. Far from it.”
Golden Eighties
The importance of singing, even perhaps just its presence on set, how it binds cast and crew together, is evident in Autour de Jeanne Dielman, the behind-the-scenes documentary of the film’s production edited by Agnès Ravez and Akerman in 2004, where we see Delphine Seyrig in close-up while her hair’s being done, singing with the hairdresser: “A bouquet of roses so white, For you dear Mother mine.”
But the human voice’s capacity for music and song also appears front stage in Akerman’s work. Right from the start of her filmmaking career Akerman is interested in the voice, its capacity for musical expression and personal subjectivity—think of the slightly crazy humming that comprises the soundtrack of her first black and white short in 1968, Saute ma ville (Blow up my town). Kelley Conway, writing in the recent 100thspecial issue of the feminist cultural and media studies journal Camera Obscura, devoted to Akerman, writes that “[she] employs songs in a range of ways, weaving them into her avant-garde and more traditional works alike while tapping into traditions of popular song, opera, and less classifiable vocal performance. … Akerman’s work is infused with the sound of the female singing voice.”[4]Think, for example, of the opera duet in Akerman’s 2000 film The Captive, or the recorded song that concludes 2004’s Tomorrow We Move.
Rather than think of Golden Eighties as Akerman’s one-off musical then, a kind of auteur singularity, we can think of it as one extended instance of Akerman’s interest in the expressive capacities and constraints of the love song and its generic variations. Songs are often the codified conduits for desires—not just sexual desires, but the desire for other kinds of relations and ways of living and being in the world—desires that cannot be expressed fully visually within the particular space or environment visible on-screen, in the case of the film you’re about to watch, the urban environment designed to orient and intensify our consumer desires, the shopping mall. Akerman understands how even the most generic of songs act as conduits for emotional experience as well as utopian desires of all kinds, even if they cannot always be realised and so inevitably sustain what Lauren Berlant would call a cruel optimism.[5]Akerman also understands how songs function as a kind of folk mnemonic device to recall up and acknowledge such feelings and desires—I guarantee that you’ll still be singing and humming some of these tune days after you watch this film! Golden Eighties might challenge the Chantal Akerman we think we know and love, but if we watch it carefully—actually if we also listen to it carefully—we’ll hear the Akerman we love while also being introduced to new facets of the Akerman we thought we knew.
Sunday 5 May 2019

[1]Original emphasis, cited by Kelley Conway, “Lyrical Akerman” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 34, no. 1 (100) (2019):152.
[2]Robert Koehler, “The Travels of Chantal Akerman,” Cineaste 42, no. 1 (2016): 19.
[3]See the fragmented discussion across pages 186-188.
[4]Conway, “Lyrical Akerman,” 139-140.
[5]Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Susan Potter joined the Department of Art History and Film Studies at the University of Sydney in July 2015. Her research concerns the intertwined histories of cinema and sexuality, including the relation of film as modern mass medium to the intensification of sexuality since the late nineteenth century, and the genres, aesthetics and ethics of sexual representation in contemporary film. She also has documentary production experience in a variety of roles, including editor, archivist, researcher, production manager, producer and director.

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