01 March 2010


I wanted to comment on Professor Oishi’s lecture two weeks ago because I just finished watching a film that I think connects, in a curious way, to the Halberstam article “The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don’t Cry.” Now, I am not a gaze expert—I, sadly, could not work Professor Krips’ “The Eye & the Gaze” class into my schedule this semester—but I did enjoy the exploration of the various gazes in Boys Don’t Cry. What I liked is the way Halberstam gives credit to director Kimberly Peirce’s use of a transgender gaze, but addresses the way she undercuts it by “[divesting] her character of his transgender gaze and [converting] it to a lesbian and therefore female gaze” (672).

I’d like to use the notion of the gaze as the jumping off point for looking at the film I alluded to earlier: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). This Belgium film is fascinating for countless reasons—at 3 hours and 21 minutes it certainly challenges the notion of the epic (does time or scope make a film epic?)—but one of the most intriguing things Akerman does is use only static shots to compose her narrative. The basic premise of the story is three days, full of minutia and doldrums, in the life of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman. She makes dinner, runs errands, cooks dinner and awkwardly interacts with her teenage son. Dielman also makes time to sleep with clients for money (i.e., prostitutes herself).

Now, Akerman’s film of static shots will focus for extreme lengths on things like peeling potatoes, making meatloaf, sitting at the kitchen table, and so on. Yet, the film never gives us a glimpse at the most provocative moments in Dielman’s day: the bedroom scenes with her clients. Instead, Akerman keeps us at bay, down the hall, blocked out by a closed bedroom door. Here, our desired gaze—the insidious glance at a primal act—is intentionally denied, and it’s likely one of the reasons this film is a hailed feminist classic. Another reason? The moment we are finally granted access into the bedroom scene, which, of course, is a lengthy shot, and not entirely pleasant to watch; Dielman’s orgasm, while a man literally just lays on top of her, is a mixture of violence and release that will make you shift in your seat. What follows, however, after over 3 hours of exquisitely dull action—which, I confess, actually is engrossing enough that you get drawn into the comfort of the banality of it all (I felt, at times, like I enjoyed this so much I didn’t want too much of a change in Dielman’s routine; it was inviting for me as well)—is Dielman’s Judith versus Holofernes moment. So, once we are finally given the desired gaze, we are then forced to watch the film’s only violent (nay, active) moment. It’s wonderfully executed—pun not, necessarily, intended.

Needless to say, Akerman’s film is a stunning viewing experience that will surely stick with viewers for a long, long time. It’s not for everyone, but I love the way it challenges notions of privilege and the gaze, as well as what compromises a narrative or what constitutes an epic. As a side note, it is a perfect companion piece to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970). Of course, Fassbinder only makes us go through approximately 80 minutes before his explosive, shocking conclusion, but they essentially follow a similar path. Akerman’s film, however, is far more interesting, complicated, and ingenious.

Just one scene, and not the entire thing, to give you an idea of Dielman's life. (Akerman also cleverly uses no soundtrack throughout the film--immersing viewers in the dullness of a life without accompaniment)

And Fassbinder's take...