BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield. Emily Dickinson, happily anonymous during her life, called fame “a fickle food on a shifting plate.” It’s likely British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, novelist John Kennedy Toole and Vincent van Gogh would agree but, unlike the poet, they died by their own hands, for many reasons, but partly perhaps because their art was relentlessly overlooked.
Chantal Akerman, the Belgian cinema auteur, killed herself last October. She was one of the most prolific and perplexing filmmakers of her generation. She made more than 40, including her masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels. Her last film, No Home Movie, opens with a mesmerizing four-minute shot of wind buffeting a solitary desert tree.
[SOUND OF WIND]
Akerman’s uncompromising style was a major influence on the likes of Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola and Michael Hoenig, but you most likely never have heard of her. And she may have regretted that a little. Before her death at 65, she said, “I'd like, even if it's only once, to do good box-office with a film. Once!”
Can Ackerman reach posthumously the mass audience she never had in life? We shall see. A multicity North American tribute now underway aims to spotlight her work. Livia Bloom is vice president of Icarus Films, which is distributing 2015's No Home Movie, and she has organized the tribute.
LIVIA BLOOM: How to make a noise in this cultural climate is always a challenge, especially when you're representing work that doesn't necessarily ring a lot of bells for popular audiences. Her final film, No Home Movie, for a long time didn't have distribution, even after her death. And finally, when Icarus films signed it, it was really exciting but it was also a really big responsibility.
In this film, she's in her mother's Brussels apartment. Her mother is 86. She would die before the film had been completed. And the film shows her mother and Akerman, these final moments of her life.
The theme of family, and specifically her relationship with her mother, is central to much of Ackerman's work. Three films that focus centrally on that relationship from very different angles are News From Home, where you hear her mother's letters, as though Akerman herself might have been hearing them in her head as she looked at the streets of the city she was living in, New York.
VOICE OF CHANTAL AKERMAN: I only ask you to write as often as possible. That’s all that matters to us. Keep in touch because you are so far from us and I miss you. Daddy’s so pleased when I arrive at the office and tell him there is a letter from Chantal. You can’t imagine. And my friends, everyone ask about you, my darling. I kiss you and I think of you all the time. And so does Daddy, Sylviane and all the family. Your loving mother.
LIVIA BLOOM: In Jeanne Dielman, Ackerman switches from documentary, instead uses narrative fiction to explore her mother's circumstances by looking at a housewife, also in Belgium.
BOB GARFIELD: And it is mesmerizing, film about a Brussels widow, an ultra-methodical woman we see simply going through the routines of cooking and cleaning and bathing, and so on, for close to four hours, [LAUGHS] with very, very little dialogue.
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The click of her heels on the apartment floor is very hypnotic in this film and her expressionlessness has a kind of Mona Lisa inscrutability to it that keeps you just staring. But Jurassic Park it ain't.
So what I'm wondering is as you try to bring renewed attention on Akerman's body of work, you face a challenge to build new audiences.
LIVIA BLOOM: Yes, indeed. I mean, she said that while many other filmmakers are interested in entertaining, are interested in making audiences not even realize how quickly time is passing, what she wanted was to make people feel the passage of time every moment. She was interested in challenging our expectations of spectatorship about what we go to the movies for.
BOB GARFIELD: It is amazing [LAUGHS] what goes through your head when you're watching four minutes of wind rustling trees in No Home Movie. It really does get you thinking about your relationship with the film. And, likewise, those long static shots in Jeanne Dielman. Now, Jeanne Dielman made Akerman instantly a figure in feminist cinema; there barely was a feminist cinema before that. And yet, she rejected being pigeonholed as a woman director, as a lesbian director. She just wanted to be a filmmaker, full stop.
LIVIA BLOOM: Groucho Marx memorably one said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member” and I think that that's relevant when you're thinking about this aspect of Chantal Akerman. She was unwilling to be defined by those labels, despite proudly being all of those things. That said, those communities that you mentioned, they loved her, they supported her. They showed her work. They were her face, you might say.
BOB GARFIELD: This must create something of a conundrum for you because, on the one hand, you want to honor her wishes to be better known, right? On the other hand, if I were you and I were a marketer of Chantal Akerman's films, I would absolutely try to cultivate the Jewish cinema audience, the lesbian cinema audience, the feminist cinema audience, the avant-garde cinema audience, target all of them in order to build a larger critical mass. But would you dishonor her way of going about things if you take the logical marketing path?
LIVIA BLOOM: [LAUGHS] No, I don't think so. I mean, her work, certainly during her lifetime, showed in all of those settings and more, and she greatly appreciated the support of her base, even if she wanted to be acknowledged within the larger context.
BOB GARFIELD: Just in New York – you’re at the Brooklyn Academy of Music BAM, and you have a tribute at the Film Forum Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, and other cities in North America - similar things going on. In finding venues for her work, did anyone say to you, oh yeah, right, uh – Chantal, who?
I mean, the woman with the four-hour movies with no dialogue?
LIVIA BLOOM: [LAUGHS] That phrase, “Chantal who?” is probably the phrase that I want to hear the most because it means that her name and her legacy is reaching new viewers and new audiences and when they ask that there'll be answers from critics on “Chantal who?” and, most of all, that the work itself will be available and can speak for itself.
BOB GARFIELD: In the introduction, I made a comparison to Nick Drake of “Pink Moon” frame and the Vincent van Gogh as having found their fame only after death, in fact, after suicide. Do you have any hope of [LAUGHS] achieving anything for Chantal Akerman that these other artists achieved from the next world?
LIVIA BLOOM: To my mind, maybe if van Gogh or Nick Drake had been a gay Jewish woman it would have been more apt in terms of what Akerman was up against.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
Livia, thank you so much.
LIVIA BLOOM: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Livia Bloom is vice president of Icarus Films and it is she who’s organizing the tribute to the late Belgian filmmaker, Chantal Akerman.
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BOB GARFIELD:That’s it for this week show. On the Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Mythili Rao. About Mythili, she has been working with us through the WNYC Fellows program, and this week we have to say goodbye because her term’s ended, but also because her baby is due like any second now. Thanks, Mythili, and good luck with everything.
We had more help from Dashha Lisitsina and David Conrad, and our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Cayce Means and Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme, On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.