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ThemesArt and CinematographyAkerman
Toward a Corporeal Cinema: Theatricality in the '70s [1]
Ivone Margulies

In my films I follow an opposite trajectory to that of the makers of political films. They have a skeleton, an idea and then they put on flesh: I have in the first place the flesh, the skeleton appears later. Chantal Akerman, 1975 [2]

In «Hotel Monterey» and «News from Home» (1976), two of Chantal Akerman's films made in New York under the influence of structural filmmaking, a fixed shot of an empty corridor, or of a crowded subway car (human absence, human presence), maps the range of possibilities of structural film. When the elevator door opens onto an empty corridor in «Hotel Monterey», the image can be considered as a set of lines, colors, perspectival illusions. When the [camera] opens into a hall full of people, this moment of mutual acknowledgment intimates a register of performance for documentary structural film. The dichotomy between two kinds of space (the elevator and the various floors) is acknowledged only when the «shutter»—the elevator doors—is open. This is also the point, at which the dyad of viewer and object is activated, in a mirroring effect. The camera isfixed—in the elevator, or, in «News from Home», perpendicular to the opening doors of a moving subway train, granting an ever changing scenario, as new strangers encounter it. The camera stubbornly addresses this obtrusive viewer, as briefly as the contact of a glance or for as long as a stare. [3] The relative closeness of the hotel transients or subway riders to the camera turns into an example of proxemics…. In «News from Home» the camera «functions as a recording device in suspense.» [4] The camera's potency is measured for some time; finally, it is revealed as too insistent, when it forces a rider into the deep perspective of a whole subway car, and even into the next car, until he vanishes from sight. In both these works, the fixed, oblivious camera creates both the frame and the impetus for the emergence of performance … on the part of passersby.


That a layered dimension, usually of a performatic order, results from an excessively dry cinema will be one of my claims regarding Akerman's theatricality. Most immediately the term theatricality refers to her privilege to the profilmic. She has claimed that she does not make montage films: «My work is close to [Dreyer, Bresson and certain Japanese directors] regarding the use of the camera. What I did in «Jeanne Dielman» are actions in real time: the fixed camera is not, for me, that different from… Warhol.» [5] The fixed focus and extended duration of Akerman's shots create a relatively stable texture that allows one to perceive the disjunctions between body and character, speech and script. The predictability of her methods of framing and cutting forces one to attend instead to her mise-en-scène. Discussing a scene in his «11 X 14» (1976), the minimalist filmmaker Benning confirms this effect of duration: «When you start to watch the smokestack scene it's obviously a smokestack …—but since it's on for seven minutes and a half eventually you have to deal with it as swirling grain on screen. Near the end of the scene, however, a plane comes through, so that after you've begun to look at the image formally it's reintroduced into the narrative. [6] A crucial quality of extended duration, then, is this polarity of reception. The oscillation between (or rather coexistence of) representationaland literal registers can be further proposed as the hyperrealist factor intrinsic to Akerman's cinema. Hyperrealism is understood here as a cinematic translation of the effect of distance that results when a picture or sculpture reproduces a subject which is already an image—when, for example, a Richard Estes painting reproduces a photograph. We are looking at an intermediary, frozen stage of reproduction, which subtly undoes referentiality, presenting it at a second degree of removal. In some hyperrealist art, the emphasis on surface details intimates an estrangement, an excess—one sees more than one needs to in order to «read» the image. Hyperreality is attained through a fake impression of depth, the excess of detail resulting from a fixed stare. At the core of the defamiliarizing hyperrealist image, of its simulacrum effect, lies the hesitation between the literal and the symbolic registers exemplified in the work of Benning and Akerman, as well as in Warhol and Michael Snow's cinema.

Andy Warhol's minimal-hyperrealist cinema can be proposed as a layered, material realism. Even when Warhol records a natural referent (for example in «Sleep,» 1963), or a reality such as the Empire State Building («Empire» 1964), ridden with prior representations, his exaggerated focus always tips representation from its figurative to its literal properties and vice versa. The Physical Dimension The dual register of figuration and literalness promoted by extended duration in American experimental film, and the inscription of a second-degree realism in European modernist cinema, both involve a corporeal dimension: insisting on and amplifying the referential aspect of representation, they constantly remind the viewer of physical, material presences—of cinema, of the actor/performer, of the spectator.

While in Akerman's early films the issue of performance is a byproduct of a fixed, oblivious camera modeled on Warhol and on structural filmmaking, her later, narrative films involve an oblique mise-en-scène and a mode of address—the monotone dialogue qua monologues of «Jeanne Dielman» and «Les Rendez-vous d'Anna»—, that recall the anti-naturalist cinema of Bresson and Dreyer. Through Akerman's films, I will explore the points of rapprochement between these two cinemas. Geared in Europe to a textualized,anti-naturalism (Bresson, Rohmer, Dreyer's «Gertrud,» etc.), in the U.S. to experiments with proto- and infra-narrative forms (Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, James Benning), these bodies of work reflect unique approaches to narrative and performance. In Akerman, they meet, through a radical reconsideration of the notion of theatricality. [7]

Pop Art and Minimalism

Chantal Akerman's stay in the United States in the early 1970s exposed her to experimental film, minimal art, and new American dance and performance art. In 1972 she frequented Anthology film Archives, Millenium, and attended, along with the cinematographer and filmmaker Babette Mangolte, performance events. In different ways, pop and hyperrealist art addressed [modernist] art's entrenchment in pictorial abstraction—its dual proscription of figuration and concept. [8] Pop art contributes a more ironic image for the critique of the sign and of consumer society advanced by Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, and Henri Lefebvre in '60s' France. Revising the opposition between modernism and realism, pop art stress[ses] a public, serialized version of the everyday. Hyperrealist art, coming after minimalism and pop, also displays a concern with the phenomenology of the everyday, providing a visual analogue for the role of description in the Nouveau roman. [9] As Estes' intermediate photographs prove, appearances disallow a priori knowledge: «Perhaps the more you show the way things look the less you show how they are or how we think they are.» [10] Apparently subscribing to the modernist decree of simplification and evacuation of content, minimal art actually proposes one of the most radical alternatives to modernism, challenging the instantaneity of apprehension that for Greenberg or Michael Fried defines the presentness of art as an escape from duration—as ‹pure› opticality. Indeed, in «Art and Objecthood» (1967), Fried fiercely attacks the ‹theatrical,› experiential dimension of minimal art, and rejects some of that art's defining traits—duration, spatial relations, and attention to the role of the beholder.

Instead of an «abstract spectatordom,» minimalism proposes an experience exercised by a subject whose «corporeal density both guaranteed and was madepossible by the interconnectedness of all its sensory fields…» [11] In the works of minimalists Donald Judd and Robert Morris, [12] both the «unitary form»—the form without internal configuration—and seriality push viewers to confront their concept of what a form is like. [13] As Morris puts it, «The constant shape of the cube held in the mind but which the viewer never literally experiences, is an actuality against which the literal changing, perspective views are related.» [14] The Consciousness of the Corporality of the Viewer Part of the significance of Akerman's bodily metaphor of the flesh and the skeleton is to suggest that the «body-in-general» addressed by the minimalists in the 1960s is, as Rosalind Krauss argues, the same body that is particularized in art of the '70s and '80s.

A clear example of how the spectator's awareness of his or her own physicality may be eventually linked to a politicized aesthetics is exemplified in Akerman's and Yvonne Rainer's cinema. «Je tu il elle»(1974) makes clear Akerman's debt to minimalist principles of cumulative seriality. She exhausts a conjugation of positions for herself and her prop, a mattress. She adheres to Yvonne Rainer's move towards a more concrete everydayness in performance, to the choreographer and dancer's minimalist mandate that performance emphasize movement at the expense of psychology. Akerman's moving the mattress around her room in «Je tu il elle,» and Rainer's use of valises and boxes in the performance «Grand Union Dreams» (1971), are examples of task-oriented performance in which the object, rather than being the butt of an action called for by character or plot, is a prop to objectify and banalize gesture and movement.

The affinities among minimal art, performance art, and minimalist and structural film clarify how strategies of real-time representation, repetition, and seriality engage the spectator's body, a critical step for a corporeal cinema. Two major formal tendencies, both committed to engaging the spectator's awareness of his or her own physicality and perception are rehearsed again and again in '60s and '70s art. In the first, an excess of information, given through a multiple input of issues, shapes, gestures, and media, divides one's attention. The Fluxus group's and John Cage's performances, Allan Kaprow's happenings, and New American dance (Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, LucindaChilds, Merce Cunningham) all advance the recognition that simultaneity—a co-presence of events internal and external to the text—can effect a nondirected field of spectator response, frustrating the acknowledgment of authorship and intention. Silence, for instance, becomes a composite of aleatory audience sound and, to Cage, emptiness, just as multiple images open the terrain of non-intentionality. [15] Spectatorial focus is dispersed over a fractured surface. In the second, minimalist tendency, simplified shapes, single events, and series of repeated images or forms seem both to block interpretation and to mock the immediacy of apprehension proposed in modernist art. The spectator's extended gaze over holistic forms displaces the burden of decentering entirely onto his or her perceptual and physical relation to the art object. Duration is a major factor in minimalism's continuous exchange between abstractive, conceptual procedures and sensorially based experience. The insistence on simplified forms, or on seriality, makes the experiential time and space of the spectator's confrontation with the work as obdurate as the forms presented; the work «works» solely through the viewer's persistence in time. Here, the term «simultaneity» refers not only to the display of several events at one time, but to the bleeding of the work into its conditions of reception. More accurately, it refers to the coexistence of representation and spectator. In cinema, the representation of events in real time is a principal way of bringing this coexistence about.

Performance vs. Film

While aleatoriness and multiplicity are perfectly adequate to «silence» intentionality in a work, they are easier to effect in theatrical or live performance than in cinema. In cinema, the demand that the observer's gaze negotiate simultaneous foci of attention may be prompted through multiple-screen projection. Or, in projects as diverse as that of the Fluxus group and of structural materialist film, a film's screening is shown as dependent on contingency: as the scratches and dirt accumulate on the empty screen of Nam June Paik's «Zen for Film,» or in George Landow's «film in which there appear sprocket holes, edge lettering, dirt particles, etc» (1966), the specificities of both cinema and performance arerecognized—cinema in its predicament of repetition, performance in its condition of aleatory uniqueness. [16] Another solution, following André Bazin's notion of a wandering spectatorial focus, is the long take, which may or may not exhibit the many planes of a deep-focus shot. Warhol's cinema shows that both a simultaneity of events on screen and the extended duration of a single image or event can forestall unidirectional apprehension. «Empire,» with its single image and extended duration, as much as «The Chelsea Girls,» with its screening of two segments at a time and its busy, haphazard zooms, attest to Warhol's welcoming of «noise,» both within the work's structure and surrounding its reception. Underlying all these procedures is a sense of the exhaustion of meaning. Both pure, holistic shapes and an endless substitution and juxtaposition of paradigmatic camera shots, a layering of formal plays, are strategies to deflect signification. A simplified shape, content, or process can hamper logical apprehension no less than an excess of associations (as in several game structures proposed by Hollis Frampton, Snow, and Landow). Richard Serra's «Hands Scraping»(1968) visualizes a process of reduction, literally leading to an «empty» screen. The process is in some ways consonant with modernism's repression of content and privileging of art's material and experiential dimensions; but unlike Greenberg modernism, the minimalist project seeks to elicit a subjective investment through subject matter that approximates the blank screen. [17]

Akerman’s Minimalism

Stationed in passages and public vehicles, the camera in «Hotel Monterey» and «News from Home» represents a variant from structural minimalism. Akerman's camera moves into spaces of transit. In all of her work real-time representation engages the spectator's awareness of his or her own physical presence. Moreover, in her structural work, fixed, extended shots combine with aleatory, unique events, setting structure against play, and bringing out a performance aspect that is basic to '70s aesthetics. This concern can be detected in Akerman's early films «La Chambre 1,» «La Chambre 2» [18] and «Hotel Monterey» (1972), and also in «News from Home» (1977). The rigid formal parameters set for eachfilm—the back and forth 360-degree pan in «La Chambre 2,» the scanning of the entire building from basement to roof, from evening to dawn, in the axial movements of «Hotel Monterey», the fixed symmetrical shots in «News from Home»—allow chance events to define themselves as privileged foci of attention: a passenger's refusal to confront the camera in the cramped space of an elevator, or a pedestrian's desire to turn around every few steps and look at the camera mounted in a subway corridor, are examples of unique events generated, so it seems, by the camera's circumscribed viewfinder.

In a push-pull dynamic, her presence in the films links the spaces behind and in front of the camera. From posed indifference to resolute confrontation, whether denying or engaging the camera's seemingly mechanical trajectory, in «La Chambre» and in «Je tu il elle» Akerman creates momentary interlockings between her gaze and the camera's. Like a mirror, the camera creates a presence that is always split; [19] this gaze might seem impassive, but its relation with the profilmic event is intensely provocative. The forms of address solicited through this setup delineate a dialogue between Godard and Warhol: the seeming obliviousness of the cinematic (camera movement, framing, and editing) toward the profilmic activates a kind of spectator participation that inaugurates a post-Godardian reflexivity. For Akerman, this will mean a camera address less intent on revealing or mediating a statement of truth, a camera address that locks the spectator within a mechanical, apparently unmotivated mise-en-scène. The unmotivated (Warholian) camera confronts two pulsating materialities, two bodies: one is the character's cinematic body, the other the body of the spectator. Between these different rhythms—that of camera, performer, and spectator—a tension creates the specific theatricality of structural minimalist film. Benning's staging of micro occurrences to brush up against his static landscape shots in «11 X 14,» and Snow's quasi-narrative mementos in «Wavelength» (1967) and «Back and Forth» (1969), are additional bodies in this economy.


Akerman's affiliation with the structural-minimalist film project is singularly qualified. Given her commitment tonarrative, other factors need attention, notably her conception of character. Akerman's [narrative] cinema restages a scenario of indifference. The relation between absorption and theatricality maintained in «Jeanne Dielman», «Je tu il elle,» and « Les Rendez-vous d'Anna» indicates the desire to reexperience, through representation, the choice between turning the face toward the scene and turning it toward the audience. The characters' relations among themselves and with the audience are not mutually exclusive here, but animate each other with a certain instability. It is the hyperbolic focus on the text that helps create this oscillation between scene and audience. [20] If Akerman's films seem theatrical it is because they often include information that might be necessary on the stage, or in a book, but is redundant in film. [21] Akerman challenges the didactic thrust of quotation, charging her text instead with conflicting functions. Sometimes the text telegraphs information through an excess of verbiage; sometimes the release of unwarranted information is sanctioned on other, not immediately functional levels. Akerman may alter the rhythmic value of a given sentence, deliberately confusing the registers of signification and sheer information (meaning, content) and those of expressivity and affect (rhythm, tone, etc.) Akerman's litany-like dialogues seem to challenge Brecht's dictum on expressivity: «The three levels—plain speech, heightened speech and singing—must always remain distinct and in no case should heightened speech represent an intensification of plain speech or singing of heightened speech.» [22] One might consider an alternate model for Akerman's treatment of text: Samuel Beckett's a-logical permutations and minimalist repetitions and, in film, Bresson's flattening of his characters' delivery in repetition and monotone.

Bresson as a Point of Reference

Through repetition, first in rehearsal, then in numerous takes, Bresson weaves a cinematic texture that recombines and intensifies sound, movement, and framing. As opposed to Brecht's eclectic collages (a technique best represented in film by Godard's montages of materials and voices, which tap different channels of rhetoric - interview, documentary, visual text, etc.), Bresson prizes the intensification ofelements affected by a homogeneous texture: his subversive linearity and enhancement of diegetic sound privilege metonymic displacement rather than metaphoric association. [23] According to P. Adams Sitney’s lucid distinction between a geometric style (Kubelka, Eisenstein, etc,) and a linear one, Bresson «concentrates on those figures of cinematography which produce a sense of fluidity and condensation and avoid strong rupture and interjections.» [24] He pursues an aesthetics of homogeneity. Bresson collapses the notion of automatism—as a natural, unthought process—with the processes of repetition inherent in cinema and cinematic reproduction. His project is to make both body and performance conform to the mechanical order of cinema, with its power to fragment and recompose. Enforcing cinema's repetitions (rehearsal, successive takes, the very projection of film in the theater) over the model's performance, Bresson suggests an antimetaphysical aesthetics.

Brecht vs. Bresson

The distinction Brecht-Bresson involves a controversy that may ultimately inform the divergences between heterogeneity or homogeneity as decentering modes: cinema's ability to assimilate other art forms and matters of content as well as forms of spectator address are two main factors in establishing a nuanced antinaturalist cinema. In fact, the antinaturalist cinema that is most closely associated with the vanguard of cinematic modernism, is a cinema of irony and commentary, a cinema marked by an aesthetics of heterogeneity. [25] This cinema has as its main intertext the repertory of reflexive strategies exposed for didactic intent by Brecht: quotation instead of enactment, the juxtaposition of heterogeneous materials, the eclectic use of media and modes of performance. The Godardian aesthetic advances by juxtapositional and oppositional spurts, by a juggling of elements within filmic materiality. Within this modernist ethos, these [visual, aural] breaks connote another, more than merely formal sort of rupture: that of a politicized gesture—against capital, the establishment, etc. Although disjunction is a staple in anti naturalistic cinema (from Soviet cinema montage to Peter Kubelka's rhythmic montage to Bruce Conner's found-footage«collages«), the agonistic modernist discourse inevitably refers to the classical or conventional text it is supposed to rupture. In this cinema, [26] epitomized by the work of Godard, «the critical allegiance, to the conventions of Hollywood commercial cinema has acted as context and precondition of formal radicalism.» [27] Akerman's work, on the other hand, makes no comment on other cinematic modes. Its energy is not centrifugal, like Godard's, opening up onto other discourses and realities; its concentrated focus is better understood in terms of the aesthetics of homogeneity proposed by Bresson, and also by Dreyer and Rohmer. [28]

Overflow and Overload

Akerman's work, is syntagmatic, operating through a linear accumulation of repetitions. She insists on simplified forms and singular characters and actors, as well as on minimal variations in sets and locations. The tools with which she constructs an alternative to the Brechtian/ Godardian model are duration, accumulation, sobriety, and sameness. Akerman's reading of cinematic naturalism is perverse: she complies excessively—and this is her transgression—with classical cinema's demand for linearity, and for uniformity of texture. Her long takes and extended in-character monologues oversaturate textual and diegetic homogeneity, creating a rhythmic imbalance, a taint in classical cinema's precious equilibrium. Akerman's formal allegiance to Bresson, Dreyer, Yasujiro Ozu, and Warhol demands an understanding of how her nondidactic antinaturalism shares in a shift in sensibility that is distinctly post-Godardian. Akerman's refusal to mediate between herself and others from within the film is compounded by her discourse of excess, which establishes the separateness and independence of the audience: «I cannot but leave a place for the spectator in his/her difference,» [29] says Akerman.

A problematized linearity of episodes or ellipses, and a preference for obliquity over frontality in mise-en-scène, replace the direct questioning of cinematic language and the direct address of the audience. At stake in the term «theatrical,» is the cleavage between two presences that demand recognition at the same time: that of the spectatorand that of the scene. These are related through conditions of separation or of familiarity that are, at each instant, absolute. And these two poles define a gravitational field in which the engagement with the represented scene parallels, but never erases, one's acknowledgment of one's own severance from the scene. To unbalance representation by rephrasing drama's old antitheses of naturalistic absorption and artifice means taking the Godardian frontal address askance. In the cinema of Bresson, Dreyer, Rohmer, Handke, Straub and Huillet, and Akerman, the self-absorption of characters as they speak and listen to one another is hyperbolized to the point where their delivery is transformed into an almost mechanical pathway for the text. In Dreyer's «Gertrud», the speech of one character to another constantly goes beyond the addressee—«they talk past each other.» [30] Verbal discourse is intensified, and the text hangs over the bodies as film music does. [31] «It is the first time,» says Dreyer, «I've given so much importance to the word and this helped me find a new form between the theater and cinema.» [32]

The Role of the Text

Like Rohmer, and like Dreyer in «Gertrud», Akerman allows the text an importance that conventional naturalist cinema does not. It is the centrality of verbal address, its excess and maldistribution, that produces the sense of theatricality in her films talking past each other, as well as relaying unnecessary dialogue, characters by default address the audience. Akerman's hyperboles—the extended length of her shots, her distended or compressed dialogues—do invoke an extra, material dimension of representation that is in important respects akin to the modernist, second-degree realism of Bresson, Rosselini, Dreyer, and Straub and Huillet. This European cinema proceeds through an intensification of discourse. It may incorporate indirect narratives (or at least literary qualities) into spoken discourse («Pickpocket» 1959); it may stretch dialogue into an exchange of monologues (Straub and Huillet's «Othon» 1969, Rohmer's «Ma nuit chez Maude» 1969, «Les Rendez-vous d'Anna»); it may double gesture and speech («Gertrud»), and play spoken against written word («Diary of a Country Priest»). With the important exception of Strauband Huillet's work, this layered cinema works through an overall texture of homogeneity. It is Bresson's work, however, that best clarifies the import of these intensifications for a decentering representation. His work generates a redundancy, a blocking of psychological interpretation, that resembles Akerman's effects; his resistance to naturalist synchronization leads him to fold commentary over image, spoken over handwritten word, gesture over speech, always in slight anticipations or delays. What might have passed unnoticed, absorbed as «natural,» creates instead a sense of repetition—one feels one has already seen certain images. In «Pickpocket,» Michel raises his finger as if searching for a direction. This gesture can only be read as the hailing of a cab in the next shot, yet it anchors, perhaps unwittingly, the voice-over commentary, «I did not know where I was going.» The gesture is split between meanings. The defamiliarizing effect of these strategies of redundancy relates to Akerman's use of redundancy (and literalness) to preempt interpretation.

Between Theater and Film

The imposition of a dual register of reading on a single body creates a physicality that is of special interest in cinema. Bresson's conception of a repetition that becomes automatic, like a second nature, engenders, in its will for a pure cinema, a new form, «between theatre and film.» This assertion is not meant as a comment on Bresson's disparagement of theater and cinema. [33] His proposal of a reconstructed reality existing solely on screen suggests a fierce indisposition toward the notion of a reality to be enacted, a script to be followed—toward the idea of representation itself. Bresson seems to propose a presentational mode, one he knows cannot bypass—repetition. Flat, economical, and exact, the performance of Bresson's models—his nonprofessional actors—subverts naturalism through the automatism proper to cinema (which transfers mechanical reproduction to bodies and gestures). [34] In this new form, the filmic body as well as the performances are suffused by a sense of the mechanical, by an automaton quality resulting from massive stylization and from processes of textual inscription. In the cinema that interests us here, this quality is transferred ontocharacters and performers, and accounts for an awkwardness of rhythm (of movement and speech) that is distinctly other.

The corporeal cinema I have been describing operates through excess; the superimposition of literal and figurative registers; the redundancy of the informational substratum (given verbally and visually); the imposition of multiple functions on a single body (of author and performer, actor and persona), all create a positional disarray. The choice between seeing Chantal Akerman or the performer in «Je tu il elle,» Delphine Seyrig or Jeanne in «Jeanne Dielman», or hearing mother or daughter in «News from Home», is not easily resolved. The alternatives are not displayed side by side, or one after the other, pedagogically—in the didactic effect of quotation and interruption proper to a juxtapositional aesthetic. Akerman's minimal hyperrealism not only upsets an essentialist reading of the image through its constantly flickering oscillation between literal and symbolic registers, but subverts notions of type, character, and author, creating a double register or internal disjunction in the representation of the subject.

© Media Art Net 2004