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Senior major publishes scholarly essay

Brian Huser '13 interviewed by Soomin Kim '13

This isn't the first time we've taken the opportunity to sit and talk about movies. We realized we had similar interests in Prof. Patty White's Feminist Film and Media Studies course, back in the spring of 2011, after a particularly fateful screening. The following year we joined Patty for an independent study on "Slow Cinema," and watched, read, and chatted about all sorts of fascinating things. Here, we return to the "slow" movie Patty screened in 2011 that inspired us to begin that adventure: Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975).  The occasion: Brian has written an article about Jeanne Dielman, which has recently been published in Film Matters, an undergraduate film studies journal.  It's called "Returning the Look": Spectatorship and Feminist Aesthetics in Jeanne Dielman.

Soomin: First of all, can you give us the gist of your publication?

Brian: Sure!  I wrote about a film whose short title is Jeanne Dielman. The full title includes her street address as well. It's a film that sounds almost absurdly austere when you describe it; a woman does household chores in real time for over three hours. And then something happens that I won't spoil. But it's mostly these chores, and it's a film that sounds so challenging to sit through, and I was...compelled by how compelled I was, I think is the way to put it. It is such a seductive, fascinating, and entertaining movie. It's really great.

S: I agree.

B: The article is about why that is so, about the relationship the movie sets up between the spectator and the images. It's about the spectator's experience. There's a lot of stuff in film studies about the connections between looking and images and gender roles, and I thought, "So, here, we have this film that feminist critics keep revisiting. Can I bring in a feminist politics of representation as I talk about why I find it a compelling film, an experience unlike lots of other movies?" So I tried, and I hope successfully, to keep certain goals of feminist film criticism in mind while thinking about the phenomenological experience of the spectator.

S: That summed up your article pretty well. We had similar responses to Jeanne Dielman, but at the same time, they were different in the sense that I approached the images of Jeanne Dielman - Jeanne's daily chores, which are ordeals for her - from a female viewer's perspective. And it became more and more so as the film went on. I was also struck by how moved I was even though there weren't any explicitly shocking images or sounds. But I remember reacting quite violently for a long time to the memory of it. That was more violent for me than watching itself because the film stayed with me as a strong, bodily memory.

B: Yeah, there are interesting differences in how we both experienced the movie, even though we both love it. It's the movie that made you want to enter the film studies program, and it's the movie that led me to take on this extracurricular project. I also found that it stuck in my memory in an unfamiliar way, leading to my interest in thinking about spectatorship. But I don't know that I experienced the film as violent, or that I was so shaken by it. I felt detached from the violence: the literal violence that happens in the film, and also the structural, societal violence of Jeanne's situation as a single mother who prostitutes herself to provide for her son.

S: I thought a lot about myself and my mother when I was watching it. My mom is a housewife and she always has been a housewife as long as I remember. The film does not necessarily show the same setting, but it brought me back to the kind of emptiness and silence in her life that she probably is going through now that all her kids have left. I was thinking about my mom and myself as an extension of the film. I think that's one of the reasons that the images of Jeanne Dielman provoked a multisensory memory that had never really been brought out to my consciousness. That was what I meant by "violent."

B: The movie draws things out of you that you don't expect to be drawn out of you.

S: Exactly.

B: That's what's so amazing about it.

S: Yes.

B: I think Akerman would love to hear you say that. She said that Jeanne was an extension of her own mother although, interestingly, Jeanne is played by a star actress, Delphine Seyrig. But I don't see a lot of my own mother in Jeanne. I think the film confronted me with ideas or images I'd had about home and motherhood, but on a purely literal level my memories felt absent.

S: Yeah, everybody has a very different household, family, and childhood memory.

B: It's interesting, though. When I first watched Jeanne Dielman, in my basement on DVD, my mother came downstairs probably an hour in, which means that there were two and a half hours to go. She sat down and was utterly compelled for the rest of the movie. She just loved it. On paper, it isn't the sort of movie that she might have sought out, but we sat there together, enraptured. I wonder what in her experience she might have seen or what in her experience the film might have touched. I haven't asked.

S: We all share certain experiences, but always with slight differences.

B: And it is a movie that no matter what your experience is - although I want to avoid this universalizing language like, "Oh, it's so relevant to everybody, no matter your understanding of motherhood and home" - even though this movie presents a very particular portrait, it finds a way to draw out your memories. I think that the slowness speaks to that: the movie gives you space to respond with your own experiences as you watch, although they don't match what's onscreen.

S: I think that's one of the powerful aspects of this movie and of film in general. It has the capacity to go inside the viewer's mind and trigger something unique to that person. That's what's beautiful and interesting about sharing responses to films through conversations or papers.

So, another question that I want to ask is about the theory on haptic visuality, because we have been talking about it loosely in terms of how the slowness of Jeanne Dielman, or the duration, touches upon deeper emotions and memories. In your article, you say that this relates to haptic visuality. Could you tell us more about your thoughts on that?

B: Sure, so, as you know, there's a beautiful work of criticism by Laura Marks, who posits a "haptic" or "tactile" way of seeing and - though I'm not really doing credit to the subtlety and nuance of her discussion - opposes it to an "optical" visuality. First of all, the way you see things is historical and social, right? You are trained to engage with things visually in a certain way, based on your social standing and the dominant culture of the time. Movies and television typically encourage a voyeuristic mode of seeing, for lack of a better word, in which the thing you are looking at is presented as whole, complete, and knowable. You experience it as a legible object that sits at a distance and is there for you to gain knowledge about and thus mastery over. This is optical visuality. On the other hand, when you see things haptically, you see things up close and acknowledge that things can't be fully known; you are looking at something on the surface. Laura Marks uses a lot of video art as examples - textured and close-up images, in which the thing you look at isn't even discernable, so you realize that you can't know it, can't master it. So, one of the central tenets of my article is that even though Jeanne Dielman doesn't have that type of unidentifiable, close-up image, the way that its static images of Jeanne doing chores are held for a very long time and become overfamiliar introduces a haptic way of seeing. Your eyes start to scan the image as a less three-dimensional or realistic representation, and more a more flat, detailed surface.

But it's funny, the way I was led to Laura Marks. My article started as an informal, 4-page paper for Patty's Feminist Film and Media Studies class, and it was like, "What happens if I join Jeanne Dielman and Walter Benjamin?" Patty turned it back to me and said, "This is really interesting. Did you read Laura Marks' piece that I uploaded for optional reading two weeks ago?" I said, "No," and I went back and read it...of course, it had said everything I was trying to say, and far better. So when I expanded the paper and tried to be more rigorous, Laura Marks was an obvious place to begin.

S: Definitely. Another thing that's very distinctive about Jeanne Dielman is the quotidianness of the film. Recently we read Lesley Stern's "The Path That Winds Through the Thicket of Things" for seminar...

B: Yeah, two years too late!

S: Yeah, two years! ...and that article talks a lot about the quotidian and uses Jeanne Dielman as an example.

B: I was really fascinated by that and I wish I'd had it at my side for my article.

S: So could you tell me more about how quotidianness plays an important role in the film in terms of building up a relationship between the spectator and the images?

B: You're asking me to think on my feet, here, because this is sort of out of the purview of my paper. Well, it is and it isn't. Okay. What Stern says about Jeanne Dielman - and again, I hadn't read this at the time, but I really like her argument - Stern says that when you have objects in cinema, there's always this play between the quotidian - the familiar, the everyday, the real - and the histrionic, the performative, the artificial. Sometimes it's more towards one pole, sometimes the other. With any sort of object onscreen, any material thing. And Jeanne Dielman is a movie in which the objects littered throughout domestic space are so important, first in the sense that we become so familiar with the images, held for so long and repeated again and again, that we get to know these objects throughout the three-and-a-half hour movie, right? I can imagine Jeanne's kitchen right now, and I can imagine the utensils on the wall...

S: (laughter) ...and her meatloaves...

B: (laughter) Exactly, her meatloaves, and peeling potatoes, and always using these things. And I can imagine the curtains on the window in the back door, and so on. But the objects in Jeanne Dielman are important also because they start to have this compelling narrative role. Throughout the course of the movie, and this is a bit of a spoiler, these objects start to speak back to Jeanne. Not literally, but in the sense that she starts to mess up her routines a little bit. She leaves the lid off the centerpiece on the dining room table; this is the big first one. We earlier saw her replace the lid, but she now leaves the lid off and has to go back and fix it, so the centerpiece is messing with her in a sense. And she burns the potatoes, which is just this moment of high drama. Jeanne burns the potatoes! So there's a sense in which the things she uses day-to-day, which should be so habitual and familiar, start to speak back, and destabilize her, leading to the catastrophic final events of the movie. So on the one hand, these objects are, or at least should be, familiar to Jeanne - they're almost like an extension of her body, right? This is how she lives her life, through these things. But then she loses her control over them. And her very personhood becomes destabilized as a result. And so I guess I want to take the words that Lesley Stern uses in her piece - "quotidian" and "histrionic" - and say that the pronounced tension between them is what makes Jeanne Dielman so interesting, because these domestic objects are both very familiar and very...

S: Strange.

B: ...and very strange. Yes, perfect.

S: I think that in your article, you do touch upon these ideas...not directly quoting Stern, but the idea of haptic visuality is related.

B: Definitely.

S: I was going to ask if you have anything more about writing, or preparing for the publication, because it's not a thing that everyone does.

B: Sure, so I had turned in this four-page paper months prior, when Patty alerted me to the call for submissions from this undergraduate film studies magazine. And I wanted to expand on these ideas I'd just started to touch on. So I sat down over winter break and just hammered it out. I don't even think I rewatched the movie, because it's a movie where after you see it, oh, twice, you know the images so well and know the structure so well that you're an expert, you know how this movie works. (laughter) It's that formally rigorous. You just have to mine your memory of it. Patty generously read some drafts and I sent it in. Months later I got an email...oh, this was the worst. I had this literally 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week summer job for six weeks, and three days in, I get the email back, saying, "You did it! We need a revised draft from you in two weeks." I thought, "Shit." So I took a couple of my precious days off and hid away in a coffee shop. I relied heavily on Patty and on a particularly well-read friend to tell me what was wrong with the existing draft. I gutted the middle section, and I obsessed over every single sentence and its economy and its clarity, and I was able to send in a revised draft I was really happy with, somehow, while working that summer job. Never told my bosses.



Oh, and I got to select frames from the movie to include, and pull quotes. The last stage before it finally came out was a visual proof. They sent me a sort of "here's what it'll look like on the page," and that was so cool, to see something I had written all nicely formatted and with pull quotes and with images.

S: Very satisfying.

B: Yeah. And just recently now, I finally got the magazine in the mail. It's two years since we took Feminist Film and Media Studies together, and now Patty's teaching it again, and the magazine popped into my mailbox the same week that they were watching Jeanne Dielman.

S: (laughter) That's awesome.

B: Yeah, what a funny coincidence.

S: I was really happy to see that your article got published, because I'm not necessarily a writer, though I am very much interested in the critical thinking towards film...

B: And it shows up in your art.

S: (laughter) I hope so!

B: I mean, I am so continually amazed by your ability to put these ideas into practice.

S: I always get a lot of help understanding the different theories... It was really nice to talk with you and Patty in my sophomore year, because I learned to apply theories, bring them together and make sense out of them, or even if they don't make sense, I would still get my own thoughts, which are more elaborate than just "Oh, whoa, cool," or simple reactions.

B: You know, it's funny, and I feel like this is me going off the deep end, so maybe this is unpublishable, but whatever: We both have an interest in this idea of haptic visuality. But I feel like you approach that idea haptically and I approach that idea optically, from a distance, right? (laughter) Because you're an artist and you're literally working with your hands to experiment with these ideas, and I'm trying to look at it abstractly, like a mathematician...

S: (laughter) Interesting.

B: I'm trying to find coherency in this theory about letting yourself submit to incoherency. While you're getting up close, appreciating the complexity of the ideas, putting them into practice. This is a paradox that I think has run throughout my film studies career here.

S: I think it goes back to that I was disturbed by the film for a week. I kept thinking about it. It haunted me. I went to talk to Patty, and was like "What did you do to me?"

B: (laughter) And then you joined the film studies program.

S: "Tell me, explain, more, please!" And that was a really great experience. And I guess I reacted more with my own body, while you're about...analyzing. Although...

B: But...what I'm thinking about is my bodily response, my captivation, which surprised me. Given that it's such an austere-sounding movie. Though, and this is the point, it's not actually austere. It's really kind of warm.

S: It's a different kind of intensity. I think it's unfair to categorize Jeanne Dielman in any way because every reaction is unique, and significant.

B: It is. And Jeanne Dielman is a difficult movie to describe, which I think is why so many critics over the decades, since it came out in the '70s, have written about it. Patty recently sent me a review of Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce miniseries that brings up Jeanne Dielman. Of course. It's the perfect point of reference. Here we are, almost forty years later, and it's still the movie that we keep returning to. Even as the humanities develops new approaches, theories, ideas. Somehow, Jeanne Dielman is always an illustrative movie, for whatever critical approach you want to take.

S: It's very canonical at this point.

B: Yeah, and for good reason. Outside academia, too. It's, what, number thirty-something on the recent Sight and Sound list, the big critics' poll they do every ten years?

S: I want it to be canonical. To be there forever.

B: Me too. It's great. It should be celebrated.