FRAMEWORKS: Professor Mulvey possibly seems to explain...


...what makes Jeanne Dielman so great: We'll admit it—we're still amused by the revelation that the greatest film ever made is the 1975 Belgian film which bears this somewhat unwieldy title:

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

As we noted yesterday, we've never seen the film in question. We have no way of knowing how we'd react to the film if we ever saw it.

Also, of course, there's no such thing as the greatest film ever made. The current designation is simply the result of a recent survey of "1,639 critics, programmers, curators, archivists and academics."

The highly regarded survey is conducted every ten years by Sight & Sound, a monthly publication of the British Film Institute. In this, the 2022 survey, Jeanne Dielman ranked #1.

This critical finding continues to strike us as amusing—but also, perhaps, as instructive. And yes! It seems to us that this revelation helps us think about the way we should respond to the transparent craziness of dangerous, disordered public figures like Kanye West and Donald J. Trump.

(For the record, that's our impression of Donald J. Trump. We'll quickly note that tens of millions of fellow citizens don't share our assessment.)

Back to the greatest film of all time! Why do we find the crowning of this greatest film to perhaps be a bit amusing? 

Largely, it's amusing to learn that the greatest film ever made may also be the most boring and least watchable! We'll have to admit that we find that amusing—but also, perhaps, instructive.

Breaking! Upon the release of its new survey, the BFI asked Professor Mulvey to pen an essay about the newly-named greatest film. To peruse her full essay, click here.

Just how hard can it be to sit through the world's greatest film?  We'll admit, a bit perversely, that we were amused by the following passage, in which Mulvey quotes the late Chantal Akerman, the new greatest film's director:

MULVEY (12/1/22): Jeanne Dielman had been first screened in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Akerman has described the difficult atmosphere, as she and Delphine Seyrig, the film’s star, sat at the back of the cinema listening to the seats banging as the audience walked out. In a later interview she said: “The next day fifty people invited the film to festivals. And I travelled with it all over the world. The next day, I was on the map as a filmmaker but not just any filmmaker. At the age of twenty-five, I was given to understand that I was a great filmmaker. It was pleasing, of course, but also troubling because I wondered how I could do better. And I don’t know if I have.”

We'll acknowledge a bit of amusement! Whatever the merits of this film might be, it seems that those merits weren't immediately apparent, not even to the audience at the 1975 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight (more appropriately, at Cannes' Quinzaine des Réalisateurs). 

The professor's account isn't perfectly clear, but we read that passage to be saying that people at Cannes were walking out of the film and banging their seats even as the film continued to play. 

That said, a certain irony quickly appears—an irony which may be instructive. The very next day, Akerman was invited to show the new unwatchable film at fifty film festivals—and Akerman, at age 25, was on the map as a great filmmaker.

Was Akerman a great filmmaker? We have no way of making an assessment. But in that passage, an instant split appears—a split between 1) the assessments of the moviegoers who walked out on the film at Cannes, and 2) the assessments of the cognoscenti in charge of those high art film festivals.  

Moviegoers were bored to tears—but the cognoscenti were thrilled. 

What did the latter group see in this new greatest film? In this earlier passage from her essay, Professor Mulvey starts to explain:

MULVEY: [F]or me, and for all of us who have been rooting for Jeanne Dielman over the decades, this is an extraordinary moment of celebration. I would like to use it go back to my own first encounter with Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles and reflect on the special significance that the film has had for me over the intervening years. I first saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1975–a year remarkable for the energy and fertility of experimental film, as it veered between an extreme art cinema and an actual avant-garde. The films shown included, from the United States: Film About a Woman Who… and Lives of Performers (both Yvonne Rainer), What Maisie Knew (Babette Mangolte – Akerman’s, Rainer’s and later Sally Potter’s cinematographer), Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (Michael Snow) and Speaking Directly (Jon Jost); from the UK: The Amazing Equal Pay Show (London Women’s Film Group) and Nightcleaners (Berwick Street Film Collective); and from Europe: Moses and Aron (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) and The Middle of the Road Is a Very Dead End (Alexander Kluge and Edgar Reitz).

Professor Mulvey first saw the film at the Edinburgh festival—a festival which also featured, according to our tortured attempt at taking a census based upon that puzzling passage, something like eight or nine other remarkable films which you've never heard of.

The fact that you've never heard of those films isn't necessarily a measure of their worth. But as she continues, the professor finally explains, or may perhaps seem to try to pretend to explain, why Akerman's film stood out from the pack:

MULVEY (continuing directly): Alongside these films, all remarkable in their different ways, Jeanne Dielman stood out as something completely new and unexpected. It was the film’s courage that was immediately most striking. Akerman’s unwavering and completely luminous adherence to a female perspective (not, that is, via the character, Jeanne Dielman, but embedded in the film itself and its director’s vision) combined with her uncompromising and completely coherent cinema to produce a film that was both feminist and cinematically radical. One might say that it felt as though there was a before and an after Jeanne Dielman, just as there had once been a before and after Citizen Kane.

What explains why Akerman's film "stood out as something completely new and unexpected," even among those other remarkable films? The professor explains, or may perhaps seem to explain, in the following manner:

For starters, it was the film's courage which made it stand out—that and its director's "adherence to a female perspective." According to the British professor, that adherence to a female perspective was unwavering, but it was also "completely luminous."

What does Professor Mulvey mean by that? She makes no attempt to explain. Instead, she tells us that this completely luminous perspective was "embedded in the film itself and its director’s vision," whatever that might mean. 

Also, she says that this completely luminous perspective "combined" in some unexplained way "with [Akerman's] uncompromising and completely coherent cinema." In these ways, the professor explains, or may perhaps just seem to explain, why the film stood out.

Question! What does Professor Mulvey mean when she says that Akerman's film somehow displayed an "uncompromising and completely coherent cinema?" 

That small serving of word salad goes unexplained along with all the rest of the lettuce! We're simply told that the resulting film is a feminist film, an orientation we would applaud—but we're given no real way to understand what the professor is talking about as she tries to explain why this one film you've never heard of stood out from maybe nine others.

In that passage, Professor Mulvey is engaged in a type of incoherent speech which is frequently quite familiar at the academy's higher reaches. Readers of such fare are expected to nod politely and pretend that something paraphrasable has been said.

Needless to say, none of Professor Mulvey's bafflegab is the doing or the fault of Akerman. It does start to give us a minor warning about the possible role of the pseudo-elites who organize the frameworks of understanding we bring to various matters.

Sagaciously or otherwise, an array of buffs like Professor Mulvey have now brought a certain lesser-known film to major prominence. No, that doesn't hugely matter, except around the margins of the western world's public discourse.

Elsewhere, we blue tribe members rely on certain political and journalistic elites as we try to determine how to deal with Donald J. Trump—and with a disordered figure like Kanye West, whose misogynistic behavior our infallible and self-impressed tribe has long aggressively tolerated, even as we've pretended to hold a different set of values.

As compared to our professors of film, our prevailing journalistic elites are men and women of the people. Still, we routinely inherit our frameworks from them.

Is that a winning idea?

Tomorrow: Quite likely, a bit more amusement


  1. Hmmm... May we suggest, dear Bob, that the right way to respond to what you perceive as "transparent craziness" -- when tens of millions of fellow citizens -- perfectly normal, ordinary citizens! -- don't share our assessment -- would be to have your head examined?

    1. Mao, you are a total idiot, and you really should learn to shut the hell up.

    2. Mao, nothing here about men in women's bodies here from you. What gives?

  2. Interesting exchange going on as the Left answers the
    Taibbi/Trump crowd on Russia. Lots of the issues this
    blog is supposed to be about are touched on. But,
    since Bob has basically sworn passive loyalty to
    Trump, he can't weigh in, and we get this silly
    nonsense about Sight and Sound magazine,
    which Bob has never read.

  3. There’s no greatest movie, we all know that, said Somerby yesterday. But he’s going to blog about why Akerman’s film can’t possibly be the greatest, and why anyone who thinks so is a cosseted elite.

    Also, Somerby constantly complains about all those trivial, superficial stories in the Washington Post, but will now spend days talking about the greatest film of all time which really isn’t.

  4. "Also, of course, there's no such thing as the greatest film ever made."

    This is unlikely to be true. First, of course there is a greatest film. The difficulty is in knowing which one it is. There are ways of specifying objective criteria for assessing films and ways of evaluating films using those criteria. People do tend toward consensus when using such an approach, but how do you know whether the specified criteria are the right ones? One might argue that the criteria are too subjective, but people do tend to converge on agreement even when using subjective evaluations. Further, one can create a situation where you ask people to make judgments and then inductively figure out what their implicit criteria are, based on their choices.

    Back in the early days of psychology, when mathematical psychologists were trying to put the process of using rating scales on a reliable objective measurement footing, people were asked to rate composers using rating scales. But it was found that people differ in their use of such scales. So an indirect rating technique was developed that involved rank ordering composers in comparison to each other, using triad tasks or paired comparisons. The extent of agreement about such judgments is also measurable, even when it is not possible to exactly specify the qualities of the composers or criteria for greatness. These criteria emerge from judgments in response to a question such as "Which of these composers was the greatest?" and then present all possible combinations of pairs or triads from a set of candidate composers. So psychologists can not only determine which composers were considered greatest, but which criteria were important to that decision and how much the raters agreed with each other.

    That makes Somerby's idea that there can be no greatest film not only untrue, but something he has pulled out of his ass out of ignorance about research on judgment and decision making. It is another part of his nihilistic stance that no one can know anything about anything, so everything is possible and nothing is true or false, which is not only nonsense but an abdication of a person's responsibility to use their minds properly. Maybe it gives Somerby giggles to undermine knowledge and trust in reality, facts and our ability to know what is true, but it also makes him an evil person, in my opinion, someone working to undo progress that has benefitted our world in important ways. Today, Somerby's approach helps Republicans achieve narrow self-serving aims. He should be ashamed of what he does here. Sophistry not only confuses the undereducated, but it kills people when it results in lies like spreading disinformation about covid and stupidities that hurt people, like the poor saps who followed Trump's orders on 1/6 and are now in jail.

  5. Way to go after the truly powerful in our society, the film critics, whose power is so great that they can’t even get people to watch the greatest movie ever made, and whose collective net worth is pocket change to someone like Elon Musk.

    Way to fight the Establishment, Bob!

  6. "Largely, it's amusing to learn that the greatest film ever made may also be the most boring and least watchable! We'll have to admit that we find that amusing—but also, perhaps, instructive."

    First, Somerby doesn't know how many or even which ones of those 1639 people who voted also considered the film boring or least watchable. He is over-generalizing again, from one opinion to everyone else.

    Second, if I heard that the greatest film was also boring and unwatchable, I wouldn't conclude that the film was not greater after all. I would conclude that being boring and unwatchable were not important criteria for determing the greatness of a film. I would wonder whether being boring and unwatchable somehow contributed to the greatness, or to the experience of those watching the film in ways that left them feeling like they had seen something great.

    Third, Somerby has no trouble believing that this is somehow a joke on the film experts because they selected a boring, unwatchable film as greatest. So there must be something wrong with the experts.

    I don't know where Somerby finds humor in this situation. As a teenager, I discovered that the books other people considered boring and unreadable were the ones I found most engrossing, the ones I loved. In the high school curriculum, it was Moby Dick, and yes, I found the whale lore fascinating. In my 20s, it was War and Peace. I could not read Finnegan's Wake, but I never blamed the book for that -- as Somerby obviously blames the film critics. English majors loved that book. I did love Pale Fire by Nabokov. So today's essay boils down to some more bashing of those who enjoy "high culture" (no, we did not invent that term).

    One of the most cogent complaints I've seen mentioned by foreign leaders and competent politicians about Trump is his lack of curiosity, which has led to his profound ignorance about all fields of knowledge. Trump shares that with predecessors Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who were not only uneducated but ineducable because they didn't care and didn't want to know about anything, not even the things most central to being president. To those with curiosity, life is not boring, nor are films about aspects of life, about people and their experiences. Film is vicarious experience but it is also a way of commenting upon experience, sharing wisdom, interpreting patterns, understanding existence. Laughing at the people who find that important is not only revealing of the poverty of Somerby's inner life, but it is profoundly sad. That's why Somerby's amusement is troubling. It reminds of an adolescent boy seeing the Mona Lisa and joking to a friend, "I'd hit that." And the sadness extends to the many students who Somerby was supposed to teach, but cannot have had the ability even to model his own curiosity, lacking that quality himself. And it partially explains why he makes fun of those who do have the capacity to appreciate learning -- people mock and disparage the abilities in others which they themselves lack.

  7. "The professor's account isn't perfectly clear, but we read that passage to be saying that people at Cannes were walking out of the film and banging their seats even as the film continued to play. "

    Audiences at the plays, concerts and operas by the greatest writers have had this experience as well. Audiences in those days went to the theater to be seen and to socialize. They talked through performances and didn't care, much less appreciate, what was happening on stage. Does that make Shakespeare or Verdi any less great? Of course not. It meant that the people who could afford to attend, those who were part of high society, were not necessarily those with the taste and training to appreciate the works being performed. It is a matter of pearls before swine.

    In case there is any doubt, Somerby is one of the swine.

    1. Maybe Somerby doesn't know that Cannes is a social event for wealthy people?

    2. He himself said yesterday that a film doesn’t have to be popular to be great, so cue his arguing the complete opposite of that today.

  8. “those merits weren't immediately apparent”

    Elvis was considered obscene and given to “devil music” when he first appeared.

    Now he is idolized by scores of conservatives.

    What does it all mean?

    1. Conservatives had no taste when they condemned Elvis, and they have no taste when they idolize him.

    2. There is no such thing as a conservative, even though right wingers will adopt that moniker to make them sound serious.

      Right wingers have no ideology, not even principles; definitionally they are folks that are obsessed with dominance - they will like something just dandy as long as it does not interfere with their agenda, but if that same thing somehow becomes a roadblock to their deathless desire for dominance, they will turn on that thing and despise it with ungodly passion.

    3. "... and it was at precisely this time that a rare and peculiar passing of gas occurred - a 'fanny wind' as some might call it. I then exclaimed a new moniker for such an incident: a 'Fanny Burp'."

      Yes, a Fanny Burp.

  9. "The professor's account isn't perfectly clear, but we read that passage to be saying that people at Cannes were walking out of the film and banging their seats even as the film continued to play. "

    You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. Providing the opportunity to watch a film doesn't guarantee that everyone will watch it. Has anyone counted how many people walked out of Heaven's Gate? The insecurities of this 25 year old director caused her to notice and mention who walked out, which Somerby uses against her, but do we know how many people walk out of which films in general at Cannes? I doubt if Somerby does.

    Here is the history of that other greatest film, Citizen Kane:

    "Although it was unusual for an untried director, he [Orson Welles] was given freedom to develop his own story, to use his own cast and crew, and to have final cut privilege. Following two abortive attempts to get a project off the ground, he wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, collaborating with Herman J. Mankiewicz. Principal photography took place in 1940, the same year its innovative trailer was shown, and the film was released in 1941.

    Although it was a critical success, Citizen Kane failed to recoup its costs at the box office. The film faded from view after its release, but it returned to public attention when it was praised by French critics such as André Bazin and re-released in 1956. "

    "Failed to recoup its costs" refers to people not buying tickets to see it. It is a method of "walking out" in advance. And it isn't as if the film had expensive special effects or a cast of thousands.

    But Somerby has a narrative that he is busy pleasuring himself with -- he isn't bothering to see what the experiences of other directors of great films might have been. He is too busy laughing at the creations of others -- which is what people who have contributed nothing to do the world do, when reminded of their own inadequacies.

    1. "The fact that you've never heard of those films isn't necessarily a measure of their worth."

      The list is from a European film festival and the films are entirely European films. Why is it surprising that American audiences have not seen them? Few Americans follow Bollywood either.

  10. "What does Professor Mulvey mean by that? She makes no attempt to explain. Instead, she tells us that this completely luminous perspective was "embedded in the film itself and its director’s vision," whatever that might mean. "

    Film critics review films in order to help people decide whether to go see them or not. In this case, the luminous quality of the film might be obvious had Somerby made any attempt to see the film itself. Visual qualities and especially transcendent ones, may not lend themselves to description using words.

    If it were me, I would want to watch the film and find out what makes it great. That doesn't seem to occur to Somerby. Perhaps it is because he doesn't care to know what an entirely feminine perspective is like. He might not want to know why the director's choices were risky. (In part, the truly innovative quality would be unfamiliar to audience members, perhaps leading them to walk out, which is clearly a risk she took that did manifest itself.) Being "uncompromising" does suggest that parts of the film may be hard to watch. But being "coherent" means that the person who sticks it out will find some meaning that may make it worth the three hours. I shouldn't have to explain these words to Somerby.

  11. The documentary Hoop Dreams is 173 minutes long (2 hrs 53 min). It not only follows the lives of two basketball players from middle school to high school, but it also follows the lives of their families. It was blamed for failing to make editing choices, but those who loved the film (including Roger Ebert) found the off-court scenes fascinating and the message about the exploitation of young athletes important and revealing in ways that Ebert says could not have been produced as fiction. Was it worth sitting through 3 hours? Would someone interested in basketball have appreciated the sociology lessons? The makers of the film had a vision and they followed it in their own uncompromising way, resulting in a coherent message. Was it luminous? Maybe that is what the feminine perspective brings. Maybe Somerby should find out by watching the film he has now spent two days criticizing without watching.

  12. "In that passage, Professor Mulvey is engaged in a type of incoherent speech which is frequently quite familiar at the academy's higher reaches."

    It seems to me that the emotional reactions expressed by critics are the parts that Somerby tends to label as incoherent. I do not find much emotional expression "at the academy's higher reaches" but I do find it frequently in critical reviews of works of art, music, theater, literature, and yes, film. That's because the purpose of such works is to evoke emotion, not just thought.

    Emotion has been relegated to the feminine domain since Descartes divided mind and body and assigned bodily responses to women and reasoning to men. We have been fighting to unite the two ever since. Somerby is today refusing to consider the emotional impact of the film while also ridiculing its director and rejecting any insights possible from watching a film about a woman's life. Before someone claims this is because he is "on the spectrum," that is a misunderstanding of autism and autistic people, who experience strong emotions and form attachments even when having difficulty expressing their feelings in words. Somerby is rejecting the experiences here, not struggling for words. He tells us that watching a film about women's lives must be boring to tears and not worth watching, even when critics promise it is worthwhile. And it seems to offend him that a film by a female director about a middle-aged woman would be considered this group of critics' current greatest film. Misogyny is Somerby's pathology, not autism.

  13. I recently watched Stanley Kubrik's masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey" on the TCM cable channel. Before the movie started there was a short introduction by a film critic giving a little background about the film. I learned that when the film was first released, I believe in 1968, it was universally panned by the movie critics, and was on the verge of being pulled from the theaters. It was only when the younger audiences started filling the seats that they decided to let the movie run its course.

    Something else interesting which the TCM film critic opined before the movie started was that he felt in today's movie environment he doubts that the audiences would have the patience to a move like 2001 anymore, where today's movie audiences demand a much faster paced action type movie, which 2001 certainly is not.

    Personally, I still remember to this day going to that small local theater back in 1968 to see 2001,and walking out completely astounded at the experience. Kubrik was a master.

    1. The special effects were new to audiences in 1968. Also, kids went to see the film stoned. But I agree that it was ground-breaking and an amazing experience.

      People do not appreciate the way in which technological advances create opportunities for directors to use cameras and lighting and film in new ways, that create incredible new experiences for audiences. Talkies, yes, but filming editing and sound and all sorts of new techniques lead to advances that are not obvious without taking a film class or visiting the new film museum in Hollywood.

      Someone is first and then the others come along and then the techniques are taken for granted. I think Birdman was like that, but now a bunch of films have used his ideas, esp the drum soundtrack to create tension. I like the way TCM educates its audiences. The Revenant was amazing for the way it used the dream sequences to explain the man's recovery, and the way the forest blended with DiCaprio's delirium. I keep wondering whether Somerby would have found that boring to tears. It was just forest and nothing happening, after all.

  14. "and with a disordered figure like Kanye West, whose misogynistic behavior our infallible and self-impressed tribe has long aggressively tolerated"

    No, Somerby does not get to suggest that HE is less tolerant of Kanye West's misogyny than the left has been. Somerby has defended Roy Moore and Brock Turner, accused Stormy Daniels of shaking down Trump, suggested that women have no right to drink if they don't want to be raped. Somerby has no use for feminist journalists like Amanda Marcotte and Rebecca Traister. He never had a kind word to spare for Hillary Clinton. Somerby is no feminist. He is clearly misogynistic and his disdain and criticism of women here, day in and day out, displays a deeply rooted misogyny, lack of respect for women's accomplishments, misunderstanding of women's problems (as with his denial of the gender wage gap), and dislike of women on a personal level (i.e., "Maddow shoves money down her pants").

    Somerby has no right to claim that the left tolerates misogyny because it has ceded Kanye West to the Republicans.

  15. "Still, we routinely inherit our frameworks from them."

    Do we really get our frameworks from others, or do we have preexisting frameworks that we recognize in others, or dispute when they are not the same as our own?

    Somerby is vague and incoherent as he introduces this new word, framework, without any attempt at defining it. But he has previously accused us of choosing to watch others with pleasing narratives. How would those please us if we didn't already have our own notions of what to think?

    I don't consider myself a passive consumer of anyone's narrative. If that were true, I'd agree with Somerby more often, especially since he usually argues all sides of a topic, eventually.

    Most people start with an unquestioned acceptance of their parents' narrative, test it against their own experiences and reading and discussion with respected others, refine our own thoughts by expressing them, and settle into living our life according to the principles we think to be right. It is an ongoing process throughout one's life, and hopefully we get more sophisticated in our thinking over time.

    But Somerby today seems to be saying that we accept the narratives pushed on us by those journalists who are one or two years out of some ivy league college, perhaps he will say, because we like what we are hearing. But what does it mean to resonate to or like what someone else says? There has to be something preexisting within us, to respond to what another person says. I wouldn't call that a framework though. Not cohesive or organized, or systematic or comprehensive enough.

    But who knows what Somerby's thought processes are these days. Sometimes I find myself wondering who is more disordered, Somerby or Tucker or Trump.

  16. Authentic frontier gibberish:

    Elsewhere, we blue tribe members rely on certain political and journalistic elites as we try to determine how to deal with Donald J. Trump—and with a disordered figure like Kanye West, whose misogynistic behavior our infallible and self-impressed tribe has long aggressively tolerated, even as we've pretended to hold a different set of values.

    1. Blue tribe members do not have any values. If they do - tell us Blue Tribe members -- what are they?

    2. I’ve listed them here several times. Pay attention next time.

    3. Tell us all about Joe Biden's values. What are they? Stiff railroad workers and oversee perpetual war and death?

    4. 8:06pm: tells all about Jill Stein and Tulsi Gabbard's values. What are they?