TUESDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2022
...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
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