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The Messy Confessions of a Pillow Queen: On Idleness in Some Shorts by Akerman

La Paresse (Chantal Akerman, 1986)

EssayPart of Issue #19: An Idle Cinema = A Free Cinema?

It was her voice, together with her words, her hands,
and her way of moving and laughing,
which linked the woman I am to the child I once was.

Annie Ernaux – A Woman’s Story

For a long time, I went to bed late. After a failed attempt at domesticity, I decided to go back to university in hopes of ameliorating my chances of making it somehow in the world. During that time, I put myself through school by working as a caterer-waiter, making long hours and coming home late to the apartment of my mother who herself had just been through the process of leaving the domestic space she had been building and caring for over the last twenty years. When I got home late from work, or from reviving the class struggle in bars with my fellow students, I watched reruns from Keeping Up with the Kardashians lying on the couch that served as my bed until I fell asleep. When I woke, my waiter uniform was hung tidily, my shoes were shined and there was food in the refrigerator in this clean apartment. Freedom is just another word for being supported by somebody else.

Today, Mother’s Day, I woke up early to write this article. The apartment I share with my lover (who is in Bern for his artistic practice) is dirty, messy and on the verge of being declared inhabitable. The refrigerator is empty and I’m out of cigarettes and coffee. But at least I got up, because for writing as well as filmmaking, one has to get up.

I. The Romance of Being Idle

Obviously, there is an incongruence in making a short film called Sloth (1986), in making a film about one’s own laziness wherein that laziness is brought in front of the camera. As if Oblomov himself would have written the bulky novel of which he’s the titular hero and wherein his laziness is chronicled in excruciating, and weirdly invigorating, detail. Since no real laziness could be captured on film, at least not the filmmaker’s, Akerman has to perform her own laziness by recounting and sometimes demonstrating her morning routine: everything she has to undertake for her to be able to make a film about laziness. In order to make a film one has to get up, get dressed (unless one did not undress the night before), eat (unless the fridge is empty like it almost always is in Akerman’s filmography), wash one’s face in the very elaborate manner her mother used to employ (which the daughter proudly recites even though she does not follow these instructions today) and make up the bed, the staged motion of which ends the routine and as such the film.

Intercut with these commented sequences are footage of Sonia Wieder-Atherton, famed cellist and Akerman’s lover at the time who is—as recalled years later in My Mother Laughs (2013), where she figures under the initial L. and is described as “a hard worker”—rehearsing the cello by performing the soundtrack of this short. Akerman seems to aim for a juxtaposition between the two women. One hard at work with her rehearsal, the other barely capable of doing all the things that are necessary before getting down to the real work.

By including her lover (with whom henceforth she would collaborate many times, even after the end of their affair) and shooting inside the messy and dirty apartment they share, Akerman gestures at a certain romanticism of idleness, especially (as I did above) in the context of mutual artistic creation, albeit in different disciplines. There’s a long tradition of celebrating idleness in artistic discourse as an indispensable condition for artistic creation. Mostly, this seems to me to be a form of self-mythologization since artists (especially prolific ones like Akerman) who claim to be lazy, must, by default, be extremely talented, otherwise how could all those artworks have come to fruition?

Luckily Akerman is smarter than this. Her celebration of idleness is less an act in mythmaking and more a demonstration of self-criticism.

II. The messiness of work

The shtick of having to get up in order to make films was first used in another short called Letter from a Filmmaker (1984). Once more Akerman needs to leave her bed and get up to make a film, but this time this is only the beginning. She needs to feed the crew, she needs to meet producers, she needs to find actors (Aurore, Aurore, Aurore Clément is summoned), she needs to carry the 40 cans of rushes (and 1 of depression) that were a yield of the production of The Eighties (1983). Getting up in the morning is only the first step in a long process of non-creative, tedious physical acts that need to be performed in order to make any film. The trope of her idleness and (once more) the messiness of the apartment wherein the action takes place are deliberate decisions to make the work that needs to be done—and usually happens off-screen—visible.

Self-consciously playing herself as a filmmaker, Akerman lays bare the means of her film productions, the energy it takes to mount these productions and the demands this makes upon the time of an artist who would much rather be in bed contemplating her next projects or listening to her lover’s music. Akerman shows the mechanics behind the façade of these movies. A mechanics no less exhausting in the bric-a-brac factory of the European arthouse circuit than on the smooth conveyer-belt-like studio system of Hollywood.
Performing her critique in a slapstick-like manner plants her in the ducklike footprints of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, who got caught in the wheels of the Fordist assembly line that drove him crazy.

Idleness is ironically made productive by being turned into another film. In the words of Agamben, idleness is made inoperative by making it productive. By performing her idleness, Akerman demythologizes the artistic, creative endeavor by showing how this too is a part of the filmmaker’s persona which is used to obscure the work that Akerman has decided to lay bare much in the same way the whole advertisement sector is a way of obscuring the (outsourced) production process that is necessary to deliver us the products for our consumption.

As a critique of her labor conditions, Akerman’s shorts are nevertheless a bit lightweight. The plight of a filmmaker can surely be relatable to similar navigations of the administrative and financial minefields in any industry, but they are nothing in comparison to those conditions of real manual workers and wage-slaves working long hours to fabricate the refrigerators Akerman decides to leave empty.

If this were it, these shorts would fall … short.

Luckily something more interesting happens in the background.

III. Housewife Drag

With the introduction of wage labor as a result of industrialization, another myth needed to be introduced, as the other side of the same coin, that of the angel of the household. The domestic, which in agrarian societies was not as separated from the labor in which most women partook, became an important counterweight to the harsh physical activity extolled from the workers. A refuge wherein men could repose and regain strength before they would go back again to the factories the next day. In Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010) Elizabeth Freeman writes:

The fact that the wage system privatized domestic activities also meant they could be experienced as taking place in a different time zone. In the home, time bound persons “back” to “nature,” a state of innocence that could be understood as restorative only if women’s domestic labor was fully effaced.

This naturalization of domestic labor fitted in a bigger scheme of what queer theorists called chromonormativity (or sometimes even chronobionormativity) in which a nation was formed by synching up large groups of people not (only) in a specific space, but in a specific experience of time. The angel of the household was a major myth in this process of synching up, forcing women to become the Mothers of a nation, with all the self-sacrificing the word Mother is imbued with in these kinds of mythologies.

I dare to say no other movie has diminished this idea of the mythological Mother as angel of the household as much as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). In showing the work that is the essence of any household and showing it in the long, uninterrupted sequences that made this film so notorious, Akerman pays homage to the unsung hero of our (collective) childhoods. It is of course important to notice that Jeanne Dielman is not a Marxist critique of the alienation of household work. Insofar as Jeanne Dielman might be alienated, it is an alienation she treasures and seeks out. In watching the Sisyphean performance repeated every day, it is important to stress that we must imagine Jeanne Dielman happy.

The messiness of the apartments in which a lot of Akerman’s shorts are shot is a result of the idleness Jeanne could simply not allow herself to imagine. The only thing we do not witness Jeanne doing is sleeping, and the bed is exactly the place where we find Akerman idling away her time in each of these sorts. The idleness Akerman grants herself is in direct juxtaposition to the vigor that characterizes the mother of all mothers in her filmography. (Even though in later films like Tomorrow We Move (2004) we find a sort of reconciliation between mother and daughter.)

Akerman refuses the gendered naturality of the housewife role in showing us the messiness of an apartment wherein she decides to stay in bed only forcing herself to get up and get dressed to make movies. Even in a household with two women (as opposed to mine which includes two men, who are less socialized to become angels) both women have something better to do than the dishes or clearing the table: they have artistic ambitions and projects, even if they relate to them negatively by reluctance and avoidance. Idleness and incompetence in practical household matters have become, in these shorts, a practice of freedom against the constraints of the mythology of motherhood. Without, and this is important to stress, denouncing the work the figure of the mother herself; only the perceived naturality, which came as a result of her work being effaced, of its construction.

Akerman famously called Jeanne Dielman a film about lost rituals. This can be interpreted religiously or historically, as we all know what happened to the women who stood model for Akerman. But at the same time, the lost rituals can also pertain to what exactly is visible on the screen. Akerman knows she will not be the next link in a genealogy of housekeeping which, much like the Jewish genealogy, is passed from mother through daughter. The only way she can still relate to these rituals is by way of omission. Showing what has been lost through the messiness of her own interiors. Making the work visible by not doing it.

In fact, the only time we see Akerman herself observe these rituals is in the first short she ever shot, the very Chaplinesque Blow Up My Town (1968) in which she makes a farce of the idea of a household. She performs being a housewife as a drag act, as such denaturalizing it into a performance. A performance she refuses to uphold, but nevertheless knows well enough to mock.

In the same way her performance of idleness is an homage to the performance of motherhood, which she can only admire by refusing to perform herself.