:: Article

flatness/interruption

Still from Chantal Akerman (1976) Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

This essay revolves around an experimental study towards a method of “diagrammatic writing” to examine the concepts of flatness and interruption, both in critical discussion and visual presentation.

I will not arrive with a concise definition of flatness and interruption, which I believe is impossible. Instead I examine the emergence and manifestation of binary oppositions in three examples of cultural production – of which one is reproduced below – to gain a deeper understanding of these ambiguous terms and their interplay. What happens when flatness and interruption collide? What results from this? Do they exclude each other, can they coexist, or do they synthesise or transform?

In the diagrams, the black writing represents my interpretation of the interaction between flatness and interruption in the respective example. The writing in blue constitutes analytical comments and thoughts. Its vertical positioning matches the point of reference in the black text, while the horizontal positioning delineates their focal point. Flatness is treated on the left hand side, while interruption is discussed on the right. The same horizontal distribution is retained in the black text. This visualises the occurrence and emergence of interruptions in the examples. I tried to match the style of writing of the black text to the ideas I am examining with it.

In the following diagram the black text is a factual observation of Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975). I discuss the layers of flatness and interruption in relation to the banal and the dramatic on the level of form and content. “Jeanne Dielman” creates a dissonance of these concepts, both in form and content, which shows itself in a non-hierarchical juxtaposition.

In the unabbreviated version I discuss two more examples: the flatness within the illusionary and its interruption by reality based on Siegfried and Roy’s tiger attack, and – using the example of Straub and Huillet’s “Othon” (1970) – the ability of flatness and disruption to intersect and at times become each other. The complete piece can be found here.

Flatness/Interruption
Banal/Dramatic

Chantal Akerman, “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” (1975)

Jeanne starts to lose control over her actions. The structure crumbles. There are visible glitches in her routine of doing things in the house. She starts to forget things, is either too early or too late and makes mistakes. With some distance, of course, these are all banal events, but for Jeanne they are per- ceived as dramatic and interrupting. She is not used to failure and contingencies and the unforeseen. She was always in control of ev- erything and following her structure. Therefore she is not prepared to deal with them. If I would portray Jeanne as an obsessive compulsive person, the interruption would not lie in the fact that things go wrong, but in the failure of sup- pressing unwanted thoughts (about her pros- titution, sexuality and the orgasm). The mistakes are just the surface where the interruption shows.

Jeanne starts to face periods of boredom. Mo- ments in which she doesn’t know what to do with herself or fill the time.

Under normal circumstan- ces boredom would be as- sociated with flatness. “Qu’est-ce que je peux faire? Je sais pas quoi faire” – this scene of Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou” is a vivid example for boredom as I usually would see it. One is lacking of general interest or interest to engage. The situation one is confronted with provides too little of a challenge for the individual confronted with it and addi- tionally the surrounding fails in providing stimulation. One is waiting for this moment to pass.

After Jeanne is not used to gaps inside the struc- ture of her daily routine (even her leisure time is highly anticipated) she can’t deal with it and feels uneasy about it. An otherwise flat sensation transforms into an inter- ruption.

In the example of Chantal Akerman’s film “Jeanne Dielman” I believe it is productive to consider two different layers for the study of flatness and interruption: The ones of form and content.

We see a woman comp- leting her daily tasks of house work.
The prescribed and ac- curate execution of action and its repetitive cha- racter together form an interplay of monotony and routine. The rigid framework in which things are done, the time ascribed to their accom- plishment and the order in which they are per- formed doesn’t leave room for eventualities, contingencies or emotio-nal life. They appear as tedious, flat tasks without any variation, performed in a mechanical manner, very predictable in their outcome.
A high level of precision and experience lies in each of Jeanne’s mo- vements. The work does neither challenge nor fulfill her – she is used to it.
What this well-versed execution does instead, is to provide a structure for Jeanne which appears crucial – on one hand – to offer stability and on the other hand to suppress thoughts about the only part of her life which doesn’t match her image of being a housewife and mother – her afternoon prostitution.
Additionally, all of this displays a flatness that women, in particular, are confronted with: the ba- nality and tediousness of “woman’s” labour, being sentenced to (unfor- tunately still – Jeanne Dielman was filmed in 1976) merely by virtue of gender.

Formally another type of flatness is addressed, which I am almost more curios about than the one on the level of content. All the sequences of house- work are filmed with a static camera from a low angle. Everything is captured in almost real time and in non-dramatic shots. Ivone Margulies (2009) states that this camera position matches the relatively short height of the filmmaker, whereas I rather see the position of a child in this cinematic arrangement.
The position of a child seems more productive to consider in regard to the observational mode the viewer is placed in during the course of the film. The dry, distanced, non- judgemental way in which we see Jeanne follow her daily routine, is suggestive of an un- knowing observer who didn’t yet establish ca- tegories of importance or hierarchies. It is this which makes me think of a small child who merely observes without com- prehending what it is looking at. By this means of filming nothing is interpreted and every- thing is treated with the same level of attention. The time given to tasks is not determined by the filmmaker but by the time they take to be com- pleted, they are literally shown in their totality – and the viewer endures them in a child-like manner.

The interruptions that Jeanne faces are not visible on the formal level. The camera still frames her and her activities with the same intensity, without judgement. Nothing changed in the way of seeing. The disruptive moments are treated equivalent to the flat routine from the beginning.
The only thing we don’t see is what happens inside the bedroom. I think that this might be the only formal inter- ruption we are confronted with. The camera cap- tures even the smallest part of the daily routine, but what happens during the time the john is visiting is not filmed. This could be interpreted as a break or interruption in a representation of daily routine otherwise shown in great detail.
The concealment of this part of the day on the formal level, in my opinion, acts as har- binger for the later course of interrupting events stemming from exactly this moment.

Curiously the murder is not placed on the climatic point in the dramatic structure of the film. The first day without mistakes acts as exposition fol- lowed by the rising action after the assumed or- gasm. Following this composition the murder should act as the climax, as an interruption, which changes the course of narrative. However, its non-dramatic representa- tion, in acting and fra- ming, doesn’t measure up with the idea of a climax. Moreover, it stands dramatically equal next to the other interruptions, such as the over boiled potatoes or the bad tasting coffee, which makes it appear rather banal.
I believe this equivalence of events is to a large extent due to the camera work: after there are no hierarchies established, the murder and other events bear the same intensity and dramatic qualities. By leading up to a climax that doesn’t function as one, a si- milarity of events is es- tablished – the banal and the dramatic become homogeneous neighbours.

Jeanne is standing in the kitchen, she lights the gas hob and puts a pan on. The doorbell rings and Jeanne goes to open the door for a john. They disappear in the bedroom. After a while they leave the room again. He pays her. He leaves. She puts the money in the terrine on the dining table. She takes a bath, cleans the bathtub, gets dressed. She sets the dinner table in the other room. Her son comes home. They eat together, engage in mini- mal conversation. After the table is cleared, Jeanne turns on the radio, sits down and knits. Her son reads. They go for their evening walk. Back at the flat, Jeanne sets up her son’s bed in the living room. She gets ready for bed and says goodnight to her son. Jeanne gets up. She turns on the heating in the living room. Jeanne prepares her son’s clothes for the day, examines if they are in good order. She shines his shoes. Jeanne is making coffee and break- fast. Her son gets up, eats and leaves for school. Jeanne makes her son’s bed. She washes and dries the dishes. She leaves the house to do groceries and run errands. Coming home she puts away the shopping. The neighbour brings her baby to be watched. Jeanne puts it in the living room. She starts to prepare dinner. The baby gets picked up again. Jeanne eats her lunch sandwich. She leaves the house to run more errands. She goes to a cafe and sits down at the corner table. Jeanne orders a coffee and adds two cubes of sugar. She sits for a while drinking the coffee. She goes home and puts the potatoes on the stove. The doorbell rings and Jeanne opens the door for another john. They leave

the room
again, he
pays her
and leaves.

Jeanne puts the
money into the
terrine on the
dining table but
forgets to close its lid.

She takes a
bath, cleans the bathtub, gets dressed. Jeanne goes
to the kitchen to check
on the dinner.

After the table is cleared, Jeanne turns on the ra- dio, sits down and knits. Her son reads. They go for their evening walk. Back at the flat, Jeanne sets up her son’s bed in the living room.

She finds the pota-
toes she put on the
stove earlier boiled
over. Jeanne is up-
set, and starts to walk
through the flat in panic
– the pan of potatoes in
her hands. Finally she
tosses them into the trash.
Now she has to go out and
buy more potatoes. When
her son comes home, the
dinner is not ready. They are
sitting at the table and have to
wait for the potatoes.

She says goodnight to her son.

They talk about Jeanne’s
dead husband.

She turns on
the heating in
the living room. Jeanne prepares her son’s clothes for the day

Jeanne wakes up earlier than usual.
She shines his shoes, the brush
slips out of her hands.

Jeanne is making coffee and breakfast. Her son gets up, eats and leaves for school. Jeanne makes her son’s bed. She washes the dishes.

While drying the cutlery
she drops a fork on the
floor.

She leaves the house to do groceries and run errands.

She’s too early, the shops are
still closed, she has to wait.

At home Jeanne starts to prepare the dinner earlier than
usual. Jeanne sits at the kitchen table doing nothing.
She makes coffee. She takes a sip, it tastes bad. She
adds milk, it still tastes bad. The milk is fine, she adds
sugar. No change, she throws away the coffee and
starts more from scratch. Jeanne sits in a chair in the
living room, just breathing, doing nothing. She cleans
some things inside the vitrine and checks in the hallway
for any post. She checks the time. Then she sits
down in the chair again.

Jeanne leaves the house and goes to the cafe

but her usual seat is taken by another
woman. Jeanne leaves without ordering and goes home.

She opens the door for another john. They go to the bedroom.

They have sex. Jeanne has an orgasm. After inter-
course she gets dressed again. She flattens her skirt and
takes a pair of scissors from the dresser. Jeanne stabs
the john who is lying on the bed in the throat. Jeanne sits
at the dinner table doing nothing. A light is flickering.

In discussing the every- day – its banality and the flatness of the latter – I am thinking of sequen- ces of processes. Pro- cesses which repeat themselves over and over again. If processes, ev- ents, tasks are iterated constantly, in exactly the same way, in a sequen- tial fashion within a certain time frame, over a long time span, these processes become pre- dictable and anticipated – so consequently flat.

Henri Lefebvre detects two modes of repetition in the everyday: “the cyclical, which dominates in nature, and the linear, which domi- nates in processes known as “rational.” The everyday implies on the one hand cycles, nights and days, seasons and harvests, ac- tivity and rest, hunger and satisfaction, desire and its fulfillment, life and death, and it implies on the other hand the repetitive gestures of work and consumption.”

But what happens when the “linear” becomes pre- dominant to the “cyc- lical”?
Maybe it is possible to say that for individuals living in the present age of postmodernism the everyday feels flat by being so absorbed in the linear path of repetition (monotonous work, daily tasks) that the cyclic repetitions (which ac- tually introduce changes) go unnoticed. The every- day gets intruded by flatness and routine.

The actual event of interruption is not represented. One can only speculate what happened behind the closed doors. We can assume that Jeanne had an orgasm. For someone who forbids herself to have emotions and sexuality this event would take on the character of a huge rupture in a carefully established order of things.

 

__________

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katharina Ludwig is an artist working with language, installations and objects. Her work and writing investigates the structures and fragmentation of narratives. She works and exhibits internationally, lives between Berlin and London and occasionally tweets as @kat_ludwig.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 11th, 2015.