No Exit, or Duration in Slow Cinema: Aesthetics of Femininity, Porosity, Security

[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Porousness and Cities.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

Several weeks ago, before the onset of “social distancing,” students in my graduate seminar on Queer Feminist Cinema watched Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-vous d’Anna (France/Belgium/Germany, 1978). The film begins in the German city of Essen, where Anna Silver (Aurore Clément)—a young filmmaker—arrives to introduce her work at a small movie theatre. But, the reason for Anna’s trip to Germany is merely incidental or autobiographical; we don’t attend the screenings and we hear no details about her work. Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, instead, shows us Anna’s artist’s tour as a series of connections (and misconnections) with strangers, family, and lovers in Germany, Belgium, and France. These others all want Anna to take on their disappointments and to somehow patch them, cure their malaise. The first encounter, Heinrich (Helmut Griem), whose father “died at Stalingrad” and whose wife left him “for a Turk,” serves as a portrait of deflated, post-war Germany. In fact, the film functions as a tour of post-war European history via rendez-vous. This is a history of multiple voices but clearly directed by Akerman’s singular perspective. As Ute Holl writes in Camera Obscuras 2019 commemorative issue devoted to Akerman, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna “… can be seen as an account of Jewish experience, battling with speech and voice to counteract history as written by its winners.”1Edited by Eva Kuhn and Ute Holl, “On the Difficulty of Forgetting,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 34, no. 1 (2019): 175–76, https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-7264184.

Jewish experience, certainly, but also Belgian (francophone), feminine, and queer experience. Anna has recently shared an intimate experience with a woman in Italy. In the only scene of any human warmth in the film, Anna relates this experience to her mother. Otherwise, in the space left after her interlocutors’ questions, Anna offers terse responses; in the face of their aching need, she counters with flat affect. The film is about loneliness rather than bonding. We spend a lot of time with Anna in hotel rooms, on trains, all shot in static or mobile long takes. The film forces the viewer to stay in one place. In the first few moments of the films, a beautiful tracking shot gives us Anna opening her Essen hotel room’s curtains in a smooth lateral movement. In the hotel lobby, we are confronted with the door to the street, the word Ausgang marked teasingly above.2Kuhn and Holl, 164: Eva Kuhn and Ute Holl mention a similar detail in Akerman’s Hotel Monterey (Belgium, 1972)—a more extreme example of slow cinema—“shot by Akerman together with camerawoman Babette Mangolte, the camera suddenly moves after forty minutes. An exit sign appear in the corridor, but there is no way out in sight.” After my class screened Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, I proposed as one of that week’s themes: “No Exit, or Duration in Slow Cinema: dead time, the banal, the beautiful, the only, the feminist?”

In my previous post, I explained how Liu Jiayin’s 133-minute, nine-shot film, Oxhide II, uses the feminine aesthetics of slow cinema to counteract the discourse of capitalist expansion. While not all slow cinema has a feminist agenda, I argued that Liu’s film—concentrating on domestic space (one room in the Liu family apartment in Beijing), composed of domestic tasks (dumpling-making)—forces the viewer to consider a feminist idea: the work that takes place at home can also be art. I described the sound in Oxhide II—both the offscreen sound of city transport and the onscreen conversations about increasing economic pressures in Beijing—as illustrating urban porosity.

If “no exit” is an aesthetic feature of the long take in feminine film, and well-suited to presenting urban porosity, it is also a feature of the apparatuses of security that structure contemporary societies. Bringing together my thoughts of several weeks ago on Akerman and Liu’s feminine works with today’s imperative to “shelter in place” as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the idea of “no exit,” takes on a more menacing tone and proposes the issue of security as suddenly central to our discussion of porous cities. The depiction of the Liu family in Oxhide II, the characters and camera limited to one small room, reminds us of the lockdowns enforced in China following the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan; in some cities, only one person from a household was allowed out each day to collect necessities, while in other cities, none were permitted to leave the home.

In Michel Foucault’s third lecture from his 1977-78 seminar on Security, Territory, Population at the Collège de France, he presents the general features of the apparatuses of security, taking the smallpox epidemic and inoculation campaigns of the eighteenth century as an example. He highlights how the epidemic gave rise to four new notions aligned with apparatuses of security: case (“a way of individualizing the collective phenomenon of the disease”), risk (“… of catching smallpox, of dying form it or being cured”), danger (“… zones of higher risk and, on the other hand, zones of less or lower risk”), and finally crisis (the “… the sudden worsening, acceleration, and increase of the disease”).3Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell, First edition (New York, NY: Picador, 2009), 60–61. These new mechanisms of security, and the epidemic itself, are linked to what Foucault calls the “phenomenon of the town,” the urban center or city.4Foucault, 64. Today’s circulation of disease through cities across the world, spreading across the global population rather than one nation’s population, is not something Foucault considered in his seminar, but his mechanisms of security still hold sway. In contemporary cities, the local population cannot truly escape contact with the broader global population. This is the flipside of “No exit” and of urban porosity. Like Foucault’s seminar, Akerman’s 1978 Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, does not consider urban porosity as a global phenomenon: Akerman’s film treats Europe’s cities as centers of a shared European history. However, Liu Jiayin’s 2009 Oxhide II, though far more strictly spatially constrained than Akerman’s film, reveals the pressures pushing across our contemporary global world. The mention of the Beijing Olympic Games in Oxhide II’s dialogue and the economic risks it poses for small businesses and artisans, like Liu’s father, signals to the viewer that local transformations now occur to satisfy global occasions, and the voracious, global appetite from which there is no exit.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Edited by Eva Kuhn and Ute Holl, “On the Difficulty of Forgetting,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 34, no. 1 (2019): 175–76, https://doi.org/10.1215/02705346-7264184.
2. Kuhn and Holl, 164: Eva Kuhn and Ute Holl mention a similar detail in Akerman’s Hotel Monterey (Belgium, 1972)—a more extreme example of slow cinema—“shot by Akerman together with camerawoman Babette Mangolte, the camera suddenly moves after forty minutes. An exit sign appear in the corridor, but there is no way out in sight.”
3. Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell, First edition (New York, NY: Picador, 2009), 60–61.
4. Foucault, 64.

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