Sight and Site II: Home

This is the second in a series of reflections that evolve from the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Home (2009) is a film that didn’t get anywhere near the attention and critical acclaim it deserved when it was in theaters several years ago. It is a film that ingeniously explores an environment as allegory. My students and I were in awe (admittedly, sometimes agonized awe) of the radical associative openness that director Ursula Meier constructs and sustains for the entire hour and a half of her fictional story.

Set nowhere in particular in France (but actually filmed in Bulgaria), Home takes place within a family that dwells at the edge of an abandoned highway. Abruptly, the highway is reopened. The reasons for its reopening remain as mysterious as its closure– and the family’s move to the house beside it ten years earlier, for that matter.

Is the highway a metaphor for the “information highway” of images and data that saturates 21st century life? Is it rather a psychoanalytical symptom of the traumatic passage to adulthood, the transformations that this nuclear family is on the verge of experiencing in their interrelationships? Can we interpret it as the repressed past of the family’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), surging back to threaten the present? Is the highway just a highway, a wound cut through the paradisiacal landscape surrounding the family?

Home nurtures all of these associations, and more. It is a fascinating, funny and discomforting mediation on the seductive Gezelligheid but also the sure stagnation encompassed in the notion of home, hearth and belonging.

To catalyze our discussion of the film, our seminar read three diverse texts.

We began with selections from Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space. We weighed Bachelard’s thesis that we create in our lived spaces physical extensions of our various psychologies.

We then contrasted spatial poetics to the spatial dystopia inherent in Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992). We had a great debate on the continuing merits of Augé’s paradigm in a quotidian so throughly pockmarked with experiences of non-place.

In every seminar session, I include a reading that represents a clear counterpoint to the meanings evoked in the film we have studied. This represents a challenge to students to argue dialectically between two diverse narratives of place and the practices of looking that they do or do not solicit.

In contrast to Home, we discussed the phenomenon of smart homes. Smart homes represent a domestic application of technological advances in entertainment, building automation, controlled sensory environments and data analytics. We read Lynn Spigel’s “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” which wisely examines the gender implications of technological homes as threat and promise. We discussed Google’s corporate interests in diversifying their stronghold over informational products to include smart home technologies, and what the implications of that prospective market lockdown might be.

Our session ended with Home‘s ambivalent ending, scored sublimely to Nina Simone’s cover of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington, 1957). I’ll leave you with that wonderful song and the encouragement to view this film sometime soon.

Directory of World Cinema, Belgium: Là-bas (Akerman, 2006)

What a pleasure to receive this publication in my mailbox this week.


It was also a pleasure to contribute a number of short-form essays to it.

I wrote:

an overview of Belgian Surrealist cinema,

and of the short film analyses the book contains, I wrote on Chantal Akerman’s Tout une nuit (1982) and on her magnificent directional tetralogy of the 1990s and 2000s: D’Est (1993), Sud (1999), De L’Autre Côté (2002) and Là-bas (2006).

To celebrate, my text on Là-bas (2006), reproduced here below, and an excerpt of the film in accompaniment.


Director: Chantal Akerman

Producer(s): AMIP, Paradise Films, Chemah I.S., Le Fresnoy

Cinematographer: Chantal Akerman, Robert Fenz

Sound: Thierry de Halleux

Editor: Claire Atherton

Assistant Editor : Fabio Balducci

Duration: 78 minutes

Year: 2006

Là-bas concludes Akerman’s series of films made between 1993 and 2006, based on the themes of place and displacement, physical and emotional space. While D’Est (1993), Sud (1999),  De L’Autre Côté (2003) and Là-bas (2006) are frequently grouped as a foursome of essay films, a pairing of two and two seems more apt. D’Est and Sud examine a socio-historical event of the recent past, showing the wake it has left in the lives of local inhabitants. In them, a major transition has taken place, and the films’ subjects must find a way to remember and rebuild. De L’Autre Côté and Là-bas are about the presence of containment and isolation in the everyday; the subjects in these films must themselves become transitory in order to cope with chronic problems or unmoving obstacles.

Là-bas takes place in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the film is never directly about Israel or its culture. Nor is it directly about Akerman, herself; viewers catch only a fleeting glimpse of her, and her rough and sensuous smoker’s voice is only heard intermittently in voiceover. In one of these voiceovers, Akerman gives a wry description of her project: “I stay here in the apartment, and I eat what my landlord has left, and I read very complicated books about the Jews. I take notes, I reread them, I try to understand. Sometimes I understand. Or I get a whiff of something, something that is already there inside of me, but I can’t express.” At the beginning of the film, she juxtaposes the suicide of her aunt and of the mother of Israeli author Amos Oz, the former in Brussels and the latter in Tel Aviv. “Was it for both of them a sort of exile, wherever they were?” she asks. These diaristic soliloquies and the partitioned images which accompany them evoke the difficult negotiation of exile and return that Akerman and others touched by the Jewish diaspora must undertake.

Là-bas is comprised almost entirely of static long shots. Most of these are of the high-rise apartment buildings directly opposite Akerman’s own vacation apartment, seen through the rattan window blinds. Twice, we see footage shot outdoors at the seashore. The first sequence is a welcome release from the confines of the apartment, but by the second sequence, this watery expanse overwhelms the senses, triggering a desire to return to the familiar, dark living room. In the last four minutes of film, the camera pans and zooms rapidly across the open sky. The montage provokes anxiety and a dizzying feeling of disorientation, the same emotional states Akerman has been describing, perhaps suggesting an ontological state of Israel itself.

At first, it seems Akerman is spying on her neighborhood. The subject matter, the fixity of the camera, the medium of digital video and its generic deep focus immediately calls to mind surveillance footage. The film’s ambient noise, however, complicates this interpretation. Sounds of street traffic and hollering children mingle liberally with sounds coming from the unseen interior of the apartment, like the click of a gas burner on the stovetop, footfalls, objects moved around on a counter or table, or the tapping of computer keys. There is a profound ambivalence between what can and cannot be seen. The gaze of Akerman’s camera is not all-seeing and impassive, but rather unseeingly subjective in nature. This, too, she supposes, is linked to Belgium and her past, as she spent much of her childhood gazing out the window at children she was not allowed to go play with. “Now I’m in the habit of looking out the window,” she says. “I look and I get all up inside myself.”

If, amidst these dark meditations on personal and national prisons, Là-bas also affirms life, this affirmation is found in Akerman’s devotion to creative work, in many senses a direct result of and an antidote to her non-belonging. The man with a balcony and a rooftop garden directly opposite Akerman’s window embodies this devotion, suggesting that Akerman’s work as a Belgian Jew reconciling herself to Israel is in many senses collective work. The man tends restlessly to his potted plants, watering, inspecting and repositioning them as a contemporary Candide would, cultivating his garden. Akerman does the same, learning through her filmmaking to “put down roots in space.”

Sight and Site I: Oblivion, apocalypse, film and media

This is the first in a series of reflections I’ll post that are related to the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Transatlantic travel is always my chance to catch up on all of the films with talking animals, explosions and successful romantic pairings that I tend to miss out on during the school year.

This December in the air, I treated myself to a marathon viewing of interplanetary disaster:  Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013), World War Z (Marc Forster 2013) and Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012). The plane binge was in large part inspired by Ed Halter’s smart and troubling op-ed in December’s Artforum about the recent bumper crop of catastrophe movies. Ed writes,

…[T]he boom in apocalyptic entertainment suggests that we now have no viable concept of our collective future other than collapse, be it ecological, economic, or both. Two of the most pointed articulations of this sensibility were found in Roy Scranton’s philosophical editorial in the New York Times“Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” and science-fiction authorKim Stanley Robinson’s sobering keynote address for the future-conscious series Speculations at MoMA PS1’s summer exhibition Expo 1.

To these, I’ll add a couple more that Ed’s piece brought to mind:

Fredric Jameson’s Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System (Indiana Press, 1992).  If, as Jameson claims, late 20th century conspiracy films are “allegories of each other, and of the impossible representation of the social totality itself,” (5), we might conclude from Ed’s observations that 21st century disaster films represent the total impossibility of the social.

– Mark Fisher’s ultra-noir “Its Easier to Imagine the End of the World than the End of Capitalism,” The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 307-312. In it, Fisher also points to turn-of-the-21st century films that disseminate “‘capitalist realism,’ the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (307)

– Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent two-part series in the New Yorker, “Annals of Extinction: The Lost World.” Kolbert ends her reportage with the bittersweet, Proustian pleasure of scattering fossils from the Palaeozoic era or earlier amongst fast food debris of the Anthropocene.

Ed’s piece in Artforum concludes,

In so many of this year’s end-time spectaculars, the militarization of society is seen as the only probable outcome in the face of disaster, whether it’s Cruise’s maverick flyboy in Oblivion, the global police state of ElysiumAfter Earth’s father-son commander-cadet team, Pacific Rim’s mind-melded machine-warriors, the never-ending conflicts of World War Z, or the overachieving child soldiers of Ender’s Game and Hunger Games. This shared proposal should be as disturbing to us as any overwrought images of cataclysm.

I’m planning to make this proposal of militarization disturbing to my students with some of the films in the spring senior seminar I’m teaching: Sight and Site in Film and Media. (Disturbing…but rewarding!)

The class will watch a range of films–experimental and commercial, short and long, documentary and fiction–from 1926 to 2013. We’ll be thinking together about two different aspects of mapping and place: 1.) the different ways that diagrammatic or illustrative site is employed in film narrative and 2.) the different ways that digital media narrativizes our sight of actual places and maps. Over the next months I’ll probably write a number of posts inspired by the class.

I’ll teach Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski, 2013) together with La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962), selections from Marc Augé’s Oblivion, the Mark Fisher excerpt mentioned above, and Mark Andrejevic’s “The Work of Being Watched: Interactive Media and the Exploitation of Self-Disclosure.” I want students to consider how Oblivion and La Jetée are both social panegyrics, but I also want them to use the screening and texts together as an unexpected springboard for considering their everyday experiences with surveillance, interactive screens, and memory.

In lieu of an ending: an “inspiration board” for Sight and Site in Film and Media that I sent to my class to whet their appetite (click to enlarge):

FMST 400