Published on August 24th, 2018 | by Nathan Raine0
JEANNE DIELMAN or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Boredom
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is one of the most challenging, celebrated films in history. Also, boring. But boring isn’t always bad.
The average North American watches an average of 304 minutes of television per day. That’s 2,128 per week, 9,120 per month, and 110,960 per year. With televisions passively glanced at in gyms, waiting rooms, and above urinals likely not being accounted for in this sum total, one could reasonably argue that the total minutes your average 2018-human-being spends in jaw-gapping utter boredom while consuming their annual 110,960 minutes of television is likely, give or take a few seconds, around 0. The almost infinite amount of choice in what we watch, when we watch it, and how we watch it has essentially rendered out any requirement to electively sit in prolonged, agonizing boredom. Choice precludes boredom [when it comes to entertainment], and never in human history has it been easier to evade boredom [Netflix offers over 10,000 different movies and TV shows; YouTube has over 7 billion videos, about twelve of them quite good]. Boredom is dead. As are our attention spans, killed by frenetic variety and our values as Mass Audience for the hyper-stimulating. After all, as boring people, it’s our birth-right to be entertained.
Jeanne Dielman is boring. It’s of the type of boring usually likened to paint-drying or Nascar-watching. The film’s full title is even boring [it’s a mailing address] – Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – suggesting dangerous amounts of tedium and possibly a look into the French postal service. Made in 1975 by French filmmaker Chantel Akerman, Jeanne Dielman [JD, henceforth] is devoid of essentially everything that often makes a viewing experience interesting, pleasurable, or even tolerable. The glacially paced 3.5 hour film examines a single mother’s extremely regimented schedule of cooking, cleaning, and parenting over the course of three days. We watch, at distance but in meticulous detail: Jeanne making beds, Jeanne bathing, Jeanne drinking coffee, Jeanne peeling potatoes, Jeanne turning [very chore-like] tricks, and other daily chores. It’s the unremarkable stuff usually removed from movies that Akerman has put at the very centre of JD. And although it may sound like some lifeless home video accidentally leaked & released to the public, JD has in fact cemented itself as a landmark work in film history; it consistently shows up near the top of critics’ polls for the greatest films ever [usually sandwiched between movies like The Godfather, Chinatown, and whichever Scorsese film critics happen to like best at that time], Akerman is widely regarded a creative pioneer in cinema, and JD is considered the first masterpiece of feminist cinema. It’s a great and seminal artwork for countless reasons, but perhaps most owing to how consciously and relentlessly boring it is.
In contemporary cinema/entertainment [movies, TV, whatever], the most unforgivable offence, [probably] is to bore. That or to give Roseanne carte blanche. We’ll sit in front of garbage that offends, confuses, depresses, or devalues our brains; this is perfectly fine, so long as it stimulates. Entertainment becomes boring when it fails to divert our mind from reality. Mindless stimulation means we don’t have time to think about failed relationships, swelling credit card debt, and the steady decent into old age, dementia, diapers, and death. [likewise, it’s in the best interests of the moviemakers to keep you mindlessly transfixed without time to catch your breath and actually ponder the merits of what you’re consuming. Stranger Things comes to mind, with its bombardment of references, nostalgia, and adorable/punchable kiddos to distract from recognizing it as a wholly uncreative, cliche, voiceless product. I’m told from fans of the show, though, that that’s ‘the point’]. There’s usually a monstrously big and comfortable gap between the ‘reality’ we’re experiencing on our screens, and the reality we experience in everyday life. What Akerman is doing in her film, essentially, is removing that gap.
Which is very boring.
If boring is entertainment’s most unforgivable sin, then its dirtiest words are “slow”, “serious”, and “challenging.” And “Weinstein.” The laborious and no-fun activity of thinking or being challenged has no place in True Entertainment. But boredom in film should [sometimes] be valued precisely because it’s provides an experience of something we so instinctively resist. When we’re bored, we’re trapped. When we’re trapped, we’re vulnerable. The experience is rarely pleasant, and through hyper-variety of Netflix and Insta-everything, we’ve conditioned a bold intolerance to anything which doesn’t hold our attention. Boredom is so uncomfortable because it forces one to be keenly and painfully aware of time. When we’re bored, we feel time. Ol’ Sigmund himself wrote about how every one of us is convinced in our unconscious minds of our immortality. Feeling the passing of time makes us feel mortal. Akerman, in JD, understood what the natural impulses of the human mind scramble to do with time and simplicity. It begins to connect those realities.
Now, it would be a lie to say that nothing happens in JD aside from the methodical drudgery of daily chores & lifeless booty calls [which basically I did say]. It would also be wrong to insinuate that JD is not actually that boring. It is. It’s very boring. Particularly the first hour of the movie, which can be quite gruelling. It’s shot meticulously, for maximum concentration on Jeanne’s seemingly simple daily routines. Every shot in JD is flat, fixed, and symmetrical. Each shot, perched at a distance, lasts the duration of the entire scene. [Akerman explained that she wanted the viewer to have a sense at all times where she, as director, was standing, just behind the camera]. Scenes of Jeanne bathing or drinking coffee last long enough for you to scour the entire frame for every detail, eventually returning to Jeanne who is still washing her armpits or sipping coffee. You quickly grow bored, even frustrated, with its idleness. That gap between the realities of viewer and subject is glaringly absent. Akerman gives us no choice but to construct meaning into every little movement; the routines become familiar and the viewer falls into the incantation of observing, or participating, in the routines that define her life. Then, as we become lulled by the familiarity and precision of her day, Akerman jolts us with Jeanne’s first skipped note.
I’ve not seen JD in the theatre, but have read articles that claim audiences often gasp aloud at this unexpected skipped note. It’s a testament to how hungry we are as viewers to participate in narrative and emotional experience. My reaction was a mix of both shock and confusion – I thought Akerman had made a mistake. She draws no attention to the slip. This skipped note signals Jeanne’s domestic unravelling. The duration of JD is mesmerizing, precisely because of its engagement with boredom. Jeanne starts to make other mistakes, which in this world, might as well be nuclear bombs or Vin Diesel cargasms. Her kitchen, her hair, and her clients begin to appear out of shape from the slight disturbance in this obsessively managed world. In traditional film, these bits of conflict or narrative tension are slammed at us – we’re numbed to what those things convey and how we make these experiences meaningful. Akerman’s greatness is in connecting with her audience by deprivation.
Practically speaking, I’m not suggesting a person ought to seek out boring movies in order to sit there and contemplate time and mortality – that would be stupid. I’m also not denying the existence of boring movies. But boredom is inherently subjective. And because boredom is so personal, it’s intensely uncomfortable – which is something art ought to do. Maybe it’s the only that art can do to impact us. David Foster Wallace wrote, in his brilliant essay E Unibus Pluram: “shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘oh how banal‘.” Akerman is this sort of rebel. She brought “reality” to the cinema through banality, taking a simple two-dimensional frame and creating something that resembles the rhythms and anxieties and pace of a three dimensional world. The conscious understanding that what we’re watching was created for an audience with intent to bore suggests that you and your gaze is at the centre of this entire experiment. Akerman didn’t actually suggest that. She explicitly said it. “In most movies you have crashes or accidents or things out of the ordinary, so the viewer is distracted from his own life,” she said. “This film is about his own life.” Akerman made a film about you, regardless of who or what you are.
And what you are is boring.