Remembering Filmmaker Chantal Akerman

Still from Chantal Akerman’s Tomorrow We Move, 2004

 

Marking its 25th anniversary, the New York Jewish Film Festival in January 2016 presented a retrospective of films from the Festival’s history. We were proud to bring back Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s film Tomorrow We Move from 2004, and to feature the U.S. premiere of a new documentary on Akerman by Marianne Lambert entitled I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman. Our programming, although already in place prior, assumed a new potency when Chantal Akerman passed away in October 2015. Stuart Klawans, film critic from The Nation, introduced Tomorrow We Move as he did in 2004. Below is a transcript of his introduction to the film in memory of Chantal Akerman.

— Aviva Weintraub, Associate Curator at the Jewish Museum and Director of the New York Jewish Film Festival

 

Tomorrow We Move
Introduction by Stuart Klawans at the 25th New York Jewish Film Festival, January 20, 2016:

Before I say anything else, let me get the death out of the way. As I’m sure you know, Chantal Akerman died last October. She committed suicide not many months after the death of her mother Natalia, a survivor of the Holocaust, with whom she had been very close. I mention this because it’s possible to discover traces of Natalia throughout Akerman’s films. She was a strong presence in the early documentary News from Home, the central figure of the documentary that turned out to be Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie. And as you’re about to see, Tomorrow We Move is very much about the relationship between a young Jewish woman and her mother — a relationship that is loving, exasperating, claustrophobic and perpetually shadowed by memories of the Holocaust. News from Home, No Home Movie, Tomorrow We Move, which is to say, get out of our home. I think you’re starting to see a pattern.

But I mention all this, as I said, to get it out of the way — because I feel we ought to resist the temptation, the very understandable temptation, to watch Tomorrow We Move for hints of the way Akerman would end. The movie you’re about to see, and enjoy I hope, is not a premonition of tragedy. It’s a wonderful screwball comedy.

Now, comedy is not a mode that people usually associate with Akerman. She remains best known for her early masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, which again is perfectly understandable. You make a movie like that — not that anything else is really like Jeanne Dielman — and you’re stuck with the reputation forever. If you were to put a gun to my head and tell me to describe Jeanne Dielman in one sentence, I suppose I would die. Or, if not, I’d say it’s a suspense thriller, except very, very, very slow, so it also becomes a critical essay in feminism, and a meticulous documentary of the material culture of lower-middle-class Brussels in the middle of the twentieth century. In any event, it’s not a comedy, screwball or otherwise. Nor, for that matter, is it an all-singing, all-dancing musical.

But here’s the thing. For all her fierce critical intelligence, and for all her formal rigor, Akerman loved comedies, and musicals. And she made them—not the way other people would have done, God knows, but with genuine flair. In the hope that I’m adding a little something to your enjoyment of
Tomorrow We Move, let me quickly put it into the context of this lesser-known side of Akerman’s work.

I might start with her very first film, a 13-minute slapstick comedy she made in 1968. Akerman herself plays the sole character in the movie, a young woman who bursts into a kitchen and starts making a mess, as she hurries to cook dinner. The punch line — spoiler alert — is that when she gets around to lighting the oven, she manages to blow up the whole city. The film is titled Saute ma ville, which I suppose might be rendered in English as Boom Town. Akerman spoke of it as a film of rage and aggression — but all slapstick comedies are films of rage and aggression. The fact is, at the very start of her career, Akerman chose to channel her rage and aggression into something that was antic.

For the next dozen years or so, it’s true, she kept her antic side pretty well submerged. But it started coming out again in 1983 with The Eighties, Les années quatre-vingt, a kind of backstage documentary about the making of a musical set in a shopping mall, with a large cast and goofy songs and intermittent appearances by Akerman directing the proceedings with wild enthusiasm. The musical itself appeared in 1986, titled Golden Eighties, or Window Shopping. It was possible at the time to misinterpret Golden Eighties as an anomaly—but then Akerman, this deeply serious and strenuously meticulous filmmaker, went on to a further embrace of messiness, music and romantic love. I can recommend her 1991 film Night and Day as the sweet, dreamy story of Julie, a young woman who doesn’t like to be without a lover, and so she keeps two of them — one on the night shift, one on the day shift. When not sleeping with them, she strolls around Paris singing to herself.

I’ll mention two more. There’s the screwball romantic comedy A Couch in New York — which is about trans-Atlantic displacement, and also psychoanalysis — and a beautiful short film called Déménagement in French and, in English, Moving In. That one is a monologue spoken by a man as he moves into a new apartment, and recalls a period of wonderful, ephemeral, lost flirtation in the old apartment he’s abandoned.

All of these pictures led up, in a way, to Tomorrow We Move. As you’ll see, it’s another of Akerman’s comedies of displacement. It’s also another of her versions of a  musical. Every boy in the movie seems to know how to play the piano, and they all play “Tea for Two.” It’s a love story. It’s a mother-and-daughter story. And, yes, it’s a Holocaust movie. Why are these Jewish characters never really at home? Why do they keep a packed suitcase, even when they’re supposedly staying put? Maybe it has to do with the daughter’s having to hide away in an attic room — though what she writes there is something other than a diary. Maybe it has to do with the way you can’t really clean the apartment, because the vacuum cleaner gives off clouds of smoke like a chimney somewhere unspeakable. Maybe it has to do with the scent of bug spray, which is too reminiscent of other smells.

There are horrors behind the goofball shenanigans of Tomorrow We Move, just as there was rage and aggression behind the slapstick of Saute ma ville. But comedy is the genre in which vitality disrupts stultifying social norms, and the abundance of life triumphs over all. Tomorrow We Move tests the limits of the genre pretty audaciously, but from the first dizzy shot to the last, it comes out as a comedy — a real one.

I’m very glad that this is the way the New York Jewish Film Festival has chosen to remember Chantal Akerman. May her memory be for a blessing, and may you enjoy the film.

 

Swapping Instagram Accounts with the Studio Museum in Harlem

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

 

On February 2, the Jewish Museum joined 17 other museums in New York City in #MuseumInstaSwap, an initiative that partnered museums with each other to swap Instagram accounts for the day. Who took part?

Although the Jewish Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem may not have a closely connected institutional history, we were intrigued by our pairing as an opportunity to tell the story of museums that represent identity and culture. A critical component of sharing a visit to the Studio Museum to Jewish Museum followers on Instagram began with the museum’s artist-driven history. The Studio Museum was founded by artists and activists in 1968 and to this day continues to support artists of African or Latino descent through its residency program, which gives the museum the “Studio” in its name. We were invited to the studio spaces upstairs and met some of the artists in residence. In the lobby, we could not resist capturing the spirit of this museum with Glenn Ligon’s iconic work Give us a Poem, a light installation blinking the words “me, we.” As a museum for people of all backgrounds, we were drawn to this work as a poignant statement about identity and community that extends beyond our own. We also discovered unexpected overlap in artists represented in both museum collections and exhibitions, including Kehinde Wiley who was the subject of a major exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 2012 Kehinde Wiley / The World Stage: Israel, and part of our collection.

View the archive of the Instagram swap on Storify and follow #MuseumInstaSwap to view the complete collection of images shared by all 18 museums in New York City.

The Most Popular Works of 2015 in the Jewish Museum Online Collection

Based on Google Analytics data, we pulled the most viewed works of the past year in our online collection:

  1. Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade, c. 1940, Weegee
  2. Monument (Odessa), 1989 – 2003, Christian Boltanski
  3. Hanukkah Lamp, second half of the 19th century
  4. The Return of the Volunteer from the Wars of Liberation to His Family Still Living in Accordance with Old Customs, 1833 – 34 Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
  5. The Holocaust1982, George Segal
  6. The Flight of the Prisoners, from The Old Testament, c. 1896-1902, James Jacques Joseph Tissot
  7. Being the Light, 2000, Matthew McCaslin
  8. Marriage Dress, Fashions for the Millennium: Protective Amulet Costume, 2000, Michael Berkowitz
  9. Portion of a Synagogue Wall, 16th Century
  10. Hanukkah Lamp, Unorthodox Menorah II, 1993, Joel Otterson
  11. The Steerage, 1907, Alfred Stieglitz

Joel Otterson, Hanukkah Lamp, Unorthodox Menorah II, 1993, mixed metal pipes, cast bronze, porcelain, and glass, 1993-216

The Jewish Museum’s collection began in 1904 with a gift of 26 ceremonial objects donated to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. After moving to the Warburg Mansion in 1947, the collection expanded to include fine arts, archaeological artifacts, decorative arts, media, and photography. Today our collection is comprised of nearly 30,000 objects. Our most searched objects showcase the incredible range and depth of the collection.

The Jewish Museum boasts the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world. In our permanent collection galleries, traditional forms are often displayed next to irreverent versions like Joel Otterson’s Unorthodox Menorah II.

George Segal, The Holocaust, 1982, plaster, wood, and wire, 1985-176a-l

One of our most iconic works, George Segal’s monumental sculpture about the Holocaust also speaks to this meeting of the traditional and the contemporary. “Of course I intended references to Judaism’s spiritual past,” the artist says in a letter to a visitor found in the Museum’s archive, dated Valentine’s Day 1996, giving us courage amidst this difficult subject. “A sensual Eve, a protective Abraham shielding his son’s eyes from the horror around them, a reference to Christ’s gesture on the cross … For me, a fervent belief in the principles of Judaism does not preclude friendship with like-minded idealists from all religions.”

Hanukkah Lamp, Germany (?), second half 19th century, silver: engraved, traced, punched, appliqué, and cast, D 205

Sometimes the history of how works came to the Jewish Museum is as fascinating as the works themselves. For example, objects in our collection with the accession number “D,” like the silver German lamp on this list, indicate that they came from the Free City of Danzig. In the summer of 1939, 10 crates were delivered to the Jewish Museum (then part of the Jewish Theological Seminary). They contained the precious possessions of a community on the brink of war. The city’s legacy — their Torah ornaments, Hanukkah lamps, textiles, and other objects — were sent here for safekeeping. (A month later, the German army marched into Danzig.)

Weegee, 1899-1968, Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade, c. 1940, gelatin silver print, 2000-72

Just a year later, around 1940, Weegee photographed a bagel man in New York. Here, in Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade, the smiling, confident Max rushes toward us, delivering bagels to a restaurant in lower Manhattan. Weegee used a flash called his “Aladdin’s lamp” to achieve the image of a solitary, glowing figure emerging from darkness.

Alfred Stieglitz, The Steerage, 1907, photogravure

Of course, with such a large collection, only a fraction of it is on view at one time. Our rotating series Masterpieces & Curiosities has allowed the Museum’s curators to bring out of storage some incredible objects and to tell their full stories — such as Alfred Stieglitz’ The Steerage, on view now. Of his own masterpiece, the artist said, “If all my photographs were lost, and I’d be represented by just one, The Steerage, I’d be satisfied.”

But these are just 11 objects in our collection of thousands. Be sure to visit the Museum (online and in person) to see some of these works and discover more while you’re here.

— Katherine Danalakis, Collections Manager, the Jewish Museum