A Pair Of Shorts - Martin Scorcese & Chantal Ackermann, 1974 , 1968
Updated: Apr 12, 2021
Tucked away in amongst a series of shorts on the theme of films made in a single location, usually a home or the director's immediate environment, available to view on Criterion Channel, I randomly selected "Italianamerican", directed by Martin Scorcese in 1974, and "Saute Ma Ville" (Eng: "Blow Up My Town") directed by Chantal Akermann in 1968.
The theme is quite prescient considering the current COVID19 pandemic although these films were more often than not the result of creative uses of limited resources, both material and financial, and in Akermann's case was the film that bought her work to a wider audience, whereas Scorcese already had a considerable reputation as a feature director primarily focussing on the Italian American experience by the time he made his short personal documentary featuring his parents.
On the surface there isn't much to them and they couldn't be more different, in "Italianamerican" Scorcese uses the device of a straightforward fly on the wall documentary approach to quiz his parents on various banal subjects in their small N.Y apartment and for the most part allowing their character to shine through, with a brief detour into how his mother makes spaghetti and meatballs before segueing into a look at the neighbourhood itself, at the time undergoing a transformation as waves of immigrants from Asia began to displace Italian families who had lived there for perhaps decades, though there is never any sense that Scorcese or his parents have any ill-feeling toward their new neighbours.
Chantal Akermann's film - made when she was still in her 20's - is a different story altogether, being shot in monochrome, unlike Scorsese's film, and with an experimental approach where location audio recording was unavailable and a soundtrack is provided by a wordless "commentary" of sound effects and Akermann's singing which sets a tone for a contrived narrative of spiraling frustration and mania.
The film opens as Akermann, as both director and "star" of the film, returns to her flat in a modern tower block in a Paris suburb or "Banlieue" with a bunch of flowers and shopping, all the while singing a monotonous tune to a melancholy song.
Having entered her tiny flat she then proceeds to go through the motions of preparing a meal, feeding her cat etc and these rather banal activities soon spiral into the increasingly surreal and manic as she throws items from her kitchen cupboards onto the floor, tapes up the door to the kitchen, throws water all over the floor which she then scrubs ineffectually with a mop before ending up disheveled in a corner.
The film concludes as she switches on the gas from her cooker and tries to light a taper with the intention of igniting the escaping gas after which we hear but don't see an explosion.
Inspired by the early silent cinema comedy of Chaplin, but with a decidedly darker edge, it's both a brilliant and economical feminist tract and a rebellious comment on the banality and monotony of domesticity.
Besides being a commentary on the contemporary loneliness characteristic of post-war modernist town planning, it also reflects Akermann's own struggle with depression that eventually led to her suicide in her 40's, after having left behind a number of highly regarded feminist films.
There are quite a number of short films by a variety of directors in this curated season that are worth exploring.