In Too Many Words: D'Est

Here’s the first movie review I’ve posted in a while. The The film was made in 1993, and it was screened from a 16mm print for our editing class by the Walker Art Center. I had too much to say about it to hold myself to the 500-word limit. I was also unable to refrain from using extensive italics.

d'Est (1993), dir. Chantel AkermanPhilip K. Dick once related the story of the only time he dropped acid: he was transported out of his corporeal form and dropped into the depths of hell, from whence he spent ten thousand years slowly and painfully climbing back to Earth. After seeing d’Est, I now have a basic point of comparison by which I can relate to this story.

D’Est may make sense as an installation piece. It would certainly be less punishing to the audience to come, watch the thing for 20 minutes (be fair… 6 minutes) and then go on with their lives. I can’t speak to its value as an installation work because I didn’t see the installation. I had to sit through the full 107 minutes of the “feature film,” which is not so much a feature film as it is an instrument of torture.

I’ve been giving it a lot of thought over the past few days, and I can now say with some certainty that d’Est is the worst movie I have ever seen. Upon surviving the screening I was left alone and disoriented in a cold, dark world that made no sense to me—a world in which there was no such thing as joy and the birds refused to sing, for fear that Chantal Akerman might make a film about them. I was forced to consider what terrible thing I had inadvertently done to Ms. Akerman to deserve such punishment. I have to assume I did something, because to admit otherwise would be to acknowledge that I had been subjected to all 253 minutes of d’Est without deserving it, once and for all disproving the existence of a just and loving God.

Most bad movies are bad in a way that at least makes them funny, or they’re hopeful monsters: intriguing concepts that ultimately fail. d’Est is neither. It is a movie completely without plot, character, action, pathos, or interesting visuals. It is five and a half hours of absolutely nothing happening in Poland. Crowds of Poles wait at a bus stop in a recurring ten-minute tracking shot. They sit silently in their depressing apartments. What are they waiting for? They are waiting for the movie to be over. They have been waiting for three days now. It’s bound to be over sometime, right? Their grim expressions have nothing to do with the fact that they’re living in post-Soviet Poland; they’re paralyzed by the crushing ennui that can only be obtained by existing inside a film that refuses to end. Do you get the point I’m trying to make? Let me make it again: d’Est is a very long movie in which nothing happens.

How was the editing, you ask? Let me answer your question with another question: what editing? Yes, the shots form logical sequences, in the sense that they are all equally uninteresting in much the same ways, but beyond the basic level of snipping apart the film and taping it back together, the entire concept of editorial restraint utterly fails to make an appearance. If it did, the movie would most surely not take several weeks to watch.

D’Est is described as “bordering on fiction.” This is a falsehood. In fiction, you see, things happen. In fact, my entire life as a filmmaker has been predicated on the assumption that in movies in general, be they documentary, fiction, or—yes—experimental, something is supposed to happen. I’m not talking about narrative. I’m perfectly happy (well, not perfectly happy, but at least relatively happy) to sit and watch a non-narrative film, as long as there is some kind of arc, some kind of movement or progression. Brakhage’s films do this. So does Meshes of the Afternoon (a film I dislike for other reasons, but at least it seems to have a point). When I am confronted by a film like d’Est and forced to sit through its entire runtime of eight years and forty-six minutes, I am offended on a very deep level. It is movies like this that cause real human beings (like all the non-artists I know) to roll their eyes when they hear the phrase “art-house cinema.” It is movies like this that have made it impossible to produce a thoughtful film of novel, non-traditional form with broad audience appeal. Chantal Akerman has in this way made herself accessory to a grave crime against an art form that I love, and for this she should be punished.

Let the punishment fit the crime: make her watch her own movie. It’s a life sentence.

Seriously, guys, we joke a lot about movies that are so bad that they’re fun to watch. Like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. D’Est is not one of those movies. Do not watch this movie. I’m serious. I’m telling you this because I care about you and I don’t want you to suffer the way I have.

3 thoughts on “In Too Many Words: D'Est

  1. So let me see if I’ve got this right: Ackerman has, since making 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles , decided to forget about making an intriguing story and has just decided to leave a camera running for a while without thinking where the camera is placed? Well damn.
    Incidentally, How are Brakhage’s films? Because I have absolutely no desire to watch them, even though I probably should since I’m at Boulder.

  2. I haven’t seen any of Akerman’s (Is it Ackerman or Akerman? IMDb says Akerman, but I’ve seen it spelled both ways) other films and after being subjected to d’Est, I never will.

    Brakhage, on the other hand, is fantastic. I haven’t seen Dog Star Man (grave oversight on my part, I know), but Moth Flight and Thigh Line Triangular are gorgeous films and well worth watching. He’s also the author of what I consider to be the most powerful non-narrative film of all time: The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. It is a movie that you should watch once, in abject silence and total darkness, and then never watch again.

  3. Oh, also: the argument that experimental, non-narrative films should be evaluated differently from narrative work represents a false dichotomy. A good movie is compelling, no matter what form it takes. That’s all.

    I just wanted to say that because I thought it sounded smart.

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