An Argument in Favor of Technical Blunders in Film
It is the filmmaker’s worst nightmare: a crew member or piece of equipment is accidentally caught on camera and it’s too late for reshoots. Why, then, does Lily Ekimian argue that technical blunders are one of her favorite aspects of moviegoing and, indeed, one of the reasons her favorite film is Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman?
Movies are not real. Film, like any other art form, is manufactured. People made it. So when I watch a film and suddenly the boom pole makes an appearance in the corner of the screen, I revel in it. To see a film crew get caught in the reflection of a store window brings me joy because it is a reminder that somebody made this film.
True stories have become overwhelmingly popular in modern cinema, both independent and mainstream, and the filming styles used today reflect that: we get films that look “gritty” and “real,” and have little fun with the form. There is so much available to manipulate on screen, from montage to lighting to sound design, that to make films look as close to “real life” as possible, with a heavy use handheld shots mixed in with those slow zooms in and out of subjects, is a waste. None of it is real! The gritty look of movies serves to eliminate the creative aspect of filmmaking and focus more on “story.” But if you make a film that’s pure story, then you are simply wasting the medium.
So where am I going with all this? Ultimately, I’m working up to a discussion of one of the greatest films ever made: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975). This film is as realistic as they come, but remains absolutely true to its form. It is a film about a fictitious woman, Jeanne Dielman, and her daily routine over the course of three days. The film runs close to three-and-a-half hours and follows Jeanne in meticulous detail, with each scene running in real-time without any camera movements or cuts. We watch Jeanne peel potatoes, wash dishes, clean her bathtub, drink coffee, polish her son’s shoes — in short, we literally watch her do everything. And what’s so fascinating is that we aren’t just watching her, Jeanne, do these things: we are watching the actress, Delphine Seyrig, do these things, too. Now, you might ask, aren’t we always watching the actor do what the character does? No, because more often than not the scene contains cuts that don’t allow for the actor to carry out all actions, especially unrealistic ones — think anything involving CGI, especially the use of weapons (if you’ve seen Jeanne Dielman, you’ll know that that, too, is perhaps the only place Delphine Seyrig also seems diverge from her character). In the case of Akerman’s film, essentially all of the actions are seen through to the end. The result of this is a very meta movie-watching experience.
This meta filmmaking is then taken to another level with the introduction of technical blunders. Of course, I can’t image a director would consciously include such mistakes, but that’s what makes them all the more transcendent. In Jeanne Dielman, there are plenty of examples. Take the scene where Jeanne runs into a friendly waitress in a park: in the wide shot of the two women stopping for a brief talk, then continuing on their separate ways, a boom pole is fully visible for the entire exchange. What’s more is that you’re able to see just how far the boom is from the subjects, which explains why the audio in the scene is very clearly dubbed. The whole scene is what some may view as a disaster and would be completely unusable by some people’s standards, but to me it feeds directly into what the movie is about: a creative depiction of a life in the medium of film. There is no explicit story in this film, as it could have gone on for hours and hours beyond the running time. It starts and ends as simply as opening and closing a window into someone else’s life. We have no beginning and we get no resolution.
Here’s another scene: Jeanne sits at her kitchen table, drinking coffee from a metal thermos. She lifts the thermos to pour for herself and, when she replaces it on the table, the film crew is exposed in its reflective metal. Because the scene does not cut, the reflection remains for the duration of her drinking coffee. This is what it’s all about for me, the unconscious acknowledgement of film as film. Because when you look back at a clip like that, and want to say you can’t use it, what’s the justification? That you can’t let the audience know that a crew was present at the time of filming? Of course, one may say such an error is akin to a typo in a book (it’s wrong and is meant to be corrected), but are there not typos in James Joyce’s Ulysses?
Some may write off technical mistakes as an indication of a bad movie, or at least one that was sloppy and careless. But some of the best films out there have mistakes like this, most of them being the French and German new wave films that rejected the established conventions. In the final shot of Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7, Cleo walks with her companion away from a hospital: it is a tracking shot, with the camera backing up as the couple walks towards it. The film ends when the two stop to look at each other; between them, out of focus in the background, is that ladder-like grid of the camera’s track.
What I see these mistakes as is an indication of visceral filmmaking, filmmaking that has everyone involved so fully immersed in the project that errors are able to slip in unnoticed. Technical mistakes don’t take away from the final product, and if you, as a viewer, let them ruin the experience for you then I’d say you have a misunderstanding of what film is all about. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!