A late-winter snowstorm gives us all a chance to breathe-- and even though I knew this one was going to be a let-down, I still took the vacation day and binged on TV films. On the heels of International Women's Day, I've thought a lot the past week about women in the arts. So my first choice was Within the Whirlwind-- the autobiography of Evgenia Ginzburg, a professor of literature who was sentenced for 18 years to a gulag in Siberia during Stalin's reign of terror. Ginzburg, played poignantly by Emily Watson, managed to survive inhumane conditions of extreme cold and starvation and-- a little like Patty Hearst, I couldn't help thinking-- fell in love with the prison staff doctor.
The other film was from 1975-- an early Chantal Akerman work called Jeanne Dielman-- a nearly 4- hour masterpiece showing 3 days in the minute-to-minute life of a middle-class Belgian woman. Without much dialogue or drama we follow her tedious daily routine-- hours of washing-up, meal prepping, shopping, shoe-shining… occasional baby-watching, and brief daytime prostitution with the same prim, emotionless attitude and clean-up as the housekeeping. By the third day, subtle small things begin to go awry… and unexpectedly and without drama, she kills her afternoon john.
Evgenia eventually wrote her memoirs which were published abroad and which document her heroism and bravery. Separated from her sons and her husband, she used her survival instincts; not least of these was her beauty, which appealed to the doctor and earned her better treatment than some of the women inmates. She was nevertheless selfless and compassionate and courageous. The film, written and directed by women, celebrates her intelligence, her art and her strength.
Watching Jeanne Dielman, I couldn't help seeing my own mother-- with the perfectly coiffed hair, and the lipstick… the well-tailored skirts and nylons and elegant shoes--- putting on aprons, gloves--- delicately scrubbing the stove, cutting vegetables, setting the table, pouring coffee, straightening papers, emptying ashtrays… the daily shopping trips dressed in fashionable coats and scarves… the relentless claustrophobia of domesticity that made me swear every single day I would never get married.
Obviously the act of murder was a kind of emotional breakdown, a disconnect… a shocking climax to a drawn-out hour-by-hour monotony with very little insight into her psyche or mental state. It is hard to even feel sympathy for her… and then it ends, with the heroine sitting quietly at the kitchen table, fresh blood on her hands and mouth.
What we are capable of-- we women, what is expected of us-- it is a different trajectory than that of men, no matter how equal or even superior we may be in so many ways. We have children, we clean up, we care for sick friends with much more frequency. We rebel and rock and roll, but so many of us inherit these expectations from our mothers, and we carry out these chores with or without resentment-- because it's simpler to do it than to ignore and feel incomplete. It's part of being a woman, to let things go sometimes--- children are watching or listening, and we learn to gloss over with silence things that should be argued or protested.
I visited with a woman today who is clinically depressed, who is young and lovely and intelligent and cannot seem to accept being on the brink of middle age… even though her husband is devoted and loving, and she is 20 years younger than I am; she is blind to what we see, and unable to find her footing. For some of us, life events intervene and force us to appreciate whatever years we have as a gift-- as luxury. We stop obsessing about our own image and find our context. For others, the mirror is their confidante. They scrutinize and compare, worship physical beauty and attractiveness as their gauge of worth. The culture seems to encourage this. It also encourages people who are apparently blind to their own image, and deaf to their personal noise. I watched a photo shoot in Harlem on Friday-- a woman dressed in a blue fur and a blonde wig with way too much make-up… voguing and pulling up her dress. What version of beauty is this? What role model for the young girls passing with their schoolbags and plaid skirts on the way home from the Sojourner Truth school?
I am old enough to realize I now am what I do, what I create. The 'I' visual is no longer relevant or iconic or memorable. I am one of the army of women who try to find meaning in their life and leave something behind for our daughters and little sisters. Chantal Akerman suicided in her mid 60's. She was depressed; perhaps she'd run out of ideas-- she'd been teaching in Harlem. Today I long to speak to her, but can only find her work. It seems important that I watched Jeanne Dielman and that it was shown without commercial interruption on a free television station. It is difficult to explain to my young friend that these things are enough for me-- that the slow snow day of solitude and black coffee and rice is fine, but maybe not enough for tomorrow when I will resume my place by the typewriter, by the window of my brain and the weather of my ambition, where I will avoid the feminine prison of domesticity and self-devaluation by forging my own path forward, scripting as I go.