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Hotel Monterey

Hotel Monterey(1972)

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teaser Hotel Monterey (1972)

Arguably the least accommodating film you'll ever see on broadcast television, Chantal Akerman's Hotel Monterey (1972) is the work of a testy experimentalist in her unmellowed youth, and if you're not accustomed to what has been termed "avant-garde" or "experimental" film, watching it requires a paradigm shift in how you approach the medium. All of which sounds forbidding, like taking a test in quantum mechanics, but actually Akerman's film - her second feature, from an acclaimed career in its fifth decade - could hardly be simpler. There's no story, no characters - it's a kind of documentary, but one without an agenda. It's cinema as experience, not as an alternate narrative reality you can "escape" into.

Filmmakers looking to subvert the hegemony of industrialized moviemaking tend to aim toward elliptical excess (to whatever degree their limited budgets can let them, of course), or to instead drain away the distractions and clutter that most movies accumulate in their effort to "entertain." After all, it's not difficult to take a step sideways and see the cataract of spectacle, story, busy-ness, craft, acting and visual design in a "normal" film for what it is by definition: baloney, albeit baloney we all crave and happily consume. Akerman would quickly become, with the more-than-three-hour existentialist epic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), an "arthouse" darling, and that film, which unblinkingly chronicles the daily routine of a precise, emotionally vacant Belgian housewife (Delphine Seyrig) until her tiny world begins, almost imperceptibly, to crumble, is an ordeal by cinema in which the time spent watching very little happen is integral to the experience. Movies aren't supposed to work like this - Nero-like mega-consumers that we are, we expect a movie to hold our distracted attention in a death grip for every second, especially now, when we can fast-forward or change channels at the first whiff of impatient non-entertainment. But art is in the control of the artist, not the viewer, and if you imposed your will on Jeanne Dielman or Hotel Monterey from the comfort of your couch, making them fit your ideas and whims, not Akerman's, then the films would fizzle into nothingness, and you will have wasted what time you did expend upon them. The time spent watching Seyrig's lost widow attempt to control her four-walled universe is like gunpowder slowly packed into a cannon, and eventually the fuse is lit. The climax is only a meaningful shock if you've been paying attention, and put in the hours.

Hotel Monterey is far shorter - 65 minutes - and much less structured, her first lengthy film after two shorts, filmed during a New York sojourn when she was merely 21 and just getting acquainted with the experimental filmmaking scene and the work of Jonas Mekas, Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, etc. The film is silent, first of all - no soundtrack of any kind, a radical choice only a few avant-garde filmmakers over the decades have ever chosen. But it is also essentially a still-life, a portrait of the eponymous hotel, a rundown, claustrophobic single-occupancy dwelling for transients and fringe dwellers. Shooting over the course of a single, long night, Akerman moves from the lobby, where patrons and employees are glimpsed but apparently oblivious to being filmed, to the elevator to the rooms, filmed in symmetrical Kubrick-like compositions, sometimes empty, sometimes occupied by what are obvious loners looking to be forgotten by society. (One shot, of a pregnant woman from down the hall, has a positively Vermeerian pallor.)

Then Akerman goes to the halls, endless, narrow, underlit, slowly patrolled by the camera, which is intent on forcing our movie-watching engines to slip into neutral and coast, authentically observing the grim scenery. Hotel Monterey becomes genuinely spooky - the darknesses begin to suggest secrets and unspoken menace. At one point, the film settles on a single hall and aperture/doorway, absolutely lightless except when it is illuminated in a flash by a flickering light of some kind, and it's here that you begin to think the hotel might be haunted, that shadows and figures might be hiding in the underexposed grain. Another slow dolly down another murky hall further evokes the sense of a horror film - but without the plot-stuff. (If Kubrick didn't see this film before he made The Shining (1980), it seems certain that a few directors of recent Japanese horror films had.)

Then, Akerman finds the rooftop, and daylight, not quite an exultant climax (midtown always looks gray and grimy in '70s films), but a relief nonetheless. And that's all there is to it, with Akerman's impulse being to simply record the space, and the feeling the space gave her. But implicit in the action between you and the film is the matter of the hotel itself, how privacy is impossible in a large city, how the hotel is always occupied by hidden people and yet, when you stalk the corridors alone, it seems as empty as a ghost town. The movie is also, like Jeanne Dielman, a deliberate expression of the time it takes to watch it - far from having your temporal span "whizz by" during a movie (and why is that a great thing, anyway? Who's in such a hurry that you'd want hours to vanish from your life?), Hotel Monterey makes you live every minute of that hour, an hour you might not remember otherwise, and won't if you change the channel.

Producer: Chantal Akerman
Director: Chantal Akerman
Screenplay: Chantal Akerman
Cinematography: Babette Mangolte
Film Editing: Genevive Luciani
C-65m.

by Michael Atkinson

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