This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. As ever, you’ll notice my dust-gathering DVD collection includes a lot more European arthouse films. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
It’s difficult to put into words what’s ultimately affecting about this rather experimental film of the late-1970s, which I can only imagine would be even more affecting to a New Yorker or one who knows the city better. But to me, it’s like an updated city symphony film — those distinctly utopian 1920s visions of the city’s enthralling power — except that, being the 1970s, the city is rather more crumbling. Akerman both captures the spirit of this city, but also subtly imbues it with the darker traces of the intervening decades of the 20th century (and, with its final shot taking in the World Trade Center, also unwittingly wraps in the close of that century). To my mind, it is one of the great films about New York.
I say “experimental” above due to the form the film takes: lengthy shots observing New York City — largely Manhattan — from various vantage points (street corners, subway platforms, cars), over which the Belgian director Chantal Akerman reads letters that she received from her mother during the two years she lived in the city. It all starts slowly, with quiet and largely empty images of buildings and streets, abandoned lots in the early morning. At length, the first letter is read out, and Akerman’s mother is pleased to have received correspondence, has sent $20 for her, wonders if she has the correct address, hopes to hear back, sends her love and that of Akerman’s father.
This is how the film proceeds, the shots of the city slowly gaining more people as the camera moves a little, first a slow pan around the entrance to the subway with its ticket gates and concession stands, before a long take looking out from a moving train. Likewise, those letters with their wheedling, needy tone (it’s been two weeks and no letter from you; please send a photo) and accretion of the details of bourgeois family life back home, continue to pile on. Accompanying all this — mostly in the background, but occasionally and eventually drowning out the letter reading — are the sounds of the city, a careful orchestration of musique concrète (the sound was recorded separately from the image track).
As with Akerman’s film before this one, her masterpiece Jeanne Dielman (1975), there is a clarity of vision to her cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s camera. The strong vertical lines of the city dominate: its tall buildings and signage that line a street leading away to the horizon, or the columns that divide the screen in a long central section filmed at the shabby Times Square subway station. There’s a fascination to watching these native New Yorkers just move about on the streets and the subways, as the camera wants to be among them. Yet those long takes always make you conscious of a certain desperation to the camera’s gaze, which is sometimes met by those of the passers-by being filmed. There is a progression of sorts from the street corners to the subway to a car and a train, and in the final shot, once more empty of people, a boat heading away from Manhattan, watching its skyline slowly resolve itself into the grey smog.
The steady watchfulness of the camera is juxtaposed with the letters being read, in French, expressing Akerman’s mother’s sorrow at her daughter’s distance, fear of the dangers of the city, hope for her success and happiness. Between the image and the sound track lies a film about exile and dislocation, but one that’s never heavy-handed; you could easily read into it some of Akerman’s personal history (her mother was in Auschwitz during the war) but that’s never mentioned or insisted upon. It’s like the film’s images of New York City, which bear the marks of its mid-century decline.
And that’s what I like about News from Home in so many ways, that rather than flashy surfaces, it feels more like a film of what’s underneath, backgrounds and history (whether of the place or the people who move through that place). Maybe that’s a lot of meaning to load on what is after all a series of unflashy long takes of a city on grainy 70s film stock — picture postcards after a fashion — but the film is affecting in that way. And as I said, it’s difficult to put into words.
Director/Writer Chantal Akerman; Cinematographers Babette Mangolte and Jim Asbell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 21 May 2013.