Chantal Akerman’s News From Home combines mostly static shots of New York City with letters written to Chantal from her mother in Belgium. Other than the growing desire to have her daughter return home, there is no narrative progression and the film plays out like an animated slide show or picture gallery.
This form of observational, landscape documentary has grown to become one of my favorite forms of cinema. While the work is always a challenge, especially when not seen projected large, I find that days later the struggle is worth the effort as key images from the film haunt my memory. Without a doubt, News From Home ranks up there with Sans Soleil, Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa, New York Portraits, or most of Jim Jennings’ work.
What intrigued me most about News From Home were the banal qualities of the city that Akerman chose to capture on film. Rather than showing picturesque postcard imagery of New York, the iconic buildings and locations we associate with the Empire City, her choices feel leisurely, almost random. Because the film is now 30 years old, becomes a curious piece of archeology. You watch to see what has changed and what has remained the same. Some fashion styles have returned, others invoke giggles. Signs with prices look implausible. Did gas really used to cost that little?
Two other added surprises come from people looking or rather not looking into the camera. It would seem to me that in 1977 a moving picture camera, in public, would be quite a spectacle and that those who see it would either retreat in fear or ham it up. While there is one noticeable case of the former, the latter does not happen at all. Why is this? Today, we are surrounded by cameras. Certainly now more than then we would have grown bored or skeptical of them.
The second surprise came at the end of the film. A relatively static camera became quite mobile as Akerman started pointing her camera out the window of moving cars and trains. The final shot of the film has the camera resting on the back of a ferry as it pulls away from the city. The skyline of New York City opens up before us and then recedes into the distance and sure enough, there they are the Twin Towers, still standing.
Seeing as how it was the 6th anniversary of September 11th, there was an added air of uncertainty in the audience. Just how are we to respond to this? I felt as if we should all rise up and sing the national anthem or at least a Toby Keith song. The chaos and horror of that day has all but left the minds of those who were not there to suffer through it. While the war drags on and stays too fresh in our minds. The World Trade Center and 9/11 have simply become a symbol, hijacked by those who wage an endless war. Images of those towers still standing represent a time of innocence.
Akerman certainly could not have forseen the emotional weight that this shot now carries. If anything, this shot pre-2001 could be dismissed as a last ditch effort by the filmmaker to show the city. The shot is simply too divergent from other shots in the film. It is symbolic of her departure from the city, perhaps back to her mother in Belgium. It is also a shot seen in many other films, not just about New York, but any city on the water. The towering skyline taking up the top two-thirds of the film, the wake of a boat the bottom third. However, with those towers no longer standing the shot holds new meaning or at least a memory.
Yoko Ono once said something to the degree that any film is important in 50 years, simply because it’s a document of a bygone era. I wish I could find the exact quote. I read it in a Might magazine, I think. Seeing a piece like New From Home reminds me of this fact, but not just because of the World Trade Center. Rather, it is the images of New York before it got a face lift. While Akerman’s camera never travels to the surface of Times Square, the true ground zero of New York’s renissance, there are enough hints in all of her other images to clue even the most casual viewer into the fact that New York circa 1977 was not the New York of 1997 or 2007. Her’s is the New York of late night jokes, where every tourist is mugged and the streets all smell of piss and rat feces. As her mother says in one letter, New York is hell. Or at least it was. Yet, because of that last shot this hell feels a lot safer and saner than our world today.