PRINT January 2016

J. Hoberman

Chantal Akerman News from Home, 1977, 16 mm, color, sound, 89 minutes.

THE FIRST FILM by Chantal Akerman I ever saw was News from Home (1977). In some ways, it remains my favorite: Her vision of Manhattan as a succession of shabby, geometrically framed streetscapes just knocked me out.

Jackie Raynal (then programming the Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village, where I would finally catch the already-legendary Jeanne Dielman a year later) projected News from Home for me in her apartment in the autumn of 1977, and, because it was the French version, she provided a rough translation of the voice-over—the pleading, wheedling, repetitive letters written to Chantal by her mother in Brussels, read by the filmmaker in a hurried, largely uninflected tone that was often swallowed up by clamorous ambient sound.

Although the letters were from 1972, the footage was shot by Babette Mangolte, the cinematographer on Jeanne Dielman, during the bicentennial summer of 1976—a season that, approximately a year after New York City’s near default, marked the full flowering and impending decadence of the SoHo art scene. (Both Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson were elevated to Lincoln Center that year.) The triumph of SoHo was manifest in the movie’s assured formal rigor; the decline of New York in the movie’s entropic urban landscape, devoid of greenery, save for the occasional scraggly tree.

As an urban travelogue, News from Home takes its cues from Manhattan itself, the symmetrical compositions favoring strong verticals and horizontals. Emptied out, largely animated by traffic, Akerman’s New York is a city of nonsites. (Who now remembers the splendor of the West Side Highway collapse?) Akerman and Mangolte were connoisseurs of empty downtown alleys, dingy midtown parking lots, abandoned gas stations, East Village bodegas, and Upper Manhattan tenements. Even more than early Warhol, News from Home takes us back to the actualités of the Lumières and Edwin S. Porter. Except for the majestically long final shot taken from the Staten Island Ferry, in which the Twin Towers (now double phantoms) fade into mist, there are no tourist monuments.

The “narrative” follows a mysterious logic. The filmmaker travels from neighborhood to neighborhood. Static setups are varied with a few short pans and several long tracking shots—one taken from a car traveling up Tenth Avenue, another filmed from elevated railroad tracks passing through Harlem. There’s a great sequence, shot in real time, on the Seventh Avenue subway with the doors opening on several successive stations. In another sequence, shot on the same line, stolid passengers sit, bathed in green fluorescent light, surrounded by graffiti and cigarette ads, framed by a tough grid of iron posts, largely indifferent to both noise and the camera’s imperturbable gaze.

Public spaces are juxtaposed with private communications. News from Home establishes a double displacement: The absent mother and the present daughter are represented by stand-ins. The filmmaker is distanced from the anxious litany of family events, while the letters emphasize her own foreignness. (In its sense of estrangement, News from Home is far closer to Kafka’s Amerika than is the Straub-Huillet adaptation, Class Relations.) As the film progresses, New York prevails over Brussels. The frequency of the letters decrease; the individual shots grow longer. As concrete and immediate as it is, Akerman’s movie evokes a powerful sense of separation (not only between here and there but between sound and image, as well as child and parent).

News from Home was among the first few movies that I reviewed for the Village Voice, paired with The Governor (1977), Stan Brakhage’s wildly impressionistic hour-long portrait of Colorado’s then chief executive, Richard Lamm: “Most documentaries strive to familiarize the unknown,” I wrote, “but two new and extraordinary probes of American social reality [The Governor and News from Home] have precisely the opposite effect. Using wholly different but purely filmic means both films present their data as if it were being transmitted from Alpha Centauri.”

Back in 1977, I was still making movies (or thinking about making movies). With News from Home, Akerman created something like the Lower Manhattan city symphony I had imagined. I remember thinking—with as much relief as envy—Wow, I don’t have to do that now.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.