Metal, Stone, & Zip Codes: On Chantal Akerman’s “News From Home” (1976)

A stylized shot from Chantal Akerman's "News From Home", depicting a 1970s New York City skyline and red buses, as reviewed by Jessica Schneider for the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.

Oscar Wilde once said something like, ‘Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.’ Or rather, what he actually said was, ‘the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.’ The rest can be attributed to my misremembering.

Admittedly, I do believe that criticism is the highest form of autobiography, as in, what one thinks is good or bad in the arts can say more about how that person thinks than is realized. As example, if romance novels and spy thrillers drive you, then you’re likely not going to be very interested in James Joyce. Furthermore, if you think the ending of Saving Private Ryan with old Matt Damon asking his wife to ‘tell me I’m a good man,’ before the film ends with the American flag is deep filmmaking, then you’re probably not going to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky.

This brings me to Chantal Akerman whose films, in my mind at least, resemble the poetry of Adrienne Rich in their lackluster quality and pretension. Coincidentally, those who praise Akerman are likely to praise Rich because both are academic darlings who engage in joyless, meandering art that involves ideas better expressed by others. I have seen three of Akerman’s films, the first being Je tu il elle, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, and News From Home. Of the three films, I enjoyed News From Home the most, largely due to my not remembering the first two.

Alright, I get it. This film is not just about aloneness, but the idea of aloneness, and the indifference one feels when in a city unfamiliar. Sprinkled throughout the images of dreary 1970s Manhattan are words from Akerman’s mother’s letters that, while needy and continuing to push her daughter for correspondence, are continually dull in insights: Dad had an abscess, she is lonely and doesn’t like working in the store, someone is getting married to a not so good-looking guy, she’s glad her daughter is learning English, did she get the money, does she have the correct zip code, it’s been two weeks since she received a letter and she was getting worried, etc. (With such motherly clinginess, it’s no wonder Akerman wanted to move away.) Then, place this verbal banality across imagery of glum people who don’t engage with the camera, and instead are presented as though they were an alien species, and this is the film.

Alienation? Ok, but I can’t help but note that Antonioni and Bergman conveyed it better. Rather, News From Home comes off as a film student’s experiment that could have benefited from being shorter or at least having better writing. I will say, however, that one of the more interesting moments is when her mother’s voice is drowned out by the sound of the subway as if to say that life around her has now absorbed her, which one could claim ties to the end scene when the camera pulls away from Manhattan and the Twin Towers are absorbed into the clouds. It’s not that I don’t notice these connections; it’s just that I don’t find them very well rendered.

Overall, I find Chantal Akerman to be a rather limp and flimsy filmmaker with ennui overtaking the narrative amid her perfunctory visuals. It’s like she’s not even trying. Moreover, what I noticed is that those academic critics and filmmakers praising Akerman continually use emotional words like ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’ to define her and her work, which comes across as rather patronizing since these words are never at the forefront for filmmakers like Bergman or Tarkovsky or even Robert Bresson who was known to employ non-actors for his roles. Is he somehow not honest and true then? What does that even mean?

Years ago, when I spent eight hours in the ER, the nurses asked me if I wanted the TV on and I said no, that I didn’t want the distraction and that I’d rather be alone with my thoughts. I spent those eight hours listening to the medical footfalls and voices outside my room, and I guess I could say that I found it distracting, but it’s not something I’d film or expect anyone to want to listen to. In other words, I wasn’t bored not because those eight hours were exciting, but because I had my thoughts to entertain me. This is sort of like watching News From Home. I wasn’t bored while watching it per se, but that doesn’t mean I found it engaging. Hell, people will watch a burning building for hours but that doesn’t mean that filming it would make for great art.

We see that New York consists of metal and stone, buildings that cover the sky, and streets with their own zip codes. There is beauty to be found here, and a strange sort of circus act, as witnessed  in Taxi Driver and After Hours. Think of the moments in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle observes the citizens around him with disgust. He feels disgusted, but one can easily sense the same sort of loneliness attempted by Akerman in News From Home. As with nature, no city is cruel, merely indifferent. The passing, New York observations in Taxi Driver ultimately reinforce the depth of De Niro’s character, i.e., it’s not just what he sees but how he sees it. There is no character depth in News From Home because everything—including the main character—New York itself—remains at the surface.

News From Home can benefit those searching for images of 1970s New York City or for those looking for something to fall asleep to, sort of akin to watching ambiance videos on YouTube. I must admit that I did find the film relaxing, as I lay there observing this grimy place and time from the comfort of my couch. But this is all I can report. I wish I had better news.

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More from Jessica Schneider: Poetic Pragmatism: on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”, Beauty in the Ordinary: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999)READ THIS POET: Four Poems by Robert Hayden