First, some history about the new series I’ve begun that I call “Film Fatales”. The name comes from a group with the same name that describes themselves as “a collective of female feature directors who meet regularly to mentor each other, collaborate on projects and create a supportive community in which to make their films.” I discovered them when I read a piece on Bitchmedia where the Fatales were asked for two lists, “Recent Women-Directed Films That Everyone Should See” and “Women-Directed Films That Inspired the Work of Film Fatales”. Later, a friend passed along another piece, “84 Films By and About Women of Color, Courtesy of Ava DuVernay and the Good People of Twitter”. I combined that list with the Film Fatales lists, and now I have a lot of movies to catch up on, all of which I’ll include in the “Film Fatales” series, even though the name isn’t quite correct any longer.
Chantal Akerman died a few days ago, and I realized I had never seen one of her movies, so I went to my lists to find a few possibilities. The “DuVernay” list came in response to a tweet earlier this year where she asked her followers to “Name three films you like with black, brown, native or Asian women leads.” Akerman was a white Belgian film maker, so she wasn’t going to be on that list. But, as her Wikipedia page notes, “Akerman's influence on feminist filmmaking and avant-garde cinema has been substantial”, so I was surprised to find that she wasn’t on the Film Fatales list, either. So I’ve created a new series for the blog, and already I’m breaking my self-imposed rules, because Akerman belonged on that list.
Akerman’s masterpiece is generally considered to be Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I confess, though, that, knowing what I did about Akerman’s style, I was hesitant to experience her for the first time by diving into a 3 hour and 21 minute movie. So I chickened out and went with News from Home, which comes in at a much briefer 85 minutes.
News from Home can be easily described, although a description doesn’t give a feel for the experience of watching it. It consists of shots of New York, accompanied by ambient noise and several readings by Akerman of letters from her mother than she received when she lived in New York in the early 70s. I should add that I’m not sure of the chronology. I think it goes like this: Akerman moves from Belgium to New York in 1971. Her mother writes her on a regular basis. Akerman did the filming for the movie in 1976, after she had become known for Jeanne Dielman. This matters because Akerman’s mother is relating to her daughter before Chantal has made a name for herself, but News from Home doesn’t come out until after Jeanne Dielman. So there is some odd, minor disconnect between the Akerman women in the letters, and Chantal Akerman making this movie in 1976-7.
Akerman’s mother in the letters is a supreme example of passive-aggressive parenting, and it’s not hard to understand why Akerman might have wanted to escape. The New York photography, though, while not exactly bleak, has its own disconnect. We never see Akerman ... she becomes the camera ... and the camera creates a distance that underlines the ways Akerman is alienated from her surroundings. She had to leave home, but New York, at least as we see it in the movie, didn’t provide any answers.
I had enough problems with my own mother that I can’t be trusted when it comes to mothers in movies. I may have overstated the awfulness of Akerman’s mother. And when I learn that her mother had been in Auschwitz, that she had in fact lost her own parents there, her anxieties seem more understandable.
Watching the film today also complicates things. Akerman didn’t just die on October 4, she committed suicide. It is far too early to draw conclusions, but Akerman’s mother died last year, and this reportedly had a great and sad impact on Chantal. It’s difficult to watch News from Home without thinking of the events in Akerman’s last year. It is something like the closing image of News from Home, a long shot of the twin towers ... it inevitably strikes us differently now than it did in 1977.
I found that I admired News from Home. But I don’t think it’s a film we are meant to love. The cumulative effects of the letters from home creates a great sadness, but nonetheless the sameness of the imagery wears on the viewer, so that even at 85 minutes, it feels like it could be shorter. There is great skill behind News from Home, and there is a fairly rigorous display of alienation (the film has drawn comparisons to Taxi Driver). But Akerman may have tried too hard to pass that alienation along to the viewer, at least for me. #811 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.