A year after she released Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the 26-year-old Chantal Akerman returned to New York City, where she had lived for several years in her early 20s. Akerman, a French-speaking native of Brussels, and the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, spent the next several months with her cinematographer Babette Mangolte, wandering through Manhattan with a 16mm movie camera. The result of their labors was News from Home, a fascinating look at New York City in the 1970s.
News from Home opens with an extended stake of the Staples Street Skybridge in pre-gentrified Tribeca. Having lived in Tribeca in the mid-1990s, when the process of gentrification was well underway but not yet complete, I know the area well. I’ve probably stood on every street corner where Akerman and Mangolte filmed. I recognize most of the buildings, but News From Home feels like a report from another universe, or, better yet, the ghost of an old industrial neighborhood haunting the ghetto of the super-rich that Tribeca has become. It is by far the most compelling part of the movie, mostly because Akerman lets the camera linger on the lost history of the city. The lettering on the facades of the old storefronts and factories, the billboards and advertisements long forgotten, even the garbage littering the sidewalks, all of it felt like part of a word where I wished to spend more time.
Akerman and Mangolte also film in Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, Midtown, and on the Upper East Side, but none of the footage they took uptown had quite the same magic of the early takes in Tribeca. The most frustrating, and yet intriguing, parts of News From Home take place on the subway. Akerman and Mangolte probably spend anywhere from a quarter to a third of the film standing inside various subway cars with the camera pointed, either at the doors, or straight down the middle. They make no effort to record the advertisements on the platform, or the headlines of the newspapers and magazines people are reading. Just about the only way you can tell it’s the 1970s is by looking at what the other passengers are wearing. At times, it feels exactly like a long subway ride. Having commuted from North Bronx to downtown Manhattan on the D-train, I found it tedious.
The more News from Home’s subway footage bored me, however, the more I began to wonder. How exactly did Chantal Akerman do it? While these days a filmmaker as reputable as Akerman could probably get a permit to bring a 16mm camera and a tripod on the subway, it’s hard to imagine her fellow passengers sitting so still, allowing themselves to be filmed without complaint. More likely they’d mug for the camera, ostentatiously duck under the lens to spoil the shot, or start yelling about how they were being filmed without their consent. Were people in the NYC subway really that much different in the 1970s than they are now? Or was Akerman, who died last month, some kind of witch who threw a spell over the 1-Train? Perhaps she just had a cloaking device. Or maybe she was already dead in the 1970s, a ghost floating disembodied between Houston Street and Canal Street recoding the passive, mournful faces of the, far more working-class, New York of the past.
All the time Chantal Akerman is filming her Manhattan street scenes, her mother, still very much alive, haunts News From Home. As the narrator reads the older woman’s letters, almost all of which end with the plea that her daughter write home more often, we begin to see Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in a new light. In Akerman’s earlier film, a middle-aged woman doted on her son, a morose, self-involved teenager she supported, partly by prostitution. We wonder how much of herself Akerman had projected into the young man, and how much the title character owed to her mother. Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles ends with a senseless act of violence. Jeanne murders a client with a pair of scissors. Akerman’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, is haunted by the worst genocide in human history. She’s terrified that her 22-year-old daughter will meet a sudden, violent end in dark, dangerous, crime ridden New York City. We sympathize with Akerman’s mother. We also sympathize with Akerman. In other to escape the weight of historical memory, she has run away to America, a land with no consciousness of history. Yet compassion for her mother, whom she obviously cares about, means joining her under the weight of the not so distant past, sharing the torment, the survivor’s guilt, of someone who had seen the inside of a Nazi death camp, and escaped to see her adult child leave the nest. We begin to wonder if the subway cars Akerman spends so much time filming are a form of psychic prison, the deep, dark tunnel of a past she cannot escape.
Yet she does. The final ten minutes of News from Home are shot from the Staten Island Ferry, pulling away from Battery Park. Akerman’s camera dwells on the skyline of lower Manhattan — the ghost of the World Trade Center adding a dimension she could not have anticipated – her world getting more and more windy and spacious, memory fading into the distance as a flock of white gulls hover overhead. While we never actually see the Statue of Liberty, that gift from the French that has become a symbol of immigration to the United States, we feel its presence. A newly arrived immigrant in New York Harbor, Chantal Akerman has finally put the old world behind her. Her mother’s voice is gone. News from Home opened with her as the daughter of two Polish Holocaust Survivors. It ends with her as a newly-minted American.