Cross-pollinating drift-less images of New York City – disabused of cause and effect linkages – and vocalized letters written from director Chantal Akerman – in New York – to her mother in Belgium, the urban miasma in News from Home is at once bereft of life and brimming with space to impregnate with meaning. Partially, the film is a compendium of an adventure by a still-jejune filmmaker, Akerman, who was nonetheless extraordinarily knowing and prematurely wise beyond her years. But rather than a carefully synchronized, highly stylized metropolis with scores of people and interlocking pistons of motion bordering on entropy, Akerman sketches New York as an inoperative world that could easily be Venus, or a Tarkovsky film. This is New York as disembodied specter.
Akerman’s intention is hardly to disclose a sensorium of New York City with all its pulses, vibes, throbs, disconnects, mystifications, and dreams. But she does project variations of the self – variations on herself – into the streets of the city in the form of her letters she writes, allowing her words to waft through the seemingly haunted city streets with hopes of arousing connections between her and the city, linking the personal and the collective. Garbed as a sort of negative-energy inversion of the city-symphony films from the ‘20s that throbbed with the throes of modernity and technological innovation buttressing creativity, News From Home is bereft of any narrative scaffolding. Narrative would negate the discomfiting inertia of its spirit, its depiction of Akerman’s inchoate mind burrowing into a city she remains as alienated from as she is to her home life with her mother. Although the title is a prophecy of imaginative safety – of a place to call home, the American Dream – it may be a chimera.
The desolate streets that undergirded the scaffolding of a fragile sanity in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver here etch out an equally indeterminate, ravaged mind. But if the city somehow embodies Akerman’s dislocation in life, she is also plainly aware that New York exceeds her or that she cannot encompass it. Thus, we glimpse the spectral vibes of disappointed lives around our periphery, held at bay by a most judicious refusal on Akerman’s part to interview the city’s hometown inhabitants or approach a simulacrum of legitimately catching a whiff of the truth of this place. Akerman herself is a disembodied voice, somehow more corporeal than the spectral versions of her body reflected in passing train windows, an echo of the ghostly streets and the cavernous mental spaces of Akerman’s mind. Every image bears a quality of resistance, withheld from us, but this push-and-pull provokes self-revelation about one’s mental correspondence with their surrounding environs. How do we connect to the world around us?
As Akerman films, her loneliness only grows, the letters read aloud descending into the tension between daughter and mother, whose voice curdles from its initial resigned longing for company to a bitter mood of barely-garbed passive-aggressive retorts to her daughter and disinterest in her project. In the final, melancholic image, the camera pulls away from the city, perhaps fatally resigning itself to a void as the theoretically bustling utopia is reclaimed by a fog-like fugue around it; the hustle becomes hollow, the bustle broken or at least bruised.
Still, it’s an ethereal sight, a city engulfed in the dim memory of hope it once contained, potentially rekindling the magical, mesmerizing aura it obviously once held for such a youthful filmmaker transfixed not only by the streets and skyscrapers but the entrancing emotional architecture of a new life. By the end of the film, though, the only “home” may be the dreamlike idea of the New York film, which has been inextricably intertwined with and guilty of penetrating into the world’s collective consciousness. But if celluloid desires and cosmopolitan dreams have always been beguilingly in colloquy with one another, Akerman potently inverts the arms-wide-open ambiance of the American Dream. The finale preserves the shrouded Brave New World mist of mid-century life, but only as an apparition subject to Akerman’s probing autopsy of city and self alike. The camera floating like a phantom and registering just the slightest up-and-down churn of sea-sickness, the moment is at once of this earth and otherworldly, manifesting space (or lack thereof) as a mental reality more than a physical one. We may see New York off in the distance, but is it really there to us if we aren’t at home in it?