“Why don’t you send us a photo?”: Chantal Akerman’s News from Home


News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

Chantal Akerman’s News from Home sounds like a simple proposition. It consists of Akerman herself reading aloud from the letters sent to her by her mother when the director first moved to New York from Belgium. There are gaps in the soundtrack where you might expect to find Akerman’s replies, but we never hear her responses. The first presumption that you might make is that the film stands in for the director’s letters to her mother, filling those gaps with a visual summary of her new life in the USA. But it’s not that simple. Instead of a bi-directional transmission of information between mother and daughter, or even a one-way set-up where mother calls and receives no answer, we get a complex intertwining of their roles as speaker or auditor, presence or absence.

The most important way in which News from Home complicates its sense of presence/absence is through the disjunctures between sound and image. There are three intertwining tracks to follow here, the image track, the diegetic soundtrack and the voice-over narration. Their interactions and entanglements provide one way through which the film’s central themes can be located:

The image track gives almost exclusively fixed-camera perspectives, usually into a distant vanishing point, with occasional tracking shots from road vehicles or the overhead railway. Movement is always lateral – despite occasional glimpses of Manhattan’s famous canyons and skyscrapers, the camera never looks up, never simulates the overwhelming fact of verticality that greets a walker through the streets of New York. If you were expecting these shots to be loaded with narrative information, you’ll be disappointed, but the film quickly acclimatises the viewer to its aesthetic template, which offers only minor variation throughout. Only occasionally is there an explicit compositional connection between shots, as when there is a graphic match between two shots that represent a temporal ellipsis, switching instantly, even arbritrarily from day to night.

News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977) News From Home (Chantal Akerman, 1977)

The final shot is taken from a ferry that pulls away from Manhattan island, giving the only “overview” of New York, though its revelatory power is undercut somewhat by the mist that shrouds the city. The camera turns until its film runs out. Sometimes the camera seems disconnected, unnoticed, refusing to editorialise the scene in front of it. Other times, such as on the subway train, it is hypersituated: its presence is felt, people react to it, regard it with suspicion or bemusement.

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The diegetic soundtrack provides the ambient noise that accompanies the image and concretises it with its customary sounds of traffic, subway trains, the ambience of busy streets. At first this seems to be a simple case of direct sound recorded along with the image track and paired up with the pictures to enhance the sense of the camera being situated at the scene. But you soon notice that the sounds don’t always sync up with the images. You’ll notice when you see cars go by, you might not hear the same cars going by, even if you are listening to traffic sounds. This is most pronounced in those shots towards the end when the camera looks out of a car window. The sound seems to be a recording of similar streets, but from a fixed position rather than one that is moving. The depth cues given by the soundtrack are also misleading – the conversations of people who are passing very close to the camera are indistinct or completely muted, and even where the image and sound are at their most precisely synchronised, the sound seems to have been recorded from a position far from the camera. This has the effect of enhancing the sense of dislocation, undermining the camera’s presence at the scene by tugging the notion of situatedness in two different directions: you don’t hear the city from the same location as the one from which you see it.

The voice-over narration obviously sounds as if it was recorded separately, away from the image and dubbed over it. It traverses several shots in each letter. Occasionally, the noise of the city overpowers and muffles the text of the letters, and in the final shot, the voice-over fades away as the ferry moves out to sea. Mother’s letters provide information on family and friends, her own faltering health and emotional anxieties, and are filled, poignantly, with requests for reciprocal news, information and photographs: she wants to see her daughter, to have some image that might confirm her presence, however distant. The images we see in the film may be an attempt at replying, but suggest that Akerman cannot or will not reduce her “news” to a series of salient facts: hence the images of alienation and distanciation that represent her report on her time in New York. She fails to act upon her mother’s requests for closeness, maintaining a diffident separation and independence, either deliberately or carelessly; we don’t have enough information to say which.

The interactions between these three tracks, which come together and move apart periodically provide the core of the film’s thesis on dislocation, a perfectly cohesive structure that gains power through repetition rather than accretion of details or cues to escalating emotions. It could just be the case that Akerman is trying to simulate the effect of being a new arrival in a big city, the feeling of being present but not yet fitting in, being seen but not directly addressed. In that explanation, mother’s letters with their emotional appeals fading out of perceptibility, read in a disaffected manner, appear to simulate the effect of separation from the original home – the reports arrive but their emotive power is depleted by distance. Alison Butler phrases this nicely, summing up the eloquence of Akerman’s use of form over narrative to articulate her central themes:

An exilic structure of feeling is created by the transmutation of alienation, absence and distance into formal principles: the film maintains a rigorous separation between the personal off-screen space which anchors point of view and voice, and the public space on-screen, which is observed with detached curiosity.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that News from Home “simulates” alienation rather than formalises its effects, however. Alienation, in the form of a calm detachment, may be one of the affective states incited by the film, but it also builds up a critique of the very possibility of direct, autobiographical communication. Ivone Margulies analyses the film it terms of the way it plays with questions of identity, refusing the conventional codes of autobiography and authorship, through its rebalancing of the elements of text and speech. This hinges on her construction of a filmic mode of “epistolary performance”, with the forms of letter-writing and reception at its centre:

Like other autobiographical texts, letters involve a continuous commerce between textual and extratextual data. The border between text and reality is figured, in the letter, as the real identities of writer and of addressee. Moreover, the letter’s seemingly unproblematic transit between different orders of information and of verifiability creates the ‘effect of the real’ mentioned by Barthes: unexpected shifts in address – direct and indirect speech, confessions and reports – result in a rhetoric of authentication. Letters stand midway between speech and writing, contact and distance. They design what desire – and, moreover, what desire for communication – can mean.: the letter writer can only establish contact with the addressee through the dynamic of a fissured, forever faulty text. […] News from Home is a singular example of the skewed self-presentation. The backbone of its soundtrack is found material, a series of letters to Akerman from her mother; the way Akerman makes this writing her own – listening to it, loving it, overriding it – may stand as the model for verbal communication in her films.

Margulies suggests that Akerman blurs the boundaries between addresser and addressee by voicing her mother’s words and repositioning the sites of enunciation:

Reports from Belgium – mundane bits and pieces, family gossip, the mother’s moods – are relentlessly revoiced at the site and time of reading, mapping a restricted personal history. Thus the letter collapses the dual temporality of autobiographical writing – a necessarily belated report on one’s experience of an earlier moment. […] To voice her mother’s complaint becomes her response to the complaint – her mother’s writing becomes hers, and with a vengeance.

This disavowal of the authorial identity of both women rests upon the three-track formal structure I listed above:

The alienation between image and sound parallels the disjunction between the mother’s space of letter writing and Akerman’s space of performance – between the foreign reality and New York. Intermittently muffled by the sound of the city, the intimacy and warmth of the text claim closeness but spell distance.

Whatever the nuances of the identity debate proferred by News from Home, doubtless bound up in the particularities of the New York art scene and the focus on problematised or foregrounded conceptions of authorship, its great achievement is in presenting the complexities of that debate through a formal framework of overlapping voices and perspectives which are never allowed to be fully present, fully situated on their own. Thus, the result is not an intellectual tract, but an emotional experience that permits the spectator a sympathetic sensation of dislocation: like the mother and daughter, the viewer is similarly prevented from taking up a continuous position as a third-party addressee. It is not just mother’s news that gets drowned out (Akerman presumably keeps reading even when the traffic overpowers her voice), but our access to it. The mismatch between soundtrack and image track prevents us from feeling securely situated, from letting the camera be our simple proxy within the diegetic space.

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What then, to make of the final shot, where sound and image meet (I’m not sure that they were recorded together, but they certainly seem to be in sync), the voice-over fades out (instead of being cancelled out by something louder), and the shot develops slowly into a summative portrait of Manhattan’s skyline? It is not an editorial act that decides when this shot will end, but the exhaustion of the camera’s raw material, perhaps the most emphatic denial of authorial mediation, asserting instead the mechanical properties of the cinematic apparatus itself. It’s a stunning moment, a soothing moment that, I might argue, shows up the uneasy disconnect of the rest of the film by offering up a transcendent act of embodiment. Even as it might be a powerful evocation of isolation, in the keenly felt duration, and the measurable, accumulating depiction of distance and proportionately widening perspective, there is almost perfect clarity. As the viewer, you suddenly know where you stand. What you feel and think while you stand there is another matter.

Read:

  • Alison Butler, Women’s Cinema: The Contested Screen. Wallflower Press, 2002.
  • Adriana Cerne, ‘Writing in Tongues: Chantal Akerman’s News from Home‘. Journal of European Studies, xxxii (2002), 235-247.
  • Ivone Margulies, Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. Duke UP, 1996.
  • Angela Martin, ‘Chantal Akerman’s Films: A Dossier’. Feminist Review, no.3 (1979), 24-47.
  • Review at Made out of Mouth.
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Back to Bazin Part III: De la Politique des Auteurs


[See also Back to Bazin Part 1: The Ontology of the Photographic Image and Back to Bazin Part 2: The Myth of Total Cinema]

andree_bazin_1When Andre Bazin made his intervention in the auteur debate in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, the cinephilic journal he co-founded in 1951, it read like a stern finger-wagging in the direction of some of his more boisterous protegés. La politique des auteurs was the debate which bubbled around the core contention that, even though it was produced in a collaborative environment, usually under the auspices of a production-line studio system, films were most valuable when they represented the distinctive vision of their director. In English we call it the authorship debate, or, as Andrew Sarris later translated it (with a slightly different inflection), the auteur theory. The writers, actors, producers and other personnel might have significant input, the Cahiers critics argued, but because the director was in command of the mise-en-scène (the stuff in front of the camera), a medium-specific mode of film criticism and appreciation could be fostered through study of a director’s authorial stamp, observable in the visual style that could be traced across a range of works “signed” by that particular artist. Richard Dyer has given a cogent summary of the debate’s legacy in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies:

“[Auteur theory] made the case for taking film seriously by seeking to show that a film could be just as profound, beautiful or important as any other kind of art, provided, following a dominant model of value in art, it was demonstrably the work of a highly individual artist. Especially audacious in this argument was the move to identify such artistry in Hollywood, which figured as the last word in non-individualised creativity (in other words, non-art) in wider cultural discourses in the period. The power of auteurism resided in its ability to mobilise a familiar argument about artistic worth and, importantly, to show that this could be used to discriminate between films. Thus, at a stroke, it both proclaimed that film could be an art (with all the cultural capital that this implies) and that there could be a form of criticism – indeed, study – of it.”

truffautOne of the keystones of this debate was François Truffaut’s A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, published in January 1954. Truffaut rejected the French cinema’s slavish adherence to a “tradition of quality” that cannibalised and diluted the literary heritage of the nation and did little to foster a distinctive, innovative form of cinema that advanced the perameters of the art form. He picked on writers Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche as indicative of a trend in safe adaptations and artistic concessions to public taste:

“To their way of thinking, every story includes characters A, B, C, and D. in the interior of that equation, everything is organised in function of criteria known to them alone. The sun rises and sets like clockwork, characters disappear, others are invented, the script deviates little by little from the original and becomes a whole, formless but brilliant: a new film, step by step makes its solemn entrance into the ‘Tradition of Quality’. They will tell me, ‘Let us admit that Aurenche and Bost are unfaithful, but do you also deny the existence of their talent…?’ Talent, to be sure, is not a function of fidelity, but I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema. Aurenche and Bost are essentially literary men and I reproach them here for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to re-educate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve ‘done the maximum’ for it by embellishing it with subtleties, out of that science of nuances that make up the slender merit of modern novels.”

Stirring stuff. But there are also some sarcastic, moralistic generalisations in Truffaut‘s argument. He contends that “the hundred-odd French films made each year tell the same story: it’s always a question of a victim, generally a cuckold”, and complains that Aurenche and Bost attempts at earthy realism have lowered the tone of dialogue scenes: “In one single reel of the film, towards the end, you can hear in less than ten minutes such words as: prostitute, whore, slut and bitchiness. Is this realism?” And later on:

“Long live audacity, to be sure, still it must be revealed as it is. In terms of this year, 1953, if I had to draw up a balance-sheet of the French cinema’s audacities, there would be no place in it for either the vomiting in Les Orgueilleux or Claude Laydu’s refusal to be sprinkled with holy water in Le Bon Dieu Sans Confession or the homosexual relationships of the characters in Le Salaire De La Peur…”

Whoa, there. Is that really François Truffaut, firebrand polemicist and co-founder of the Nouvelle Vague, talking like a square? It looks a bit strange now, finding such prudism used to drive through his more powerful argument that film criticism should celebrate the things that make film special and in the process nurture a new kind of cinema that engages with those distinctly filmic qualities. Whatever, this article was crucial in ushering in a new critical stance at Cahiers that celebrated the work of Hitchcock, Bresson, Hawks Nicholas Ray and many more whose artistic personae could be observed even in the work they produced according to the dictates of major studios. And that’s where Bazin steps in:

“I realise my task is fraught with difficulties. Cahiers du Cinéma is thought to practise the politique des auteurs. This opinion may perhaps not be justified by the entire output of articles, but it has been true of the majority, especially for the last two years. It would be useless and hypocritical to point to a few scraps of evidence to the contrary, and claim that our magazine is a harmless collection of wishywashy reviews. Nevertheless, our readers must have noticed that this critical standpoint – whether implicit or explicit – has not been adopted with equal enthusiasm by all the regular contributors to Cahiers, and that there might exist serious differences in our admiration, or rather in the degree of our admiration. And yet the truth is that the most enthusiastic among us nearly always win the day.”

Note that Bazin’s opening is rather subtly barbed, in contrast to Truffaut’s show-boating. He wants to put forward the temperance argument that usually gets shouted down by colleagues who have little but “enthusiasm” in their corner. He wants to draw attention to the flaw in a critical stance that, in its most “enthusiastic” incarnations, ends up aggrandising artists in an uncritical way, since “enthusiastic” admirers of Hitchcock, Land or Hawks end up presenting these directors as infallible, and their every film as  a consistently valuable contribution to an ingenious oeuvre. Bazin saw himself as out of step with the critical consensus at Cahiers, where his defence of individual works by “lesser” directors represented a “critical contradiction”. In short, he is frustrated by the partiality of some of his fellow critics. An auteurist critical position is untenable as long as it requires you to appreciate anything made by a celebrated director, assigning a film value according to its author rather than to its objectively noted merits. In even shorter shortness (!), he says, this kind of hero worship clouds the critical faculties. It is an ahistorical approach that isolates the revered artist from social and cultural contexts; and it’s a blind alley – who wants to read a review of a film when you automatically know that the critic is going to be favourable to a director who has already been garnered with the title of auteur? The Cahiers critics distinguished between metteurs en scène, those directors who competently converted a screenplay into a film for the studio, and auteurs, whose films exhibited distinctive formal and stylistic properties even when working at the behest of an overseeing institution. The establishment of this special club of invitees (Bazin warns against an “aesthetic personality cult”) might have led to certain directors getting certain privileges at the hands of certain critics, as if the larger project of encouraging film appreciation might overrule individual acts of objective engagement with particular films.

Bazin doesn’t want to stem the flow of auteurist criticism – he just wants to divert its course. The focus on “the personal factor in artistic creation as a standard of reference…” he says, “has the great merit of treating the cinema as an adult art and of reacting against the impressionistic relativism that still reigns over the majority of film reviews.” In other words, he recognises the polemical value of examining cinema with a particular bias towards a certain kind of film-maker or from a certain angle of inquiry (focusing on mise-en-scene or thematic intertextuality, for instance). But partiality and personal preference should be kept in their proper place:

“Every critical act should consist of referring the film in question to a scale of values, but this reference is not merely a matter of intelligence; the sureness of one’s judgement arises also, or perhaps even first of all (in the chronological sense of the word), from a general impression experienced during a film. I feel there are two symmetrical heresies, which are (a) objectively applying to a film a critical all-purpose yardstick, and (b) considering it sufficient simply to state one’s pleasure or disgust. The first denies the role of taste, the second presupposes the superiority of the critic’s taste over that of the author. Coldness … or presumption! What I like about the politique des auteurs is that it reacts against the impressionist approach while retaining the best of it. In fact the scale of values it proposes is not ideological. Its starting-point is an appreciation largely composed of taste and sensibility: it has to discern the contribution of the artist as such, quite apart from the qualities of the subject or the technique: i.e. the man behind the style. But once one has made this distinction, this kind of criticism is doomed to beg the question, for it assumes at the start of its analysis that the film is automatically good as it has been made by an auteur. And so the yardstick applied to the film is the aesthetic portrait of the film-maker deduced from his previous films.”

The most famous point that Bazin makes concerns the studio system itself. The Cahiers critics provocatively lauded directors who were firmly imbricated in the Hollywood production line system, as if to test the limits of their argument by focusing on artists whose personal signature would rise to the surface of their films despite the industrial strictures that might have seemed to depersonalise the individual works. This, Bazin argues, should instigate a more nuanced attitude to the creative role of the studios. Genre, for instance, might be seen as “a base of operations for creative freedom”, perhaps because it allows the personality of the director to be revealed through a series of dialogic interactions with and commentaries upon a pre-existing set of texts:

“The American cinema is a classical art, but why not then admire in it what is most admirable , i.e. not only the talent of this or that film-maker, but the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements … ?”

An excellent question, I feel. While the concept of a director as an authorial presence is undeniably tenacious, and often very useful, it is not the case that the communication between director and spectator is mono-directional: the author is a conceptual filter through which we interpret a film; that is, our page_ms_hitchcock_01_0705241228_id_9532intertextual, accreted construction of Hitchcock, for instance, inflects our viewing. My Hitchcock is not necessarily your Hitchcock, even if we’ve read the same books about him and seen the same selection of his films. The “genius” of the system might be that it commercialises that complex interaction, settling it into a saleable brand name as if it represented a shared and cohesive set of propositions (i.e. “if you liked Hitchcock’s last film, this new one has enough similarities that we’re sure you’ll like (and pay to see) this one, too). Or, more optimistically, the system might be ingenious in a creative sense, providing the framework in which a varied set of artists can be set similar tasks (e.g. the making of a genre film), testing them out in an environment that invites comparative analyses and foregrounds their personal answers to impersonal questions. That system requires a kind of criticism that provides those analyses, but Bazin suggests, I think, that it demands a wider view of the context in which, individual creativity takes place, and the formative limitations that are imposed upon it.

[For my quotations I have used the translations of Truffaut and Bazin’s articles in Barry Keith Grant’s fine collection, Auteurs and Authorship (London: Blackwell, 2008).]