These two paintings come from Bulgarian artist Krassimir Terziev‘s ‘Missing Scenes’ series. His work often reconsiders and appropriates the history of cinema, as in Double King Kong (2007), which collapses the temporal gap between Kong’s 1933 and 1976 imaginings, to show the big ape doomed to repeat the same tragic ending against the backdrop of an indifferent city. The Fall of King Kong (2007, below) is, hopefully, self-explanatory and poignant:
Deluge was the debut feature film by a 23 year-old with the enviable name of Felix E. Feist. Sounds like a Marx Brothers pseudonym, but it’s the real name of the son of an MGM sales manager, who had an almost-there career in movies until he switched to TV production in the 50s. Deluge was believed to have been lost, until a print surfaced in Rome – accordingly, the suriving version of the film is dubbed into Italian. It is noteworthy mostly because of its spectacular scenes of tidal waves destroying Manhattan, proof that Roland Emmerich didn’t invent the wheel: he just enlarged and nuked it.
The film clips along at an alarming rate. Before the main characters have even been introduced, we’re into a montage of baffled scientists, international news reports of earthquakes, military aircraft being returned to base, preachers predicting the end of the world; this all establishes the communication networks, the babble of opinions that tells us this is global catastrophe affecting even the biggest structures of nation states.
The onscreen declaration at the start really dates this film:
Deluge is a tale of fantasy, an adventure in speculation, a vivid epic pictorialisation of an author’s imaginative flight. We the producers present it now purely for your entertainment, remembering full well God’s covenant with Noah.
Yeah, because nothing kicks off a bit of pure entertainment like a Bible reference.
Note to Roland Emmerich: in Deluge, the buildings start falling seven minutes in – within thirty seconds, millions are dead and the entire Western coast of North America has crumbled into the sea. The radio announces: “Indescribable disaster is causing havoc everywhere. There’s no cause for panic. Shut off all gas items.” Now that’s efficient.
There then follows a remarkable sequence in which all of New York is washed away by the sea. This footage was never lost with the rest of the movie (I wonder if it was a flood which washed all the prints away), because it was reused in the Dick Tracy serial, and in King of the Rocket Men. YouTube helpfully has a clip, though the quality is not stellar:
I wonder if the miniature sets were built especially for the film, or whether RKO had some leftovers from the same year’s King Kong that needed knocking down. It looks like an expensive miniature set, and presumably was destroyed all in one go. The earth trembles, buildings explode into chalky oblivion, and the sea rushes in to wipe out any last traces of life. After this rather definitive destruction, the film follows the plight of survivors. Although a couple of months has passed, within a couple of minutes of screentime, they’re fighting to the death over Claire (Peggy Shannon), who has taken the trouble to wash ashore wearing only her undies.
Shannon has an unhappy biography – a former Ziegfeld girl, she was signed up by Paramount in 1931 as a new “It” girl to replace Clara Bow (who had suffered a nervous breakdown), she drank herself to death in 1941. A couple of weeks later husband shot himself dead on the spot where he’d found her. Incidentally, Feist’s ex-wife Lisa Howard, an actress who became a hugely successful journalist and newscaster, also killed herself in tragic circumstances after suffering a miscarriage. Feist died of cancer a couple of weeks later. Wow, so much death. Back to happier business. In Deluge, Shannon gives a fine account of a self-reliant and feisty (see what I did there?) woman lumbered with the tiresome burden of being the last woman in sight. She sets up temporary home with Martin, who has been separated from his wife and children in the chaos, believing them to be dead.
Elsewhere, life is picking up again, in a sequence of vigenettes from small town life in places where banks, barbers and families are trying to reinstate their old communities. The Italian dub might even allow today’s viewers the fantasies that this is some apocalyptic neo-realist drama. But only briefly. Martin’s wife Helen (Lois Wilson) is still alive and hoping to be reunited with him, but Tom, yet another survivor, informs her that a new law (how quickly people take the chance to pass new laws in the wake of catastrophe!) commands that women of marrying age must marry. Ah, romance.
Tom has other things to take care of, too, leading a mob against the cruel Bellamy gang, who’ve been raping and looting like only a post-apocalyptic all-male crowd of burly guys can. Thus is dramatised the struggle between the opposing factions of society’s remnants – women get the raw deal: stuck between forced marriage and random attacks by randy thugs, they become the fetish objects through which the male survivors differentiate themselves from one another. There’s some nicely ambiguous drama when Helen and Martin are reunited at the end. Claire refuses to give him up just because his wife turns out to be alive – it’s not as if there’s still a church around to give a crap (I’m paraphrasing her words), and for a while it looks as though they’re about to find accommodation as a threeway family, but it all ends with Claire swimming off to sea. An earlier comment that, unable to become an aviator, she became a professional swimmer tells us that Claire is not necessarily swimming to her death, but it looks for all the world like a suicidal martyrdom, as if her brand of trouser-wearing femininity can’t be assimilated with the newest world order. She did earlier escape from one unsatisfactory settlement to another by stripping off and swimming to the next port of call, so I like to think she’s going to keep going until she finds a refashioned society that can incorporate her desires. In any event, God’s covenant with Noah isn’t helping much.
[See more images from Deluge in my slideshow below:]
Vodpod videos no longer available.
[This paper was originally presented at the Film and History conference, Chicago, 31st October 2008. I’ve corrected some typos and rephrased some awkward sentences, but otherwise the version here is the same as the one delivered that day. It was written to be spoken and then discussed, so it probably doesn’t follow through on all its points in detail. You can find a fully revised and expanded version of this paper in the Spring 2010 issue of Film and History (if you have access to Project Muse, it’s available there).]
When I set out to write about Cloverfield, I thought it would make for an interesting case study to test the ideas outlined in my previous work on special effects; primarily that special effects act as self-conscious moments of technical display that offer entry-points for considering the constructed nature of film. Whatever sleights-of-hand they might use to cover their tracks, they are self-reflexive devices that draw attention to their own artifice and bring into play an entire meta-narrative about media technologies and illusionism. Here was a film that seemed to obfuscate all of its spectacular opportunities, delaying any clear view of its central special effect. It quickly became clear that the film’s obstructed views extend to the whole fabric of the movie, into its pre-publicity campaign and its framing narrative. I want to outline some of the ways I think the film uses this aesthetic of opacity to construct a critique of film’s pre-fabricated realisms.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, Cloverfield is a film about a monster attack on Manhattan, directed by Matt Reeves but devised and produced by J.J. Abrams, creator of TVs Lost and Alias, two shows similarly built on their restricted narration. A large creature of unknown origin emerges, presumably from the sea, and rampages downtown, leaving tourist trail of destruction that takes in the Statue of Liberty, The Brooklyn Bridge and Central Park. The attack is shown from the point-of-view of a group of young adults who have been attending a party. One character aims to cross the city to rescue the girl to whom he wants to declare his love, believing her to in mortal danger.
So far, so generic. It follows a rather formulaic quest narrative, driven by a race to rescue a damsel in distress from a high tower and avoid getting killed by a fearsome beast. But Cloverfield dresses up its story in very modern formal attire. At the start, an onscreen title comes with a watermark stating that the film is the property of the U.S. Department of Defense:
The film then consists of the playback of a digital videotape, shot by an amateur cameraman during the monster attack and found in the rubble of Manhattan. What does the film show that the military need to study and to keep for themselves? Why is it being impounded and not sold to every news network in the world? This opening sets up a framework within which all subsequent images will be interpreted as significant proof of something – even as they are invited to “experience” the attack through one camera’s lens, the spectators are prompted to assume the position of investigators watching a piece of documentary evidence. For many viewers, that hunt for clues would have begun prior to actually watching the film. The 2008 release of Cloverfield was the culmination of a marketing campaign that built up anticipation through a series of absences.
It’s not unusual for a high-profile film to incite interest with the promise of spectacular sights that will only be fully revealed in return for the price of an entry ticket: this fits well with John Ellis’ notion of the “narrative image” from his book Visible Fictions, in which a poster, trailer and other promotional devices form a conglomerated, but incomplete picture which the film promises to resolve once you pay your admission fee. But Cloverfield doesn’t answer all the questions posed by its pre-publicity. And rather than providing marketing prompts that tell you how long you have to wait before you get to “see it all”, the final film doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of revelation.
This trailer appeared accompanying Michael Bay’s Transformers, appearing online, it’s more natural home perhaps, shortly afterwards. It was shot before any of the rest of the film. There had been no pre-publicity for the film aside from this, and the primary clue on the promotional crumb-trail was the release date 01-18-08, a code which also unlocked the film’s official website, revealing a slow leak of images, timestamped to prompt their assembly into a linear sequence. However, this official site, far from being an authoritative organ of “all you need to know”, was just one component of a viral marketing campaign whose scope I don’t have space to catalogue here, but which included MySpace pages for the main characters, and another rather irritating but fully-formed website for a fictional Japanese drink called Slusho, a drink mentioned in Alias, that at face value has nothing to do with the film, but became a source of cryptic clues and misdirection, some deliberate, some imagined.
In case you can’t read it from this image, the little jellyfish creature is saying “I’m so happy and full of Slusho that I might burst!”
Here are some snapshots from the groundswell of web-based discussion that grew up around the film. Though I can’t really detail everything in the viral campaign, I’ll just say that it exhibits several key qualities aside from the usual requirements that marketing should build anticipation, discussion and brand recognition. In this case the lack of clear guidance as to which pieces of evidence should be noted as canonical, and what should be discarded as a red herring, created a discursive environment where it was uncertain where the central authorised, organising framework lay. So, for instance, when this image appeared:
…someone reposted it, having photoshopped the two halves of the face together and confirmed that it was the same girl. It isn’t, but I found that several followers had done the same thing and reached the same conclusion.
I couldn’t find an example of the doctored image online, so I’ve tried my own mock-up of that pic (I don’t have photoshop!), and you can almost see what they were getting at. It kind of looks like one face if you squint at it the right way. But someone even managed to look closely enough to see a demonic face in the girls’ hair:
The important point here is that people were engaged with the marketing, looking closely at its components and literally trying to piece things together for themselves – they had taken the cue that this was a puzzle to be solved. What’s equally noticeable about this image is its deployment of a particularly cinematic trick – the emphasis on the eyeline match (the girls are clearly looking at something) sets up an ingrained expectation of a reverse shot that will reveal what it is that they’re looking at.
A more complete trailer was released closer to the film’s opening, showing a lot more footage, but still provoking debate over how it was to be understood. There was still no sign of the monster itself, which had to be imaginatively built up from a series of vestigial traces, such as the claw marks on the head of the Statue of Liberty. One of the most indicative events occurs when Marlene, who has recently been bitten by one of the parasites that fall from the central monster, is dragged aside by medics at the makeshift hospital. And remember that at this point people didn’t know how this shot fit into the final film, or that Marlene is one of the main characters.
She is taken into a quarantine tent which, brightly lit from within, casts a strong silhouette. She seems to swell up and explode in a bloody mess (though this moment is curtailed in the trailer, stopping just before she erupts). The shot happens so quickly that it’s difficult to work out what happened. I wish I knew which podcaster to credit for saying this was like a Rorschach inkblot shot (step forward and claim your credit); when it appeared online in the film’s trailer, obviously out of context, it incited speculation about the monster from people who couldn’t agree on what they were looking at. Blogger Tory Hargro, for instance, came to the conclusion that the Slusho drink was a key part of the story and connected in some way to the monster. Maybe it was causing people to burst.
This is an excellent case of apophenia, where, in the absence of a clear set of connected evidence, people infer or imagine patterns and links between disparate phenomena. We might even call this pareidolia, a type of apophenia in which a viewer might be made to see Jesus on a nacho, faces on the moon, or personalised psychic terrors in the Rorschach inkblot: sometimes people detect the deliberate placement of images where no such deliberation exists, or project onto it their own wish for clarity.
The effect is to destabilise the divisions between items which are actual intertexts and items which are accidental parts of that perceived pattern. This is not just about hyping the film – it feeds into the nature of the resulting feature: Cloverfield plays on fears of public emergency. This fear is always exacerbated when one feels oneself to be a helpless piece of a bigger, collapsing picture – hence the rush for comforting distance and perspective from centralised news networks. The monster movie genre stands in contrast to other types of horror film that might put the viewer in an identificatory position with someone who is single out for assault by a deranged individual; instead, it indulges the infectious terror of a chaotic stampede, escalating panic and the fear of being caught in the crossfire of the authorities sent to deal with the problem. The obfuscation and dispersal of the viral marketing campaign seems calibrated to simulate just such an environment of paranoid confusion, calling into question the accuracy of perception and the ability of visual representation in assisting the senses in achieving clarity.
Cloverfield passes its generic situations through the machinery of an amateur, found-footage aesthetic. This has its own distinct properties, but it is also differentiated from other Hollywood treatments of mass destruction.
Take the example of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow. Its images of disaster are sublime and complete, immaculately composed for maximum spectacle from a safe distance. Aerial shots, some even from outer space, give the film an incredible level of omniscience, with the distance reducing the destruction to beautiful, depersonalised patterns of pixels. A film that is set up as a premonitory vision of natural catastrophe actually ends up as a rather comforting picture of resilience and indestructibility.
Through the masterful conjuring of images from positions of near-deific privilege, it suggests not the confusion, degradation, destruction of disaster, but its filmic counterpart, spectacular and forgettable. Cloverfield reinscribes disaster with the markers of chaos and confusion. It sacrifices the polyvocal or omniscient narration of the traditional blockbuster disaster movie – at no point are we given a cutaway to experts with a flowchart detailing their plans for repelling the threat and restoring normality – and promises a direct connection with the real through its aesthetic similarity to modes of recording which are routinely branded as authentic documents of events.
Cloverfield is a special effects movie. It uses a vast array of practical and digital effects to simulate its monster attack, but the computer-generated source of that destruction is barely seen. For the most part computer-generated imagery, privileges an aesthetic of perceptual realism, adhering to a “common-sense” verisimilitude where represented things will resemble their real world referents in a sympathetic respect for the laws of physics. This pushes a vision of the world that is comfortingly unified: anything, it implies, can be represented and revealed in gross detail. Cloverfield, by denying that revelation, puts forth a less stable vision where desire to see is rarely matched with the delivery of that image for inspection and assimilation with real experience.
As revealed in these frame grabs, the film’s imagery frequently threatens to slide into abstraction or collapse into incoherence, with blurs of light and colour replacing the recognisable shapes, symmetries and compositional patterns that ordinarily make narrative cinema “legible”. This is obviously not an expressionistic abstraction, but one which is calculated to imitate the tics and tropes of amateur shooting. It performs that style, and purchases authenticity by displaying a shaky camera that seems not to know where the next point of interest will be located, catching it too late or misframing it. The editing is jagged and sometimes abrupt, the sound overloaded from time to time (though we should note that the thunderous Surround Sound is a concession to entertainment over verisimilitude – there’s not a camera on Earth with built in mics capable of capturing such thumping bass), and there are numerous compression artifacts, pixilation and other technical flaws. All of these elements serve to authenticate the film as an accidental occurrence rather than a studio-produced, pre-visualised property.
Cloverfield is thus a really good illustration of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s notion of the double logic that characterises digital media, exhibiting the qualities of immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy because it is designed to efface the traces of manufacture and give the spectator more direct access to the content, or the events depicted – thus we have long takes that appear to be unedited, situating the spectator in a continuous relationship with the characters. At the same time, it displays hypermediacy by bearing all the traces of mediation openly – the image might be time-stamped, the lens dirty or blood-splattered, the tape glitched. It’s crucial that you notice these technical facets, since it is through their presence that the film purchases its authenticity, but it is crucial that you suspend disbelief and attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew, and not to the massive resources of 20th Century Fox. If discussions of digital media have sometimes seemed to predict a utopia of pixel-perfect, high-definition absolute vision, here is a film whose major points of interest are glimpsed, missed, obscured or misapprehended.
Thinking about that meta-narrative of media authenticity, Cloverfield is also a kind of mock-documentary: the events it depicts did not really happen, but it promises to portray those events as if they had really happened, in return for your agreement to engage with it as if it carried evidentiary force. Gregory Currie’s attempt to delineate the boundaries between fiction and documentary saw him attaching special significance to photographic “traces”, the evidence that what is represented refers directly to the subject of the documentary. As Jinhee Choi summarised in response: “Currie attempts to preserve epistemic privilege often attributed to documentaries by appealing to the indexicality of photographic images.” But the boundary between fiction and documentary is not as distinct as such a technical definition might suggest.
Jane Roscoe and Craig Hight argue that mock documentaries represent an assault on the privileged cultural status that is attached to the documentary form. While documentary films form a diverse body of work encompassing news footage, propaganda, educational films etc., they are given credit as a coherently objective way of observing and revealing truths about the world. They question the sense that stories and meanings emerge from “raw data”, and aim to show how they are constructed and narrated in formal manners equivalent to the ways in which fictional narratives are built:
“The claim that documentary can present a truthful and accurate portrayal of the social world is not only validated through the association of the camera with the instruments of science but also depends upon the cultural belief that the camera does not lie. This is predicated on two things: the first is concerned with the power of the photograph, and the second with the discourses of realism and naturalism. Together these provide the basis for our strong cultural assumptions about documentary, while also allowing issues of ideology to be side-stepped in our evaluations of the form.”
Alexandra Juhasz has argued that, by setting up a dialectic between fiction and documentary, during which we know that the subject is fake but we note that it is being voiced as if it were actual, the fake documentary foregrounds the formal attributes of the genre for investigation by its spectators:
“Its formative and visible lies mirror the necessary but usually hidden fabrications of ‘real’ documentaries, and force all these untruths to the surface, producing knowledge about the dishonesty of all documentaries, real and fake. In so doing, the text’s origins may be demystified, the spectator can be revived, and the visible world and the technologies that can record it are often revealed as coded discourse.”
“A fake documentary is received as more than a fiction film plus a documentary; the two systems refer to, critique and alter each other’s reception.”
The experience of realism is not a passive one. Images cannot be authenticated through appeals to the mechanical objectivity of the equipment, any more than they can be authenticated by stamping a Department of Defense watermark on it. The spectator is constantly checking the realist claims of visual media against a memory-bank of media intertexts and personal experiences. Cloverfield encapsulates this by emphasising the disparities between content and form, between the impossibility of the events it depicts and the uncanny resemblance of its form and style to the kinds of media we are accustomed to viewing as containers of factual information. A binary division between the actual and the non-actual might suggest that there is one set of cognitive processes that enables us to process the real world, and another that helps to understand and conceive of the represented domain, but this is not really the case. There is considerable overlap. We use the same cognitive processes to acquire knowledge and sift evidence when receiving visual media, assessing their truth claims on the basis of the plausibility of the content and the trustworthiness of the source. By effacing the traces of institutional mediation, by throwing away many of the opportunities for spectacular revelation (as seen in The Day After Tomorrow), the film plays upon that overlap.
It seems inevitable that Cloverfield is destined to be remembered as “a film for our times”, when sudden devastation can be visited upon major cities by an enemy that cannot be apprehended or clearly seen. A movie monster is a blatant, tangible, perceivable threat. It comprises all of its danger in the central point of its powerful body. It may reveal special powers, but it is still a single locus of danger. This is not asymmetric warfare. This is not an elusive, phantom enemy dispersed around the globe and nestling in vapourous zones of malicious ideology. It is a solid thing that can be destroyed with brute force. It might almost seem wishful to transform 9/11 into such a comprehensible event. But by concealing the monster and by confusing the nature of the events, Cloverfield reconstructs the mystique of its enemy within the fabric of its mise-en-scene. New York feels the mighty force of a monster from the ocean, but those who watch it can barely understand what, why, where and who.
Now, let’s be clear. I don’t think that Abrams and Reeves are political commentators aiming to shock people out of their media-induced torpor into a healthy mistrust of authority. I think they’re fan-boys having fun, but in their search for the effective way to scare people and their awareness that anticipation of horror is the most frightening part, and their awareness that ambiguity and internet buzz are effective ways to foster that anticipation, they ended up co-opting an aesthetic which gleans its power from a paradox – that the ubiquity of images and camera-eye-witness accounts does not make events easier to comprehend or come to terms with.
- Armstrong, Richard (2005) Understanding Realism. London: BFI.
- Bordwell, David (2008) ‘A Behemoth from the Dead Zone.’ Observations on Film Art. 25 January 2008. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=1844 [Accessed 27/10/2008]
- Campbell, Christopher (2008) ‘The Exhibitionist: The Theatrical Inappropriateness of Cloverfield.’ Cinematical. 27 January 2008. http://www.cinematical.com/2008/01/27/the-exhibitionist-theatrical-inappropriateness-of-cloverfield/ [Accessed 27/10/2008]
- Noël Carroll (1990) The Philosophy of Horror. London: Routledge.
- Choi, Jinhee (2001) ‘A Reply to Gregory Currie on Documentaries.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 59:3, 317-319.
- Currie, Gregory (1999) ‘Visible Traces: Documentary and the Contents of Photographs.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57:3, 285-297.
- Eskjær, Mikkel ‘Observing Movement and Time: Film Art and Observation’ in Anne Jerslev (ed.) Realism and ‘Reality’ in Film and Media. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 117-137.
- Grodal, Torben (1997) Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
- Juhasz, Alexandra & Jesse Lerner (2006) F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing. London: University of Minnesota Press.
- Roscoe, Jane & Craig Hight (2001) Faking It: Mock-dcoumentary and the Subversion of Factuality. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Shaffer, Bill (2001) ‘Just Like a Movie: September 11 and the Terror of Moving Images.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/schaffer.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Thilk, Chris, ‘Movie Marketing Madness: Cloverfield. 17th January 2008. http://www.moviemarketingmadness.com/blog/2008/01/17/movie-marketing-madness-cloverfield/ [Accessed 22/10/2008]
- Wilson, Jake (2001) ‘Watching from a Distance: September 11 as Spectacle.’ Senses of Cinema. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/17/symposium/wilson.html [Accessed 2 September 2008]
- Žižek, Slavoj (2002) Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.