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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Chantal Akerman | La chambre and News from Home


revealing being by showing us what it is not
by Douglas Messserli

Chantal Akerman La chambre / 1972 and News from Home / 1976

 

In Chantal Akerman’s La chambre of 1972, a camera begins by focusing on a wooden chair who back and seat has been swathed in red fabric, swings gradually to the left to reveal a dining table whereupon sits some coffee cups, fruit, and a few other objects, and gradually makes a 360̊ revolution, revealing a large bureau, a huge metal teapot and, most surprising, a beautiful young woman awake in her bed before continuing on its way. The camera makes three such long travels before moving a bit beyond the woman, now apparently trying to rock herself back to sleep and back a bit beyond the girl again, who is now beginning to eat an apple.

    Although we might get some sense of who this woman is by the many objects the camera reveals to us; yet her appearance in this room of seemingly second-hand objects, seems so very different from the fresh your face, indolently lying in bed, which given the bright light suggests it may already be late morning.

    A final swing around the room reveals her, having finished her apple, lying again under the covers as if attempting to return to sleep.

    Although we can never be certain, what we do suspect from the careful surveillance of the scene is that this one bedroom apartment is filled with furniture and objects that—except for a desk and drafting table upon which we see numerous unidentifiable objects—have little to do with the woman, as if they have either come with the apartment, previously inhabited by an old woman, or have been purchased from nearby used furniture shops. The woman, quite obviously, has little money, and lives as cheaply as possible. Yet she, herself, is young and, except for her refusal to rise, is obviously quite strong and capable. In short, we come to any conclusions about her identity not in terms of association, as if these “things” somehow told us who she was, but because they seem so apparently oppositional to the being we observe in bed.

     Certainly she loves fruit and coffee or tea, but otherwise the room gives us very few cues to her identity except her poverty. In other words, she is not whom the room might portray her to be.

     Akerman uses the same device, to far greater effect, in her film of 1976, News from Home. What we witness on camera are merely scenes, usually shot head on, of intersections, street life, and subway travel in New York. The sound has been turned up to full blast so that, even when the streets are fairly empty,  or we witness scenes that occur early in a rainy morning, we hear every roar of car motors, squeal of tires, and grind of giant trucks. At times the noise becomes almost unabearable. The only we cannot hear is the sound of human voices, and we seldom observe any human interrelationship. At one moment we observe a couple kissing, at another a woman offers another subway rider a seat, a father pushes his child ahead of him, but by and large, these figures appear to be all loners with little connection with the others around them.

     Yet, miraculously, we do discover a central character in this work through the occasional reading of letters from a woman in another country (in this case Belgium, Akerman’s birthplace) writing to her daughter (presumably the director) who is staying for a period in this rough and tumble city.

     Like all loving mothers, this invisible woman comes alive in her worries about her daughter, in her gentle scolding of her child for not writing more often or for not reporting whether or not she has received the small amounts of money the mother has sent. Little is expressed about her and her husband’s own life, except that they work hard and are often tired and ill. Lists of other names, Akerman’s sister, relatives, friends, etc. make up the other “news” reported in this brief epistles, but generally the meat of these messages “from home” concern her love of her daughter, the pain of separation, and yet the mother’s acceptance of her daughter’s choices. Clearly both mother and father get their greatest joy from the daughter’s irregular answers, and often the joy of having received a new letter seems almost overwhelming.

     We never see the daughter. The only evidence of her is through the world, the run-down lower Manhattan streets and occasional travels (mostly through the riverside corridors) up town via automobile and subway. The daughter, so we learn from the mother’s letters, works at several different jobs, changes addresses several times, is meeting a few friends, and is learning English. But otherwise we only have the harsh streets and heavily graffiti-covered subway cars to judge what the daughter’s city life might be like.

     I lived in the city just before this period, and visited New York regularly during the mid-1970s; but I had forgotten just how deteriorated the city was in those days, and badly we all dressed. Here we have none of the color of the mid-1960s, but see nearly everyone dressed in drab, ill-fitting garments. The only colors in the city come from the luridly-lit diners and restaurants and the brightly spray-painted underground cars in which the city’s denizens gather.

     Given the care love and deep concern heaped upon this young woman who still is not completely able to speak the language by which she is surrounded, we can only wonder how our invisible heroine is coping. Is she excited by all this concrete and metal filled with such high decibels of noise that, at a couple of moments, we cannot even hear the voice who reads her “news from home,” or  does she feel isolated and ostracized?

    Again and again, the Belgian mother longs to see her daughter, reminding her of birthdays and other celebrations she is missing. Can someone so beloved, we can only ask, survive in a world of such constant clamor? I recall that noise, and today remember that it was the endlessness of that roar that finally exhausted me more than living in Manhattan day by day.
     If nothing else, we receive a clue in the film’s final few moments, as the camera begins to move away from lower Manhattan, the mechanical roar being increasing overtaken by the lapping sound of waves. As in La chambre, the camera gradually scans the city horizon as it moves further and further away from it. The very last scenes, remarkably, reveal the two looming towers of the buildings destroyed a few decades later. Our would-be heroine has obviously left us to return home.


Los Angeles, October 21, 2015

It was the death of Akerman’s mother last year that evidently led to a series of depressions that resulted in the filmmaker ending her life on October 5, 2015.

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